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Child Welfare and Protection Policies in Australia


Racial hierarchy is known to cause the subjugation of one or more races. This is evident in Australia where the Aborigines and the Torres Strait indigenous people have suffered at the hands of the colonialists (Dominelli, 2000) and in Canada among the First Nations indigenous population (Schwartz-Kenney, 2001).

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The most reliable information on the number of children subject to abuse and neglect is from the AIHW since 1990. Child protection services were available for 4334 indigenous children between 0-16 years in 2002-2003 when there were 178700 children of between 0-14 years in Australia (Resource Sheet, 2005).

The stolen generation

Aboriginal and Torres Street islander children in Australia have been separated from their families for various reasons believed to be compulsion, duress and influence (Lavarch, 1995). Efforts are being made by the Australian Government to make amends for this violation of human rights. The “Bringing them home” report of 1997 spoke of the “The stolen generation”: the children of the Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders who were forcibly removed from their families and communities in the early twentieth century (The Stolen Generations, National Sorry Day Committee). To fully understand the present plight of these people, it is necessary to journey through the history of the Australian indigenous people. Child abuse and neglect have to be addressed in a broad perspective combining historical and present day issues (Stanley et al, 2003).

Contemporary issues in child welfare in Australia and social justice

Social work has been done in Australia since 1788 (Gilbert, 2001). By the time social work was started in some form of contact, the Aborigines and the Torres Strait islanders were already long under the colonial rule. Their experiences of being downtrodden like slaves invited plenty of missionaries to try rehabilitating them. Convicts and Aborigines were the two main problems as perceived by social workers in the 1920s. The care of infants of the Aborigines who were convicted for “felony or misdemeanour” was first attempted to be covered by legislation in 1849 in New South Wales (Gilbert, 2001).

Child protection

In 1814, the Native Institution was the first dormitory set up for the Aboriginal children. When the Federation was started, social policy was taken up in earnest but by then the Aborigines had lost all their lands and were moved to missions (Gilbert, 2001). Human rights abuse and loss of the control over their children were their traumatic experiences. The Australian government was already making efforts to contain the abuse of rights of the natives.

The social workers hardly helped the Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders who were subjected to great social injustices (Gilbert, 2001). The women were even more backward and not able to voice their protests. The plight of their children can only be imagined. Protection policies came into vogue in the early 20th century. The social policy in the earlier part of the twentieth century did not remove the poverty, inequality or injustice of the Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders even though feeble attempts towards social justice were made (Gilbert, 2001).

Attachment: the basis of relationships

One study by Heard and Lake in 1997 investigated the attachment theory which is the basis of all relationships (Bell, 2002). A supportive relationship between the child and his carer ensures a positive attitude on the part of the child and helps him to grow up into a confident adult. This was first described by Bowlby in elaborating on the mother-child relationship. This attachment would produce a successful personality in the long run. The Child Protective Services must acquire individuals who are honest and respectful for the duty of carer rather than focus on cost-effectiveness and business management (Bell, 2002).

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Human Rights Commission Inquiry

The Attorney-General, Mr. Michael Lavarch, in 1995 was requested by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission to enquire fully into the plight of these unfortunate Australian natives, whether the actions on them were justified and the possible corrections by way of legislation (Lavarch, 1995). The laws and policies were to be reviewed. Mr. Lavarch mentioned that any kind of true reconciliation was possible only by first acknowledging the wrongs “of dispossession, oppression and degradation” that were previously suffered (Lavarch, 1995). Oppression has been noted for being an infamous cause for social ills (Mullaly, 2002).

Compensation for the families

Laws, practices and policies have been time and again drawn up for these humans who have been scarred badly (Lavarch, 1995). Families who were separated due to no fault of theirs but wishing to reunite are assisted by the authorities and the principles on which the separation had been effected are being reconsidered. Compensation is accorded to the affected families.

Child Protection Act, 1999

The Child Protection Act of 1999 in Australia evolved out of the 1989 UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. Section 6 of the Child Protection Act 1999 allows the participation of indigenous persons in decision making (Blueprint Legislation Reforms, 2007).

Indigenous people are much more aware of their rights now but whether they are able to take over their responsibilities is a doubt lingering in the minds of the authorities. Efforts must be targeted towards making the indigenous population gradually take over their responsibilities. The lives of the indigenous people are wrought with issues of violence, substance abuse, poverty, homelessness, dysfunctionality, loss of traditional parenting skills & knowledge as well as post traumatic distress/grief & loss issue ((Blueprint Legislation Reforms, 2007). How they would perceive the issue of child protection amidst their regular issues as mentioned is the question.

