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Opinion piece on vulnerability published in The West Australian

“It’s like a big circle trap. That’s how it’s been in my life personally. I think it’s like that for hundreds of kids out there. It’s just a big trap game. It’s never going to change unless they do something about it.”

By Commissioner Colin Pettit

By many economic and lifestyle measures, the general view of WA is that we are a fortunate and prosperous community, where the majority of our 589,000 children and young people are safe and nurtured. But for our most vulnerable children, like the 17 year-old quoted above, life can be a cycle of significant disadvantage and adversity that often begins before they are born.

Over the last 10 years my office has consulted thousands of WA children and young people on issues affecting their wellbeing. With sometimes glaring honesty, vulnerable children have shared their experiences of violence, abuse and neglect, challenges with mental health, disengagement from education, involvement in criminal activity and the impact of alcohol and drug use.

Seven per cent of our state’s children and young people are living in poverty and one third of our children are developmentally vulnerable when they start full-time school. We currently have close to 5,000 children and young people in out-of-home care and on an average day, 727 children and young people are under youth justice supervision.

Despite the significant work and good intentions of governments and communities, these figures are a stark indicator that more needs to be done. There are far too many vulnerable children in WA from a range of backgrounds and cultures who remain caught in the trap of disadvantage.

These children and young people urgently need support, resources and opportunities to overcome the challenges they face. They cannot do this alone. We need to strengthen our approach by identifying where and why our most vulnerable children are still falling through the gaps.

This is an issue that every West Australian should care about. Government and community services come at a cost to taxpayers and we should all ask if we are reaching the children who need support the most? Are we identifying children at risk early enough? Do we adequately resource the services and supports that vulnerable children need? 

Support services and interventions that do not address a child’s home, school and community environments are unlikely to be effective. Neither are services for Aboriginal children that are not delivered in culturally respectful ways.

The evidence is overwhelming that prevention and early intervention are vital if we are to break poverty and disadvantage.

This was evident in the recent study done by the Telethon Kids Institute. It showed 89 per cent of the WA young people in detention had a severe neuro-disability, most of which had not been diagnosed despite multiple contacts with government and other agencies.

Over the coming months I have invited a range of international, national and WA leaders to challenge our thinking on how we address the significant issues faced by vulnerable children in WA. My aim is to get them to challenge existing practices and explore new approaches that my better help us break the cycles of disadvantage.

The starting point for this work has been the views of vulnerable children and young people.

Through the consultations done by my office, many of our most vulnerable children and young people have clearly described their hopes and ambitions for a positive future and the support they need to achieve this.

The question is whether or not we are prepared to listen and respond?

Colin Pettit is Western Australia’s Commissioner for Children and Young People. The Vulnerability Speaker Series, supported by Rio Tinto, starts today.

*Published in The West Australian on page 49, 20 March 2018.