Northern Territory of Australia Vows Changes to CPS System

Hard on the heels of a study in the United States that the editor of the journal that published it said proved that the system of child protective services has “outlived its usefulness,” comes this (Sydney Morning Herald, 10/17/10).  It’s a piece about the completion of the most recent inquiry into the child protection system in the Northern Territory of Australia.  It follows the all-too-familiar tragic litany of abuse and neglect of children by parents, foster parents and other caregivers and the failure of the governmental agency whose job it is to prevent it.

A 12-year-old Northern Territory girl went into cardiac arrest caused by septicaemia of the leg after lying on the dirt in her foster carers’ backyard for eight hours, unable to move.

Following the girl’s death, in July 2007, her two carers were charged with manslaughter

Despite having failed to seek medical treatment, they were later acquitted by a Northern Territory court.

The toddler had died in a bucket of water in the backyard. By the time she was found, rigor mortis had set in.

In a separate case, a seven-week-old baby died of starvation in the back of his mother’s car at Port Wakefield, north of Adelaide, in June 2005.

The family were on their way from Melbourne to Alice Springs at the time.

The woman, who was known by child protective services, was sentenced by the South Australian Supreme Court to 10 years’ jail for manslaughter.

This is just the latest of a long series of reports done by various people and agencies over the years.  One of the major problems seems to be the extent to which child protective services organizations prove immune to criticism and change.

The coroner’s findings were added to the pile of reports done in recent years, all of which had in one way or another shone a spotlight on what he said were “the inadequacies of a child protection system which does not focus on the issue of patterns of neglect over a period of time”.

The NT Children’s Commissioner, Howard Bath, released his inaugural annual report in November last year, which showed that of the 42 recommendations accepted by the NT government following the release of the Little Children Are Sacred report in 2007, just 12 had been fully implemented.

The inquiry is expected to make its recommendations in the immediate future.

It is expected that the recommendations will include making legislative changes to the NT Care and Protection of Children Act, as well as wide-sweeping reforms relating to departmental procedures, staff recruitment and retention.

As I’ve said before, CPS personnel walk a fine line between too little intervention in family life and parental decision-making and too much.  When they do the one, children suffer and sometimes die; when they do the other, children lose parents whose only shortcoming is their bank balance.

To a huge degree, the very existence of CPS is an artifact of family breakdown.  Single parents and their boyfriends and girlfriends do far more abuse and neglect of children than do married parents.  Married parents have more money than single parents and therefore are less inclined to commit the type of neglect in which poverty so often results.

As long as adults insist on both having children and breaking up their families through divorce, CPS will be necessary in one form or another.  Truly caring for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens means more money, more caseworkers with better training and lighter caseloads.  It means locating fathers as possible carers when children are taken from mothers.  It means a range of services to assist parents who indicate in one way or another that they can’t or won’t parent effectively and well.

If all that sounds like a big government solution, it is, and I don’t like it any better than anyone else.  If someone has any better ideas, I’d like to hear them. 

Ideally, people would come to realize that childbearing and widespread divorce are a bad combination, that the decision to have a child is, absent extreme circumstances, the decision to remain married until the child reaches college age.  There is a trend, now some 30 years old, toward lower divorce rates, but it is slow and incremental.  Still people may be absorbing the lesson.  Until we do on a much broader scale, we’ll need to live with the many “inadequacies of the child protection system.”

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