Opening Address to the Child Aware Approaches Conference – 31 March, 2014

 

I’d like to thank Brian Babington for his kind invitation to address you this morning and say it’s an honour and privilege to open the second annual Child Aware Approaches Conference.

It’s an obvious reality that adults create children in the biological sense.

But it’s equally true that children create adults in the emotional sense.

As the parents amongst you surely know first-hand, nothing causes a person to grow-up more quickly than staring into the face of one’s newborn infant.

At that moment, the reality of parental responsibility hits home with full force.

No more spur-of-the-moment trips to the beach;

No more partying into the wee hours of the night;

The free and easy life is supplanted by one that is costly and complex.

From that moment onwards – and over most of the following two sometimes it seems three decades – you bear the joyous burden of preparing sons and daughters to assume their place in the world as happy, healthy adults.

In the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandberg:

A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”

Yet as imperfect mortal beings we labour in the realm of humanity rather than divinity.

And this inalienably flawed nature of the human condition means there will always be those who fail in their sacred parental duty;

Those who shower their sons and daughters with abuse rather than affection.

It was Pastor Dietrich Bonhofer – the German anti-Nazi dissident murdered by the SS – who said:

“The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.”

At the moment the sacrosanct relationship between parent and child is profaned through maltreatment or neglect, it becomes our duty to shield the weak from the strong and protect those who are unable to protect themselves.

This governmental ‘duty to protect’ must always be exercised with a sense of humility and discernment.

But at the end of the day, the best interests of the child must always be preeminent and paramount.

There can never be any ambiguity about that.

So I’d like to express my appreciation for your demonstrable dedication to the safety and wellbeing of Australia’s children.

Each and every day you translate the highest ideals of our society into real world practice.

It’s hard, often emotionally challenging work.

And I salute you for it.

Ladies and gentlemen the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle famously described synergy as a process in which:

“the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Synergy is precisely what this Conference represents.

Here you have practitioners, community organisations, service providers and policy makers all together in this one room.

If there was ever was an opportunity for us to jointly have a total impact that is greater than the sum of our individual parts, this is it.

If there’s anyone who can help to make “protecting children everyone’s business”, it’s the people here today.

This is the key objective of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020.

The Framework articulates an ambitious agenda to reduce child abuse and neglect throughout our nation.

I’m pleased to see the civil society sector is working in concert with government to put this agenda into practice.

These two elements have combined in a National Framework Implementation Working Group that has proposed innovative policy and service delivery options.

Under its new title – the National Forum for Protecting Australia’s Children – this joint initiative of civil society and government will continue to provide leadership as we address this all-important problem.

Ladies and gentlemen I’m sure it’s not news to anyone here that mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence are prime risk factors for child abuse and neglect.

I’m equally sure it will come as no surprise that early intervention is the most effective means of combatting this scourge.

A British Government report produced in 2011 said:

“The bleak truth is that decades of expensive late intervention have failed. Major social problems have got worse not better: despite heroic frontline efforts tackling the symptoms, their causes remain unaddressed.”

Research conducted here at home has arrived at similar conclusions.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies found that child abuse and neglect presage high social and financial costs in later years.

Substance abuse, mental illness, criminality and homelessness are all demonstrable follow-on effects from child abuse.

Another Australian study estimated that an aggregate annual national cost of roughly $4 billion in 2007.

These statistics make it clear that Australia doesn’t only have a moral imperative to address child abuse, but has an economic imperative as well.

Child Aware Approaches should be an effective part of our arsenal in the fight against child abuse and neglect.

It exemplifies the principle of early intervention, fostering grass roots, community initiatives focused on addressing child or family vulnerability before it evolves into full-blown crisis.

All too often, the interests of sons and daughters are overshadowed by the struggles of parents with their own individual demons.

Child Aware Approaches will help restore children to their appropriate place in the family equation – at its absolute centre.

And to that end I’m pleased to announce the next step in our campaign to enhance child safety in Australia – Child Aware Local Initiatives.

This initiative is based on our conviction that no one knows the needs and problems of local communities better than local community members.

It will assist local communities to implement important policies that are practical and will help to render local children safe from harm.

The Child Aware Local Initiative will build upon local knowledge and local resources, providing tools and expertise about effective campaigns for child protection.

