Your Child’s safety is often at the forefront of your mind. You think about them while you’re at work, busy driving home, and every other second of the day. You hope that they will grow into kind and caring adults, and you aim to protect their innocence for as long as you can.
Whilst their safety is important to us, unfortunately not all Australians share the same outlook towards the safety of our children, this statement is supported by some scary statistics. In 2016, the Valuing Children Initiative conducted a survey and found that one in 5 children will experience some form of sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. In addition to this, there has been a 31% increase in substantiated cases of abuse and neglect since 2010.
AUSTRALIA, THIS IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH!
We need change! Here at VCI that is precisely what we are trying to promote! We want to provide you with resources that can help you start that conversation, with those around you, the organisations you work in, and the wider community.
What do you think about these scary statistics? We want to know!
Official Launch of The Valuing Children Initiative – Gallery.
The Valuing Children Initiative aims to inspire Australians to value all children, understand that a child’s wellbeing is the shared responsibility of the entire community and ensure children are at the forefront of our considerations.The vision of the Valuing Children Initiative is the creation of a society in which all children can flourish, have a safe, caring and supportive childhood and maximise their potential.
In a power point presentation to the ARACY Conference, ‘Making Prevention Work’ (2009), Dr Lance Emerson (CEO ARACY), and Pam Muth (Allen Consulting Group), described the antecedents of complex problems affecting children and young people beginning with societal values and how we individually and as a community value children, because this directly impacts on attitudes and behaviours towards children, which directly impacts on programs and policies.
Thank you for joining me this afternoon. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.
My name is Linda Savage and I am the Convenor of the Valuing Children Initiative. Today I will be talking about the work of the Valuing Children Initiative which was established this year by two large West Australian NFP organisations, Centrecare (Inc.) and Parkerville Children and Youth Care (Inc.)
Both these organisations provide a wide range of services for children, families and communities, and have done so for decades. Their evidenced based services are underpinned by a commitment to measuring success, and have resulted in many positive outcomes. But despite this, they, like many other organisations, face the reality that the complexity, and level of demand for services, continues to grow unabated. The reality is that successes at the individual level, have not been matched by success at the societal level.
For children this is borne out by the data that shows far too many are not faring as well as they should be in affluent, modern 21st Century Australia, as this slide shows.
Across Australia efforts to improve outcomes for children are ongoing on many fronts.
Measuring and evaluating success is very much part of that. So too is data collection, linking and mapping: research and accelerating its translation into policy and practice: refining service delivery and using models such as collective impact, finding ways to overcome fragmentation, as well as better coordination of state and federal responsibilities. We have the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, SNAICCs Family Matters campaign, Royal Commissions, and Commissioners for Children and Young People. There are hundreds of articles and reports. There are hundreds of organisations, thousands of individuals, parents, carers and all levels of government working to ensure the wellbeing of children – all part of what I think can be described as an unprecedented focus on children.
There is also indisputable evidence about what children need to flourish and to be able to maximise their potential. For years there has been compelling evidence, that the experience in the womb, and the quality of care and relationships in the early years – and in particular the first 1000 days – not only has a major impact on brain development, but also on physical, cognitive and emotional health and wellbeing. We know early childhood plays a crucial role in a person’s future – determining whether the foundations of a person’s life are fragile or robust. These years are built into us – and it is well established that disadvantage, and the failure to provide adequate support in this phase of a person’s life, is often where inequality begins. This evidence compliments traditional wisdom and learnt experience over centuries.
So given all we know, and all that is being done, it begs the question why aren’t we making more progress to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of all children? What else is there that we are not seeing, what are we missing or not giving adequate attention to get better outcomes for children?
Some of you I am sure are familiar with the work of Professors Ron Heifetz and Martin Linksy. They counsel organisations grappling with tough problems like this, to ‘get on the balcony’, to get a clearer perspective. Very broadly getting on the balcony means recognising when it is time to look for new ways of achieving goals, and often involves challenging deeply held beliefs.
And in effect this is what Tony Pietropiccolo the Director of Centrecare, and Basil Hanna, the CEO of Parkerville Children and Youth Care did at the beginning of this year, by allocating precious resources to establish the VCI and employing me and Emma King to develop the Valuing Children Initiative.
For the VCI, ‘getting on the balcony’ has meant considering deeper issues of causality.
In particular it has meant asking what it is about our culture and our attitudes, whether conscious or unconscious, that allow us to tolerate a life for some children, that we would never tolerate for our own. It has meant questioning how we value children in Australia today, the very worth we assign to the youngest citizens of our country.
We know that children themselves identify being valued as one of the most important aspects of wellbeing. And in countries such as Sweden, that perform well on child wellbeing indicators, a strong culture of valuing children has been identified as an important factor.
As this slide by ARACY shows, how we value children individually and as a section of society, directly impacts on how we treat them, the priority we give their needs and rights, and this in turn impacts on policy, programs and resources.
This why the VCI has focused on asking how we value children, because although sometimes forgotten, it plays a pivotal role in children’s wellbeing.
Societal attitudes are underpinned by what we value and societal attitudes are powerful – even more powerful at times than our laws and our justice system.
Nothing has provided a starker example of this than the shocking revelations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The truth is that children who spoke up about their abuse, the adults who spoke out on their behalf, and even the laws that made sexual abuse of children a crime, were no match for the prevailing culture and attitudes of those in positions of power, who chose not to believe children, and put the protection of institutions and adults first. The result was that for decades, both institutions, and perpetrators, were able to avoid scrutiny.
The lack of value assigned to these children and their lives, is glaringly apparent.
Of course it always so much easier to see this in retrospect and wonder how people could have possibly believed what they did, or behaved in the way that they did. It is easy to be incredulous in hindsight. A far greater and more confronting challenge is to identify it in ourselves, and in our own time.
There has been recent example that has caused many to ask how we value children in Australia today, and that has been the revelations of the treatment of children at the Don Dale Juvenile Justice Centre. It prompted the PM to speak about the need to look at the culture and prevailing attitudes, to try and explain what happened. And not just in regard to the actual treatment of those children, but the lack of any urgent, or more effective response despite previous reports, media coverage and the many who knew what was occurring.
