Care crisis takes tragic toll

April 19, 2024 2:02 PM
Libby Mettam
WA Liberal Leader

If our children are the future, then why aren’t we protecting that future?

The challenges and vulnerabilities faced by children in our child protection system are complex and multifaceted and the sad reality is that some of these children perceive their prospects so bleakly that they lose all hope for a better future.

A heartbreaking example of the cost of this system’s failure was shown this week with the suicide of a 10-year-old Indigenous boy.

The coroner will in time give us insights into this tragedy and perhaps specify changes that can be made. But there are many obvious lapses in the current system that need to be urgently addressed.

These critical lapses in our child protection system have been well documented; from insufficient monitoring of child placements to fragmented communication between state authorities and families, and a significant misinterpretation of the early warning signs of distress.

The system's failure to allocate the necessary resources for comprehensive monitoring and support further amplifies the need for a strategic rethink of how we protect and nurture our future generations.

Time and again, we witness a cookie-cutter methodology to child welfare that neglects the nuances of community, childhood trauma, and cultural identity.

Following the 2017 election, the newly elected WA Labor Government's decision to amalgamate the Department of Child Protection with the Department of Communities – spreading its responsibilities across 5 ministers and 11 portfolios – critically diluted the focus on child protection.

It also contradicted the findings of the 2007 Ford Review that found that the role of the department was considered too broad and caused confusion when it contained the Offices for Children and Youth, Seniors’ Interests and Volunteering, and Women’s Policy; Family and Domestic Violence - and it only reported to two Ministers at that time.

Issues surrounding the creation of the ‘Mega Department’ of the Department of Communities are not at all new, with these issues being raised consistently by the Opposition, child protection workers, and the broader community, who have been significantly impacted.

Since this decision, this Labor Government have perpetuated the overloading of child protection workers.

In late 2021, it was discovered that the Department of Communities were unaware of the living arrangements of 12 teenagers. Half a year later, over 1000 children and young people were found to be without a dedicated case worker. In 2022, it was confirmed that some case workers were exceeding their legal caseload, handling over 18 cases.  

Incredibly, in 2021, an independent review – by the Commissioner for Children and Young People – into the Department of Communities found the Department was aware a victim had been exposed to harmful sexual behaviours both before and while in the Department’s care.

This is simply unacceptable. These are vulnerable children – entrusted to our State Government – that have fallen through the departmental cracks.

These are the circumstances that forced the Department’s child protection workers to call on the government for help, striking against an under-resourced system that “place [workers] and the vulnerable families and children they work with at risk.”

One case worker lamented: “before [the Departments] merged, we had more direction ... now it feels like a numbers game.”

The current system is also giving no confidence to parents, foster carers, or to their kids, that they are a priority for this government.

It also highlights the bureaucratic nightmare that families often wade through in their attempts to reunite with their children.

This lack of consistency not only erodes the trust between families and the Department of Communities but further hampers any progress towards reunification, leaving children and their parents ensnared in a perpetual state of uncertainty.

Every parent knows the stress and worry that comes from not being able to get in contact with your child. Imagine the unfathomable distress that comes from having no updates on your child due to bureaucratic red tape.  

This lack of transparency and communication is not just administrative negligence; it is a profound failure to recognise and address the needs and rights of the children in their care and their families.

Our children, especially those dealing with disruptions to their homelife, deserve better stability than a band aid approach.

The Cook Labor Government needs to take responsibility for failing to ensure that this amalgamated department has the resources to be responsive and attentive – to provide children with support throughout the entire process.

This is why a government I lead will return the Department of Child Protection to a stand-alone agency reporting to one dedicated Minister, who has complete oversight of their functions. This will ensure that there is a clear chain of command and accountability within the department, and that decisions are made with the best interests of our children in mind.

We will work to provide the necessary additional resourcing to support families and communities, with a focus on preventing children having to enter the out-of-home-care system in the first place. This will include $40 million over 4 years to invest in early intervention programs, providing access to mental health services, and supporting families in crisis.

We owe it to our children to take immediate and bold action to ensure they are protected and cared for in the way every child deserves.

Parents often tell their children that they ‘deserve the world’ – Western Australians deserve a government that will prove it.

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