Families Australia and the Australian Centre for Child Protection at the University of South Australia are to be applauded for the central role they’re playing in this effort.

In partnership with the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments, these organisations will launch Local Initiative trial programmes in up to eight locations throughout Australia.

At each trial location, a local organisation will be designated as the lead Initiative entity that will work collaboratively with Families Australia and Australian Centre for Child Protection partners.

Local councils, schools, health providers or social service organisations are all likely candidates to serve in this leadership role.

At the local level, these lead entities will work in concert with other grass roots community groups to promote local resource and information sharing.

Outreach and support activities amongst local families will be encouraged.

And the Initiative will also focus on providing children with a stronger voice in their local community.

All with the aim of helping local communities to foster safe and nurturing environments for local children.

The Child Aware Local Initiative will be rolled-out throughout Australia over the next 18 months.

Today I’m privileged to announce that the first two of these eight trial Initiatives will commence by June 2014 in Townsville Queensland and Lismore New South Wales.

By the end of this year we intend to have six additional pilot programs in place throughout Australia.

Ladies and gentlemen in her address tomorrow, Emeritus Professor Dorothy Scott will elaborate on the emergence of Child Aware Approaches as a national movement.

I understand many of you were active in the development of the Building Capacity/Building Bridges (BCBB) project under the National Framework’s First Action Plan.

The BCBB sought to improve the capacity of practitioners to help adult clients meet the needs of children.

Building on this program, in 2012 Child Aware Approaches funded 43 projects focused on family support, women’s safety, substance abuse, mental health and disability.

These projects involved research that produced strategies to help service providers provide effective assistance for at-risk families.

Last year’s Child Aware Approaches Conference showcased some of what we had learned from those projects.

This year’s Conference will further help us to learn what works as we seek to promote child wellbeing and safety.

I note the Australian Institute of Family Studies will be presenting its: Good Practice Guide to Child Aware Approaches: Keeping our Children Safe and Well.

This Good Practice Guide should prove very useful as a practical resource for practitioners working with families.

Not only does it present the key strategies and principles that underpin Child Aware Approaches, but it also provides case-study examples of innovative strategies for working with at-risk families.

The Good Practice Guide should be available on the AIFS Child Family Community Website by June 2014.

Ladies and gentlemen I’ve had a long interest and involvement in civil society.

I’ve served as an official on various organisations, on hospital boards and other social service agencies.

It’s this personal experience at the coalface of civil society that forged my views about the critical role of organisations that arise organically from the community in response to human need.

These views have only been reinforced by what I’ve seen as a Parliamentarian and Minister over the past 20-plus years.

Over those two decades I’ve seen communities – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – where basic structures of civilised society have collapsed.

Places afflicted by dire poverty where women and children are at constant risk of abuse.

Places where dependency is the rule and self-sufficiency the exception.

Places where the only people employed are on the public or not-for-profit payroll;

Places where the last vestiges of individual initiative have evaporated, leaving behind the social residue of hopelessness and despair.

It’s these cumulative observations that have forged my views about the limitations of government.

Former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously observed:

There are known knowns, there are known unknowns and there are unknown unknowns.

The worldview of this Government is steeped in a humble awareness of its imperfect knowledge and capabilities.

It’s a fundamental tenet of the Coalition worldview that civil society should be neither the instrument nor the agent of government.

We are always mindful that you always know your business better than we do

With that view in mind, we seek to implement a framework that puts government – not in the driver’s seat of policy – but under the bonnet providing the energy that takes Australia to a better place.

Ladies and gentlemen in the end, this campaign to enhance the safety of every Australian child must be a collaborative effort.

The Government certainly can’t do it alone in remote control from Canberra.

Nor can practitioners accomplish real results on an independent basis.

Success will require all of us – government, academia, civil society organisations and local communities – working together in an integrated, multi-disciplinary manner.

And that brings me back to synergy.

Steven Covey – the world renowned author of best-seller The Seven Habits of Successful People – wrote:

“The essence of synergy is to value differences – to respect them, to build on strengths, to compensate for weaknesses.”

So let’s build on our strengths;

Let’s draw upon our collective resources to fill the gaps left for our individual limitations;

Let’s work together respectively and collectively to provide safe, happy and nurturing environments for all Australia’s children.

They deserve no less.

And we are obligated to provide no less.

I wish you a very successful and informative conference.

Thank you very much.