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Labor’s Reformist Agenda Must Overhaul a Broken Child Protection System

Penny Sharpe MLC & Jack Whitney


This week is National Child Protection Week and the theme for this year is ‘Putting Children First’. Such a time gives us good reason to pause and think about how we can improve the lives of children and ensure child safety is at front of mind.


Unfortunately, in New South Wales, the frightening reality is that 80,000 children reported at risk of harm each year will never see a caseworker. At the same time, the NSW Government’s flagship reform program, Their Futures Matter was found by the Auditor General to have been a failure. After four years and $190m spent, it is left with no plan or funding for the future.


When you add these failures to the cuts across the Department, the cuts to Aboriginal funded organisations, the failure to address the urgent issues for Aboriginal children raised in the Family is Culture Review; it becomes clear that the Berejiklian Government is failing the very children it is supposed to protect.


It is now up to Labor to stand up for children and young people in New South Wales. Labor can use its strength of improving the lives of people and the conditions of workers to inform its lens on the issue of child protection, and how to manage it into the future.

Far too many children are not receiving Pre-K education. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA


Focus on Early Childhood Development


In the first 2,000 days, the physical, cognitive, social and emotional development of the child can have lifelong impacts. Labor must not only invest and support in the first 2,000 days of a child through education, health and other support services, there needs to be family support. Labor can improve family support through universal access to childcare and preschool, improving conditions and training for early childhood educators, encouraging wrap-around support for families such as nurse based home visiting. Intervening with families at the right time with the right supports that meet their needs can improve the safety and wellbeing of children.


Wellbeing Central to Protection

Supporting children’s mental, physical and emotional health is critical. Labor should consider genuine whole-of-government collaboration aimed at achieving the ‘best life’ for all children, not just those at most risk. Such a framework would identify outcomes, indicators and measures to inform investment decisions for government, align efforts and help children achieve the best life they want to live. Importantly, such an approach works with whole communities, especially those in disadvantaged areas to put long term, community driven programs in place.


NSW’s child protection system too often can’t get to children who are at risk. Picture: File


No Progress Without First Nations


First Nations children are 9.8 times more likely to be removed from their family than non-Indigenous children. Or in other words, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children make up 38 per cent of the kids in out of home care in NSW, but just 5 per cent of the state’s youth population. There is a roadmap designed by Aboriginal people through the Family is Culture Review. Labor can work with Aboriginal controlled organisations and child protection experts to work through the Family is Culture roadmap that keeps kids connected to country, to family and to culture.


A workforce fit for the future


In a COVID world, we have seen how essential community sector workers are. While providing the safety net of support within our communities, workers' pay is being squeezed and even threatened through the failure of the Federal Government to guarantee the equal pay supplement for community workers. Equal pay is not a nice thing to have, it is an essential requirement.


Roles in social and community services are growing more and more each year; with a renewed need for quality training. There needs to be a strong foundation for the profession to build its confidence to manage the complex problems of child protection.


A strong tertiary and TAFE education system is part of the solution. As one of Australia’s greatest public policy achievements, Labor needs to ensure there is publicly funded skills training, job retaining, second chance education and outreach education for aspiring workers and students in community and social services. TAFE has been eroded and is slowly dying under pressure form funding cuts from Coalition Governments. Social work university courses this year were at risk of being part of the biggest higher education reform in decades, where courses were set to have fees doubled.


Better Regulation and Innovation


The statutory registration of social workers would be a significant public safety measure and reduce the risks to vulnerable people by assuring education, practice and professional development standards in child protection – as well as disability, domestic violence, mental health, drug and alcohol and crisis work. We expect teachers, nurses, doctors, or psychologists to have relevant training and registration. Would we let anyone teach, treat or provide counselling to children?


Labor can ensure that social workers are registered in NSW. That will in turn lead to an appropriate training framework, which will create a pool of professionals from which employers and the public can trust the needs of children and their families.


Conclusion


For Labor to break the cycle of abuse and violence, the focus should be having qualified and well trained workers delivering care - at the right time, in the right place, in the right way –supported by a strong and well-funded sector. Child protection is incredibly complex work, and the system includes some of the most vulnerable children and families in society. Labor must shape its lens on child protection around two things: improving the lives of children and improving the conditions of workers – because both work hand-in-hand.


Jack Whitney worked in child protection and is now a health manager and NSW President-elect at the Australian Association of Social Workers. Twitter


Penny Sharpe is Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, Shadow Minister for Family and Community Services, and Shadow Minister for Disability Inclusion. Twitter Facebook


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