Failing vulnerable children in care

SMH: Girl living in care raped by five men. “Rose” is 12 years old.

The magistrate said Rose (not her real name), who was under DHS care, was raped by five men on one day in October. Since then, she had ”absconded from the unit and was unaccounted for” seven times.

A secure welfare order was finally made after Rose was found to be living at a house with three men, aged between 45 and 50, who the magistrate said were “providing her with bongs and cigarettes and one wonders what else”. At least one of the men is known to police, the court was told.
Rose’s case comes weeks after Victorian Ombudsman George Brouwer released a damning report on child protection that found children in state care had been seriously injured and permitted to have contact with sex offenders.

The report found that the DHS sometimes took a dangerously long time to intervene to protect children, leaving them exposed to continuing abuse.

Victoria’s in the spotlight because of the recent Ombudsman’s report, but do any of the other Australian states do substantially better when it comes to child protection? Do any other nations do substantially better?

Why are we as social animals so easily able to shrug off the needs of these children for a more secure safe and supportive environment? What the hell is wrong with us?

Categories: ethics & philosophy, social justice

Tags: , , ,

21 replies

  1. “Why are we as social animals so easily able to shrug off the needs of these children for a more secure and supportive environment? What the hell is wrong with us?”
    There are lots of reasons. Here’s just 3.
    1) Because the people who work in child safety are ‘public servants’ who are demonised by the public and paid using tax dollars. People want government services to be perfect, but they don’t want to pay for them.
    2) Good foster care is hard to find, and institutions aren’t really an option any more, so foster care is it. People who have the time and energy to give trouble kids a home, and who are hurt when the kids are returned to parents and reabused and traumatised are not numerous and can easily be burnt out.
    3) Small children are much easier for the overloaded system to deal with. Once a girl (or boy) in a terrible situation has reached the age of 12 she is probably going to resist being helped and do things like abscond from care, even if the care itself is a positive nurturing environment, because she has no experience of positive boundaries in her life.

  2. Yeah what Merryn said.
    4) Because the child protection authorities are not the Family Police; and rightly operate under a slow, deliberative system of law. They’re children, not inmates. In the past there were lots of institutions, especially Church-run ones, that were able to enforce “secure” environments onto children at risk but we got rid of them when it was realised they were often more abusive than protective.
    5) Because for children, especially ones with trust issues, it’s difficult to distinguish between the secure, supportive environment of an institution run by a State authority which has removed them from their parents and put them in an unfamiliar environment, and the non-secure, non-supportive environment of an abusive situation.
    The bigger question is what is it about the neighbours, friends and mates of the middle aged men in this story that makes them so easily shrug off the presence of an obviously troubled and damaged 12 year-old in the house.

  3. “The bigger question is what is it about the neighbours, friends and mates of the middle aged men in this story that makes them so easily shrug off the presence of an obviously troubled and damaged 12 year-old in the house.”
    All to easily explained away by “she’s my niece, or she’s my daughter and doesn’t want to live with her mum at the moment” or some other easy lie. Most people wouldn’t want to get involved. She may even actually be related to one of them. I would assume that they at least knew her beforehand.

  4. What Merryn and Liam said above. I was having a converstion abot this with a friend who is a child protection worker. She pointed out that you only put a child in a ‘secure’ environment if all else has failed. ‘Secure’ means they can’t be escaped from which suggests that it’s probably not the most pleasant place to be.
    What do you do with a young person who is incredibly damaged, can’t live their family, when long term foster care is hard to find and short term care means moving someone around every week which can make matters worse and the kid understandably keeps running away? And the whole area is under-resourced.

    • I’m realising that my use of “secure” in my closing question and the article’s/child protection services’ usage of the article are at odds. I meant by the term an environment in which the child felt emotionally secure, and I suspect that an actual official “secure” child protection environment is harrowing rather than emotionally reassuring, even if the child feels physically safer there. ’Reassuring’ ‘Safe’ is probably the best term for what I meant.

  5. I know what you mean, TT, but it’s really two questions. Modern States through their child protection authorities have two real tasks: 1. identifying and stepping in in situations of child abuse and neglect, and 2. providing and supporting physically safe, emotionally healthy home lives for at-risk children.
    We’ve come a long way in the last thirty years and I’d go so far as to say that all Australian child protection systems (in which I include the Courts) excel at the former. They’re so good at removing children that we’re pushing the limits of voluntary foster caring as out-of-home-care—there are literally not enough carers for the need, not even to talk about money.
    At the latter, no earthly Government can ever be even very good, where most parents struggle. As Merryn said at comment #1, someone who’s old enough to run away on their own is very difficult to help—you can put them at home with the best foster parents in the worl, but emotional connection with a 12 year-old is not something you can legislate or regulate for. And it’s most difficult of all in situations like this where the State is obviously a constant and inescapable presence in this child’s life, telling her where to live, who to live with, and how to live there.
    They’re impossible, intractable situations, where you can only hope for the least damage.

