National Child Protection Week’s theme this year is: “Where we start matters.”
Given the recent handover of the Commission of Inquiry’s landmark report into the Tasmanian Government’s Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Institutional Settings, the theme could not be more fitting.
It is my hope that the Government’s response to the findings and recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry will represent a new beginning for the systems and services designed to care for our children, a new beginning for families in need of support and a new beginning for the children and young people in organisational settings, including out-of-home care, youth detention, health and education.
In its closing hearing, the Commission of Inquiry specifically noted that some children, especially those who are disadvantaged, are more likely to experience risks to their safety in institutional settings because of their overrepresentation in those settings.
This includes children involved with the child safety system and placed in out-of-home care, children involved in the youth justice system, and children who are chronically ill. In addition to improving children’s safety in institutional settings, the investment by successive governments in preventing children’s contact with the child safety, out-of-home care and youth justice systems needs close examination.
When it comes to the out-of-home care system, the most recent national statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and state-based data show:
- On 30 June 2022, 1,028 children were in the Tasmanian out-of-home care system. Tasmania continued to have the third highest rate of children in care among all states and territories
- Tasmania had a rate of 33.2 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children in care (per 1000 children), which is 5.6 times higher than the rate for non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children
- On 30 June 2022, more than three quarters (76.9%) of children in care in Tasmania had been in continuous care for two or more years.
Productivity Commission figures indicate that since a peak in 2018-2019, there has been a fall in investment by the Tasmanian Government in the out-of-home care system.
In her final remarks, President Neave highlighted “the persistent lack of funding for out of home care and youth detention” as a “Tasmanian specific problem.”
She also observed that out-of-home care was the only institution that Commissioners “looked into for which there were no significant investments or reforms announced in response to our Inquiry.”
While it is the job of governments to establish and balance funding priorities, it is clear that our child protection and out-of-home care systems have not been given the priority focus for funding and reform that is required, and this needs to change.
Where we start matters.
Decision-makers also need to re-examine how they engage with children at all stages of decision-making processes for legislation, policies, regulations, projects and practices that may affect children’s rights and wellbeing.
The right of children to have a say, be heard, and have their views considered is enshrined in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Participation is a right, not a privilege, and upholding the right of children to participate in decision-making is vital to making decisions in their best interests.
The Government’s response to the Commission of Inquiry will likely include commitments to law and policy reform and organisational change to promote children’s safety.
However, it will also take significant cultural change to truly foster child-safe environments in which child abuse is prevented, identified, and responded to appropriately.
It would be a mistake, for example, to expect that new regulations and policies alone will empower children to raise concerns about inappropriate or unsafe practices in out-of-home care, receptions prisons, schools or sports clubs.
We need a sustained cultural shift to ensure organisations are truly safe and child-focused.
Leanne McLean, Commissioner for Children and Young People