So the first challenge then for the Valuing Children Initiative, has been to make the case that societies attitudes to children, how we value them, is critical to understanding children’s place in our society and what they experience. On the table you will find copies of the Foundation Paper that provides the rationale for the initiative. It has been the basis for discussion and engagement with a wide range of stakeholders. It is also available on the website.
Now it is true that attitudes to children, what could be described as how we value them – have changed enormously over the years, and so correspondingly our care and treatment of children.
Until the 19th Century children, like women, were the property of husbands and fathers, and not even recognised as a separate legal person. Slowly, over the next century there was growing acceptance of the need for the state to protect children from abuse, neglect and exploitation. By the mid-20th century laws to protect them were becoming commonplace. In the last 50 years the role of the state in protecting children, providing services and acting in their best interests, has been embedded in legislation and policy. Today, not even a parent has the right to beat or abuse a child. And international conventions, most recently the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, have changed the way children are viewed, leading to growing acceptance of children as citizens from birth, with individual rights of their own, including the right to be heard, listened to, and have what they want, acted upon.
So what drives changes in attitudes? What drives what we value as a society?
These are an important question for the VCI.
We know that attitudinal change can rarely be attributed to one course of action, individual or group. Influencing attitudes is usually the work of many people, and often over decades. Today’s focus on domestic and family violence for example has taken decades to become part of mainstream discourse, beginning with the refuge movement in the 1960s. Changing attitudes to smoking took many years too, and at times had wait for a Minister, or government, either prepared to stand up to powerful opposition, or respond definitively to the evidence. It is invariably a complex mix of inputs, the work of many over decades, unexpected opportunities, and even a crisis that can seem to suddenly add up and be the impetus for change.
It is complex, but in the area of organisational change and leadership, there appears to be agreement that the quest for broad systemic change most often ignores one crucial variable, and that is cultural change. In particular beliefs, values and attitudes. This is the territory of shared assumptions, unwritten rules and beliefs.
So what do we know about Australians attitudes to all children? With surprisingly little data available, the VCI commissioned a benchmark survey earlier this year.
The survey results have been revealing. In designing the survey questions, we learnt that standard nationwide polls, do not usually list children as a separate to the family unit. That has meant that when Australians are asked to rank issues by importance like taxation, climate change, or the health system, children have not been included as an option. Needless to say we did include children. So it was encouraging then, that 86% said looking after the interests of children was important to them.
Despite that, they still placed the interests of children only ninth out of a list of ten. By comparison looking after the interests of older people ranked 6th. More than 50% said that jobs and the economy, were more important to them than looking after the interests of children.
This rather harsh characterisation of children, I think lends weight to the need to do more to portray children in a positive light. It is also very much at odds with the fact, that more than 17% of all children live below the poverty line, despite Australia being ranked as the seventh wealthiest nation in the world on a GDP per capita basis. It suggests at least, that many Australians simply do not know the circumstances of a significant number of children in Australia today.
The survey asked too, whether a child’s word is less likely to be believed than that of an adult. It is concerning that even today, 63% still believe that a child’s word is less likely to be believed. And also of real concern was that 70% agreed that children ‘belong’ to their parents, until the age of 18.
The survey also asked about the role of government and decision makers. Nearly half were of the opinion that Governments give too little consideration to children. This is consistent with the findings of the Australian Child Health Poll, also conducted this year, that reported over half of those surveyed believed that federal politicians should take more action on issues relating to the wellbeing of Australian children and teenagers.
With a Federal election being held earlier this year the VCI took the opportunity to write to all MPs, calling for specific action and institutional change to make children a greater priority. It included:
Calling for the creation of a Ministerial portfolio for Children and Future Generations. The VCI believes this would be a tangible sign that children are valued at the highest level, as well as ensuring they have a place at the Cabinet table. Ideally this position would drive the creation of a National Plan for ALL Children, and so counter the short termism and crisis driven responses of modern politics that is particularly damaging to children. It would promote high level engagement in futures thinking and planning.
It is interesting to note that of the 42 Ministers and parliamentary Secretaries of the federal government, not one portfolio includes the word child, or children. Of course I know some will point to portfolios that provide services for children and say this is adequate. But I would argue that two current Royal Commissions and an increase in substantiated cases of abuse and neglect, says otherwise, as does the incidence of childhood mental health issues, and diabetes.
Language is important. There are portfolios for Women, Sport, Aged Care, Defence Personnel even Sport to indicate and ensure there is sustained and particular focus.
The VCI has also called for the instigation of a rigorous, and transparent process by state and federal governments, to ensure that legislative and decision making processes, actively considers the impact on children and future generations. Something comparable to an environmental impact statement. This would ensure that children, who cannot vote, and so are excluded from influencing the political process, have their interests explicitly considered. This process should include the views of children whenever possible; risk analysis for particularly vulnerable children; and be evaluated and reported on. Consideration of the impact on children and future generations, is integral to sound decision making and would help translate some of the rhetoric, virtue signalling and motherhood statements into more tangible and accountable action.
The work of the VCI is best described as advocacy and rights based work, because of its focus on deeper issues of causality by questioning societal attitudes to children. From the start we have grappled with how we would measure our impact and success. This is because the VCI’s ambitious vision and objectives defy easy or conventional measurement.
For the VCI, success means cultural change. We believe children are simply not valued enough. As I said earlier, attitudes are complex and shaped by many factors, many of which we do not understand. Nor can we easily identify and understand the forces that come together to precipitate, and lead to changes in attitudes.
Social impact models of measurement such as Social Return on Investment, Most Significant Change and inputs/activities/outputs models, are not readily applicable.
The most relevant type of evaluation for the VCI is probably ‘impact evaluation’, which attempts to provide an objective test, to the extent possible, of what change has occurred, and the extent to which that can be attributed to a specific intervention. To have validity impact evaluation requires a counterfactual – that is what those outcomes would have been in the absence of the intervention, for example the work of the VCI.
So, if for example the federal government adopted the very specific changes recommended by the VCI it could be taken as some measure of success or impact.
