Child abuse and neglect (CA/N) comprises of acts of commission or omission by a parent, caregiver or another adult that results in harm, the potential for harm or the risk of harm to a child (0-18 years of age) even if the harm is unintentional, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect or exposure to family violence. (Gilbert et al., 2009). Legal definition and response to abuse differs and are broadly defined by the context of the civil and criminal court systems. The Civil court process is entrenched in the values of the best interest of the child. Its outcomes, and decisions emphasize the need for protection, wellbeing and safety of the child.
While the criminal system entails arbitrating the blame on the accused, with the outcome providing for the penalty of the offender. In many Australian States, it is a criminal offense for persons with parental responsibility to fail to provide a child with basic needs such as housing, food, education, and health care. Across all jurisdictions, legislations are drafted differently. For instance, in the Northern Territory, CA/N offense relates to a children under two years whilst in NSW and Queensland, the offence relates to children below the age of seven. (ALRC, 2010; Plum, 2014). The child protection legislature accepted in many Australian jurisdictions delineates child abuse as actions that are likely to cause substantial harm. Nevertheless, it can be problematic, and sometimes impossible, to determine whether a child who is seemingly suffering no harm or suffering negligible harm is likely to suffer significant harm in the future. (Bromfield, 2005).In all Australian states, neglect is a valid reason for ‘when a child needs protection’ (CFCA, 2016). Cases of neglect can be problematic for Child Protection Authorities (CPA) to table before the child protection court, predominantly, if the apparent parental behaviours are low impact and high frequency, as opposed to high impact and low frequency. Correspondingly, is the complex subject of intent? While there is no agreement among authorities on whether the intent to cause harm is a necessary factor in CA/N, some propose that notions of answerability, motive and intent are vital to many professionals when making decisions about whether to define an occurrence as CA/N. (Platt & Turney, 2013).
The majority of parents who neglect their children do not intend to do so as seen in the case study from the angle of Sophie. Many parents struggle with issues such as poverty or disability as evidenced by the life of Dave who is self-medicating to manage symptoms of depression and emptiness resulting from loss of his job. When complex issues such as poverty, unemployment, mental health issues are present, there is a responsibility on the government to provide support and assistance to the families. (CFCA, 2016).In the given case study, physical abuse of both children may not be noticeable and may be termed as low frequency and low impact but the cumulative effect of sustained exposure to domestic violence between parents impacts the child’s view of the world negatively. Making a child live in an environment where parents or caregivers experience sustained violence is emotional and psychological abuse. (Goddard & Bedi, 2010). Children who are left to live with violence are at increased risk of experiencing physical and sexual abuse. (Dwyer & Miller, 2014). Young people tend to experience marked disruptions in their psychosocial wellbeing, often exhibiting alike pattern of symptoms to other abused or neglected children. (Mitchell, 2011).
Emotional abuse and neglect are clearly apparent in the case study. Neglect is defined as a failure on the part of parents or care-givers to provide for the development and wellbeing of the child, where the parent is in a position to do so, in key areas of health, education, emotional development, nutrition, shelter, and safety.” (WHO (2006, p. 10). Particularly for Banjo who has a disability and requires more attention and care. Neglect is seen in the uncaring actions of his parents, especially Dave who uses illicit drugs and alcohol around the children, failure to provide adequate nutrition, medical care or treatment, soaked diapers, dirty clothes and lack of supervision. Emotional abuse is evidenced by constant exposure to violence, refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the children’s needs, ignoring Banjo’s emotional needs like support, affection, communication, and love thereby stifling emotional and intellectual development, and expecting the children to take care of themselves by lack of supervision.
PREVALENCE OF CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT IN AUSTRALIA
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) conducted research across Australia in 2015-16, regarding substantiated risk. It was determined that the rates of substantiated harm or risk of harm decreased as age increased. Infants were most likely to be the subject of a substantiation 16.1 per 1,000 infants, followed by children 9.0 per 1,000 children aged 1-4. Children aged 15-17 years were the least probable to be the subjects of a substantiation of 3.9 per 1,000 children.Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were the focus of substantiation in 2017/2016. Countrywide, indigenous children were seven times more probable to be the subject of substantiated reports than non-Indigenous children with rates of 43.6 per 1,000 children paralleled with 6.4 per 1,000 respectively (AIHW, 2017)
ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS IN CHILD PROTECTION
Ethics is an applied law not just an academic exercise, as Aristotle observed over 2000 years ago (Thompson et al., 2006). Its objectives are pragmatic – to make sensible decisions that benefit and enhance quality outcomes which ensure that we do not harm the very people we are trying to assist. Safeguarding the right of the child entails inquiry into threatening events, and egregious behaviours confronting the young person. Remaining calm, non-judgmental, thoughtful and ethically poised in these toxic environments, is extremely challenging. Regular supervision is indispensable for the Social worker to remain aware of, and positively disentangled from biases, and vicarious trauma that can be heightened in these presentations. (Smith, 2014).
