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Thursday, 26 June 2008
Page: 3620


Senator KIRK (7:17 PM) —I rise to give my final speech, and I wish to inform the Senate of some important measures that are being taken by the South Australian and the Rudd Labor governments to help protect children from abuse and neglect, and to promote their wellbeing. In valedictory statements tonight, a number of senators kindly acknowledged the work that I have done over a number of years with Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse. It is for this reason that I would like to make some comments about this very important social issue that faces this country in my final remarks to the Senate this evening.

What prompted me to do this tonight, in part, was the shocking news that emerged on Monday of this week of allegations of child neglect involving two families—one of seven children, and one of 12 children—who are living in Adelaide’s northern suburbs. A police raid was triggered by one of the mothers taking her son, who had hypothermia and malnutrition, to hospital. It transpired that at least 16 children were taken to hospital, and six of these children, aged between two and six, were admitted to the Women’s and Children’s Hospital. Fortunately, they have been responding well to treatment.

I raise that example here tonight merely to point out that child neglect and child abuse are continuing problems in our society, and things that this parliament needs to continue to address. I hope that our continuing senators and other members of parliament will do so. Whilst he is in the chamber, I would like to acknowledge the work that Senator Bartlett has done in raising this very important social issue in this chamber during his term as a senator.

There has been an alarming increase right across Australia in the number of children needing protection. Substantiation rates of children that have been, or are likely to be, harmed, abused or neglected increased by 45 per cent over the four years to 2007. In the 10 years to 2007, the number of children in out-of-home care doubled to over 28,000. We are failing our children as a society. We are allowing their opportunities for a productive and fulfilling life to be squandered before they even reach adulthood. We know that a child who is neglected or abused is more likely to experience physical injuries, anxiety, depression, mental health disorders and suicide. Their school performance and ability to socialise is likely to suffer. They can go on to develop substance abuse problems and repeat the pattern by becoming perpetrators of child abuse themselves. Children who have been abused or neglected become adults who have higher rates of criminality, higher rates of chronic disease, and higher rates of homelessness.

We all know that child abuse is not a pleasant subject—delving into this subject is uncomfortable for many, and painful to talk about. Despite this, it is clear that the community does want something to be done about child abuse. Just look at the newspapers in the major capital cities, and throughout this country. We see headlines all the time alerting people to the grave cases of child abuse that do, unfortunately, occur—and they seem to be increasing. These examples of alleged neglect of many children just cry out to us that we need to take action to prevent the abuse happening in the first place. We need to educate and empower parents in parenting; we need to train parents, carers and teachers, and even neighbours—people in the community—to pick up signs of abuse and respond appropriately when they do see something which does not seem right. Many service providers, research bodies and key stakeholders repeatedly identify the need to move beyond only managing the crisis end of child protection, and to focus on the issues driving these increases: the poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, mental health issues, and social isolation.

What, then, is being done to reverse this very difficult and concerning rise in neglect and child abuse? I am pleased to say that the South Australian Labor government and the Rudd Labor government are taking this issue seriously, with major initiatives to stop the increase in child abuse notifications and to care for those children who are being abused. Last week, the South Australian Premier, Mr Rann, made an apology on behalf of the South Australian government and the churches to the people whose sexual abuse as children in state care was exposed by the Mullighan inquiry report earlier this year, about which I spoke in the chamber.

The South Australian government also announced that it had accepted 49 of the 54 recommendations made by the Mullighan inquiry. Some of these actions include the establishment of a task force to examine compensation schemes, including those operating interstate, for survivors of the abuse. The state Labor government in South Australia also will expand screening processes for people involved in child related work and will strengthen child-safe environments. A specialist team is being created to provide assertive, specialised therapeutic services and to provide secure care for those children in care who frequently abscond and place themselves at high risk.

The state government in South Australia has allocated extra resources to the Guardian for Children and Young People to strengthen her role and independence as an advocate for children in care and to monitor that care. A pilot scheme is being initiated to fast-track trials involving child complainants of sexual abuse. A number of other announcements were made in the state budget. Time does not permit me to go into detail on all of those announcements, but I do congratulate the South Australian Labor government on its initiatives in this area.

I turn now to the Rudd Labor government. I am pleased to say that this government has released a discussion paper entitled ‘Australia’s children: safe and well’, which outlines various options to address the increase in the number of child protection substantiations. The Rudd Labor government is providing national leadership to protect Australia’s children. The government has committed some $2.64 million towards the development of the National Child Protection Framework, which is going to have a stronger focus on prevention.

This government wants to work closely with the states and territories to improve the way that agencies, payments and programs interact with each other in order to help prevent abuse and better protect children identified as being at risk. The paper discusses a range of child protection issues, including: a stronger prevention focus; better collaboration between services; improving responses for children in care and young people leaving care, including ways to boost and retain high-quality foster carers; improving responses to Indigenous children; attracting and retaining the right workforce; and improving child protection systems. I commend the paper to all senators and suggest that they take the time to look at the important initiatives that are outlined there. The paper considers how we can better use existing resources, such as child care, to provide more support for children at risk and respite for parents who are under stress.

The Chief Executive Officer of Families Australia, Mr Brian Babington, said in the Canberra Times:

What makes [the] launch of the Government’s discussion paper on a national child protection plan so significant is that it makes a long-overdue acknowledgment of the crisis Australia faces in protecting its children from abuse and neglect, as well as proposing a course for the coming decade which aims to join together government and non-government efforts in an overarching plan.

One of the greatest gifts that we can give to our children is the love and support of caring adults in an environment that is free from abuse. A safe and nurturing environment provides an unrepeatable head start in life and freedom from the traumas that damage a child’s prospects of growing into a well-adjusted and productive adult. On the other hand, every time we fail a child, there is a cost. There is not only a personal cost to the child, which they will pay throughout their lifetime, but also a very significant social and financial cost that we incur as a society. I thank the Senate.