In the Spotlight

Parents in the child protection system – Family Inclusion

Part Two of the AASW/PeakCare Child Protection Practice Group Forum – Who is the Client? on the intersection of child protection, family support and domestic and family violence was held on 22nd June. It focused attention on the experiences and needs of parents in the child protection system.

Karyn Walsh, Micah Project’s CEO, spoke on behalf of the Family Inclusion Network, Southeast Queensland. She outlined a history of decision making that has at times been flawed and lacked awareness of parent and child needs and rights. In this she included our history and treatment of ,Child Migrants, Stolen Generations and Forced Adoptions. She spoke about Forgotten Australians and the impact of power and shame. Karyn also noted that the impacts of trauma, harm and power-over decision making can be long lasting. “It’s what people carry with them. Generations of families separated, not healed, feeling blamed. There will always be those who acknowledge their children should have come into care. However, there are so many files that don’t actually indicate why children are in care. Those records should be mandatory reading,” stated Karyn.

For the Southeast Queensland Family Inclusion Network (FIN) practitioners, parents and children exist within a complex system and face issues that include the significance of child protection, domestic and family violence, the need for secure housing, education and employment with the ultimate focus being holistic health and wellbeing.

Karyn noted that there are important initiatives aimed at changing past injustices to ensure we do differently today. In aiming to stay committed to justice and fairness, we need to ensure that all in our society and community have a voice, not a tokenistic voice but a clear voice that will be heard by all in our systems and society without power imbalance. We need a genuineness to engage with and hear from those impacted by our systems and decisions.

Karyn shared a number of comments from parents:

“When I just went for help, no one responded.”

“It’s all about judgement and blame.”

“I need to feel safe and have somewhere safe to raise my children and be part of a community.”

“In the courts, Child Safety has the power. Parents have nothing.”

“I wanted to get out but I was scared to tell anyone because of mandatory reporting.”

“LISTEN when parents say something is wrong” and “build supportive networks for families in crisis.”

“Don’t judge people who have been in domestic violence, no blame, stop saying ‘you should’, say ‘how can we help’.”

“Remove stigma around accessing support.”

“There needs to be more free legal services that know child protection and family law.”

“Need to feel safe.”

“Free legal services that know child protection and family law.”

“Access to services can take parents years e.g. 5 year waiting lists for housing in some areas.”

Karyn spoke of a client who left her partner last week as a result of domestic violence and was immediately homeless. She approached a service for assistance and they reprimanded her for not budgeting. They offered her an appointment the following week to do a budgeting session. Karyn highlighted this as a clear indicator that some in our service system are lacking in awareness of domestic and family violence and the many complex factors at play – including financial abuse. Even without financial abuse, however, there is a disconnect in our support system that clearly doesn’t understand poverty. “No-one ever needs to be judged or displaced because they lack financial means to be included. Poverty is a massive issue in our society. Those with limited means don’t need to spend all their time explaining why they didn’t stretch their dollar further than any other person could be asked to do so.”

There are a number of issues facing women who are parents experiencing domestic violence. “Many people don’t understand that various types of abuse are in fact abuse. Issues such as psychological abuse, put downs, financial abuse and mind games. These are some of the issues involved that our systems and society don’t pay attention to. Before we ever consider removing a child, we must understand the wide array of abuses that women and children face in domestic and family violence” stated Karyn.

“I began this presentation talking about the abuse of power in our society and the wrongs we’ve perpetrated in the past by preying on vulnerable and impoverished members of our society. We can easily do this all again. Sometimes we do. Hence why advocacy and human rights processes are so vital in our child protection and family support system and our society in general.”

Karyn noted the importance of sound assessment and working with issues as they present. “Too often we report to Child Safety very quickly without addressing the situation. We need to understand that child removal is a legal process. It needs to be about people’s legal rights and in ensuring those we need to offer as many services and supports as possible.”

“The system can protect women so much more when we all work together” asserted Karyn.

She also stated that we need to stop judging parents when they ask for assistance. “We should see engagement as part of our responsibility to break down barriers to accessing assistance”.

“We need to process what’s going on – safety versus poverty. We all work with children together in the whole of society but parents who are poor or come from dysfunctional backgrounds and have contact with the department are seen differently. We need to look at and consider trauma at all times. There are few opportunities for group work around the impact of trauma. Our work is too individualised and often people we work with become very isolated.” Karyn further added that creating safe places for disclosure is key. “Currently we’re not dealing with reality but snippets of information. We need to understand the whole breadth of what is going on and impacting families and their perceptions of what we’re doing.

“Parents need to be and feel heard across government and non-government organisations. As a system we need to better balance safety issues with the need of parents and children. We compartmentalise child protection from issues like employment, income support and parenting. It isn’t helpful to separate everything.”

A positive approach to working with people whereby we collectively believe in their capacity to participate and achieve is important. “That underlying belief has impact.” Karyn concluded her presentation by stating: “Risk and safety assessments are important but there is a critical need to understand parents’ needs as well. There is a humiliation involved in constantly asking for help. We hope for a pathway out through listening, respect, understanding and dignity.”

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