Similarly if the calls we have made for community awareness raising, and education campaigns as part of encouraging debate about how we value children, were instituted, and their impact was shown to benefit children on certain indicators, we might be able to claim we played some part, however small and difficult to quantify.
To date though, as with much measuring for success, we have focused on measuring activity.
So for example the numbers of meetings held to discuss and promote the VCI, including contacts with elected and public officials with authority to influence policy. Meetings with not for profits and members of the judiciary, community groups, publications of articles, media releases, and opportunities to speak to the media. Distribution and requests for copies of the Foundation Paper. Speaking engagements to promote the VCI, website traffic and number of contacts and collaboration with other organisations.
The ambitious vison of the VCI is to inspire Australians to value all children, understand that a child’s wellbeing is the shared responsibility of the entire community and to ensure children are at the forefront of our considerations.
I think it is important to remind ourselves that all children must navigate a world they had no part in creating. The world they find themselves in, and experience, will always depends on the attitudes of adults and what they value.
In closing let me say we have been encouraged by the support and positive feedback we have received, particularly as work of this kind, work that cannot easily be measured, risks being seen as less important.
For that reason we were especially pleased to have Professor Fiona Stanley support for the VCI. I am sure Fiona Stanley is well known to you all. She has tirelessly championed the need to put children at the centre of our society and for cultural change to ensure all children have the childhoods they deserve and have a right to experience. So I will end with a short video, available also on the VCI website that she made for the launch of the VCI.
The Valuing Children Initiative (VCI) is grateful for the opportunity to make a submission to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Royal Commission), and wishes to acknowledge the work of the Royal Commission in this landmark inquiry.. This submission is in response to the Terms of Reference of the Royal Commission, in particular clauses a, d and f, and based on the advocacy and research the VCI has undertaken relevant to broader issues raised by the work of the Royal Commission.
This submission focuses on highlighting the role that deeply embedded societal attitudes about children have played in creating a cultural context, both in institutions and in the wider community, which enabled the widespread sexual abuse of children to be concealed, and allowed perpetrators and institutions to deny any wrongdoing, and evade efforts to hold them accountable for decades.
Nothing has provided a starker example of this than the shocking revelations of the Royal Commission. Children who spoke up about their abuse, the adults who spoke out on their behalf, and even the laws that made the sexual abuse of children a crime, were no match for the prevailing culture and the attitudes of those in positions of power, who chose not to believe the child, and put the protection of institutions and adults first.[i]
The power of dominant societal attitudes and the lack of value assigned to these children and their lives, is glaringly apparent in retrospect. Yet a far greater and more confronting challenge is to identify it in our own time and the role it continues to play in children’s ongoing vulnerability to sexual abuse, despite today’s unprecedented focus on children’s safety and wellbeing.[ii]
The VCI believes we must ask challenging questions about how we value children in Australia. What we value, creates the culture of a society and in turn drives conduct. How we value children therefore, although sometimes overlooked, plays a critical role in ensuring a child’s safety and wellbeing, because it directly impacts on how they are treated and the priority given to their needs and rights.[iii]
What we value is reflected in societal attitudes. Prevailing attitudes, both conscious and unconscious, and particularly of those in positions of authority are powerful, even more powerful at times than a country’s laws and justice system.
The VCI acknowledges that the very particular set of circumstances that created the high risk environments in institutions where sexual abuse of children occurred, with poor prospects of detection, as well as inadequate mechanisms for reporting and punishment of perpetrators, by and large no longer exist.[iv]
It seems reasonable to also assume that today, children who report sexual abuse, are more likely to be believed and action taken on their behalf. Yet a survey undertaken by the VCI found that even today, 63% of survey respondents agreed that a child’s word is less likely to be believed than that of an adult.[v] We cannot therefore say with any certainty that underlying attitudes towards children in this respect have changed.
Sexual abuse of children remains rampant in Australia, and it is estimated that as many as one in five will be sexually harmed before the age of 18 years.[vi] Whilst this mostly occurs in a child’s own home and by someone they know, there continues to be reports of sexual abuse in institutions.[vii]
The Royal Commission represents a once in a generation opportunity to question, and to seek ways to change attitudes to children that have made them vulnerable to sexual abuse in the past, and continue to do so today.
Royal Commissions are indispensable to the acceptance and admission of past failures and to making recommendations that encompass a broad range of strategies.
Acceptance of past failures can however unintentionally imply that the attitudes of the past are just that, and that improved policy, programs and legislation, essential as they are, will be able to bring about the change required. The VCI believes that this mental shortcut is a grave mistake.
Getting it right for every child now, and in the future will always depend on the attitudes of the adult world and how we value children. All children must navigate a world that they had no part in creating. Their safety and wellbeing will always depend on the attitudes of adults and how society values its children.
The VCI respectfully makes the following recommendations which will play a part in driving attitudinal and cultural change.
Recommendations for consideration by the Royal Commission.
Promote understanding that a society’s attitudes towards children and how we value them impacts fundamentally on their safety and wellbeing.
Undertake research to better understand attitudes to children and the part prevailing attitudes play in a child’s safety and wellbeing.
Create a dedicated Ministerial portfolio for Children and Future Generations, and a National Plan for Children.
Instigate a rigorous and transparent process to ensure that all policy, legislative and decision making processes explicitly consider the impact on children and future generations.
Promote understanding that a society’s attitudes towards children and how we value them impacts fundamentally on their safety and wellbeing.
How we value children matters. It directly impacts on our attitudes to children and by extension how they are treated, and the priority given to their needs and rights.[viii]
In Sweden, a strong culture of valuing and respecting[ix] children has been identified as an important factor contributing to their wellbeing. In Australia, being ‘loved and valued’ has been identified by children as the most important aspect of their wellbeing.[x]
Failure to value children has undermined the laws and policies that are in place to protect children[xi]. It has influenced how elected representatives have exercised their statutory responsibilities to protect children, and rendered children’s protection, and rights, secondary to those of adults and institutions.
