Paramedics need support to help safeguard children at risk of abuse – new study

Paramedics are an underutilised resource when it comes to safeguarding children in the home, according to the authors of a new study highlighting the need to improve paramedics’ ability to respond to child maltreatment.

Professor Daryl Higgins, the director of ACU’s Institute of Child Protection Studies, and Dr Simon Sawyer, of the Australian Paramedical College, have called for systemic changes to provide paramedics with the statutory and educative supports needed to take on a more proactive role when it comes to helping children at risk.

The call follows the release of new research, published in the International Journal on Child Maltreatment: Research, Policy and Practice, showing paramedics have difficulty identifying and responding to cases of child emotional abuse and exposure to domestic violence, making it less likely for them to report it to authorities.

Professor Higgins and Dr Sawyer called for legislative changes to make paramedics mandatory reporters alongside doctors and nurses, as well as improved education to recognise signs of less visible forms of abuse.

“We need the leadership and political will to introduce reforms that will provide appropriate education and training to improve their ability to report,” Professor Higgins said.

“Once paramedics are also more directly involved in child safety and prevention of child maltreatment, we will be realising the national vision of making child-safety ‘everyone’s business.’”

Professor Higgins said given the nature of their jobs, paramedics had a significant and unique role to play when it came to keeping children safe.

“We don’t want them to step outside their role and become de facto social workers, but they could form an important early warning system,” Professor Higgins said.

“They are going into homes. They are seeing things raw and unfiltered and that gives them a unique view into the family circumstances.”

Professor Higgins said Governments needed to provide welfare organisations with funding and resources to support families showing early warning signs, rather than just intervening when children needed to be removed.

Dr Sawyer said the research, which was co-authored by ICPS research officer Alex Cahill, Dr Stephen Bartlett, of Queensland University of Technology, and Professor Karen Smith, of Monash University, was the first of its kind to investigate the capacity and motivations of Australian paramedics to recognise and respond to child abuse.

“We know that paramedics are seeing child maltreatment in their regular practice, what our research shows is that while they want to make reports to child protection, they are feeling unsure,” he said.

“This potentially means that some children are left in an unsafe environment, when we could have done something earlier to interrupt cycles of abuse.”

Dr Sawyer said ambulance services needed to provide paramedics with more education, clear guidance, policies, and procedures.

“Connecting with experts and child protection organisations who can help design and roll out a whole of system response would be the most impactful way to do this,” he said.

Link to the report

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