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Tuesday, 3 December 2002
Page: 7080

Senator MURRAY (11:39 PM) —I thought that tonight was the open adjournment, so my speech is slightly longer than 10 minutes. I have spoken to the two duty whips and both have indicated that at the conclusion of my 10 minutes I would be able to incorporate the rest of my speech. So I will seek leave to do so at that time.

I want to address the Senate on the first International Congress on Child Migration— a historic event which occurred in October of this year. The first International Congress on Child Migration was held in New Orleans and provided a much needed forum to examine and learn from the past experiences of child migration policies. Organised by the Child Migrants Trust, the International Association of Former Child Migrants and their Families and the Nottinghamshire County Council, I was honoured to have been amongst the fine keynote speakers to address this congress.

International academics, practitioners and policy makers in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, law, politics, human rights and history imparted an impressive range of information regarding all aspects of child migration. The effects of separation from family members and the misery resulting from the widespread cruel treatment of these children, including criminal assaults, were a particular focus. The congress heard of the contemporary forms of illegal child trafficking whereby children are used as soldiers, as slave labour and for sexual exploitation, as well as the former child migrant schemes identified as state-sanctioned child trafficking. Unaccompanied child refugees and asylum seekers and inter-country adoptions were also addressed. Copies of the congress papers are available from the Child Migrants Trust.

A particular emphasis of the congress— and one that my address focused on—was how the experience of childhood trauma, exile and abuse impacts on people's lives and on society. You do not have to be a child migrant to experience the impact of it, and the scale of it makes for a major problem. Last century it is estimated that 250,000 children were institutionalised in Australia. Through examining this population when older, I would not be exaggerating by stating that 10 years of abuse will often lead to 50 or 60 years of problems. This reality became glaringly obvious during the 2001 Senate inquiry into child migration in Australia, when older child migrants appeared before the inquiry as witnesses and were questioned. The ability to create and maintain satisfying relationships, the capacity for effective parenting, the capability to undertake work and one's sense of identity are all fundamentally damaged. Adult lives are plagued with unemployment and welfare dependency, dysfunctional and failed relationships, homelessness and substance abuse, crime and prostitution, and even suicide. These are not just problems for the individuals or families concerned; they are societal problems that require enormous expenditure from the public purse. It is vital to make this connection. It is one thing to make the moral and emotional connection, but until the light goes on about the economic connection little will be achieved in this pressing policy area.

Take substance abuse alone, which is a common consequence of child abuse. A 1995 report prepared for the Department of Human Services and Health, entitled Quantification of drug caused morbidity and mortality in Australia, reported that alcohol is associated with 50 per cent of assaults, 44 per cent of fire injuries, 34 per cent of falls and drownings, 30 per cent of car accidents, 16 per cent of child abuse, 12 per cent of suicides and 10 per cent of machine accidents.

Consider criminal behaviour. The Child Protection Council in New South Wales reported in 1992 that the probability of future delinquency, adult criminality and arrest for a violent crime increased by around 40 per cent for people assaulted and neglected as children. Other Australian studies have found that a high percentage of the prison population is made up of people who as children were victims of sexual and physical assault, abuse and neglect.

Not surprisingly, these Australian research results are replicated in other countries. Research published in 2000 in the Focus Ireland report, entitled Left out on their own, reveals quite shocking results. On leaving different forms of care after six months and then after two years, researchers found that 41 per cent had suffered sexual abuse while in care; the same proportion had experienced domestic violence; a similar percentage had physical or learning disabilities or mental health problems such as clinical depression, eating disorders, or suicidal tendencies; and 25 per cent had been placed in care inappropriate to their needs. For example, children suffering from being sexually abused were placed in detention units as if they were the perpetrators and not the victims—clearly a form of secondary abuse. Sixty-eight per cent of those leaving health board care and a third of those coming out of special schools had experienced homelessness; 66 per cent of those who had left special schools ended up in prison or another place of detention within three years; after two years, over 40 per cent of those who had been to special schools and 30 per cent of those coming out of health board care had addiction problems; and 14 per cent of those who had been in health board care were involved in prostitution.

On reporting this research in the Irish Times on 10 October 2000, Fintan O'Toole remarked:

The State ... had been remarkably good at taking vulnerable, neglected and abused children and turning them into drug addicts, prostitutes and criminals.

Weekly, sometimes daily, we read of children in crisis. The Courier-Mail ran articles in January of this year about a damning review of Queensland's child protection system. The At what cost report claims that this system operated in constant crisis and that there was mounting evidence that the government was failing to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children, a problem linked to years of underresourcing.

With New South Wales in the grip of a child abuse crisis, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on the parliamentary inquiry into child protection services held last May, in which the Commissioner for Community Services, Robert Fitzgerald, stated that this state's child protection system was `manifestly incapable of delivering'. And who can forget the report prepared by the New South Wales Child Death Review Team, which found that one-third of the 60 children who had died after fatal assaults were already known to the child protection system as being at risk.

In my own home state, the West Australian newspaper on 9 November reported on remarks made by the Director of the Institute for Child Health Research at the University of Western Australia, Professor Fiona Stanley. Addressing a national childhood conference in Melbourne, she claimed that since 1970, rates of childhood crime, neglect, sex abuse, mental health disorders, drug abuse, obesity and teen suicide have worsened. For instance, one in five children aged between 12 and l6 have significant mental health problems, male teen suicide rates have quadrupled since the 1960s, the rates of juvenile crime have ballooned and there is a growing welfare dependence of children. Moreover, the Kids First Foundation found last year that 59 per cent of children counselled by its services had experienced more than one kind of abuse.

Clearly, the associated costs to society are critical. Although it seems obvious that spending much more money on lessening the effects of child abuse will lessen the long-term social and economic cost to society, this is just not happening. Accordingly, the first resolution drafted from the first International Congress on Child Migration states:

Congress calls upon the United Nations and all Governments to recognise that the results from trafficking or forced migration can lead to a life time of adult problems with severe social and economic costs ...

It continues by requesting:

Those Governments ... fund the research necessary to quantify the scale of children and adults affected; and the likely social and economic costs; and then to combine to develop effective and practical policies to address those problems.

Governments, through their various services and agencies, need not only to be aware of the economic and social consequences of family disruption, child abuse and neglect but must act soon to lower the huge costs that future governments will otherwise bear. Let us learn from history and the research available to turn around the high incidence of child sexual and physical assault, child abuse and neglect, and to repair as far as we can those already harmed.

The alternative is a generational continuance of antisocial, dysfunctional and criminal behaviour for which more high-cost health and welfare and more prisons will be required. Just recently, on announcing an increase in the budget for foster care, the Victorian Community Services Minister, Bronwyn Pike, acknowledged that every dollar spent on children in their formative years saved $7 later on.

A good beginning would be for the Howard government to act on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and to incorporate its provisions into domestic law. Ratified by Australia in 1990, this convention provides the right concepts for addressing the needs of children and young people. Sadly, however, nothing has been done since its ratification. Although a major obstacle to full implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child is the separation of powers between the state and federal arenas, if the states will not play ball, the Commonwealth can and must enact legislation to give effect to the convention, even if it means overruling any state laws.

Currently, we have eight sets of child protection laws each with different definitions of maltreatments and notification methods administered by different agencies and adjudicated by different courts. According to the Family Court's Chief Justice, Alastair Nicholson, this situation means that children are not adequately protected from violence and maltreatment and he has called for the states to hand over sole responsibility to the federal government. A national strategy on child protection matters must be devised. This would require bipartisan political support and extra funding from corporations and non-government welfare agencies.

I seek leave to incorporate the remainder of my speech.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows

One similar to Britain's Sure Start Scheme that provides parenting classes, early childhood education and family support services could be considered.

We could also follow the legislative lead of the British Government by extending the state's duty of care to its wards until the age of 21 instead of 18. More services could then be provided, including help through higher education. This would considerably enhance the life chances of state wards.

Now is the time for policy-makers to show some initiative to redress this unjust state of affairs for Australia's children.

Indeed, community concern confirms the need for action. New research conducted by Clemenger Communications—titled `The Silent Majority Four' reveals that three of the top five issues of primary concern to Australians in late 2002 relate to child sexual assault and abuse.

I conclude by citing from the Australian's insightful editorial on 10 June 2002. It begins by stating that: “Something is terribly amiss when society can write off its vulnerable children”, and continues later with these words:

We will not be able to completely prevent violence against children, no matter what protection services do. But that's no excuse for governments to sit on their hands. Where bureaucracies have been found wanting—and that is in most states— their approach must be scrutinised and more resources must be found to help protect children at risk.