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Opinion piece in The West Australian - Early help is best way to protect our children

As a society we began to formalise the protection of children from many forms of exploitation and abuse about 100 years ago - exploitation like child labour, sexual violence and abuse such as corporal punishment and physical beatings.

By Mick Gooda

Over the years the meanings of child protection has expanded considerably to include neglect, which has an ever widening definition, and exposure to violence such as domestic violence.

The end result is that there is a growing number of children in need of protection.

Child protection systems right across Australia simply cannot cope, they always seem to be on the brink of collapse, cost too much and the evidence shows that children in the child protection system ‘cross over’ to the criminal justice system at a far greater rate than other children.

In other words, the child protection system itself does damage to children.

Neglect is generally seen as a symptom of poverty so it’s no surprise that children from disadvantaged communities are overrepresented in these systems, and I can always make the same case about domestic violence.

During the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory we came to the conclusion that early intervention and supporting ‘at risk’ and ‘distressed’ families can produce far better results than simply removing children.

Not for one moment am I advocating that no children be removed.

Of course, there are times when the risk is so great there is no other option, but let’s keep removal from families and carers as an option of last resort for the most urgent of cases.

If we look at the approach to public health in Australia, it has been proved time and again that effort at the primary end of the system, that is prevention, produces far better results than relying on the secondary and tertiary parts of the system.

We know that our health cannot be fixed only by doctors in hospitals, rather good health comes also from basics such as having access to drinkable water, good rubbish collection and sewerage systems.

If we similarly use the same framework of primary, secondary and tertiary responses in the child protection system, we will come to understand it is not child protection systems that produce good outcomes for our children but factors such as a safe environment, a good and accessible education system (particularly early childhood education), a loving family and a caring community where we are able to identify risks early and intervene appropriately.

We will also learn that the best investments are at the primary end.

Early intervention and prevention can help stop children progressing to the tertiary end of removal from families and this would be far less costly and offers more positive outcomes.

And it just so happens that the tertiary end of both the health and child protection systems is where costs are the highest.

These costs can be counted in terms of money and harm.

One of the most important lessons from the Royal Commission is that children are children, they are not little adults.

Children are entitled to expect the adults will protect them from all sorts of harm so that they may reach their potential.

Our most important job as parents, carers and adults is to protect the innocence of our children because once a child loses their innocence it is lost forever and nothing in the world can bring it back.

Without a concerted and determined approach to address issues in families before they become irretrievable, I am afraid we will continue to see more loss of innocence in our children.

Mick Gooda is the former national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Royal Commission into the Child Protection and Youth Detention Systems of the NT Commissioner. He will be speaking at the WA Commissioner for Children and Young People’s Vulnerability Speaker Series today, supported by Rio Tinto.

* Published in The West Australian on page 58, 24 August 2018