  6. One of the problems is how to supply enough safe, reassuring environments. Excellent, long term foster care helps, but there’s not enough people willing to do this to fulfill the need. Even then the children can be so damaged that they can’t recognise that it’s a good idea to stay in the foster family and can return to dangerous situations for various reasons.
    Liam, my child protection worker friend would agree that they’re very good at removing kids, but the huge question is; what to do with them next? Very often there isn’t a good answer. Not enough foster care places. Short term care and group homes can be damaging and once the kid is a teenager, they’ve got go along with the plan, or else they’ll end up back home or on the streets.

    • I wonder how much our current cultural bias towards nuclear families plays into this. A multigenerational coparenting cooperative would IMO be a really strong candidate as a positive foster-family environment, but how much chance would such a family structure have in the current child protection model?

  7. tigtog, my understanding is that other family members, particularly grandparents, are first port of call, when kids need to be removed, but often the grandparents aren’t available to foster. But, I agree – it sounds like the way to go when possible.

    • I’ve just realised that this case is bringing back some trauma-by-proxy memories for me, which is probably why I’m not able to get analytical about it very well.
      One of my early clinical placements as part of my physiotherapy studies was in a paediatric unit where a child was in permanent intensive care following abuse. His grandmother was the only family member allowed to visit him alone. The child’s life was essentially awaiting whichever opportunistic infection would carry him off, with an extra dollop of staff wanting to ensure that the jury for case against the boyfriend who’d put him there got to see him alive and tangibly incapacitated forever rather than only hearing about an infant boy who was already dead and thus not real to them.
      I still remember vividly the horror of the beauty of his lush eyelashes and gorgeous curls against the blank gaze of his vegetative state.
      When I think of this young girl I’m essentially seeing an older, walking talking version, of that poor infant boy. I’m not sure that I’m able to contribute anything coherent.

  8. 1. Men
    Men like having sex with young girls. Societies world wide don’t want to “interfere” nor take care of girls, women’s safety, nor pay for care, housing, etc.
    Note: Dec. 10 was International Human Rights Day.

  9. PS (CFS/ME is the ps disease) and it took me awhile to deal with the physical abuse part (which may be a clue to why society choses to ignore it after a few stories now and then)…the only thing I can come up with is: they can do it and probably get away with it. Why do they? ????? Hatred of female and knowing nobody cares?
    Safer than kicking a dog? I dunno. (Massive denial by societies worldwide.) (And it’s not limited to “lower classes”, as we know. Abuse of children in families is worldwide.)

  10. #3 – Sexual abuse is physical abuse. I meant the burning, etc.

  11. I don’t know if Victoria has an accreditation system for out-of-home care agencies yet, but I agree with Sanda, that it’s really a human rights/social justice issue.
    A lot of people who have their kids removed would, with the right supports and services in place, be able to care for them themselves. If men’s violence were properly addressed then the ability of mothers to care for their kids would improve dramatically. If women escaping violence could afford a decent roof over their kid’s heads things would improve. If the needs of Aboriginal communities were addressed things would improve. Kids who get bounced around between home and various out-of-home care environments never really get to experience being parented, and so they go on to have kids that they are unable to parent and it goes on and on. Outcomes for kids in care are way below community standards -having said that, there are still a hell of a lot of child deaths at home occuring every year in NSW and it will only continue to get worse until broader issues of social inequality are addressed.

  12. I would add “if there were better and more accessible services available for acute mental health care in the community” to your list, Linda and agree with everything you’ve said.

  13. Sanda, your last comment went into moderation because of the number of links, and for some reason the software just will not let me approve it.

  14. The principal problem is that the government is an exploitative employer. It takes inexperienced workers, works them into the ground for a few months, and discards them. From this, a whole range of consequences follow, chief among them being that ‘the system’ is in permanent chaos, and there is an unofficial enticement for workers to focus on ‘throughput’ (i.e. notionally meeting KPIs, and closing cases or transferring them to another team).
    At a broader level, the community is keen to complain about government failures, but much less enthusiastic when it comes to offering support and protection. In fairness, this is partly a problem with policy. Current government policy is that, in the first instance, the ‘community’ ought to intervene in at-risk families who are below the legal threshold. In practice, this merely means a referral is made for these families to see some Mickey Mouse family support service for a few weeks.
    The foster care and placement system is so bad that child protection workers actively discourage parents and carers from relinquishing children. It’s axiomatic that a certain amount of parental abuse will still be less harmful for a child that exposure to the Department’s placement system.
    The ‘secure’ option referred to in the article is called Secure Welfare Services (SWS). It is comprised of two units, one for boys, one for girls, each with 10 beds. A child can only be placed within for a maximum of 3 weeks, and only for reasons of immediate risk (and not merely because the Department cannot identify better accommodation). Furthermore, no child can be placed in SWS in the absence of a court order. Because ‘the worst of the worst’ kids go to SWS (i.e. young people with severe emerging’ personality disorders’/psychosis, poly drug use, sex work, chronic absconding, etc), SWS is sometimes not used for fear of ‘contamination’.
    Beyond SWS, no carer has any right to forcibly prevent a child from absconding. Obviously, an 8-year old will be more easily persuaded to stay home than a 15-year old.
    Victoria does have a sort of accreditation system for carers, but no accreditation system would have made any difference for the kid mentioned in this article.
    Victoria’s ‘human rights’ charter already mentions all sorts of things related to child protection. Most of them are broken down into relatively meaningless tasks (i.e. a child in care has the ‘right’ to see a dentist once a year, etc).
    There’s definitely a class bias in terms of intervention – the lumpens are targeted above all others. Abuse itself tends to be skewed toward the lower end of the socioeconomic scale (except for sexual abuse).
    Genderwise, the workforce is overwhelmingly young and female. The families who are subject to intervention are very often without a father. Almost every kid involved with child protection has his/her mother’s surname (and often a horribly mis-spelled given name).