Nothing has provided a starker example of this than the shocking revelations of the Royal Commission. Children who spoke up about their abuse, the adults who spoke out on their behalf, and even the laws that made sexual abuse of children a crime, were no match for the prevailing culture and the attitudes of those in positions of power, who chose not to believe children, and put the protection of institutions and adults’ first.[xii]
The attitudes of powerful institutions and individuals, and the deference of many in society, provided a cloak of untouchability, and even today has been used as an excuse to explain and rationalise what occurred. [xiii]
In evidence to the Royal Commission for example, Ms Doyle, a former supervising child care officer of the Department of Children’s Services, when asked why the licence for Riverview, (one of four institutions run by the Salvation Army for wards of the state) was not removed, despite clear and articulated concerns about the mistreatment of children, said that the responsible Minister was reluctant to move against an institution run by any religious organisation[xiv].
Cardinal Pell, told the Royal Commission that the view held in the 1970’s and 1980’s in Ballarat was, “generally not to believe the child”. In contrast he went on to say, that “I must say in those days if a priest denied such activity I was very strongly inclined to accept the denial”[xv].
The power of dominating attitudes and beliefs, and the lack of value assigned to these children and their lives, is glaringly apparent in retrospect.
A far greater and more confronting challenge is to identify the power of endemic attitudes in ourselves, and in our own time.
For this reason the VCI believes it is important to promote understanding that how we value children, and a society’s attitudes to its children, plays a crucial role in their safety and wellbeing.
2. Undertake research to better understand attitudes to children and the part prevailing attitudes play in a child’s safety and wellbeing.
In an effort to understand what drives and influences attitudes towards children, and with limited studies and research available, the VCI commissioned a baseline survey of 1000 adults across Australia about their attitudes towards children.
The Valuing Children Initiative Benchmark Survey: 2016 (the survey) [xvi] provides a snapshot of Australian’s attitudes to children, and attitudes towards policy consideration of children’s needs in Australia.
The survey provided some thought provoking findings. For example 70% agreed that children ‘belong’ to their parents until the age of 18 years.[xvii] When asked to describe children, the most commonly chosen words were spoilt, lazy and selfish.[xviii]
86% of survey respondents said looking after the interests of children was important to them. Despite that they placed the interests of children only ninth out of a list of ten. By comparison looking after the interests of older people ranked sixth.[xix]
More than 50% said that issues like jobs, and the economy were more important to them than the needs of children.[xx]
Almost half (49%) agreed that children today have too many rights.[xxi]
A recurring theme, in evidence given to the Royal Commission, has been that children who had been sexually abused and reported it, were simply not believed, implying that a dismissive view of children was widely held and accepted.
While it seems reasonable to assume that children who report sexual abuse today are more likely to be believed, and action taken on their behalf, it is significant then that 63% of survey respondents agreed that a child’s word is still less likely to be believed than an adult.[xxii]
The VCI believes that further research is required and far more attention must be given to gaining a comprehensive understanding of attitudes to children, what drives them, how attitudes shape the underlying culture, and the role this plays in creating a safe environment for children.
3. Create a dedicated Ministerial portfolio for Children and Future Generations, and a National Plan for Children.
All children must navigate a world they had no part in creating. The childhood they experience is entirely dependent on the circumstances they are born into, and the attitudes and actions of the adults closest to them, as well as the wider society. This is the inevitable consequence of being a child in an adult’s world.
This means children have a limited capacity to influence culture and attitudes. In particular, their lack of participation in the political process results in unconscious bias that relegates their rights and needs to a lower priority than adults, just as women and indigenous Australian’s experienced before they gained the right to vote.[xxiii]
This bias has no doubt played a part in enabling the sexual abuse of children to continue without scrutiny for decades.
Just as dedicated Ministers for Women were appointed to advance gender equality and improve the lives of Australian women,[xxiv] a dedicated Minister for Children and Future Generations is needed to ensure a greater focus on children’s rights[xxv] and needs.
It is notable that today, despite having 42 Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries, the 45th Turnbull government does not have a single portfolio that includes the word ‘child’.
Portfolios that provide services for children have not proved to be adequate as evidenced by the need for two concurrent Royal Commissions,[xxvi] as well as the increase in substantiated cases of abuse and neglect.[xxvii]
A Minister for Children and Future Generations would be a tangible sign of the value placed on all children, and a commitment to their rights and needs.
The VCI believes a dedicated Minister is needed to ensure a more sustained focus on the rights and needs of children today, as well as future generations of children,[xxviii] and would ensure there is a dedicated voice for children, and drive the creation of a National Plan for all Children.
A National Plan for Children would counter the short termism and crisis driven responses of modern politics that is particularly damaging to children.[xxix] Integral to its development must be the views of children.[xxx]
The VCI survey found that 55% of Australians supported the appointment of a Federal Minister for Children and Future Generations[xxxi].
4) Instigate a rigorous and transparent process to ensure all policy, legislative and decision making processes actively consider the impact on children and future generations.
The VCI believes governments and parliaments should play a more active role in the safety and wellbeing of children in Australia, and the impact of decisions on children and future generations of children, should be actively considered.
The 2013 Report of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, ‘Now for the Long Term’, has urged decision makers to be innovative, and reinvigorate how institutions work to better serve the needs of those too young to vote, as well as future generations.[xxxii]
When asked about the role of government in protecting children’s interests nearly half (46%) of those surveyed believed that governments give ‘too little’ consideration to children.[xxxiii]
The VCI has previously written to all federal members of parliament seeking their commitment to the instigation of a rigorous and transparent process to ensure that all policy, legislative and decision making processes, actively consider the impact on children and future generations.
This would ensure that children, who cannot vote and are excluded from influencing the political process, have their interests explicitly considered. Considering the impact on children, as well as the compatibility of legislation with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child[xxxiv] in particular, should be an explicit process required before legislation is introduced, rather than after it has already been introduced into the Houses of Parliament.[xxxv]
Consideration of the impact on children should be considered integral to sound decision making. This process should include the views of children whenever possible, risk analysis for vulnerable children, and be reported on.
