PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA: This evening I would like to raise what I consider to be a national tragedy: the growing number of children in our society who suffer from child abuse and child neglect. The figures are staggering: 286,000 reports of suspected child abuse and neglect occurred in 2009-10. That is up from 115,000 just a decade ago. Of those, there were 46,000 substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect. That is up from 27,000 substantiations in 2000. There are now over 37,000 children in Australia under child protection orders. Again, that figure is almost double that of a decade ago.
These are absolutely astounding figures. But the figures do not tell the trauma and the agony which sits behind the figures. Every single figure represents a child who has suffered sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse or neglect. The number of children in care now threatens to overwhelm the state and territory child protection departments. Collectively, about $2 billion is being spent each year but, as we know from media comments across the country, child protection departments are struggling to get on top of the issue.
There are many organisations and individuals that work tirelessly to support children who have been subjected to abuse and neglect. I acknowledge the work that those organisations do. I also pay tribute to the child protection officers in each of the State and Territory child protection departments. They have an incredibly difficult job, and I take my hat off to them for the work that they do.
I take the opportunity this evening to make particular mention of an organisation that has its national office in my electorate of Aston, in Melbourne. That organisation is called the Southern Cross Kids’ Camps. It is a national charitable organisation based in Boronia. Southern Cross Kids’ Camps was founded by a quite inspirational woman named Carolyn Boyd about 10 years ago. Its overall mission is to bring fun and laughter back into the lives of children who have suffered from abuse and neglect, to provide them with time to forget about their “experiences” and, as they say, “to enjoy just being a child again”, just like any other child. They do that by running a series of camps each year for about 240 children. The camps last for about a week, and they run eight camps nationally—four in Victoria and four elsewhere. The organisation is almost entirely a volunteer organisation. It has about 400 volunteers and just a couple of full-time staff, who coordinate the activities from the national office in Boronia, those being Shelley Martin and Donna Eldridge.
I had the pleasure of supporting this organisation in their One Voice—Walk Against Child Abuse fundraiser last Saturday, which was a six-kilometre walk around Lysterfield Lake in my electorate. People signed up to do that walk to raise funds for that organisation, and I did that with my seven-year-old daughter, Cassie. I understand also that the Member for Holt has been a supporter of the Southern Cross Kids Camp. I commend him for that and I know that the organisation appreciates his support.
Organisations like the Southern Cross Kids Camp do incredible work for these children. They really do bring some joy into their lives and give them the support, encouragement and love which is often missing. But what they do not do—and it is not their mandate—is to address some of the root causes of the problems. The question we should be asking is: what is causing these statistics to go up at such an alarming rate? As I said, child protection orders have almost doubled in a decade.
No-one can categorically prove what the root causes are. Certainly alcohol is a factor. Drugs are a factor. Unemployment is a factor. Poverty is a factor as well. But I was taken by a report, For Kids’ Sake, by Professor Patrick Parkinson AM, who describes in quite a compelling manner the breakdown of families in Australia as being a considerable factor in the number of incidents of child ill-being, if you like, and he describes, in quite considerable detail, some of those things. He says:
While it would be simplistic to posit just one or two explanations—
if there is one major demographic change in western societies that can be linked to a large range of adverse consequences for many children and young people, it is the growth in the numbers of children who experience life in a family other than living with their two biological parents, at some point before the age of 15. Family conflict and parental separation have a range of adverse impacts on children and young people.
Again, he does not say there is a direct causal link there, but he notes the correlation and notes that over the last 20 years there has been a marked breakdown in family relationships in Australia. Indeed, as you may be aware, about a third of marriages these days end in divorce. So I would certainly commend the report to members of the House. I think it is worth looking at. Professor Parkinson, who wrote the report, is one of Australia’s most eminent authorities on child protection and family-law related matters. He is a professor at the University of Sydney.
So what is to be done to address some of these issues? I will not try tonight to prescribe a policy solution to address all the issues of child neglect, but let me at least talk about some things which I think might assist young families to stay together in a more harmonious way. The starting point is to recognise that we do indeed have a problem. The high incidence of family breakdown is not merely a modern trend like any other modern trend but a serious issue that is within our control. We should concentrate on it and think about it as policymakers. I think we need to unashamedly declare that strong families raise strong children and build strong communities. There is undoubtedly love and care in all family types, but I certainly believe that children being raised by two loving parents is the ideal situation—and I say that having grown up in a single-parent household at a time when there were few single parents around.
Next, I think our policy should be geared to supporting families as much as possible—particularly young families who are trying to find their feet. Professor Parkinson has some recommendations in this area which we should look at. He particularly recommends the Family Relationship Centres as being a good model for supporting families through counselling and education programs which the centres run. Indeed, I was delighted to open one in my electorate quite recently. But it is broader than this, I believe. I think we should be supporting more strongly the key community institutions that bring people together and provide support and a network, particularly for young families. In this regard, kinders are particularly important. That is why I have been such a passionate defender of three-year-old kinders in Victoria. The child-care centres are important.
The churches are, I think, very important in our community in this regard and I think we should respect those churches as much as possible, even if you are not necessarily a Christian or have faith in another denomination. The mothers’ and fathers’ groups are also important in this area as indeed the large sporting clubs increasingly are. In my electorate the large football clubs play a very vital role in terms of linking up younger families with older people, again providing a network of support for those people. So I think we can do more in terms of supporting community institutions that bring people together.
Finally, on an individual basis sometimes we need to take the pressure off ourselves and realise there is no such thing as a perfect family. If from an individual perspective we do some of those things, and if we can do some of the policy measures I have outlined then we can strengthen families in Australia. (Time expired)