Overcoming child protection burnout


'Child protection' by Chris JohnstonI've been writing about children's rights for most of my professional life, and after two damning reports from the Victorian Ombudsman and the premier's announcement of a few score more child protection workers to remedy the problem, I have started to feel very tired.

Advertising for a few score more underpaid posts for one of the worst jobs to be filled by soon-to-be traumatised state government employees will not do anything substantive to prevent or remediate the suffering of the children who are being demoralised, struck, humiliated, ignored, left in pain, kidnapped, sexually assaulted or taught that they are unlovably naughty.

I read without surprise of yet another father who has been charged with killing his toddler because he is very angry with her mother. Of four little Australian girls who went missing, believed and in three cases found dead; only after their absence did neighbours speak up about the pummellings, bruises and misery they noticed in the weeks leading up to the disappearances.

'Child abuse' notifications continue to rise, while debate rages over whether or not more children are actually being abused, or whether mandatory reports are taking up too much of child protection workers' time, leaving little for intervention. Meanwhile asylum-seeking children are being detained with adults and not going to school for months.

A private members' bill seeking the appointment of a Children's Commissioner at federal level is (yet again) being circulated, this time through Facebook and other social networking sites. I do recall the then opposition spokesperson circulating a paper in support of this prior to the 2007 election, but it dropped off the to-do list when she became a real life minister.

In Victoria, Lisa Neville, the responsible minister is looking haggard. I have no doubt she cares, but it is Treasury and the Premier who decide what resources go into the reform of child protection systems and recommendations for reformed child protection laws and processes, to curb the disadvantages of the adversarial approach in the Children's Court and, dare I say it, the Family Court as well.

On Friday 19 November, an eminent emeritus professor of paediatrics and patron of a group committed to work towards the elimination of the right to hit children, Defence for Children International (Australian Section) and End Physical Punishment (Australian section of the international group, EPOCH), gave an International Children's Day oration at Victoria University. About 20 people turned up.

Professor Oates laid out the history of professional awareness of child maltreatment, from the early days of naive belief in 'spontaneous' subdural haematomas in infants with long-bone fractures, to the discovery of child sexual abuse in the 1980s and 1990s, to the current understanding of the severe, long-term effects of maltreatment in the adults who survive neglected or abusive childhoods.

Oates was especially excited by advances in genetics which offer a probability that within 20 years we may be able to identify and treat genetic conditions that predispose an infant to behaviours and conditions that damage their innate resilience.

I will rejoice when we find the gene that allows human beings to be unmoved by the suffering of any human being, or to tolerate child poverty and homelessness which cause destructive clusters of 'risk factors' that tend to drag a child and its parent/s and family down.

Oh, brave new world, indeed.

Meanwhile, after several reviews of the child protection system, those lawyers who are trying to help Victorian child protection workers get through their horrible days in the lions' den of the Children's Court defending their intervention in children's family lives, have served notice on the head of the Department of significant breaches of occupational health and safety laws.

They are burning out. Due to budget constraints, they claim, legal advice and representation can only be provided on a triage model — the legal equivalent of ER when one must decide whether to whack the electric paddles onto the chest of one patient, staunch another's bleeding stomach wound or restrain the psychotic lad with the kitchen knives. Not the best environment in which to make life or death decisions. 

As Oates said, nobody pretends child maltreatment is easily prevented, detected or remedied. Yet we are passionate about the social evils of allowing same-sex couples to marry. Would a child in a same-sex family be exposed to proportional rates of neglect, violence, emotional undermining or sexual assault as in the traditionally recognised partnering of one man and one woman?

Wouldn't it be great if we put all that energy into providing what all children need: a family environment of love and understanding where they can achieve their full potential? Yes, it's a fundamental human right, which has no priority in our community, actually.

Shame on us. 

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. She is a former Equal Opportunity and HREOC Commissioner. She is principal of Moira Rayner and Associates. 

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, child protection, Professor Oates, Lisa Neville



submit a comment

Existing comments

I agree with the above its the same overseas as well what can the ordinary person who abhors injustice do ?
Irena Mangone. | 29 November 2010

Thank you Moira. When we all devote more time and resources to these natural virtues, what a revolution will occur.
Ray O'Donoghue | 29 November 2010

I applaud your reflection on this issue. Community awareness is shaded by our belief that individuals are responsible for children. They had them, they should look after them. However, I do think the Greens would receive more support if they started with an issue such as child protection rather than 'rattling the cage' of conservative Australia with gay marriage. Furthermore, I would advocate that life-experienced people who have a variety of backgrounds would be a helpful resource to the Child Protection workforce.