[ii] The changes in attitudes to all children over the past 200 years, and the plethora of services, organisations, institutions and all levels of government dedicated to children’s protection and wellbeing today, is without doubt testament to society’s ability to adapt its social norms, and the genuine commitment to children in Australia. If responsibility for their protection, and recognition of their rights and wellbeing is accepted as a crude measure, then it is true to say that children today are more valued than ever before.
The Valuing Children Initiative, Foundation Paper. p.7. April 2016.
[iii] In a power point presentation to the ARACY Conference, ‘Making Prevention Work’ (2009), Dr Lance Emerson (CEO ARACY), and Pam Muth (Allen Consulting Group), described the antecedents of complex problems affecting children and young people beginning with societal values. How we individually and as a community value children needs attention as it directly impacts on attitudes and behaviours towards children, which directly impacts on programs and policies.
[vii] States and territories provided data to the Royal Commission about 2,683 reports of child sexual abuse in out of home care over the last two financial years. The selected non-government organisations provided data to the Royal Commission about 956 reports of child sexual abuse in out of home care over the last two financial years, 2012-2013, and 2013-2014.
Public Hearing into Preventing, and Responding to Allegations, of Child Sexual Abuse Occurring in Out of Home Care, Case Study No. 24. April 2016 p.12.
[x] Over three-quarters (78%) of children and young people, and almost nine in 10 (88%) adults, indicated that being ‘loved and valued’ is one of the top three aspects of wellbeing. This was followed by ‘being healthy’, ‘being safe’, and ‘being able to learn and develop.
The Nest consultation. Findings from consultation with children, young people, parents and other adults conducted between March and September 2012 p.2.
[xii] In evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Cardinal George Pell said that views held in the 1970’s and 1980s in Ballarat in relation to disclosures of child sexual abuse were, “generally not to believe the child.”
[xiii] The Interim Report by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Vol 2, found “Survivors reported that they told adults in positions of authority what was happening but those adults did nothing. Many also reported that perpetrators were moved from one region. Diocese or state to another in the wake of complaints.” Chapter 2 p.5.
[xxiii] Without a vote, children suffer the unconscious bias that relegates their rights and needs to a lower priority than adults, making them second class citizens just like women and indigenous Australians were before they gained the right to vote.
[xxv] The UNICEF 2011 ‘ Listen to Children Report’ argues that despite ratifying the Convention in 1991, Australia has not effectively incorporated human rights into policy and legislative frameworks to nurture and support Australian children. Instead, successive governments have perpetuated a traditional welfare approach to children’s wellbeing and have not learned to listen to and work with children—to create child-sensitive bodies, systems and initiatives. p.iii
[xxvii] Over the period between 2010-2011 and 2014-15 there was a 35% increase in the number of Australian children who were the subjects of substantiated cases of neglect and abuse. Child Protection Australia: 2014-15, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare p.30.
[xxix] Focus on the short term has been identified as damaging to economic reform and efforts to address issues such a climate change. Yet the damage it does to children and future generations barely rates a mention, despite the fact that there is only one chance at childhood, and this influences so much of a person’s future. The tendency to focus on the short term, and the inability to govern for the future, has been identified by the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations at Oxford University, as characterising much of modern politics, especially in democratic countries such as Australia.
Now for the Long Term, The Report of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, Oxford University, 2013.
[xxx] More than half (57%) of Australians who participated in the Valuing Children Initiative Benchmark Survey agree that the opinions of children should be considered as being as important as the opinions of adults – Further research should look to understand why a high proportion of people disagree with this statement.
[xxxii] In its report ‘Now for the Long Term’, the Oxford Martin Commission urges decision makers to be innovative, and reinvigorate how institutions work to better serve the needs of those too young to vote, as well as future generations.
Now for the Long Term, The Report of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, Oxford University, 2013. Chapter 2 p. 58.
[xxxv] Currently the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights undertakes its review of legalisation as a technical inquiry relating to Australia’s international human rights obligations once legislation has been introduced. The Joint Committee does not consider the broader policy merits of the legislation or its impact on children.
Jingles like this show just how powerful and memorable such campaigns can be to impart information and create awareness.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a similar campaign to once again highlight the value of our nation’s children?
The VCI believes that 2017 marks a critical juncture for Australia’s children. With two Royal Commissions due to report on the abuse and mistreatment of children, it presents a genuine opportunity to reflect on our attitudes to children as part of a commitment to ensuring their safety and wellbeing.
The pending release of Royal Commission recommendations also provides a timely opportunity to promote the inherent value of all children through a much needed, highly visible and innovative public awareness raising campaign.
The VCI continues to advocate for funding to be allocated to a campaign to promote a positive focus on all children, and raise awareness that how we value children and our attitudes towards them, play a crucial role in their safety and wellbeing.
Thank you for joining me this morning. My name is Linda Savage and I am Convenor of the Valuing Children Initiative. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.
My Policy Think Space session is titled ‘When our best efforts don’t seem to be enough’. So what do I mean when I say our best efforts on behalf of children don’t seem to be enough despite widespread concern that far too many children are not experiencing the safe, caring and supportive childhood they deserve and have a right to? I certainly don’t mean that people are not trying hard enough.
Quite the opposite in fact, because I believe the focus on children today is unprecedented in Australia’s history. There are hundreds of organisations, thousands of individuals, as well as parents, carers and all levels of government committed to children.
The last decade has seen the launch of the National Framework (for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020) and the National Plan (to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children (2010-2022). This year alone there are two Royal Commissions due to report about the abuse and mistreatment of children. The last decade too has seen the appointment of Commissioners for Children and Young People.
Across Australia there are centres of excellence dedicated to children that are conducting research, generating high quality reports, as well as hundreds of peer reviewed articles every year to inform policy makers and practitioners.[i] Efforts to accelerate and translate research into policy and practice, refine service delivery, overcome fragmentation and coordinate state and federal responsibilities are ongoing. Momentum too is growing for a National Plan for all children, and a new collective approach to policy and service delivery.
And when I say our best efforts are not enough, I certainly don’t mean that there is not enough evidence that the first 1000 days of a child’s life are critical to a child’s future life chance.
