We are all angry about Charlise’s death, but where is the action?

We are all angry about Charlise’s death, but where is the action?

Charlise Mutten

To say I was angry when I woke to the news of Charlise Mutten’s horrific and avoidable death is an understatement. But only 24 hours after we heard this tragic news, another story broke regarding the body of a three month old baby found in a freezer in country NSW, and now I’m enraged.

I know I’m not alone and I’m pretty sure if you are reading this you are equally baffled, sad and outraged and you no doubt want action. What is curious, however, is why we aren’t seeing the same level of sadness and outrage from our Government.

Over the past decade through my work, I have come across many children just like Charlise, who are caught in systems in which they have no control. Children who should have their interests protected by the frameworks, people and systems around them. But time after time I have seen these systems failing children. I have also seen countless adults advocating for the safety and wellbeing of children only to be beaten down by systems that end up failing the most innocent and vulnerable members of our society, changing the trajectory of their young lives forever.

On their own admission, our Government acknowledged that despite increasing funding for child protection intervention over the years to $6.9 billion in 2019 – 2020, children in contact with child protection agencies rose by almost 15 per cent over a four year period to 174,700 children in 2020. These are 174,700 children too many regardless of how much money you throw at it.

Having acted in child protection and family law matters and now supporting children within the in home education and care and NDIS schemes, I continue to see the same themes emerge, themes which our Government needs to put front and centre when making policy and budget decisions.

Disparate systems

In December last year The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children was released by the Department of Social Services. It highlighted some of the shocking statistics that people working with children sadly already know, that 5.6% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were in out of home care and that children with a disability represented 15.3% of those in out of home care.

However, an often overlooked and important statistic was that families with multiple or complex needs are the main clients of child protection services. 

Many of these children and families are accessing multiple systems that don’t have mechanisms to share information or resources and cannot act in concert to meet the best interests of the child. Children accessing the NDIS for example cannot use their funding to improve access to education in early childhood or school settings where their inclusion support funding is often woefully inadequate. Likewise when children are victims of domestic violence, the frameworks designed to protect them are often disconnected and can result in tragedies like the deaths of Hannah Clarke and her beautiful three children, where the police, other government and non-government agencies were aware of the risk to their lives yet the worst outcome was realised. In essence, the disconnected systems prevent these children and families from exercising their basic human rights and protections, making them vulnerable to disadvantage, harm and tragedy.

Despite making positive recommendations, the National Framework Report highlights the fact that some systems like formal education and out of home care operate within State and Territory Governments whilst others, like the NDIS and Child Care Subsidy, operate at a Commonwealth level. We need to see these types of barriers broken down and ensure all children, irrespective of which Government portfolio they fall under, have seamless access to child-centred supports that prevent them from falling between the cracks.

Underfunded services

Anybody who has worked in child protection will tell you that there are never enough resources to meet the demand for children in need of care and protection. If five children are identified as meeting the serious risk of harm threshold in a single day but there is only one caseworker who has the capacity to make a home visit, they are faced with the impossible decision of which one to support and which children to push back into the system.

In the same way, the in home education and care scheme directly supports children who are vulnerable and cannot have their needs met in mainstream childcare settings, yet it has a cap on utilisation and imposes a cost prohibitive funding model that makes access to in home care unaffordable for the majority of eligible families. To create a scheme for children who are already excluded from mainstream services, only to make it inaccessible for them, sets the system up for failure.

Political will

If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything it is that Governments can mobilise quickly when economic forces are at play. Countless submissions, research papers and reports have been tabled before our Governments showing that investing in children’s education, care and wellbeing pays dividends for our community, both in terms of economic prosperity and improving social outcomes for all.

The case for prioritising the needs of children, including their access to protection, quality education and inclusion irrespective of their circumstances should be the top of our Government’s priority list. It should not come down to who is in Government, whether a policy announcement would make good media coverage, or because an election is imminent. Our obligations to children are bigger than political point-scoring and if the tragedies of the three month old baby and Charlise Mutten can’t mobilise our Government, then their inaction will simply result in more heartbreaking stories like these continuing to make the morning news.

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