Strife torn child welfare set for more turmoil: worker

After more than three years on the frontline of child welfare and protection Fred – not his real name – is leaving town. He’s taking with him corporate knowledge, which he says has been dwindled worryingly, about matters that are uppermost in the public’s mind.

He says he isn’t bitter nor angry, rather feels privileged to have developed relationships with a part of the population that is raising profound concerns, both as victims of abuse and neglect, and perpetrators of crime: some four fifths of Fred’s clients were Aboriginal.

He spoke in person with editor ERWIN CHLANDA, for an hour and a half, but on the condition of not being named.

He leaves with a heavy heart as, in his view, a “reactive, Thatcherite” government is now slashing spending which will “create massive holes and massive social problems which will cause massive costs in the future.

“I am appalled at how things are politicised in the Territory,” he says.

But it’s not all bad: “I really loved walking the streets, you get to know families because you are working with them. I am just in wonderment how friendly they are, generally speaking, when you have developed some sort of rapport with people, although it’s not good that children need to be in care. They should be with family.”

NEWS: Why are they in care?

FRED: Mostly they are deemed to be unsafe. The system has all good intentions of returning children to their families. Regardless of what the public perception is, the system is trying to strengthen that Aboriginal base within itself.

NEWS: Minister Lambley says the kinship system is not working and is under review.

FRED: If anything I think kinship placements are where the money should be going. I think the child protection system and the foster carers have to be the last resort. They are now because we can’t find and assess kinship carers quickly enough.

NEWS: Why is that so?

FRED: Some of the Aboriginal carers in Central Australia are very courageous because they’re working with their own families. If that was in another state that would be deemed to be a conflict, but given the cultural realities here, it’s inevitable. The best work is done when we have good, strong Aboriginal family workers supporting the workers. They are part of our teams. [Often they are facing] a relentless barrage of trauma, and when they are not seeing it they are reading about it.

NEWS: In what percentage of cases is kinship care working?

FRED: I’ll stick my neck out and say the majority of cases are functional. I would say, probably 60 to 80 per cent of the cases are. Most workers are committed but it’s the volume of work that gets people. They leave. A hell of a lot of corporate knowledge has disappeared in the time I’ve been here.

NEWS: On the front line?

FRED: On the frontline and in the middle, and a lot of them had been here for many years. There are fewer and fewer people left now who are well known to the families. These relationships have been critical in moving things forward.

NEWS: What are the problems of the system?

FRED: Darwin and Alice Springs – they are almost like separate states. In between there is a scattering of Aboriginal communities. Child Protection aren’t present in those communities. Child Protection visits. My sense was, why are children from there coming into our care from those communities? I found that really hard to grapple with.

NEWS: Because the people there aren’t doing very much by way of work, for example, and should be looking after their kids?

FRED: Don’t know. School teachers are busting their poopers driving around in their Troopies to pick up children and get them to school.  In South Australia, Families SA have community workers operating with the communities. They also have visiting child protection workers. Seems to me it’s a good system. Recently I went to South Australia for a meeting and there were 20 people around the table.

NEWS: For one child?

FRED: One child. That child had significant medical disabilities and other needs. This is an example of a wonderful care team, some really fantastic relationships at work, and good work is coming out of it.

NEWS: Does it happen up here?

FRED: Of course it does. But what the people on the ground need is a lot more robust energy to run the business of “where to next?” We need more focus on the family group conferencing idea, that was in last year and now it’s out. I can’t understand why there wasn’t more development in that area, especially in Central Australia where culture, family and country are so prominent. Children refer to country all the time. Former Chief Minister Paul Henderson has said the resources are there but people aren’t working well together.

NEWS: Is that your observation as well?

FRED: Ah well, there are the silos, institutions that are standing alone and don’t work with each-other – child care, child protection, health, housing, education, disability care, community members and the media. We’re talking abut partnership and collaboration, yet we don’t work that way. There is a silo next to another silo next to another silo. And the silos are not talking to each-other. You need the whole village to raise this child, as they say.

We have a government sector and non-government sector which is funded by the government. There is the easy way out, saying, “we can’t work with that client because they can tell us to get stuffed. We’re a voluntary agency.

[Fred says it’s always expected of the government sector to do the heavy lifting. Like the police, government child protection workers are dealing with emergencies.]

The view out there is that child protection goes out there and snatches everybody’s children. It’s not true.

NEWS: Are there circumstances under which they should be snatching children?

FRED: Very rarely, yes, there are occasions where you have to go in and remove a child, in as polite a way as possible. There is a lot of trauma attached when a child needs to be taken away from the family, no matter how abusive the situation might be. That separation is a really important time, it’s got to be handled very well.

NEWS: How?

FRED: It comes down to the same old question. It’s a resource issue. How much time have you got to plan? The child is often in hospital, there are injuries, you don’t know what’s wrong with the child. Domestic violence is a big one in the Territory. Drinking, neglect, physical issues, medical issues. Children lose lots of weight, or they come with burn marks on their arms. Foetal Alcohol Syndrome is possibly one of the biggest forms of neglect.