There have been numerous state and federal government inquiries, as well as independent reports, acknowledging the crucial impact of the early years of a child’s life on a person’s future health and wellbeing.
From mental health to literacy, the critical impact of the early years is well understood. Examples abound such as a recent statement by the AMA on obesity, calling on the federal government to show leadership and saying:
“The AMA recommends that the initial focus of a national obesity strategy should be on children and adolescents, with prevention and early intervention starting with pregnant mother and the foetus, and continuing through infancy and childhood.”[ii]
Yet despite the compelling evidence about the early years, the emphasis is still on treating problems after they arise, crudely what could be described as ‘mopping up the mess’, rather than using cost effective prevention approaches that have a far greater chance of improving a child’s life course, as Professor Oberklaid said in his keynote address this morning.
You can’t help but wonder just how many more times the 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences Study needs to be quoted? How often do we need to quote the work of Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman, [iii]or the World Economic Forum that said as recently as January this year,[iv] that there is a very strong case for entirely reframing our understanding of human capital based on what we know about the first 1000 days, given its exceptionally high return on social investment. [v]
So what is really going on? With the wealth of evidence about what makes for a safe and supportive childhood, and the unprecedented focus on children today, what accounts for the gap between what we know, what we do and the lives some children have to endure.
A decade ago Harvard Professors Ron Heifetz and Martin Linksy counselled organisations grappling with tough, and seemingly recalcitrant problems, to ‘get on the balcony’ so they could gain a clearer perspective.[vi]
And this is in effect what the Valuing Children Initiative has done since it was established in January last year, and as it has grappled with trying to understand why the best efforts of so many, have not been enough to ensure all children have the safe, caring and supportive childhoods they deserve, and have a right to in modern, affluent 21st Century Australia.
So what has getting on the balcony meant for the Valuing Children Initiative. What it has meant is challenging the very attitudes we have to children and the motherhood statements about children that we hear and often accept – about how precious children are and that children are our future and everything we do is with that in mind.
It has meant asking ourselves what is it, embedded in the cultural attitudes and behaviours of our society, conscious or unconscious, that explains the gap between what we say we want for children, the lives some children endure and the challenges that far too many children are experiencing growing up. It has meant considering deeper issues of causality and asking if the adult world really values children enough, rather than making the assumption that we do.
And this is because how we value children matters. It matters because it determines the worth we assign them, and underpins and shapes our attitudes and behaviour towards them. It is important because it directly impacts on how we treat children, and the priority we give their needs and rights, and in turn on policy, programs and resources.
What we value as a society underpins our culture[vii], our outlook and attitudes. And although sometimes overlooked, it plays a pivotal role in a child’s safety and wellbeing.[viii]
Societal attitudes set expectations about what is acceptable and also drive change. This is obvious when you reflect on how attitudes have changed to the participation of women in public life, to smoking, to the protection of the environment; as well how we view children born to single mothers today compared to the past.
Children themselves, identify being valued as one of the most important aspects of wellbeing. And in countries such as Sweden, that measure strongly on child wellbeing indicators, a strong culture of valuing children is an important factor. Professor Fiona Stanley, who I am sure is well known to many of you, has said that we need to change the culture in terms of how we value children, if we are going to be more successful in our efforts on their behalf.
Attitudes to children have of course changed enormously over the years, and so correspondingly has our care and treatment of them.
Until the 19th Century children, like women, were the property of husbands and fathers, and not even recognised as a separate legal person. Slowly, over the next century there was growing acceptance of the need for the state to protect children from abuse, neglect and exploitation. By the mid-20th century, laws to protect them were becoming commonplace. In the last 50 years the role of the state in protecting children, providing services and acting in their best interests, has increasingly been embedded in legislation and policy. Today, not even a parent has the right to beat or abuse a child. Once, what went on in the home and how a man treated his wife and children, was considered to be no one else’s business. Today few would subscribe to this view when it comes to violence and abuse today. International conventions too, most recently the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, have helped to change the way children are viewed. They have led to growing acceptance of children as citizens from birth, with individual rights of their own, including the right to be heard, listened to, and have their wishes taken into account and acted upon.
So changing societal attitudes can be a powerful positive force driving change, but they also impede change.
This is particularly apparent when there are competing rights and interests between different sections of society. WHO is valued most, determines whose rights and needs are given priority.
The evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has provided a striking and chilling example of this. Despite rape and sexual abuse of children being a serious crime, despite children speaking out about their abuse, none of this was any match for the prevailing culture and attitudes of those in positions of power, who chose generally not to believe children, and put the protection of institutions and adults first.[ix] The result was that for decades both institutions, and perpetrators were able to avoid scrutiny. And they were aided in this by societal attitudes that too often involved turning a blind eye or unquestioning deference to the authority of people in positions of power.
It is no coincidence that last year the Prime Minister spoke about the need to look at the culture and prevailing attitudes as part of trying to understand what happened at the Don Dale Juvenile Justice Centre. And not just in regard to the treatment of those children, but also the lack of a more urgent response despite the previous reports, media coverage and the many who knew what was occurring.
Surprisingly, there is not much research available about the wider community’s attitudes to children. To better understand them, the Valuing Children Initiative commissioned a baseline survey about perceptions of children and childhood. The survey has been revealing. At times encouraging, some of the results disturbing and also at times contradictory.
It was encouraging that 86% of those surveyed said that looking after the interests of children was important to them. A classic motherhood statement you might say, so the survey asked questions that dug a bit deeper to see how that translated into something more concrete.
And what the survey found, was that the interests of children actually ranked only ninth out of a list of ten issues. By comparison for example looking after the interests of older people, ranked sixth.[x] Jobs and the economy were ranked highest,[xi] perhaps reflecting the assumption that if it is performing well, the benefits will invariably trickle down to children.
Let me give you another example of the contradiction between the broad statements and the specific when we are talking about children. The survey found that only half believed children in Australia today all have a fair and equal opportunity to flourish and maximise their potential, yet when asked to describe children, the most commonly chosen words were spoilt, lazy, selfish and fortunate.[xii] Almost half (49%) also thought that children today have too many rights.[xiii]
This harsh characterisation of children, says something about our attitudes to children and at the very least the need to do more to portray children in a more positive light. It certainly points to the invisibility for example, of the 17% of children who live below the poverty line, despite Australia being ranked as the seventh wealthiest nation in the world on a GDP per capita basis.
