Horror year of state care abuse justifies intervention

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Allowing the Catholic Church to investigate itself was once described by an abuse victim as akin to 'putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank'.

Broken Homes logo from ABC Four CornersThe Church now largely accepts the value of outside scrutiny, and has even endorsed a national redress scheme that would subject it to independent examination of its complaint handling and treatment of victims.

But there is another institution — plagued by rampant child abuse in 2016 — where the vampires in charge are still trusted to mop up the haemorrhage.

Like the Catholic Church, state foster care providers often do a bad job monitoring themselves, and will only take child safety seriously if subject to external oversight. The federal government must urgently step in to support thousands of children who feel they have nowhere to turn when harmed in state care.

Children enter state care if removed from their birth parents due to abuse or neglect. They are either placed with foster carers or in an institution, with their placement managed by a state department or private agency.

Multiple scandals throughout 2016 suggest the word 'care' be deleted from the description 'state care'. Deaths of foster girls in Queensland and NSW were exposed shortly before an ABC Four Corners profile of foster group homes, which highlighted incidents of children assaulted in care, and lured for sex by predatory outside adults.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse revealed that there were 2600 reports of sexual abuse in foster care — government and private — between 2012-13 and 2013-14 alone. State care now seems a bigger threat to child safety than paedophile priests.

While many carers and caseworkers do an incredible job with limited support, there are those who inflict further trauma on already traumatised kids. When they do, the children have no option but to report the abuse to the same organisation that employs the abuser.

 

"The federal government encroaches on many areas of state responsibility, but are curiously aloof on child protection, where decades of mismanagement have inflicted immense trauma on generations of children."

 

Victorian man Russell Mulry spent his childhood being shuffled between 87 foster homes across three states. In one placement, he was badly bashed by his carer's husband. When he told his agency, they moved him to a house just 750m away from his abuser. The agency allowed the carer and her husband to continue fostering kids, and failed to provide Russell with any counselling. 'I also wanted to complain about the emotional abuse of being moved so often,' says Russell, but his calls to various agencies always fell on deaf ears.

I have heard many similar stories from former wards of the state. Foster care agencies have little incentive to act against abusive carers — they lose funding when they lose carers, and it's very difficult to recruit replacements. And like most organisations, their first inclination when things go wrong is to protect themselves. When news broke on the death and alleged rape by group home staff of the foster child dubbed Girl X, the NSW government concealed her identity and denied media information about the case. This was supposedly done to protect her.

If only they had been so diligent about protecting her when she was still alive.

States may have oversight agencies — such as Ombudsman or Children's Guardians — but these are poorly-resourced bodies with limited powers; and they generally don't provide direct support for kids. Their websites advise people to report child abuse to the state agencies responsible for funding the carers, and thus compromised by a conflict of interest.

The federal government encroaches on many areas of state responsibility, like health and education. But they are curiously aloof on the biggest state disaster of them all: child protection, where decades of mismanagement have inflicted immense trauma on generations of our most vulnerable children. More than 40 inquiries since 1997 have resulted in little improvement.

The federal department of social services has both a presence in each state and child protection expertise, having developed national standards for out of home care. This department could fund teams who investigate reports of foster care abuse, and provide much needed direct support and advocacy for the children harmed. Given the multi-billion-dollar cost of child abuse to our economy, the short-term expense of such of an initiative would more than pay for itself over time; and save lives.

If the Catholic Church can accept the inherent conflict of interest in internal investigations, government can do the same. It's time for the federal government to show some leadership and help the thousands of kids who seem to lack someone who cares.

 


Oliver JacquesOliver Jacques is a freelance writer. He previously worked as a policy adviser for government and non-government organisations in child protection, housing and welfare economics. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald, Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph.

Topic tags: Oliver Jacques, clergy sexual abuse, state care, foster care


 

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Existing comments

"State care now seems a bigger threat to child safety than paedophile priests". What ? So catholic priests are not the biggest offenders? Never have been of course but have been the target because they belong to an institution which prescribes moral behaviour in an amoral world. No room for human failing in the modern world where there is no wrong provided we all get what we want. State institutions are, however, minnows like the Church when compared with the 90 or so per cent of children abused i within their own families.
john frawley | 27 January 2017


We have been lobbying for years for Mandatory Nation Registration for all Child protection workers both Government and private so there is an independent governing body that children, families, good carers, workers and the general public can turn to who have the power to investigate and prosecute those abusing and covering up abuse in the child protection systems nationwide. We are the only western nation that does not Register our child protection workers. All other professions in Australia are registered yet child protection workers have more power then any other profession but no independent governing oversight like all other professions to protect the public from the harm they are doing, especially the abuse of children in their care. The Federal Senate Inquiry into OOHC made it a recommendation 18 months ago yet NOTHING has been done. Our letters to COAG have fallen on deaf ears as no state wants independent oversight for them or their NGO's. Lack of external accountability has and always will be the main cause of failure in the child protection System in Australia. Great article. Convener of the Alliance for Family Preservation and Restoration and 'Forgotten Australian' 1 of 500,000 abused in state care last century.
Mary Moore | 28 January 2017