Fundamental to understanding the principled challenges inherent in the role of a social worker dealing with child protection issues is the appreciation of client susceptibility, disproportionate power affiliation and vulnerability of children. Ethical responsibility of the social worker includes a high level of analytical and unbiased decision making, professional knowledge of risk assessment and screening tools, unconditional positive regard, and professional boundaries. Relevant cultural competency training should be undertaken prior to working with Aboriginal communities to increase consciousness that family violence occurs in the context of the effects of invasion and colonisation on Aboriginal people and communities. Practicing within stipulated jurisdiction and competence ensures that deontological, relational, virtuous and consequential ethics are observed and preserved. (Lorne, et al, 2016).
Mandatory reporting, confidentiality and informed consent are the premises of a social worker. To prevent a sense of betrayal from clients, in the initial meeting, steps are taken to explain our legal obligations to report CA/N and the duty of care owed to the child or young person.
INTERVENTION IN OBSERVANCE WITH SECTION 9 OF THE CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLES’ ACT
The ecological model states that CA/N occurs as a consequence of dynamic interaction between the individual, families, community. In CA/N, the degree of influence by each of these four systems may differ dramatically. If the risk assessment and screening assert that a child is at risk of significant harm, targeted intervention necessitates a change specific to the identified environment and stress factors negatively affecting the child and the family. (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). A core assessment of the child and his family\’s circumstances in an alleged child maltreatment case is mandatory. This process is vital for the development of appropriate interventions with a positive result for aggregate wellbeing pertaining to their physical, mental, psychological, social as well as cultural needs. (Parker and Bradley, 2003).
Child protection authorities (CPA) annually receive more than 350,000 claims of child abuse both unsubstantiated and factual. Life-threatening and social factors inducing abuse were exposure to domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction of one or both parents, mental health concerns and circumstances where there was an absence of services. Around one in six of all allegations result in the children being placed into the foster care system. The Children and Young Person (Care and Protection) Act 1998, accentuate that ‘the care of children and young people is a responsibility shared by families, government and the agencies working in partnership”. (Broadley, 2014; Goddard, 1996; Sheehan, 2006).
The phases involved in a CPA intervention is governed by the Act and has established protocols and legislations. Processes are divided into phases such as intake, investigation, protective intervention, protective order and closure. The intake phase typically starts with reports about a child and completes when the report is assigned for investigation or closed by appropriate advice or referral of parents to support services.
From the case study given, mandatory report of significant concern for the wellbeing of a child (section. 28) and report of a child in need of therapeutic treatment (s. 185) has been made to the CPA authorities by neighbours. Following substantiation of the reports, CPA personnel has to graft out the level of risk to children and also any protective people, such as an accessible grandparent or parents being agreeable to accepting assistance, before they make a decision to remove a child. Unequivocally, the decision to remove a child involves joint deliberation of a team, investigation by police, with the department of community and Justice completing a risk assessment, and determining the need for Children’s Court action, and NSW Health providing medical and therapeutic support for victims and their non-offending family. Dave and Sophia’s intent may not be to neglect their children however, struggling with poverty, unemployment, substance abuse and a child with a disability may have taxed their abilities to the maximum. In keeping with the responsibility of the state to provide respite care and assistance, the temporary placement of Banjo and Greta may be explored. Interventions at this stage is targeted at the health and safety of the children and will include:
- Home visit for risk assessment of cumulative harm and protective factors.
- Psychosocial assessment and safety recorded in Child’s story.
- Family genogram to extensively inform and identify gaps in understanding about the chronology of important family events, information about ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds, occupation, losses, family migrations, intergenerational family patterns and roles to provide a context for exploring family problems and highlight conflict or estrangement.
- Family group conferencing can be undertaken to identify appropriate temporary placement for children with consideration to Banjo who requires medical attention. Keeping with the kinship rule, the aunt who lives nearby is an appropriate placement choice.
- Formulate therapeutic treatment plan, rules of engagement and duration of placement.