The survey provided some other thought provoking findings. For example 70% agreed that children ‘belong’ to their parents until the age of 18 years.[xiv] One particularly disturbing finding was that 63% believed that a child’s word is less likely to be believed than an adults.[xv]
So all in all it does beg the question have attitudes to children really changed as much as we think they have?
What I do think is true to say is that the failure to value children, whilst glaringly obvious in retrospect, is far more difficult and far more confronting to recognise today. In fact people get quite defensive at the mere suggestion!
But this is at the heart of the work of the Valuing Children Initiative because the VCI believes children are simply not valued enough, and this helps to explain why, despite the uncontested evidence about the early years, our policy settings do not adequately reflect that, because if they did a good start in life would be non-negotiable.
It helps to explain why health budgets in this country are skewed in favour of adults.[xvi]
It helps explain why public debate about high levels of anxiety and depression, childhood obesity, sexual abuse, and the homelessness and poverty children experience in Australia today, are not central to election campaigns.
It explains why it has taken decades, and finally a Royal Commission, for adults to be able to tell their stories of the sexual abuse they suffered as children.
And it helps explain why another Royal Commission has not been established immediately to force us to face up to the shocking statistic that an estimated one in five children will be sexually harmed in some way before the age of 18, and most often by someone they know in a private residence.
We know that all children must navigate a world they had no part in creating. The childhood they experience is entirely dependent on the circumstances they are born into, and the attitudes and actions of the adults closest to them, as well as the wider society. This is the inevitable consequence of being a child in an adult’s world.
There is only one chance at childhood. As we speak, those babies and children missing out on that good enough start in life do not know the impact it is having on their lives, but one day they will. And they will know that modern, affluent Australia in 2017 knew too, but decided other things were more important.
One day they will ask us what were we thinking and how we let this continue.
So what to do? – Fundamental social change usually occurs because civil society rises up and demands change. Others follow. Let me give you some examples.
Not so long ago it was impossible legally for a husband to rape his wife. Until the 1980s, a bride, whether she knew it or not, in effect entered into a contract to be always available to have sex once married.
The activism that changed this law, was part of the seismic change in attitudes to women that has occurred since the 1960s.
And evidence too can change attitudes and can eventually prevail over powerful vested interests. For example by 1957 the evidence implicating smoking as a causative factor in lung cancer had been established to a high degree of scientific certainty, leading to the first official statement from the US Public Health Service implicating smoking as a cause of lung cancer. The tobacco industry also took notice of the emerging evidence, but instead of acknowledging what they knew to be true, hired a public relations firm (in December 1953) to implement a massive campaign to challenge the evidence. Medical doctors and academic scholars were hired to defend the industry’s claim that the evidence was “merely statistical” or based only on “animal evidence”. Similar campaigns were run in Australia. These so called ‘public relations campaigns’ — that extended for over 40 years — were designed with the goal of reassuring the public, especially current smokers, that the question of whether smoking caused harm was an “open controversy”[xvii] But attitudes changed and decision makers began to respond and eventually played a part in creating that change. Australia came to lead the way for example by the introduction in of plain packaging for cigarettes and is now a world leader with smoking rates half what they were compared to 1991.[xviii]
Today it is our attitudes to children that require a seismic change if all children are to have the safe, supportive and caring childhoods they deserve and have a right to expect. That is why challenging and understanding the impact of conscious and unconscious attitudes to children is critical to effective advocacy and influencing policy development, and so requires far greater attention.
[i] This work includes ongoing data collection, linking and mapping: efforts to better and more rapidly translate evidence and best practice into policy and practice: efforts to refine service delivery using models such as collective impact, to scale up successful programs, measure and evaluate, coordinate state and federal responsibilities, overcome fragmentation and efforts to create a new collective approach to policy and service delivery.
[vi] Heifetz R, Ronald, and Linsky, Marty. Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
[vii]A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviours, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.
[ix] In evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Cardinal George Pell said that views held in the 1970’s and 1980s in Ballart in relation to disclosures of child sexual abuse were, “generally not to believe the child.”
[xv] A Synopsis of The Valuing Children Initiative Benchmark Survey: 2016 – Part A October 2016.
[xvi] (And I say that with some regret as a former lawyer and Member of Parliament who used every opportunity to make the case for policy and investment in the early years. It is evidenced in budgets – particularly health budgets by the fact that for years, successive state governments have only allocated a fraction of the health budget to children. In the Western Australian 2014 -2015 budget for example, children received just 6.3% of the health budget, although they comprise 23% of the state’s population.
[xvi] Cummings, K.M & Proctor, R, N, The Changing Public Image of Smoking in the United States: 1964–2014
The Valuing Children Initiative was established in January 2016 by Parkerville and Centrecare to progress the very simple but important idea that children have value.
The Valuing Children Initiative believes in a society that values all children, not just our own; a society in which children have immense significance, not just for who they can become, but also for who they are at any time in their life’s journey; communities where children are celebrated and which make every effort to help them flourish and maximise their potential; a culture in which they are seen as citizens in their own right and their needs and expectations not melded as one with those of adults. Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a society where adults see their responsibility to all children irrespective of who they are and where they are from; where parents, extended families, and decision makers, place children at the forefront of their considerations? In other words, to have a community where everyone’s children are truly loved.
The Valuing Children Initiative believes that in such a society there would be few children living in poverty, abused, mistreated, or having their needs ignored. It also believes that Australia can become such a society. The statistics tell us that there are too many children in Australia today whose life experience is far from ideal. Despite the knowledge we have of the suffering of those children, and society having the know-how and the means to alleviate that suffering, we have been unable to make any significant or lasting change to their lives. It is not that we, as a community, don’t know what to do. There is a great deal of research and understanding of the issues and the importance of early childhood. Our political and community leaders are aware of the problems and what can be done about them. So, the question is, what stops us from making the necessary changes and providing our children with what they need?