My experience tells me, it is not a suitable position for a young or inexperienced social worker who is affected by the lack of human control or poor parenting skills. I come from a 25 year teaching/ welfare/ disability support background. I put in an application to be employed in Child Protection. I was told my qualifications were unacceptable. I have done the required units of case management and have worked in government. It was my experience of working with children and families that I thought most useful. Also, I have worked in the not for profit sector and Uniting Church Agency. Perhaps they need to look at their recruiting focus. Just a thought.
Heather Marshall | 29 November 2010

Moira comments that: "'Child abuse' notifications continue to rise, while debate rages over . . . whether mandatory reports are taking up too much of child protection workers' time, leaving little for intervention.". Unfortunately, little of this questioning of mandatory reporting seems to be raging in the public domain.

Mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse applies to professionals such as teachers who can feel pressured to report to avoid prosecution, colloquially known as protecting one's own backside, rather than due to a considered opinion that child abuse has occurred requiring statutory reporting as the appropriate response.

Mandatory reporting is arguably part of the blame game in the area of child abuse and was introduced by politicians anxious to be seen to be introducing systems to detect all child abuse (protecting their backsides) with a resultant attitude by teachers and doctors of seeking a statutory response whenever a doubt arises. It is a simplistic response that unfortunately at diverts resources away from more sophisticated and sensitive approaches to prevention and identification of cases of abuse.

Victoria needs a fundamental review of its approach to child protection with an increased focus on prevention.
Peter Johnstone | 29 November 2010

This is an excellent, thought-provoking article thst hopefully Victoria's new Premier and Government will acknowledge. The comments of Heather Marshall are apt. I have thought for sometime that the paradigm used by Governments of all political persuasion to employ people in the child protection area is faulty, because it assumes that all administrators, workers etc are or must be the same as administrators and workers in all areas.

This is not so. Victoria has, in my opinion and experience,one of the better manuals- "Leading Practice"- for people working in child protection and their managers, because it recognises explicitly that working in child protection is different from other areas of work by noting inter alia the nature of the effects and their interaction with unconscious inluences on people working in this emotionally draining area;importantly,it providss practical strategies to assist managers and workers alike.If the ideas and strategies in this manual are followed as distinct from noted, then hopefully the winners will be the children and staff who will experience delight at having helped children, not burnout because they try, but receive neither support nor praise.

Moira Rayner and Heather Marshall, you have caught the issue well.
Peter | 29 November 2010

I have experience in a state child protection agency. It is tempting to look at some of the most horrific cases purely in terms of the choices made by individuals, and assign blame at that level: the mother who should have known better than to leave her child with an unstable boyfriend; the neighbour who should have spoken up; the child protection worker who "should have known" that any reported low level abuse could possibly lead to death.

But the depressing similarity and repetitive nature of all the cases that come to child protection agencies point to a much larger situation - where the same actions keep being repeated in the same kinds of households in the same sorts of communities. None of these are news, but they bear repeating anyway:

Serious drug and alcohol abuse; certain mental health problems; and serious intergenerational abuse. Pretty much 95% of cases of serious abuse and neglect involve one or more of these factors. And added to that, as a general enabling factor is chronic lack of social support and capacity [including no positive family support].

Not every drug user is an unfit parent, and not every mental health problem leads to unacceptably poor care. In fact, I would say less than 25% in each category would be classed as unacceptable. But in those 20-25% of serious cases, they absolutely do disqualify someone from acting as a parent.

So what is to be done? Not mass removals of kids; that was tried last century with crushing results. Nor a one-eyed "keep families together" strategy, where any trigger for intervention or help comes far too late.

The only thing that really can be done is a large-scale early intervention response, which gets in early to mitigate the more serious cases of low parenting capacity. In some cases, the parents simply won't shape up, and the best outcome is to remove early before much damage is done to the child. In other cases, parents with low capacity might just get the only chance they are ever going to get to learn and grow as parents (and as people) and beat the odds. The issue of support is one of the few areas where governments (generally through non-government agencies, including the big church-run agencies) can actually get things done. Most disfunctional parents are quite willing to accept a helping hand, when that hand does not come attached to a government ID badge (ie "the welfare" of long memory).
Mormon Socialist | 29 November 2010

I make no judgement about Lisa Neville's performance in Victoria I would simply observe that nothing much seems to have changed since The Age ran a major series several years ago on this exact issue when the previous administration was in power. I am also not clear on whether the increase in reports is simply due to better reporting or if families are genuinely under greater stress. What is abundantly clear is the current system is not working as well as it could or indeed should. The Government here needs to make the issue a much higher priority than it is. The front line staff of the Department need to resourced much better and there needs to a much greater emphasis on retaining staff.
Kevin V Russell | 29 November 2010