Afterwards, CPA interventions are time-specific and targeted at the areas of concern. Once the child is removed from harm’s way, the parents are referred to services to better equip them to provide proper care for their children and address the issues perpetuating the neglect of their children. Failure to engage with services and address the concerns within specified timeframes may result in statutory kinship placement by the Children’s Court. Interventions will include: –
- Drug and alcohol rehabilitation/referral for Dave.• Referral to Benevolent Society to assist Dave and Sophie on strategies to effectively meet the needs of their children, address parenting difficulties and couples therapy.
- Engagement with CPA worker and job skills referral for Dave.
- Consent forms to release information from agencies to CPA to support protective interventions and inform decision making.
- Family reunification and ongoing home visit.The final decision-making process is buttressed by a thorough and current assessment informed by information gathering and analysis consistent with the best interests case practice model.
The DECIDE model is the acronym of 6 specific actions needed in the decision-making process: (1) D = define the issues, (2) E = establish the standards, (3) C = consider all the options, (4) I = identify the best alternative, (5) D = develop and execute a plan of action, and (6) E = evaluate and monitor the solution and feedback when necessary. (Kovner AR, 2008).
As a social worker, the aptitude to grasp the recurrently challenging narratives and wishes of the separate family members is critical and at times both confronting and draining during assessments and investigation of abuse cases. From the case study, focusing on the needs of the children while understanding the mental health deterioration of Dave as well as the frustrations and hectic work schedule of the Sophie is key to supporting each of them. Utilizing individual and family therapy, efforts will focus on applying the self-efficacy theory to empower Dave and Sophie to put words and meaning to both their experiences, and their expectation for what might become of their family. Psychoeducation to help them understand their frustration from another’s perspective, and therapy to challenge the constraints of damning, blaming, and shaming narratives as construed by the society, and education on the impact of parental CA/N on their children depicting how it affects interrelated domains such as physical, psychological, emotional, behavioural, and social development of their children.
PAST CHILD PROTECTION POLICIES AND THEIR IMPACTS
At the family and community level we witness an increasing number of children reported to be living in danger, at risk of exploitation, neglect, and harm by members of their own families. (Gilbert et al 2009, 2012). In the bulk of cases, these families are themselves in chaos; former government policies and practices are partly responsible for the turmoil and distress owing to the failure of the programs to recognize the centrality of children in the services delivered to these families. These policies comprised of the foremost forceful removal of indigenous children in many countries under the appellation of child protection. (Arney and Scott, 2013).
From 1910-1970, many autochthonous children were forcibly removed from their families as adverse government policies. The aggressive removal of autochthonous children from their families had a deleterious impact that is still poignant and unending to date. Countless number of children were psychologically, physically, and sexually molested whilst in the care of the state or with their adopted families. Most of them struggled with a sense of shame and loss of identity. Several children were erroneously lead to believe that their parents abandoned them, while others were told their parents were deceased. Many never knew where they had been taken from, who their biological families were, and definitely no knowledge of their Indigenous heritage. The environment in the institutions was extremely controlled and unfriendly, children were frequently disciplined, endured harsh weather conditions, frequently hungry, received a very low level of education as they were expected to work as manual labourers and domestic servants and received little or no affection. (Behrendt and Fraser, 2020).
The removal of several generations of children rigorously interrupted the learning of Aboriginal language and oral culture. Consequently, considerable cultural knowledge was lost. The majority of affected parents never recovered from the grief and have recorded a high prevalence of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic distress and suicide and dependence on alcohol and illicit drug as a coping mechanism. Subsequently, societal stigmatization, poverty and lack of employment opportunities, negative media coverage and portrayal of Aboriginal people as drunks, and welfare dependents, has created these stereotypes thus perpetuating the cycle of disadvantage. (Behrendt and Fraser, 2020).
When Kevin Rudd ascended to power in 2007, he acknowledged the trauma suffered by indigenous people and delivered a national apology to the Stolen Generations on the 13th of February 2008. In acknowledgement of the travails experienced by the Stolen Generations from past policies, individual state, and territory in Australia adheres to the code that an Indigenous child ought to be placed with their kinship family, their Indigenous community or at most with other Ethnic folks, to preserve and support her connection to land, language, community, and culture. (Behrendt and Fraser, 2020).
In conclusion, ever-growing amount of people with diverse training from different backgrounds are apparently involved in child protection. Progressively, the word is that, “child protection is everyone\’s business” and this is being adopted by policymakers. Therefore, a unified and collaborative approach by social workers despite differing perspectives is important for the attainment of effective and optimal service provision to families and their children. (COAG 2009, 2012).