Northern Star

A great national disgrace

TENS of thousands of neglected children living in squalor.

Twin toddlers dead in a cot for up to nine days before being discovered.

Children removed from a house which animal welfare workers deem unfit for a dog.

Scenes from a third-world country? No, they are sorry snapshots of suburban Australia.

Figures reveal 58,000 cases of child abuse or neglect in Australia last year.

In the past week, a Brisbane mother and father have been charged with murder and torture following the deaths of their 18-month-old twins.

"I don't think I fed them enough," their mother allegedly told police.

A pregnant mother has been charged with criminal neglect after five of her seven children were among 21 kids found living in filth at two northern Adelaide houses. Animal welfare officers deemed one of the houses unfit for a dog and removed it.

And a 35-year-old mother has appeared in a Canberra court charged with neglecting her four children by leaving them home alone in squalid conditions.

The cases are evidence of a system failure, child welfare experts say.

"We have to acknowledge that there is something going really wrong in this country," said Maree Faulkner, chief executive officer of the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect.

"If any good can come out of this, it is that the recent cases are so appalling it has actually cut through.

"Our concern is that people don't see this as a handful of appalling cases and appalling people, that they actually understand it really is the tip of the iceberg.

"This is a much, much bigger issue than these three recent cases."

Currently, 30,000 children nationwide are removed from their homes for their own protection, mostly placed in foster care.

In NSW alone last year there were 280,000 notifications of suspected child neglect or abuse.

Andrew McCallum, chief executive of the Association of Child Welfare Agencies - the nation's peak child welfare body - said the recent cases are an indictment of society.

"Most child protection systems across the country are going to collapse under their own weight," Mr McCallum said.

"These cases highlight a deeper malaise.

"What are we doing as a community to actually support families?

"And what are we doing as a community to make sure we notice these things when they happen and we don't get to the situation where kids' lives are placed at risk?

"It's an indictment on society in general and it's a bit of an indictment on what services are provided for families."

Some politicians join the child welfare experts in decrying a breakdown in sense of community, which allows neglect to degenerate unnoticed.

"Without being nosy, have a bit of a think about who's over your back fence," Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce said.

But the politicians themselves are part of the problem, the experts say.

Ms Faulkner said state and federal governments must accept the magnitude of the problem.

"The commonwealth's move to establish a (child protection) national framework is a really good thing," she said.

"But I don't think to date that any of the governments have given serious enough credence to prevention.

"We are starting to see it and we are starting to hear the language.

"It's going to cost money but we need to do it now and we need to do it well. We need a much bigger leap of commitment.

"The needs are common right across Australia.

"There are some good programs in every state but the problem is it's different, it's not adequately funded and it's not consistent, ongoing or reliable."

Mr McCallum concurs, saying a national framework is 'long overdue' to redress lapsed cross-jurisdictional integration.

"We need to actually have overarching principles," he said.

"But I'd be suggesting to the federal government they have to broaden it, it has to look at all the interrelated aspects ... housing, education, income support.

"We need to make sure that approach is a whole of government approach and there has to be some goodwill on behalf of the states and the federal government to make sure we get some movement on this, because it's long overdue."

Mr McCallum rates early intervention as the key.

"We really need to embed early intervention into our psyche and into our service system," he said.

"A lot of people give lip service to early intervention but the way it rolls out on the ground is not as accessible as they think.

"Child abuse and neglect don't happen overnight.

"There are usually systemic problems associated with them and quite often they are generational, and we need to break those cycles."

Ms Faulkner cites basic education as another crucial factor.

"What we have got to do is say it's not working ... we have to do something different," she said.

"We have got to go upstream and seriously focus on prevention ... in a high proportion of cases you can prevent the children being neglected and harmed if you can get in early enough in those situations."

Prevention should involve postnatal visits, monitoring at childcare centres and parenting education.

"With the breakdown of the extended family, there are a large number of people out there having children who simply don't know how to raise a family," Ms Faulkner said.

"They don't actually know the basic stuff about what you feed a child, about keeping them warm or cool enough, all of those things that we consider basics.

"It's no point saying 'they should know'.

"Maybe they should, but the reality is they don't.

"So get over it, let's do it, if it's going to save the kids' lives, get in and run good parenting education that is really practical and talks about those basics."

Too often, families enter the child protection system to obtain other services, Mr McCallum said.

"(Child protection) is a very, very radical system and a very intrusive system to be involved in if you really only need family support," he said.

"Too many people are having to use the child protection system as their avenue into family support and early intervention - that is not how it should be and that is what we need to turn around.

"It's not a pleasant exercise and we can't ensure that kids are going to be better off by actually being put in out of home care ... kids who end up in the care system are not necessarily guaranteed a better start in life."


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