  15. I’ll add two other problems briefly.
    First is the legal system. This week, we’ve seen one children’s court lawyer write an article for The Age/National Times, and another quoted re: a child protection case. Both solicitors argued that the less adversarial system being contemplated by lawmakers is folly, and that the current combative approach is necessary. This is pure self-interest. Legal reps are paid per appearance. Since most clients have no money, the taxpayer foots the bill each time, which effectively incentivises disputation and adjournment. The circus that is the Melbourne Children’s Court hardly leads to good outcomes. Workers are treated with utter contempt, and solicitors couldn’t give a toss about the children. See, for instance, this article in which a child’s sexual abuse disclosures were basically ignored by the magistrate, at the instigation of lawyers:
    Secondly, the management system of the Department’s regions and head office is borderline corrupt. Managers routinely rule by intimidation of underlings, and have a thousand different ways for fudging data. Whilst it’s the minister who cops flak from the media, it’s the management who actively keep information from the minister. Occasional serious ‘incidents’ are reported to ministers, but the 17,000 sins of omission commited by the Department on a daily basis are not. Hence, the Minister is kept in the dark by a parasite class of corrupt/useless bureaucrats and senior managers, most of whom would not be fit to work anywhere else.

  16. Do any other nations do substantially better?
    Not so you’d notice. At least not here in the US. My state has been very famously failing the children in its care for some time now. It falls out of the news until some new horrifying revelation surfaces.

  17. This comment is from Sanda – we just can’t get it to post for some reason, so I’m posting it here under my moniker.
    I just read tigtog’s comment more carefully (having a slight “better” CFS/ME moment, after a not-enough-CFS/ME-night’s sleep). Moved by it. Am also reminded of the young man in his 20s, who was “helped” by drs. in nursing home into whatever world or realm (I don’t believe any, but I don’t wish to offend those who do) that comes next = they attempted to kill him quicker than his failing body, severely disabled having some extra difficulty, so they could “harvest” his organs. They used too much of something and made a mess, the young guy fighting for life long after they were sure he should have been dead. And they couldn’t use his organs. The case actually went to court, but the doctor did not get convicted or do “time”. This was just a few years ago, in the USA. (Before I was online, so I don’t know if you covered it here.)
    Before I ramble more, I came back to the site to mention that this afternoon, on WBAI (FM radio in NYC. See for movement fighting a coup that happened at this community listener sponsored station that I am a longtime listener of),
    the reporter from the NYTimes just released study about young people in prison in NYS. (I called in to the show, archived for 90 days to make a comment to the reporter, who was a gues of Hugh Hamilton, the show host.) I thought about mentioning this article, but time was short, so I just made an observation about the cost. The writer said it costs $210,000. per year, per kid in prison, most of them mentally disabled (in prison due to NYS using prisons as a way of keeping the upstate economy going – opposite end of state from NYC, where most of the kids are from).
    I said the story was the sickest thing I’ve heard in many days, and I’ve heard a lot of sick things.
    My observation was that for $210,000. per year, you could put a kid into luxury rental housing in NYC and have a psychiatrist after noting that a year at Harvard is a fraction of the cost. (It might be around $40,000. per year at Harvard.)
    There is money in the “care” industry:at the top, not the individual worker at the “on the ground level”. NYS closed most mental hospitals in the 1970s, so now criminalize mental illness small behaviors, what used to be misdemeanors are now felonies = doing hard time. Google “Mumia Abu-Jamal” commentaries for his latest on kids who are “lifers” in US prisons. There’s a reason prison inmates call it the prison-industrial complex. I have adult pen-pals from the former WBAI show, “Al Lewis Live” then after his death, his wife, Karen Lewis kept it going until removed some months ago. Yes, it was “Grandpa” Al Lewis, from the Munsters.
    He was an activist for social justice “on the side”. Do you know Mumia Abu-Jamal’s supporter website?
    Good holidays to you all. I really do like this website. (We finally had a frost a few days ago in NYC. )

  18. Thanks – and hoorahs for the persistence of women – Happy New Year.

%d bloggers like this: