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SA bickers as child protection slides into crisis

Opinion

Debate on child protection in South Australia has centred around seemingly endless reviews, inquiries and point scoring. Meanwhile, the number of children in care and associated funding demand for a broken system reaches new, disturbing highs, writes Simon Schrapel.

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The unsavoury public and political debate in response to the most recent investigation into the woes of our Child Protection system – culminating in the Rice Review into the notification of children in care who have been sexually abused – says everything about how South Australia has lost control of our public policy surrounding child and family welfare over the past two decades.

Far from being a leader in how to address the challenges of protecting children and young people from harm, SA has become the laggard.

This has nothing to do with the shortage of investigations, reports and Royal Commissions undertaken over this period. It has everything to do with adopting the wrong focus about what to do.

During this time we have witnessed a steady increase in the number of children in our care system – and, not surprisingly, what we spend on this response.

In the last 10 years alone, the number of children in care in SA has risen from 2,368 to 4,136 – a 75 per cent increase in a decade.

Data provided by Productivity Commission Government Services 2021-Child Protection and AIHW Child Protection Australia 2018-2019 Reports.

Over the same period, the cost for SA to deliver these services for children has risen from $153.8 million to $458.76 million a year.

In the last five years, the rate of SA children in care has also risen from 7.8 children per 1000 children in the population to 10.3 per 1000. Across the rest of the nation, this rate has slightly declined over the same period.

The current Australian rate of children in care is eight per 1000, compared to SA’s rate of 10.3. The ratio of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in care in comparison to all children has also risen steadily – from 5.58 to 7.57 in the last decade.

These are deeply disturbing statistics.

But more importantly, they reflect the lives and experiences of our children and young people who no longer live at home but are in our care systems, including residential and foster homes.

It is in this context that the recent spat over who told who what and when needs to be assessed.

Every child matters and we – all South Australians, not only those with the direct responsibility for the care and protection of children in our care systems – should always be doing everything we can to ensure every child is afforded the care and protection they deserve. This includes being free of sexual abuse and exploitation whether they live at home or in our care systems.

However, as we spend our time bickering over how we report incidents of abuse and harm and who should be most accountable for these actions, we have taken our eye off the main game – time and time again.

We should all hold our heads in shame that as a society we now have substantially more children in our care system than ever before in our history.

What we desperately need is a bipartisan approach to fixing our child welfare systems.

At the heart of this approach is a commitment to doing much more about reducing the inflow of children into care and working to help more children return out of our care systems to safely live with their family.

Neither are easy tasks, but as other jurisdictions around Australia and the world have shown – it is doable.

It doesn’t require more inquiries or Commissions.

It does need a preparedness to stop the political blame-gaming  and finger-pointing that has achieved no discernible gain or benefit for the past 20 years.

Surely the interests, safety and wellbeing of our children and young people deserves a different approach, free of point-scoring.

I ask politicians from all sides to come together and join those with the evidence and experience in addressing this problem to devise a different set of solutions that focusses on enabling families and our community to keep children safe and thriving.

It is an achievable ambition if we really want to change a broken system. It will also be a much more cost-effective way of improving child protection than throwing yet more money at ineffective reporting and monitoring mechanisms.

Simon Schrapel is chief executive of Uniting Communities.

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