Research by the National Child Protection Clearinghouse

The departments responsible for child protection, the associated legislation, the professionals or individuals who are to report cases, the definition of a child and the types of concerns that are reported are the issues investigated (Bromfield and Higgins, 2005). The varying responses of the child protection services are also considered. Researchers have discussed the working of systems, the systems that work better than others, the difficulties or advantages experienced by the children and how the workers cope with their heavy work (Bromfield and Higgins, 2005). Differences of opinion are also expressed on whether mandatory notification is better over voluntary notification. Community agencies and self-help groups also have a role in the investigation.

Recent research into social problems

Research has provided some insight into the social problems that have led to child abuse and neglect noted in the indigenous groups in Australia (MacDonald G, 2001). However bias has been a major drawback in the investigations. Efforts are now being made to have control groups and bias minimized in recent researches so that conclusions for evidence-based practice are obtained. The validity of prior theories must be analysed and tradition should not be a consideration for rejecting them (MacDonald G, 2001).

Attempt at reforms and the implementation

A blueprint prepared in 2004 in Queensland outlined strategies, policies and plans to improve the indigenous child protection (Blueprint, 2004). A new Department of Child Safety was being set up to address the children at risk of “harm, neglect or abuse”. Reforms were to be made over the next three years.

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Transition in awareness

Changes are noted in the public awareness about child abuse (AIHW, 2006). This has led to better child protection policies. The number of children on care and protection policies has increased. Children in out-of-home care have also increased. Australia has eight differing child protection systems (Bromfield and Higgins, 2005). The national initiatives have shown an increased concentration in child protection. A research agenda is being conducted and an audit by the National Child Protection Clearinghouse is to form the basis.

The recent changes in social policies

Politicians have debated the issue of the indigenous people back and forth. The main argument is that the present generation and social workers are not responsible for the past wrongdoings (Blueprint Legislative reforms, 2007). Acknowledging the history, efforts are being now made after the new Government came into power in 2007 to atone for the past. Human rights issues of the indigenous people and social justice for them have begun to take roots in present day Australia (Green and Baldry, 2008). The role of the community in shaping the children and young people has gained significance. Child welfare support and family support activities are now community-centred (Tomison and Wise, 1999)

The present quality of services

The quality of service needs to be the essential component of the services. Queensland reports the reaching of the Integrated Client Management System (ICMS) which is the Stage 6 of the Child Safety Practice Manual (Blueprint Legislation reforms, 2007). Child Health Passports and Education Support Plans have been instituted to ensure quality services. Though progress has been made, tough challenges are being faced on a daily basis and attempts are being made to administer the best protective services to the indigenous children who “deserve nothing less” than the nonindigenous ones (Child Protection Queensland, 2006-2007). The recommendations to provide a suitable Child Protection Service should include the following parameters (Blueprint, 2004).

Child Safety Legislation Amendment Act, 2004

The legislation covers the subjects of child death case review, child guardian, the reporting of the protective services, community visitor program, coordinated service delivery, information sharing and nurse reporting. Amendments were made to this legislation in 2005 and 2006 (Blueprint Legislation Reforms, 2007).

Delivery of the best service

The central intake, risk assessment and interagency coordination and collaboration are the main components of the Child Protective Service delivery. Highly trained workers would make all the decisions for intake, assessment and coordinating the service delivery (Tomison, 2004).

Grounds for identification of children as needing protection

The actions or outcomes which make children need to be protected are some of the situations which cause disagreements. The point at which an intervention becomes necessary is based on legislation especially when parents can be held responsible. It also can take place only when grounds do not include maltreatment. Anyone who feels concerned about the child’s protection can report to the statutory child protection service (Bromfield and Higgins, 2005).

How new policies can be evolved

Learning mistakes from the past policies is the major factor which could help the implementation of policies which would need essential and strategic changes (Child protection Queensland, 2006-2007). The stage has been reached in most parts of Australia whereby indigenous children are over-represented in the child protection system.

Recent amendments in the Child Protection Act

Amendments are being made to suitably tide over the issue till the indigenous population become mature and ready to accept their responsibilities of child protection.

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A new section or amendment allows the participation of an indigenous body which is responsible for a child of Aboriginal or Torres Strait to participate in the decision making (Blueprint Legislation Reforms, 2007). Organisations which are so responsible are known as recognized entities in Section 2461. Section 83 allows the child who is being protected in foster care to maintain contact with its family if the child desires and therefore the child is placed in a home close to the family. Section 88 allows contact between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait island children and people speaking a similar language group or community (Blueprint Legislation Reforms, 2007).

