We spend a lot of time as a local, national and global community considering the wellbeing of children and what is in ‘the best interest of the child’ when they are at risk of abuse and neglect. We spend much less time considering the rights and responsibilities of parents and other family members who have children in the care of child protection services. Many Australian families face a range of complex problems: poverty, homelessness, mental health problems, substance misuse, domestic and family violence or disability; sometimes in isolation, more often in combination (see Hamilton and Braithwaite, 2014). Many suffer social exclusion and low levels of social capital and come under the watchful eye of Australian child protection authorities as high risk segments of the population (Hamilton and Braithwaite, 2014).Children belonging to high risk groups are far more likely to be the subject of a statutory child protection intervention (Mullender, 2001; Kantor and Little, 2003; Huntsman, 2008; Stanley, Cleaver and Hart, 2010; Sterne et al, 2010; Mason, 2010; Collings and Llewellyn, 2012).
In our own research in the ACT, data collected by community workers of clients with a child protection intervention confirm that parents and family members have lives that are full of stress: economic, social, personal, and interpersonal. Our interviews with community workers also revealed the unhelpfulness of child protection interventions that traumatise families and use threatening tactics, particularly around removing a child or children from the family home. In the worst of these situations, reported across Australia, parents are exposed to unfair, non-‐transparent and unsupported processes where they are given inadequate or virtually no information (Harries, 2008; Ivec, Braithwaite and Harris, 2009; Family Inclusion Network, 2007; Mason, 2010; Hinton, 2013). They are not treated respectfully nor are they empowered; they are marginalised and stigmatised; and they quickly come to hold little to no trust in the child protection system (Hamilton and Braithwaite, 2014).
An understanding of the rights and responsibilities of parents and families is needed to mitigate these negative effects on them and ultimately, their children being ‘protected’. Rights ensure that all parents are treated with kindness and respect, communicated with transparently, and heard and included in decision making about their children. Some parents will lose their right to parent. But such parents, their children, their families and the community workers who support them need to know why, and have confidence that the reasons given are legitimate and honest, and the process transparent and fair. Developing a charter of rights and responsibilities, such as that below which sets out basic principles for operating within a culture of respect, could assist to guide the way for establishing more productive relationships between child protection workers, parents and family members and their support networks. Potentially this could lead to decision-‐making forums in which family problems which deem children at risk can be resolved before removal and child protection orders are administered, and create more genuinely collaborative care arrangements for those children who are in care into the future. Children deserve to have all these parties working to ensure that they have a better future. Committing to this charter is the first step in that direction.
Hamilton, S. & Braithwaite, V. (2014) Parents and Family Members Matter: a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities for Parents and Family Members with Children in the Care of Child Protection Services in Australia (August 2014), Regulatory Institutions Network Occasional Paper 22, Australian National University.