Inside Story

Grand plans

Two major reports on violence against women and children show a growing level of commitment by the federal government. Now it’s time to take the next steps, writes Susan Harris Rimmer

Susan Harris Rimmer 14 May 2009 2153 words

Minister for Housing and the Status of Women, Tanya Plibersek. Alan Porritt/AAP Image

TWO NEW REPORTS show that although the Rudd government is tackling some of the most difficult areas of social policy, we may need to borrow fresh thinking from our New Zealand neighbours. On 29 April the prime minister launched Time for Action, the report of the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. The federal government will take this report to COAG, the Council of Australian Governments, and turn it into a government plan by 2010. Then, on 1 May, the PM launched the COAG report Protecting Children is Everyone’s Business. These reports join the The Road Home: A National Approach to Reducing Homelessness as part of a social policy reform agenda, with a disability strategy on the way.

We know there is a strong link between these three issues – domestic violence, child abuse and homelessness – and the reports acknowledge it. Reading them side by side, what is striking is the fact that it’s in the overlapping area between these issues that the government response seems likely to be weakest. Both of the new reports acknowledge that Indigenous women and children are being failed in devastating ways by the current system. Yet there seems to be a lack of strength in the response, reflecting a government struggling with the intersection of race and gender. Although the reports were launched by Kevin Rudd, this weakness partly reflects the fact that of the two responsible ministers, Jenny Macklin and Tanya Plibersek, only one – Macklin – is in cabinet and able to influence the policy process more directly. The Minister for Housing and Women is not a cabinet post, and frankly, it should be.

These are landmark reports, yet they have not attracted the coverage they deserve. Perhaps this is because they make for such uncomfortable reading. Or perhaps it is the fact that Australians can still not focus on the lives of women and children or vulnerable families in the same way that we pay attention to swine flu, boat arrivals or terrorist threats.

They provide the figures that should be making headlines. Time for Action states that one in three Australian women will report being a victim of physical violence and almost one in five will report being a victim of sexual violence during their lifetime, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures. Approximately 350,000 women experience physical violence and 125,000 women experience sexual violence each year. And violence against women comes at an enormous economic cost, $13.6 billion a year, although it is mostly preventable.

According to Protecting Children, 55,120 cases of child abuse and neglect were substantiated by child protection services in 2007–08. The rate has more than doubled over the past ten years. Indigenous children are six times more likely to be the subject of abuse or neglect than other children (although 'neglect' in this context is contested). It is also clear that removing children is not always in the best long-term interests of the child, with children in out-of-home care experiencing significantly poorer long-term outcomes. Despite this, the numbers of children removed from their parents more than doubled over the past decade. On 30 June 2008 there were 31,166 young people in out-of-home care.

In New South Wales alone, one in five children will be reported to statutory child protection services by the time they are eighteen. No public administration system, no matter how well funded, can cope with such numbers. Morgan Disney’s 2006 report on the transition from care revealed the huge cost to government and the community – an estimated $2 billion a year – of young adults coming out of foster care with poorer prospects for housing, mental health, employment, education, criminal justice and more.

Twenty years after the Brian Burdekin’s report for the Human Rights Commission report, Our Homeless Children, our policy responses on homelessness, violence and state care should have made more progress. The facts in 2008 remain unchanged: a substantial number of children and young people become homeless while still under state guardianship. In other words, coming into care, or attempting to have a child committed to care, creates a clear path to homelessness. In a 2007 radio interview, Burdekin reiterated that state care is the single predictive factor of homelessness. This is unsustainable both in economic and in human terms.

THE PROBLEMS both national plans tackle are therefore “wicked” in scale and complexity. The good news is that there are lots of good ideas and resourcing in the plans. Protecting Children comes with an extra $61.6 million over four years in Commonwealth funding. Commonwealth agencies such as Centrelink and Medicare are brought into information sharing arrangements with the states and territories. The report’s framework promises that children in foster homes will receive a better basic standard of care, and that child-protection workers will get more training to combat child abuse and neglect. The much-longed-for National Children’s Commissioner seems close to reality at last.

Time for Action sets clear targets and reads like a sensible, energetic way to make real progress against domestic violence, based on a commitment to the human rights and equality of women. There is $12.5 million for a new twenty-four hour domestic violence and sexual assault telephone and online crisis service, $26 million for “respectful relationships” programs for schools, and $17 million for social marketing focused on changing attitudes and behaviours that contribute to violence. The plan sets out a national scheme for registering domestic and family violence orders allowing enforcement across state and territory borders. The Australia Law Reform Commission is given a reference to look at reform in the area, which is sorely needed. Time for Action also takes special note of the role of alcohol. In 2007 the Australian National Council on Drugs reported that 13 per cent of children – over 230,000 individuals – live in households where they are at risk of exposure to at least one adult binge drinker.

