Media and Communications Office
As part of anti-poverty week, Catholic Social Services Victoria hosted a lunchtime conversation in the Cathedral Room in the Cardinal Knox Centre with Dr Nick Halfpenny, Director of Policy and Research at MacKillop Family Services.
The event followed a casual and conversational format, with Dr Nick establishing the scale of the problem around child poverty in this country: ‘1 in 6 Australian kids under the age of 15 are living in poverty; an estimated 730,000 children.’
MacKillop Family Services support children and young people who are temporarily unable to live at home through homelessness and out of home care services.
High numbers of children who need out of home care assistance owing to significant neglect and child abuse, he noted.
From the outset, Dr Nick made his position clear, that the best outcomes are achieved when children are with their families, provided they’re safe.
Despite that, ‘there is a steep and consistent increase in demand for child protection and out of home care. Nationally, we’re approaching 400,000 notifications to child protection authorities per year. And these increases far exceed population growth.’
In Victoria, as in the rest of Australia, we’re spending an increased amount on child protection and out of home care.
‘In 2013-14, Australia spent $3.3 billion dollars on child protection and out of home care. In the same period, we spent about $300 million dollars on intensive family support services. We’re spending 11 times more on out of home care than we are trying to prevent kids from going into out of home care … We need to do more to prevent that trajectory in the first place rather than just continuing to fund very expensive out of home care.’
The problem could be addressed earlier, Dr Nick argued, by more adequately funding more family support services.
In mitigating child abuse through early intervention, Dr Nick estimated that the federal government could save up to $6 billion annually.
He pointed out the significant links between child abuse and poverty. ‘The things driving kids into out of home care are family violence, mental health issues and alcohol and drug use.
Dr Nick noted recent work on the impact of economic disadvantage and how that intersects with those three factors, impacting on child wellbeing. ‘Up to 27 percent of child maltreatment is directly attributable to economic factors,’ he said.
Put simply, economic factors are a significant driver in child wellbeing, Dr Nick pointed out. ‘Yes, strategies to address family violence and mental health and drugs and alcohol abuse are important, but we need to be looking at some root causes and societal level change.’
He referred to studies by Vic Health on the social determinants of child mental health. ‘Kids from poorer families with the least access to resources have the lowest rates of wellbeing and the highest rates of mental health problems and illnesses. The socioeconomic disadvantage intersects with psychosocial, geographical, and cultural disadvantage and compounds these inequalities.’
Dr Nick encouraged his listeners that we as a nation need to be doing more in that space.
To conclude, Dr Nick quoted Nelson Mandela: ‘Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.’
Dr Nick offered a vision of the sector both hopeful and challenging.
‘Kids want to be with their families, and have their families take care of them. We need to focus more on relationships and what kids want.’