OPINION / Families Week, May 15-21

The challenge of keeping children safe at home

By Deirdre Cheers

THIS week is National Families Week - celebrating the vital role that families play in Australian society. The theme "Stronger Families, Stronger Communities" goes to the heart of Barnardos' work to protect vulnerable children.

By strengthening families and communities, we can keep children safe at home, prevent child abuse, and avoid the heartbreaking situation that occurs when children need to be placed into foster care.

Children don’t come with an instruction manual. Raising children can be very tough, especially without support. And today it is a job often made even harder by the fact that so many families live away from extended family and close friends.

And access to supportive networks is often determined by economic factors such as poverty caused by unemployment and addiction, family violence and lack of safe and secure housing.

The Barnardos Children’s Family Centre in Downer connects struggling families with their local community. Families or young people in crisis only need to tell their story once to one worker, avoiding further stress caused by being asked to explain their situation over and over and over again.

A holistic approach means we wrap a range of different support programs around our families in order to strengthen them, and avoid their children being taken into care.

And when situations are so severe that the children do need to be removed, we work one-on-one at our centres and in family homes, supporting parents to make lasting changes so their children can be returned to them as safely and quickly as possible.

The best place for a child to grow up, if it’s safe, is with family. About half of all children placed in temporary foster care with Barnardos are restored safely to the care of their parents, or with extended family and kin. We work hard to enable shorter time frames for children to stay in foster care because children can’t wait indefinitely in the care system.

Building stronger community connections for families is the key to preventing children from becoming another statistic. We believe every family deserves a strong support network to usher them through the difficult task of parenting. Because children can’t wait.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, as at June 30 last year, 17,387 children in NSW and 45,756 children nationally, were unable to live with their parents due to safety concerns.

It is easy to dismiss this figure with a shake of the head but behind every one of the 45,756 there is a family unable to cope, struggling to find housing, suffering family violence, mental illness or the impacts of drug and alcohol abuse.

At the heart of these sobering statistics are children who have experienced serious abuse and neglect. At Barnardos, we see the effect this can have on them for life – the damage that trauma causes to childhood development, and the scar it can leave behind.

For every child who comes to the attention of child protective services, social workers must ask the question: is this child safe at home? This is, of course, an important question to ask, but if it is the only focus of our child-protection systems in Australia then we will miss countless earlier opportunities to not only ensure that children are safe, but also to ensure that families and communities are thriving.

Without support, parents are vulnerable and often overwhelmed; too scared to ask for help for fear of being judged, or neglecting their children, or worse still having their children taken away.

But we don’t need to wait until problems arise for vulnerable families. Tackling social isolation and connecting communities is a complex task that needs to be well resourced.

Our social workers at Barnardos often describe the relief felt by parents when they realise that our services are there to help, not to “check up” on them or report them for child abuse. It’s a misconception that can only be combated with honest and genuine, one-on-one relationships based on trust.

Deirdre Cheers is CEO of Barnardos Australia and National Families Week Champion.

(This article first appeared in the Canberra City News)

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