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Opinion piece in The West Australian - We have to do things differently to help vulnerable children

by Commissioner Colin Pettit

There are 2,000 more Western Australian children living in out-of-home care today than there were 10 years ago. Seven percent of our 593,000 children and young people are living in poverty and 20 per cent of our children start school with developmental delays.

Every Western Australian needs to ask, why? Why, despite the actions, funding and good intentions from government and non-government sectors, are our vulnerable children and young people continuing to fall through the cracks?

As a society, our goal must be for all children and young people to have the opportunity to achieve their potential.

Therefore we need to reassess which of the many policies and services we have in place across our state are reaching the children in most need, at the right time and making meaningful changes in their life. If we know the factors that lead to vulnerability, we should have the right supports in place to intervene early enough and regularly enough to change the trajectory of vulnerable children’s lives.

While most WA children and young people are faring well, my office continues to hear first-hand accounts of disadvantage and despair from young people themselves – of not being safe at home, of being exposed to drugs and violence and of not receiving the support that they need to help them at school or to stay out of the justice system.

These stories are not isolated to particular areas of the state nor a single cohort of young people – vulnerability is widespread and it takes many forms.

I have tabled a report in State Parliament calling for a new approach to reducing vulnerability in our children and young people. My key recommendation is to establish a statewide Child Wellbeing Strategy that requires government to set meaningful targets and measure and report on how they are improving the wellbeing of children and young people. This goes beyond election cycles and calls on government to invest in the long-term to better support vulnerable children and their families.

I have also recommended that the government considers developing a child impact assessment tool to ensure the rights and wellbeing needs of our children and young people are upheld in legislative and policy decision making. A similar approach has been adopted in New Zealand to prioritise the needs of their vulnerable children.

These recommendations follow a year-long focus on vulnerability and are not mine alone. The Vulnerability Speaker Series brought together government, service providers, practitioners and researchers over the last year to share information and devise improved strategies for the WA community.

What I found encouraging throughout this Series was the strong interest from government and non-government leaders to hearing the views of children and young people and a commitment to working towards reducing vulnerability. These leaders contributed to discussion, sharing where they find challenges and identifying where services can work more cohesively and effectively.

Aboriginal leaders shared their perspectives and called on the government to support community-led solutions to reduce the over representation of Aboriginal children in all indicators of disadvantage.

Underpinning all of this work is the collective voice of the children and young people gathered by my office, which show that there are common underlying factors that contribute to vulnerability. These include poverty, family violence, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, neglect, bullying, disability, discrimination and disadvantage.

The factors that lead to vulnerability are complex, there is no quick fix and no short-term response will achieve change on its own.

The recent State Coroner’s Inquest into the 13 Deaths of Children and Young Persons in the Kimberley Region and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse both add compelling reasons for a renewed approach to our most vulnerable children and young people.

We cannot expect to reduce the number of children experiencing vulnerability if we do not rethink how we provide support. My role is to advocate, and I will be monitoring and reporting annually how WA is tracking in reducing the number of children and young people experiencing vulnerability.

Our children and young people urgently need an improved approach.

* Published in The West Australian on page 45, 9 May 2019