[Some kids are thought to] have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. In my opinion, most children don’t have ADHD. What they have is a lot of chaos in their heads. They’ve grown up in chaos. Their behaviour is chaotic. A whole lot of terms are bandied about. I use the word – also with white children – Dad Deficit Disorder. They don’t have a male role model in their lives. And mum might have had three or four or five different partners. Often it’s not a pretty thing that happens at home. We put them in a friendly little foster home, where there’s walls and food and structure, and they freak out – not straight away, often after a honeymoon period.

NEWS: Is withdrawing welfare payments if kids aren’t taken to school a good idea?

FRED: No. Why isn’t it done to every family in Australia? School refusal is a huge problem in other states, with white children, too.

NEWS: Generally speaking, what is the situation at the moment, here in Alice Springs?

FRED: Probably like any other child protection system in the world. Systems struggle.

NEWS: A child is in trouble. She’s in hospital. To use these harsh words, she needs to be taken away. Where does she go?

FRED: The backbone of the care system are foster parents. They are volunteers. Single parents, young people, young, middle aged and old couples, couples with children, gay couples, there is a big population in Alice Springs of same sex couples.

NEWS: Is it good enough, when it comes to fostering, for the government to rely on a team of volunteers?

FRED: I think it is. There are some absolutely wonderful people out there who understand the needs of a child. They understand they don’t own that child. It’s a problem that foster carers are becoming very attached to the children, and rightfully so. They quickly learn to love those children. They nurture them – often they nurture them back to life. And I think these things are forgotten. There are so many good news stories out there but we only hear about the bad ones.

NEWS: How well does the court system function?

FRED: When you go to court it appears that the parents have more rights than the children. Cases can be adjourned for months and months. You say, where is the father? Oh, he’s in jail. So they bring him from jail to appear in court. We deliver the children to the jail every couple of weeks to see their parents. Sometimes mum’s in jail, too. Regardless of the parents’ plight, if there are uncles, aunties, grandmothers, our kinship teams should be, and are, assessing those families, so we can get those children back there as soon as possible.

NEWS: Even if it is not to the parents.

FRED: That’s right, because in the Aboriginal way that’s fine. If you have the blessing of a parent for this, that’s great. And if you can’t get the blessing of the parents, is it because you can’t find them? Is it because they just want to be difficult? That’s when we may exercise our authority to determine what’s in the best interest of the child.

NEWS: Youth curfew – what are your thoughts?

FRED: I can’t see it working because there would be too many children. It’s only an invitation to stuff up even more. You are going to take the problem from being visible to being invisible. Children may disappear. They are not silly. They’ll find somewhere nice and dark to hide. Instead of a curfew the parents need to be sought out, spoken to and educated.

NEWS: How do you do that?

FRED: I suppose by visiting the parents, trying to interrupt that cycle, telling them, “you are responsible”. Do you charge the parents? I don’t know. The time lag in the courts could be a problem but at some point there needs to be a consequence.

NEWS: Should there be a place where children can be confined against their will?

FRED: If a child has a placement it isn’t voluntary, it’s obligatory.

NEWS: But they can walk out of there any time they like.

FRED:  Exactly. The law says you can’t contain them. I think that may need to be reviewed. Then you’re going to have a staffing issue, when the kids may become aggressive or hostile because they are bored or angry. The impact of institutionalisation is greater than most people think.

NEWS: You’re saying it’s all too hard, aren’t you?

FRED: I don’t believe it’s up to the child protection workers to work that out. That’s a total community issue. In any case punitive stuff is an absolute joke. I believe the media must take a role in this debate.

NEWS: Some people are saying we’re getting to a situation where we have to say to these kids, OK, you have misbehaved, you have caused damage, we’re now going to lock you up so you can’t do further damage.

FRED: Obviously there is a community safety issue. But if they are just loitering in the streets – I don’t know what is the law here? Is there a law? Police would probably have to put on more numbers. Police prefer not to have to deal with children.

NEWS: How many of those problem children are there in Alice Springs?

FRED: There are possibly only a handful in this town. Perhaps a dozen kids? I really don’t know. There are not a lot out there, raising fear and havoc.

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  1. Tony Meman
    Posted March 4, 2013 at 9:28 am

    Foster carers are the ones that get ripped off again. Carers are volunteers who get paid not much to deal with the behaviours that their upbringing has caused. This isn’t the fault of the child, but its the result of the fact that there’s no accountability.

    Foster carers do get connected with kids – if you spent every day with a child you would too. This is what OCF or whatever this week’s acronym is, forget. Oh they are just volunteer foster carers, what do they know. They don’t have a qualification. They haven’t been to uni, they don’t know anything. They are just the servants of the caseworkers who don’t even know the children.

    Kids need stable placements, not moving here there and everywhere. If they get a stable placement, with the right interventions – counselling, sandplay, and unconditional love, then that’s when they learn their own strength and what life is really like.

    People are too scared of having another “stolen generation”. What will happen is that we have a “lost generation”.

    White Australia isn’t going anywhere and for people to survive in the dominant culture they must know about the dominant culture. Aboriginal way is lovely, but, like communism, it only works if everyone follows it to the book. As parts of the Aboriginal culture just do it their way, drinking, fighting, going to gaol, then it puts the whole culture at risk.

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