What neither plan does well enough is address the current flaws in the system of child removal and the nexus with domestic violence. All the incentives encourage child protection workers to avoid those terrible cases of death and neglect that make the headlines. But the system provides very little natural justice for anyone wishing to challenge a removal, and removals are increasingly in force until the child turns eighteen. It is very much an all-or-nothing system, with all the legal weight on the side of the Department; the removal of a child often happens very quickly with very little notice or discussion with the parent. The best interests of the child are meant to be the paramount consideration, but this is very often interpreted in a very thin and short term manner.

Authorities can and do get it wrong – especially those authorities that are in the business of “protection.” When the consequence of a wrong decision is removal of a baby until age eighteen, then a measure of natural justice is clearly necessary. Recently, in a 2008 judgment in the NSW Supreme Court, Justice Palmer referred to the NSW Department of Community Services’ “intransigent refusal to acknowledge a mistake, regardless of the consequences to the children” in a case where children were removed on the basis of the parent’s recreational cannabis use. The Palmer and Comrie reports into the Department of Immigration show that public administration in such difficult areas functions best with more rather than less accountability and transparency, which then builds public confidence in the law.

The other challenge for both plans is to strengthen the actions to protect Indigenous women and children on the basis of their rights and full citizenship. “Healing centres” in remote areas, providing Indigenous perpetrators with culturally appropriate counselling, are a good idea, but not at the expense of justice available to other Australian women. The focus must be on access to justice and providing a broader range of choices to women, wherever they live in Australia, whatever their race. In fact, it may be the current moves to reform the legal profession and improve access to justice which may have the most impact, including calls to provide incentives for lawyers to practice in rural and regional areas, and better funding and conditions for ATSI legal centres.

Both reports also fail to squarely address a very real failing of the current system. After a woman reports domestic violence to police, or asks social services for help, her children can be removed. Once that happens, the woman often loses the right to public housing. Women tell of their reluctance to report violence due to the automatic trigger to child protection services. As Time for Action acknowledges, in some cases child protection authorities tell women that unless they leave a violent relationship and apply for an apprehended violence order their children will be removed.

This no-win cycle continues when parents are ineligible to stay in government accommodation because they no longer have the children. Some parents report being required to give up housing in order to attend a residential drug program. It is nearly impossible to get back into housing without your children – Housing says “you don’t have your kids, you’re not eligible” and Child Protection says “you can’t get your kids till you have suitable housing.” In one NSW case a woman with three children, aged eleven, eight and four, living in a two bedroom government unit had her eleven year old daughter removed. After eighteen months the child was returned on the basis that she would have a room of her own, but Housing was unable to provide suitable accommodation. The mother was told that if she put the four year old and the eight year old in her own bedroom, leaving the second bedroom for the eleven year old, she could have her daughter back. The mother complied with this request.

Women therefore often face difficult choices. “The government” – in the form of police, schools, women’s support services and other agencies – must make automatic notifications, and this creates a monolithic source of risk and threat rather than refuge. The instruments in our toolkit are too blunt, and we need to consider more creative ideas and acknowledge true community responsibility for the safety of women and children.

THE ANSWER to this dilemma may lie within the reports, but it can be made clearer. The Road Home aimed to help women and children who experience domestic violence to stay safely in the family home to prevent homelessness. Protecting Children states that Australian governments “will expand models of integrated support to enable women and children experiencing domestic and family violence to remain at home safely.” Part of this expansion must include new policies so that women reporting violence do not risk losing their children. This is the point of the triangle which is not yet joined up.

Tasmania and New Zealand could offer us some innovative and cost saving ways forward. The Tasmanian Department of Justice runs a progam called Safe at Home, based around the Family Violence Act 2004. Section 3 states that “in the administration of this Act, the safety, psychological wellbeing and interests of people affected by family violence are the paramount considerations.” This translates to a pro-arrest policy by police on first contact with a domestic violence situation. The review of the policy in 2008 reveals some real promise, but again, the concern was the 30 per cent increase in notifications to child protection authorities.

For almost two decades New Zealand has made working with families and extended family members a core principle in their legislation, policy and procedures for dealing with child safety. Family Group Conferences, based partly on Maori practices, provide families with a greater say in resolving both child protection and juvenile justice matters. When a notification is made to child protection services and the social worker has formed a belief that the child is in need of care and protection, a mandatory family group conference begins a process in which families are offered support to explore the option of caring for the child within the biological or extended family. It’s estimated that more than 50,000 conferences had been convened since 1989, reflecting the central role they play in New Zealand’s child protection system.

The national action plans are full of good ideas, and both promote research to investigate even more good ideas. What we need now is some coordinated political clout. Getting the Minister for Women and Housing into cabinet to complete the points of the triangle might be the single most important step to achieving these plans. We need to always foreground the complex linkages between the areas of family violence, child protection, alcohol abuse, and homelessness. This does not fit into a headline, but it is the big news of 2009. •