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Child protection: Fixing an unfixable system



Once again, there are calls for a Royal Commission into a child protection system that is ‘broken’ says Anne Hollonds, National Children’s Commissioner. An ABC investigation highlights overwhelming case numbers, high staff turnover and dysfunctional ‘out of home’ care. And Liana Buchanan, Victorian Commissioner for Children and Young People, says our state system ‘isn't fit for purpose’.

If it’s not child protection, it’s the youth justice and the youth homelessness systems that are in tatters. Isn’t it time that we acknowledged that the State can never be a ‘good parent’ as envisaged by the Children Youth and Families Act 2005 and focus on what really needs to change?  

We had a Royal Commission into ‘Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse’, yet abuse goes on. And a Parliamentary Inquiry into Youth Justice Centres, and still new and bigger centres are being built. And we had the ‘Bringing them Home Report’, but children from indigenous families are still removed at increasing rates. No doubt the system can mitigate harm to children, and in lots of cases carers give hope and support to many kids. But haven’t history and numerous commissions shown that giving children the care they deserve is beyond what the State can do? And terrible to think that it’s been this way since the first children’s homes were established in Victoria in the 1850s.

So, is there nothing Government can do to turn around the ever-increasing numbers of children requiring intervention by the child protection, youth homelessness and justice systems?

Government can start with policies that support families, in all their diversity, and begin to prioritize the needs of children above all else. And given all the evidence tells us that fathers matter to children, isn’t it essential to get fatherhood right? And isn’t this particularly so, as the research shows that engaged and positive fathering makes all the difference in protecting children against the impact of family violence, early school leaving, substance abuse, youth homelessness, and getting into trouble with the law?

So, what kind of father-focussed policies could transform the prospects of children and reverse the escalating numbers of children needing state intervention?


'We need a national approach that puts the interests of children first and a key part of this must be ‘whole of government’ policies that reinforce fathers’ responsibility for their families and supports them in caring for their children.'


We could begin by building upon the positive experience of many dads who worked from home during the Covid pandemic. It is encouraging to see employers rolling out ‘working from home’ policies that provide opportunities for fathers to bond with their children, particularly in those precious first months of a child’s life. More generous and equitable payments that encourage fathers to take-up parental leave, and greater access to parental leave by workers in small business and the casualized workforce, must be important next steps.

Research reveals how expectant fathers are key influences on infant health and well-being. Yet our Maternal and Child Health services lag way behind when it comes to including family and fathers in antenatal care and translating the evidence-based research into policy and practice. Particularly so where an exclusive women’s focus renders fathers invisible.

There are fathers who feel they can’t cope and don’t think they can be good role models for their children. Researchers have been reporting for over a decade the impact of fathers’ mental health on children and the way in which key government reports assume mothers are the only influence. The recent National Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy largely neglects fathers’ importance to children’s mental health, which highlights just how far we need to go.

Research shows that fathers have a huge impact on the educational success of their kids which has prompted a major new research study, PIECE (Paternal Involvement and its Effects on Children’s Education) funded by the UK government on the longitudinal outcomes of father engagement with boys’ and girls’ learning. Fathers’ engagement with their children’s schooling flourished during lockdowns in Australia  – involvement that could be greatly expanded with the right education policies.

And can a child and youth services system that is crisis driven, remedial, and forever under resourced, ever escape the burden of being ‘a broken system’ in need of reform? A government policy shift to early intervention, working with and supporting fathers at critical points in their child’s development, could well make the difference. For instance, support to very young fathers at the beginning of their journey is crucial because the children of adolescent mothers and fathers face major health and social risks. And these children are at great risk of transferring generational disadvantage to their own children over time.  

We need a national approach that puts the interests of children first and a key part of this must be ‘whole of government’ policies that reinforce fathers’ responsibility for their families and supports them in caring for their children. While the system may never be fixable, strengthening fatherhood means a better future for generations of Australian children.





Mike Kelly is a Geelong social worker with a special interest in fatherhood and early intervention with vulnerable families.  

Main image: Young person sitting. (Getty Images) 

Topic tags: Mike Kelly, Fatherhood, Royal Commission, Child Protection



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Existing comments

Thanks Mike for another insightful article on this very important topic. Early intervention strategies seem an essential piece in this difficult puzzle that government policy so far has struggled with. Further I like the simple link you have made between improvements in parental leave policies for fathers, to enhance bonding opportunities for fathers with their young children. Thanks Mike for shedding some more light on this dark area of government policy.

Jim Rutherford | 15 July 2022  

Yes, it seems the system is unfixable which is what many have been saying seemingly for ever. The other problem is that politicians lack vision beyond the next election so even Royal Commissions tend to lack on-going punch.
Politicians need to be shown how to change. They tend to support hopeful proposals with short-term pay-offs. So, what I would like to put forward for thinking steps outside the mess of child protection and looks to community development because the breakdown of the extended family has exacerbated alienation and, for many fathers, highlighted their limitations in. nurturing skills. Community development brings services to communities and strengthens neighbourhood bonds.

