Last weekend we saw the close of National Child Protection Week. So much media attention around keeping children safe. Despite my bringing a gaping hole in the system to the attention of print media in Australia, the story was not run and I am left wondering why?
Political blind eye the size of 40,000 Australian children
It's time we recognised the estimated 40,000 children protected by family and friends who have intervened where child protection has failed.
Community awareness of kinship care as a social group is increasing. Often where child protection has stepped in they look for family and friends with as close family connection as possible for placement options for the children. Often placed with grandparents, these children then have the opportunity to maintain normal connection with their extended family. As at 30 June 2017, over 47% of children subject to child protection had been placed into kinship care nation-wide and has been trending upwards. These carers are known as 'formal' kinship carers as their role has been legally recognised.
Informal kinship carers operate completely outside of child protection. Informal kinship carers come in two categories: those who stepped up when a child has been abandoned by a biological parent, or those who have stepped in and intervened where child protection have failed to do so. Either way, informal carers have no legal recognition and as such have no legal standing to protect the children without the expense of personally taking the matter before the Family Court.
Child protection services refuse to recognise informal carers and access to any support for them is limited. They face children who are traumatised and come with behavioural challenges, who may have drug addictions or syndromes related to drug and alcohol exposure in pregnancy. Many come into the hands of their informal caregivers underweight, malnourished and without understanding of normal, healthy interactions.
Within the confidence of a carer support group, one member said, “I think all the government care about is sweeping Australia’s OOHC [out of home care] issues under the carpet. Carers mean nothing to them.” Where another echoed, “It makes their policies look better. If they don’t count us they don’t have to acknowledge we are there - they look like they are doing a good job.”
Every carer's story is different. The child could be a sibling, a niece or nephew, a grandchild or even a friend of their own children through school. The threads of their stories are marked with similarly coloured threads.
The white of drug addiction, with methamphetamine driving the bus. Unmanaged mental health and reduced parenting capacity throwing in that unpredictable ever-changing multi-colour strand, with the bruising purple blue of violence: domestic and other.
From there the stories become more individual. The ones that offer the shimmering pink of parental prostitution, usually for drug money, not a career, make you question the existence of parental instincts. Acts undertaken in the grey of their shabby rubbish ridden homes, without care or concern for the presence or absence of the children. Triple threaded in the black of kids left unsupervised with other addicts, buyers of their services and the dealers. All together the colours together create a gaudy colour conflict that makes you want to scour your eyeballs.
For decades now we have heard stories like these about children and the various failings of child protection agencies across states and territories. We hear their commitments to do better. Why then do we have situations where family and family friends stepping in because the system fails to act?
Members of the social community of Australian Grandparents and Kinship Carers confidently suggest that there are likely twice as many informal carers as formal carers but, honestly, no one really knows. Informal carers are not tracked in any formal counts by any department. Twice as many carers at the same average number of children in their care means that there is an estimated 40,000 children living in unrecognised informal kinship care with some 18,000 estimated carers in Australia. Sue Erben from Australian Grandparent/Kinship Carers comments that, “If they had figures on informal care it would cause a political and social meltdown.”
Other representative groups that have contact with informal carers, like Grandparents for Grandkids and other grandparent advocacy groups, have been lobbying for this statistic to be tracked within census data. To date, this request had remained unanswered either way.
It has been suggested that there may be a way to identify these carers through Centrelink data that would identify them as a non-biological carer. However, there is also a segment of those informal carers who do not even claim family assistance for the children they have taken on for fear that removing payments from the parent's pocket would drive them to drag the children back to the toxic environment they came from.
In a public Facebook post, the less well known Australian Kinship Carer’s page have stated, “Child Protection seem to manage their funds based on segregation (keeping us divided) of carers whether foster or kinship.” Members of the page have asked for carers of all kinds to share their story with them as an effort to unify a message of need to the Government.