Time to start thinking about solutions to child abuse

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LAST week, news of another child murder, this time in regional Victoria, triggered an already heightened sense of distress within our community about the safety and welfare of children.

News on proceedings of the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse have been bubbling away over several months, detailing the uncovering of a horrible truth, people and institutions can corrupt and hurt children in unimaginable ways. The content and repetition of these stories has been difficult to process.

On one very important level the public needs to hear plain accounts of crimes committed against children. A safe platform to be heard can help survivors unburden the pain of abuse and it gives strength to those who haven’t imagined a path to healing. Yet, the sound bites of so many tragic cases are starting to reach saturation point.

Alongside healing, restoration and justice, a pressing reason for investigating, exposing and broadcasting harm inflicted on children is to prevent future tragedies. Yet, among the relentless stream of shocking incidents there has hardly been a focus on solutions.

That’s not to say there isn’t an appetite to report or receive news about remedies and breakthroughs. Simply, no-one can stand up and say children aren’t being abused today or explain how we can stop it happening.

Keeping children safe and nurtured involves learning the lessons of the past, but it also means confronting the complexities and challenges of today. Spiralling numbers of family violence incidents and child protection cases involving serious problems such as alcohol and drug addiction and mental ill health are examples of risks to children’s wellbeing.

Individuals and the world they live in are complex and changing all the time. Court supervision and case management are no guarantees of safety and unpredictability is often the rule.

In a deeper and far more collaborative way, our organisational leaders, academics, practitioners and policy makers need to come together to cultivate innovative new ways to ensure child safety. It is also important to make the hard decisions if there are programs and services that are not working.

The community sector has a lot of wisdom and experience to offer in this change process and should be supported to develop thought leadership and innovation capabilities.

Systems need to build on proven intervention programs that help parents with positive choices and personal change and can be suitably implemented. Good models such as intensive home visiting programs already exist. There is also a place for tailored approaches that take advantage of community strengths and abilities.

Lifting more children out of risky home situations and into alternative care is not the answer. Placement in and of itself presents risks, and there are still weaknesses and blind-spots in the out-of-home care system. Innovations, such Berry Street’s proposed model of professionalised foster care combined with intensive and time-limited support for parents, need to be trialled to improve outcomes for children. New care options will also build capacity into a system that has become dependent on the lottery we call kinship care.

We do need accountability processes and a watchful eye on the incentives, leadership, culture and values that cause organisations to act amorally. Yet, we also need solutions, and they won’t be found in an analysis of the appalling failures of past institutions.

Our focus needs to be on how to minimise and treat complex symptoms and behaviours that arise from intergenerational disadvantage and trauma, social isolation and poverty.

Inspirational leadership, strategic systems thinking, bold innovation, collective action and the right resources are our best chance of tackling social ills and ensuring children enjoy the safest childhoods our society can provide.

Source: Berry Street