Child protection failures should trigger prevention-oriented system reforms

Catastrophic failures of the child-protection system like those seen in Tennant Creek should trigger inquiries into whole of government prevention strategies, according to leading child protection expert Daryl Higgins.

Professor Higgins, Director of the Institute of Children Protection Studies at Australian Catholic University, delivered the keynote address at the National Child Protection Week forum in Darwin.

Tennant Creek landed in the national spotlight in February when a two-year-old girl, known to child protection services, was sexually assaulted. A review found child protection services had failed to remove the toddler from the damaging environment.

Professor Higgins said child-protection departments like Territory Families should be the “canary in the mine”.

“Wherever there is a failure, or what’s seen to be a failure, of the statutory child-protection system it doesn’t necessarily lead to reforms that are in the best interests of the population as a whole,” Professor Higgins said.

“If we continue to see the work of protecting children as being the responsibility of a statutory child-protection department, game over. If that’s our expectation, it’s unsustainable.”

Professor Higgins said a sharp rise in the number of at-risk children meant superficial reforms to the operation of statutory child protection services across the country were not working.

What is needed is holistic prevention strategies designed to stop abuse in the first place, he said.

Population-wide prevention initiatives include:

  • broad availability of evidence-based parenting programs and support
  • public information campaigns about positive parenting practices
  • targeted referrals for intensive family support for those where more support is needed.

“When we see a ‘failure’ of the child protection system, the question that needs to be asked is ‘How can the broader health and human service delivery sectors assist with the task of protecting children and increasing the safety and security of all Australia’s children?’,” he said.

“It is important that those who routinely come into contact with young families are able to be child-focused, and aware of the opportunities for improving the life circumstances for children. This includes those in the health sector— particularly maternal and child health workers— as well as education and care services.”

Read the full article in NT News


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