Child protection needs radical rethink

Those of us on the centre right of politics are rarely known for our radicalism. Often, we are unfairly derided as anti-change. It was Woodrow Wilson who once said, “A conservative is someone who makes no changes and consults his grandmother when in doubt.”

Nonetheless, in the lead-up to the state budget, later this month, I’m calling for nothing short of a radical change to the way we view, and fund, services for Victoria’s most vulnerable children.

There is overwhelming evidence that early-intervention programs lead to far better outcomes for children.Credit:istock

After many years of inaction and failed policies, Victoria must finally move to a model based on prevention and early intervention.

There is overwhelming evidence that early-intervention programs lead to far better outcomes for children at-risk than reactionary, crisis-driven approaches; like Victoria’s current model.

Due to this approach, Victoria’s child protection system is in a state of crisis. Last year no fewer than 65 children died who were known to authorities; a desperately sad and unwanted record in the history of our state, and an increase of 150 per cent since 2018.

Independent research shows that unless major policy changes are made now, by 2026 the number of kids in care will almost double, to no fewer than 26,000. Consequently, I’ve called for a full, independent inquiry into Victoria’s child protection system – the first for a decade. But we can’t simply wait for the findings of an inquiry.

A radical policy change is urgently needed to keep kids out of care in the first place.Credit:SHUTTERSTOCK

A radical policy change is urgently needed to keep kids out of care in the first place; where they are dying in record numbers. This means that the state budget, later this month, represents an opportunity that must be taken.

This is not my view alone. It is also the view of the many community sector organisations that work to support vulnerable kids. The peak body, representing all community organisations, said earlier this year: “This is a critical moment in time, and we cannot afford not to act.”

What exactly should this action look like? Luckily, there is a blueprint for change.

The need for far greater investment in early intervention and prevention was a key finding of the Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children inquiry, that the last Liberal Nationals government put in place in 2011.

Former community services minister Mary Wooldridge.Credit:Jason South

In response to the release of the inquiry’s report, then community services minister Mary Wooldridge committed to “sustained change”, and a reimagined system to support vulnerable children. Her vision was a system that gives equal weight to “prevention, early intervention and providing support for at-risk children as it does to improving outcomes for those in the statutory system”.

Just one year after articulating this bold vision the Coalition government was defeated. Her vision is even more relevant today than it was in 2013.

In addition to the report’s numerous specific recommendations about prevention and early intervention – many of which have still not been implemented – research undertaken by Social Ventures Australia highlights five specific, evidence-based programs. They merit government support.
The radical reorientation of our services for vulnerable children that we desperately need must hand more power and responsibility to the community sector.

A great thing about Victoria is that we have an incredibly strong community sector, doing work that is undertaken by governments in other jurisdictions. It is organisations in this sector who would deliver a greatly expanded suite of early intervention services – and they are more than up to the job.

I have a particular, personal debt of gratitude to our wonderful community sector. You see, I didn’t start life in the embrace of a biological family. Rather, I started life in foster care, here in Victoria.

When I was a baby my foster carer was with the Brotherhood of St James and St John, which later joined other groups to form Anglicare – which supports a huge number of vulnerable children today. In fact, for the first year of my life the chief adoption officer at the Brotherhood was my legal guardian.

Agencies like Anglicare – and so many others – are ready and willing, if funded to do so by the state government, to provide the prevention and early intervention services that vulnerable Victorian families so desperately need.

I find it interesting that the state government’s answer to every criticism over the last year has been that it is simply following the very best evidence and advice.

Well, for a decade the very best evidence has made it plain that Victoria’s crisis-driven child protection system must be radically reoriented, to prevention and early intervention.

The child protection system is currently in crisis; utterly overwhelmed. And without major policy change the number of kids in care will almost double in the next five years. So, as another president of the United States said, 90 years after Wilson: “Change will not come if we wait for some other time.”

Dr Matthew Bach MP is shadow minister for child protection.

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