By ERWIN CHLANDA
When this week the horrendous story broke in Tennant Creek about the alleged rape of a two year old girl, in a household about which 21 notifications of violence had been made, Ken Davies, the CEO of Territory Families, was reported to have said that leaving the child with the mother was in line with recommendations of the report by the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.
The ABC reported: “He says the six notifications that were substantiated were not about the toddler but about domestic violence and alcohol misuse in the household.”
Then came this grab from Mr Davies: “[The notifications] were not substantial enough to take the child out of this household and away from the mother. What we did was where there are issues substantiated we responded and we put in family support services to support the family and the mother in that household.”
We emailed Mr Davies, asking which parts of the commission’s reports he was referring to.
His department provided the following detailed response and quotes, citing the volumes and page numbers, from the report.
This is the response in full:–
A common thread throughout the Royal Commission report … is the importance of intervening early, in the aim of exploring every option for a child to remain with his/her parents before being placed in out-of-home care.
This fundamental approach to child protection within the report endorses Territory Families’ commitment to preserving children’s connections to family and community networks, where it is safe to do so.
Please see below for a number of relevant excerpts from the Royal Commission’s final report:
• The Commission heard evidence demonstrating how important it is to have early interventions that fully explore all options for children to remain with their parents before the decision to remove them. Despite this, for some children prioritising their best interests means they should be removed from the care of their parents, but this should only happen where there is a clear need to safeguard their wellbeing and where there is no other course of action that can mitigate the risk of harm. This decision can be made at any time throughout the investigation and assessment process. (p.350, vol 3A)
• The Commission heard many stories of the trauma inflicted by removing a child from their family. Families shared their experience of being unsupported at the time of removal, or described their recollections of events. . . If removal is the only course of action to ensure that children are safe, Territory Families need to ensure that families know and understand what is happening and why, and ensure that all other options have been explored. (p.351, vol 3A)
• While statutory child protection agencies play a key role in protecting children, it is ultimately everyone’s responsibility – including families’ and communities’ – to afford children the right to grow up in safe environments. Family support services need to be involved in building the capacity of families and communities to care for their children, while expanding their understanding of where and how governments exercise statutory and support functions in relation to vulnerable families. (p.186, vol 3A)
• There is no doubt that the Northern Territory child protection system is working with many families experiencing high levels of dysfunction, and lacking the resources and capacity to adequately care for their children. During community visits, the Commission heard about families who are struggling to provide their children with a nurturing, safe environment in which they can grow up and thrive, due to their own problems with alcohol and substance misuse, poor mental health, gambling addiction, domestic violence and food security. These problems often co-occur. As child protection is fundamentally about adequate parenting and care, an effective child protection system must take steps to help parents deal with such issues and provide care for their children. (p.199, vol 3A)
• The expressed need for a shift towards a greater emphasis on early support for families is not new, but responding to that need requires a clear change in the approach to child protection in the Northern Territory. (p.206, vol 3B)
• Early support and prevention cannot be the sole responsibility of the statutory child protection agency. The responsibility for early support service provision is a whole of government responsibility involving programs and services across multiple government departments such as the Department of Housing and Community Development, the Department of Health and the Department of Education. (p.167, vol 3B)
• It is the view of the Commission that effective early support and prevention in the Northern Territory should be the highest priority of programs targeting children and families. This requires a system that: identifies vulnerable children and families before any risk of harm escalates to the level of a notification assesses, on an early and ongoing basis, the type and degree of risk factors present in the life of a child with effective mechanisms for sharing relevant information and program and agency co-ordination to accurately match the child’s needs with the appropriate intervention and has the relevant support and services readily accessible and available for a sustained response.
An effective early support and prevention system must have capacity to identify and support families who have low to moderate risk factors present, at the earliest possible opportunity. It is important that a notification or subsequent investigation by the statutory agency is not the sole trigger for a service or support response and that agencies work in collaboration to provide early support and preventive services to families who require them. (p.168, vol 3B)
• The Commission proposes a model of a place-based approach that uses soft entry points to services, as opposed to a notification in the statutory system, to ensure a community level nexus between the assessment of risk or need and appropriate service provision. For example, the community relationships parents might have with a local doctor, nurse, teacher, social worker or sporting coach could be utilised as networks through which to encourage families to engage in relevant services or be referred to the most appropriate providers. This relies on these professionals having the training and skills to identify when a referral might be needed, the knowledge of where to make a referral and for some of them, the capacity to provide follow up. (p.168, vol 3B)
• A public health approach to child protection shifts the focus to a service system that provides early support to children and families to prevent entry into the statutory child protection system. This support includes core, universal services to all families and targeted support to vulnerable families. Additionally, such an approach must not only address the spectrum of supports and services needed to promote the safety and wellbeing of children, but also the differing levels of willingness and capacity of individuals to access and receive those supports and services. (p.173, vol 3B)
• Removing a child from their family and placing them in out of home care should be undertaken as a last resort. It should only be used to ensure the safety of the child, and justified by the expectation that statutory care for the child will lead to better outcomes than if the child remained with family. (p.369, vol 3A)
PHOTO: Commissioners, Margaret White AO and Mr Mick Gooda.
By ERWIN CHLANDA