Recommendations for a better Child Protective Service

  1. Officers, equipped with the necessary information, skills or resources, must be available at all levels. The best interests of the indigenous children for protective care must influence the decisions taken by them. The State protection service should ensure that the officers are all in position and do justice to their service.
  2. Placing the children with families should not increase their risk of being harmed or abused. Child safety should be ensured.
  3. The needs of children must be of prime importance. Their options for getting the best out of the system must be enquired into and they must participate in the decision-making for foster care.
  4. Indigenous families must be encouraged to participate in the child protective services and discussions at intervals so that they know what is happening to the children.
  5. Indigenous foster carers must be added into the system so that the families involved and children are generally of a willing mindset for the foster care.
  6. Children at risk of harm must be provided other specific options
  7. The traumatized families must be given services which would help them recover from their emotional trauma. They should be empowered to manage their own affairs with the help of the government and other specialist agencies.
  8. Substance abuse, domestic violence and family breakdowns which destroy the confidence of the indigenous people must be corrected by the appropriate agencies set up solely for them.
  9. The indigenous parents must be assisted to manage their parenting issues in a cooperative manner.
  10. Child protection issues must be managed by a single governmental department to which all the systems working for child protection are answerable and coordinated by.
  11. The staff who selects the children for the protective service must use specific selective procedures and specialist staff is to handle the children who are exposed to harm and abuse.
  12. Best practice standards must be advocated for children whether they are with parents or foster homes or institutions.
  13. The cost of caring must be fully reimbursed.
  14. Carers must be provided adequate training and support. They must be honest and true to their job of caring for children who are emotionally torn apart due to the separation from their families.
  15. Regular reviews to discuss emerging problems should form the ground on which remedial action is taken
  16. Legislation must be able to protect the vulnerable children and frequently reviewed (Blueprint Legislation Reforms, 2007).

Canada’s Child Protection Policies

The picture is no different in Canada. Child protection services are provided by the government (Schwartz-Kenney et al, 2001). Governmental agencies and the non governmental agencies work together for the implementation of the policies. The multidisciplinary approach failed to suppress sexual abuse. Now the coordinated approach has included the police. Separating the children from the parents was also practised in Canada but legislation changed the practice in 1984. The family model was then motivated. The number of children in care reduced. Research was encouraged (Schwartz-Kenney et al, 2001).

The Residential school system which was a method of protecting the indigenous children of Canada was found to be an abuse of human rights and a source of child neglect. The Prime Minister, Steven Harper proffered a public apology for the Residential school system. Children are now separated from their families only as a last resort. “Least disruptive measures” are selected for the best interests of the child (Stradiotto, 2009).


Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) (2006) Child Protection Australia, AIHW, 26, Canberra AIHW (Child Welfare Series No.38).

Bell, M. (2002). “Promoting children’s rights through the use of relationship”. Child and Family Social Work, Vol. 7, p. 1-11.

Blueprint for implementing the recommendations of the January 2004 Crime and Conduct Commission Report, “Protecting children: an inquiry into abuse of children in foster care” Queensland.

Blueprint legislation reforms, (2007). Overview. Child safety, Department of Child safety, Queensland Government.

Bromfield, L. and Higgins, D. (2005). National comparison of child protection systems, Child Abuse Prevention, National Child Protection Clearinghouse, Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Dominelli, L. (2000). “Tackling racism in everyday realities: A task for social workers” In Callahan et al. (Eds.) Valuing the field: Child Welfare in an International context, Aldershot, UK: Ashgate p. 141-156.

Gilbert, S. (2001). “Social work with indigenous Australians” in Margaret Alston and Jennifer McKinnon. (Eds). Social Work: Fields of Practice. Oxford, Melbourne.

Green, S.and Baldry, E. (2008). “Building Indigenous Australian Social Work”. Australian Social Work, Vol. 61, No. 4. p. 389-402, Published by Routledge, Taylor and Francis group.

Lavarch, M. (1995). “Bringing them home”. Commonwealth of Australia.

MacDonald, G. (2001). “Effective Interventions for Child abuse and neglect: An evidence-based approach to planning and evaluating interventions in evidence-based practice” Chichester, UK, Wiley, p 25-36.

Mullaly, B. (2002). “Changing oppression: Anti-oppressive social work practice at the personal and cultural levels”, Oxford University Press, p. 170-190.

Resource Sheet, 2005. “Child abuse and neglect in indigenous Australian communities” Child Abuse Prevention, National Child Protection Clearinghouse, Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Stanley, J., Tomison, A.M. and Pocock, J. (2003). “Child abuse and neglect in Indigenous Australian communities”.Child Abuse Prevention issues No.19, Spring, National Child Protection Clearinghouse.

Schwartz-Kenney, B.M., Beth M., McCauley, M. and Epstein, M.A. (2001). “Child Abuse: A global view”. Greenwood Press: Westport. Web.

Stradiotto, N. (2009). “ Today’s Canadian Aboriginal Children; The origin of tomorrow’s government apology”. Journalists for Human Rights. Web.

The Stolen Generations, National Sorry Day Committee. Web.

Tomison, A.M., (2004). “Current issues in child protection policy and practice: Informing the NT Department of Health and Community Services Child protection Review”.

National Child Protection Clearinghouse, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Department of Health and Community Services, Northern Territory Government.

Tomison, A.M. and Wise, S. (1999). “Community-based approaches in preventing child maltreatment”. Child Abuse Prevention, National Child Protection Clearinghouse, Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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