Three cheers for Moira Rayner and her social consciousness.
Joyce | 29 November 2010

Moira Rayner raised the question of whether children would experience proportional rates of abuse and neglect in same sex families. Although it is tempting to correlate heterosexual relationships with abuse and neglect, this is a questionable approach. Child abuse may be prevalent in our society partly because we are beginning to see children as commodities. Interestingly, the commodification of children through adoption or surrogacy is one of the most compelling arguments against same sex parenting.
Joshua Anderson | 29 November 2010

I wonder if we are putting the 'cart before the horse' in this instance.
Of course we must rescue children in situations of possibilities of abuse occurring.

Do we ever look at why these atrocities are being committed?

Why are so many marriages in such turmoil?

Why are some marriages so happy and secure, guiding their children in the ways of love and responsibility?

Has there ever been research into why some marriages last a lifetime ,living a love relationship with all members of the family?

Finding the secret to a happy marriage, may be more profitable than trying to cope with broken relationships, and broken children.

Perhaps a marriage with a loving mother and father, would be less likely to produce abused children.

Maybe we need to look at the positive, to help with the negative.
bernadette Introna | 29 November 2010

I agreed with nearly everything you said, until you got to the line, you stated, "Yet we are passionate about the social evils of allowing same-sex couples to marry." I refuse to believe when your loving and compassionate, caring towards any child, doesn't matter if your gay or bi...sexual preference plays no part in rearing mentally healthy, emotionally sound children. Just my humble opinion. I rather had parents who loved me, not who was fixated on her/his sexual partners/decisions....which was my case. If we keep bring forth those issues it muddles the waters, contaminates the real genuine importance in rearing children.
Darlene | 30 November 2010

Moira, Your wisdom and persistence speaks volumes. So much energy in so many professions is used in meeting outcomes on a bureaucratic level. How can families be supported, by ALL OF US without judgement, to move forward one step at a time with dignity at a grass roots level? It is not only a top down approach through government that is necessary to support the vulnerable in our society. At the heart of strengthening families, is a shift in mindset from the vortex of individualism and materialism, to a platform of giving more than we expect to receive and valuing difference and human dignity where ALL of us can flourish. Who is my neighbour?
Clare Grogan | 30 November 2010

From her catalogue of the sufferings of children - "demoralised, struck, humiliated, left in pain, kidnapped, sexually assaulted" - Ms Rayner left out one item: abortion - the ultimate act of child abuse. Given that she is a member of the National Committee of Emily's List, maybe this should not be a cause for surprise.

The late, unlamented Brumby Government is responsible for the most vicious set of abortion regulations in the country - in Victoria the last remaining pathetic skerricks of legal protection for unborn children have been stripped away; abortion may be performed for any reason whatsoever up to and including birth; in the case of later-term abortions, the baby is not to be given pain relief (for that would be to acknowledge her humanity); a child who survives abortion is not to be provided with medical assistance but is to be left to die; and, in an act of egregious hypocrisy, parliamentarians used their conscience vote to deprive medical practitioners of the right to conscientious objection to complicity in these grisly, murderous procedures. Ted Baillieu also voted for these laws.

It will be impossible to build a national culture of protection and care for children as long as Australians tolerate the annual state-sanctioned slaughter of up to 100,000 pre-born children. The most dangerous place for a child in Australia today is his/her mother's womb. No amount of child protection workers, childrens' commissioners, lawyers, departmental inquiries, layers of bureaucracy or fists full of dollars will have any effect as long as this ethical cancer remains embedded in the national psyche.
Sylvester | 30 November 2010

Thank you Moira but it's not thanks you need. What we all need is a fundamental shift in how we see people. We have never put resoueces into 'people' who are not economically productive ie children, the aged. Children are out future and w as a society are judged on how we look after our young. Irena asks what she can do. Get active. Look out for kids in your community. Lobby politicians. Join groups that cars for kids. Above make sure any children in your life are loved. If you have none go find some!

There are programs which offer opportunities to care for kids at risk. And give support to the peole who are in the front line of this work. They are working under very difficult conditions and get heaps from all areas of the community.
jorie ryan | 01 December 2010

I heartily endorse the sentiments of Sylvester.
John Tobin | 03 December 2010

The basic structure of the present system is not working and no amount of funds and staff will fix it. Abuse is escalating and this breads more abuse. We need to go back to the old adoption - this is the only preventative measures that work. No-one likes to talk of adoption these days, they've renamed it the "stolen generation" to make it sound really bad and politically incorrect.
Michael | 23 December 2010


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up