I notice that Mike Reece has an article in today’s Age (16/7/22) in which he foresees the development of the west and inner north of Melbourne into inner city enclaves like Carlton and Fitzroy. Well, what an opportunity for people who have a sensitive understanding of how communities can work. What Reece does not mention is the destructive impacts of developers on inner city communities. For example, in Brunswick, the bulldozing of fine old properties on standard size blocks, to be replaced by ugly apartment blocks where residents are isolated, surrounded by concrete instead of gardens, on-street parking, then as an after-thought, trees planted in footpaths, causing root damage, restricting the flow of pedestrian traffic and increasing the likelihood of children and old people tripping over and also creating hazards for prams and wheelchairs – so many people tend to only go out when necessary, and reducing the capacity for social interaction and support. All of this tends to get people to retreat into traditional roles – dad the provider and protector and mum the domestic servant and child-raiser. recipe for more domestic violence?

So, we can have father education and training programs but if the context doesn’t change the behaviour will stay the same.

Robert Semmens | 16 July 2022  

Endless studies have shown the importance of fatherhood in raring children. But who takes any notice?
A 2008 report stated youth homelessness resulted largely from no-fault divorce and single parenting but that “few would seriously want to reverse these social changes.” Instead, communal strategies that cost billions are promoted by an ever-expanding “care” industry which seems to welcome an enlarged State.
For decades we’ve read of violence and substance and child sexual abuse in remote Aboriginal communities, but lone-voices from campaigners for the rights of women and children, like Jacinta Price, are largely ignored.
In the US when black children are murdered in street violence there is no outrage. “Progressives” advocate defunding the police, but 81% of Blacks don’t favour this because they suffer the consequences, not progressives living in gated communities.
In the UK, for 15 years authorities turned a blind eye while children were trafficked and raped in Rotherham and Telford, for fear of being accused of racism.
“The State can never be a good parent.” The modern State was invented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He liked the idea of transferring responsibilities to the State, perhaps because he abandoned all five of his own children to almost certain death.

Ross Howard | 18 July 2022  
Show Responses

‘For decades we’ve read of violence and substance and child sexual abuse in remote Aboriginal communities, but lone-voices from campaigners for the rights of women and children, like Jacinta Price, are largely ignored.’


If the Voice, assuming it gets up, is silent on this, it’s doing its people a disservice because it is supposed to symbolise some idea that the ‘oppressed’, by definition, have a superior morality (even though, once freed from the racism of the Egyptians, the Israelites degenerated for four decades in the desert into a fractious lot which exasperated God).

If the Voice is disunited on this, it’s doing its people a disservice because it is supposed to symbolise some idea that the ‘oppressed’ by virtue of their common history of being oppressed have a singular clarion voice.

Then again, maybe the Voice will admit this, in which case it’ll undermine the idea that the ‘oppressed’ are a moral minority. They might be in some respects but most of the time, and in most cases, they are like everybody else (who have to make do with the standard two houses of Commonwealth Parliament).

roy chen yee | 18 July 2022  

I think one of the real problems of mentoring caring proactive fathers is that we are, in many ways, becoming a disconnected and dysfunctional society. Robert Semmens talks about the destruction of the old neighbourhood of Brunswick by 'development'. I foresee this happening on a major scale in inner suburban Brisbane for the Olympics. In Australia we seem to thrive on enquiries and Royal Commissions followed by short-term political 'fixes'. Perhaps there are deeper, non-governmental roots which we can get back to which are really necessary to fix the situation long term?

Edward Fido | 18 July 2022  

Fixing irresponsible fathers will go a long way towards eliminating youth homelessness and crime. Government policies can't replace good parenting - they have proven themselves over many years to be infective, expensive and an abject failure when it comes to bringing irresponsible fathers to account either financially or through the laws penalising abuse of children.

Dr john frawley | 19 July 2022  

Mike, the abuse of children both physical and sexual has occurred mostly in same sex boarding schools run by orders and in orphanages. Many abandoned children who suffer blindness and deafness end up in these places and its quite simple for the predator "brothers" and "priests" to abuse their power. Any thought of long term harm to the child takes second place to their immediate gratification.

Guardian 14/5/22 re head master Coffey (deceased).
One complainant (who was pre pubescent} said:
On the first occasion, he was asked explicit questions and beaten with a metal ruler when he could not provide answers. On the second, he was made to expose himself to Coffey while crying in distress.

Coffey allegedly said to him: “Wipe your eyes and go back to class.”

The abuse continued over multiple years until the boy, unable to bear any more, refused. “He said, ‘No, I’m not dropping my pants’,” Campbell told the court. “Coffey then says, ‘Well, if you don’t do what I tell you, you’re going to be expelled and you’ll get in big trouble from your parents’.”

“So the plaintiff reacted … it’s a shame he missed, but he threw a tape dispenser at him and told him in no uncertain terms – his words not mine – ‘fuck off’.”

The court heard the abuse devastated the boy’s life. He “went off the rails” and began using drugs and alcohol, getting into fights and struggling at school. The abuse fractured his life with his family, the court heard, and he soon moved away and took up long-haul truck driving so he could be alone.

The court heard his mother often asked: “What did I ever do so wrong as to lose my happy boy?”

At a CBs school in NQ a boy known to me reported he was drugged and raped for 4 years from age 12 after his father died, mostly by the deputy head (O'Dempsey now deceased}, and sometimes by the deputy head's 5 mates - gang raped by 6 guys at once on multiple occasions, who would run in naked after the drugs took effect, usually on a Friday night on church school property and even in the chapel.
He was then sent home bleeding to his mother who lived in a council flat.

14 boys in St Alipius Ballarat committed suicide because of the 4 prolific pedophiles that trafficked children in that benighted place. Some rapes occurred after confession.

Francis Armstrong | 19 July 2022