I recommend the movie 'Spotlight' to anyone who wants to know what some Catholic priests are capable of. I think the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse will expose similar clerical abuse of minors and cover-ups by Catholic bishops. The Australian Catholic Bishops need to deliver a heartfelt apology to minors affected by clerical abuse in this country. I'd also like to see such a written apology displayed prominently in every Catholic Church in Australia, and a memorial to those who have been abused by anyone in our Church displayed in every Australian Catholic Cathedral. Retired Bishop Pat Power said that the Catholic Church has not faced such a crisis since the 16th Century Reformation and I think this is correct. I admire the South Koreans who have initiated and installed 'Comfort Women' memorials in their country and the 'Vietnam Pieta' memorial in Vietnam. The former will be a source of comfort and healing for the families of the South Korean women used as sex slaves by the Japanese military, and the latter a similar source of comfort and healing for families of civilians killed in the Vietnam War. Let's not underplay this crisis in our Church.
Grant Allen | 28 January 2017


i know its a big job but all past cases should be reassed and children returned to their parents. if in doubt monotor them. this should be done before any child is removed. i have never met a parent who does not love their children even if they are not so good at parenting i dont know anyvthat would not give everything to keep or regain their children. give these people a chance without any lies and accusations but with a fair and honest approach. which is not the practice they use at all. many parents are innocent of the actions they are accused of. oh well i guess they need their govt. quoters and money making machines. somehow . even at the innocents expence . most cases reported are fixable. but much easier to traumatise children and thier families. and these are facts. just do some enquiries in the right places. shame on you australia.
toni stefaniak | 29 January 2017


Given this overall situation it would be great if the Catholic Church and others could climb down off their collective high horse about the 'dangers' of same sex couples fostering children. And if the good Christian 'desperate to adopt' couples could seriously consider fostering rather than waiting (inevitably in vain) to adopt the 'perfect' baby. There are SO many blind spots in this debate.
margaret | 30 January 2017


Excellent - these are essential points to be made if we're serious about the well-being of human children (as all human beings ideally should be). Without attempting to defend the indefensible, the agencies mentioned are indeed in a bind caused by the shortage of foster parents. It's not just selfishness - there are structural problems that make it extremely difficult for a loving parent couple to keep the child. Money is one. Lack of support for a child who is already deeply wounded is another. Margaret is right when she says more couples must be recruited, but whether gay or straight the foster parents must be given better support and the intervention in the child's life be made earlier. (And what would be wrong with a fostering system that didn't necessarily or completely separate the child from the parent to whom s/he is already bonded)?
Joan Seymour | 30 January 2017


Putting so called "celibate" religious men in care of boys, or girls of tender years doesn't work. Yes I agree that priests should marry, and despite John Frawleys comments, institutional abuse should not be trivialised by comparing it to an unknown and unknowable statistic. The scale of historical abuse, whether State or Catholic is revolting in the extreme and these criminals should be arraigned one by one, despite their age and proclivity. But it's a good article Oliver and the issues require ventilation. The issue has been one of power and corruption. That the children involved are vulnerable goes without saying. Whether they are State wards or the captive inmates of a catholic boarding school. I read of one boy who was abused by a priest, ran away from school and told his father. His father laughed in disbelief dismissing the account as iamagination.The boy in an act of rage burned their family house down. If you want hundreds of accounts of this recurring and endemic sick behavior in the "chuch" go onto Broken Rites and read the documented cases that are well researched and poignantly written. And John Frawley, yes, Catholic religious are the most prolific, serial unrepentant offenders.
francis Armstrong | 30 January 2017


i was in both foster care & in a Salvation Army institution and I'm pleased that Oliver has raised these issues. Let's not forget that all the churches and charities wanted to monitor themselves and from the evidence given at the Royal Commission none of them have the capacity to do so in an ethical, legal and moral manner. There has been too much cover up and illegal actions by them as they have tried to squirm and wriggle their way out of telling the truth. The same is true of the various state & federal governments. The brutality that so many children endured and continue to endure is a national travesty. Trying to get some form of leadership from these governments leads, it seems to more and more excuses and roadblocks. Organisations such as Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN) have been advocating for some meaningful and valid inquiry which would translate into action to ensure these horrific happening no longer occur. We as a nation should be ashamed that this evil is still happening today.
Jim Luthy | 31 January 2017


Oliver, John Frawley is right to be aghast at your claim that "State care now seems a bigger threat to child safety than paedophile priest." It's a pity you felt the need to frame this otherwise excellent article as a contest for the worst offending institution - the Catholic church or the state foster 'care' system. All forms of child abuse - no matter where they occur - are abhorrent and those who stood by and did nothing, or moved offenders on should be known for what they are - accessories and abettors. Having said that, your critique of the state foster 'care' is timely. It is regrettable, too, that the Royal Commission has not given adequate treatment to the role of the states in child protection - and that's the case whether children were placed in foster 'care' or in residential facilities. It may not be too late for the Commission to address this shortcoming.
Frank Golding | 31 January 2017


Francis. Within religious institutions, the Catholic Church is numerically the biggest and administers the biggest non-government school and child care facilities in this country and the world. Sheer numbers would indicate that it is likely to be the biggest numerical religious institutional abuser of children. On a head of population basis it does not approach some other religious based sects. However, child abuse in the general community (a 75% non-catholic institution) is well documented to exist overwhelmingly in the home, including homes in which the family is allegedly "religious".
john frawley | 01 February 2017


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