The Valuing Children Initiative believes that there are cultural and attitudinal factors that underpin our actions and inactions. Cultural behaviours and attitudes can be blind spots for any society. It is easy to accept ‘what is’ and continue along well-trodden paths wondering why little seems to change. But let’s be fair some things have changed. The experiences of children in Australia today are not those of the children of the early 20th century. Many attitudes and behaviours have shifted along the way, children are no longer working rather than attending school, infant mortality has decreased greatly even though it remains a significant issue within some Aboriginal communities.
However, we have much more to do. We need to keep questioning what stops us from doing what we need to do. The economic arguments that are regularly provided to explain why things can’t be done have some merit, but they are used far too often and too glibly to continue to be taken seriously. We know that a society’s priorities are what determines how we use our money. So what is the priority we give to our children? We know we can do better. There are other societies in the world that provide us with examples of what to do and how to do it. Scandinavian countries have a cultural positioning and attitude that allows them to give great focus and commitment to children, their needs and development. Their commitment leads them to provide the means that create the conditions under which children can flourish.
The Valuing Children Initiative Benchmark survey, undertaken last year, sought to gain a better understanding of attitudes to children and childhood in Australia. Our survey, one of the first of its kind in Australia, sought the views of 1,000 adults in response to a number of questions.
The survey showed very interesting results such as these:
More than 50% said that issues like jobs and the economy were more important to them than the needs of children.
70% agreed that children ‘belong’ to their parents until the age of 18 years.
When asked to describe children, the most commonly chosen words were: spoilt, lazy, and selfish.
63% believe that even today, a child’s word is less likely to be believed than that of an adult.
80% of Australians are concerned about the health and happiness of children and future generations.
Only 48% believe that children in Australia all have fair and equal opportunity to flourish, and to maximise on their potential.
It seems that although there is a great deal of concern among Australian adults for the long term wellbeing of children, they are still seen to have less importance than jobs and the state of the economy. Our view of children can be dominated by negative stereotypes, and the majority of us don’t believe that they are afforded the opportunity to maximise their potential.
If we are to address the poverty and associated experiences that are lived by over 700,000 Australian children, with 200,000 of them living in abject poverty, then we will need to place their wellbeing at the top of our list of priorities. We can no longer view such statistics as a given and a state of affairs to be accepted. Children are too valuable for us to allow their hardship to become simply background noise. Noise which, however uncomfortable, is largely tolerated. We need to care and value them enough to respond to their distress seriously, and take the action needed to change their lives for the better.
Child poverty is not simply about economics, it is ultimately about our attitudes and the will to seriously deal with it; and that’s our individual and collective responsibility.
How I wish I could give you better news about child abuse in Australia but I cannot. Simply put, the latest tranche of national statistics shows that we are not going in the right direction.
Earlier this month the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare issued Child protection Australia 2015-16. The following charts highlight trends on key fronts, from child abuse substantiations, to the number of children in out-of-home care, and the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children on care and protection orders compared with children from non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.
I think these charts speak for themselves: clearly we continue to face a major national problem. Amongst the “green shoots” however, is the growing attention that responding to child abuse and neglect is being given in the work of Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments and the non-government and research sectors.
The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 is one of the central planks of this response. The National Framework’s Third Action Plan 2015-2018 is making an important contribution, especially in emphasising early intervention and prevention approaches. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, whose final report is due in mid-December this year, is another key response to child abuse and neglect through its rigorous analysis of the issues in historical and contemporary senses.
It is also encouraging to see a number of non-government initiatives taking root. These include the important SNAICC Family Matters initiative which draws attention to the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people in out-of-home care and the Valuing Children Initiative which aims to focus community and political attention on the importance of valuing children far more than we do as a society.
Finally, having convened workshops involving non-government and government representatives over the past month in several capital cities, I have been struck by a shared determination to expand collaboration in order to improve child safety and wellbeing. A key message from these forums is that we need to stay impatient for change while recognising that we are doing longer-term work of shifting large policy and programmatic systems, strengthening families and turning around adult behaviours.
Dr Brian Babington, CEO Families Australia 4 April 2017
The focus of the VCI is on society’s attitudes towards children because they play a pivotal role in a child’s safety and wellbeing. Attitudes to children, how we value them individually and as a section of society, directly impacts on how we treat them, and the priority we give their needs and rights.
Societal attitudes drive change, and expectations about what is acceptable. This is obvious when you reflect on how attitudes have changed to the participation of women in public life, children born to single mothers, the protection of the environment; and smoking today
The VCI has co-hosted three Roundtables in the last year bringing together experts and leaders committed to the wellbeing of children. Each Roundtable has been tailored for attendees across a range of areas including the not for profit sector, the government sector, the corporate sector and philanthropists.
The purpose of the Roundtables has been to generate discussion that promotes a focus on children, to consider strategies that ensure the safety and wellbeing of children is a greater priority, consider the evidence that supports the proposition that investing in children is not just a matter of fairness but benefits everyone and consider what drives attitudes to children. To date more than 55 people have participated in these Roundtables.
Effective strategies to change attitudes towards valuing children in our community.
The discussion was led by Professor Mike Daube, Professor of Health Policy at Curtin University and Director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute and the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth. Professor Daube is an internationally recognised expert in driving change in the public health sector.
Rethinking how we ensure children’s needs and rights are at the forefront of our considerations.
Professor Carmen Lawrence, first woman Premier and Treasurer of a State government and former Federal government Minister, led the discussion by speaking about the forces driving significant social change in key areas of contemporary challenge and the effects of inequality on children’s wellbeing.
Realising human potential in a rapidly changing world begins with children.
Professor Donna Cross, leading child health researcher and the Director of the Early Childhood Development and Learning Collaboration (CoLab), opened the discussion with a presentation on how quality early childhood learning and development programs, especially for disadvantaged children, can foster valuable skills, strengthen Australia’s workforce and reduce lifetime inequality, while growing the Australian economy, and reducing social spending. Donna also shared research snapshots on Brain development in early childhood and Poverty and the developing child.