Opinion article published in The Newcastle Herald, written by Nicole Ross, senior lecturer in law at the University of Newcastle.*

In recent days reports have emerged about organised sexual abuse of teenagers in residential care in Victoria. We have also witnessed the devastating stories of adult survivors of child sexual and other abuse by the authorities  into whose care they were entrusted when they were vulnerable children.

We hope that the royal commission’s investigations will lead to some outcomes to prevent similar stories being told in 20 years’ time. But is this likely?

At the very same time that the royal commission is in progress, we are hearing stories that must cast doubt on the question of whether we are really ready for change. The most recent story to emerge is related to paedophile gangs targeting children in residential state care in Victoria for sexual favours.

Most people would agree that where it is possible, children are better off in family settings and, thankfully, there are relatively few children and younger people in residential care. Yet there are now approximately 40,000 children in out-of-home care in Australia – with foster carers or in kinship placements (with grandparents or other family members) – and this number is growing. But this does not resolve the issue either, as abuse can or does occur in these settings. 

A recent story illustrates the importance of listening to children who are in out-of-home care. In January this year, the Newcastle Herald reported a story about three young children aged 5, 6 and 7, who were allegedly abused by their foster carer. Their mother told ABC News  that she had tried to tell the Department of Family and Community Services about this abuse, but their investigations had not revealed concerns.

Later, when police investigated, they found all three children had bruises, with doctors unable to count all of the bruises on one child. Police documents alleged the foster mother had hit the children with a stick, egg flip and belt, and put socks in their mouths while she hit them.

She was charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm, possessing a prohibited drug, common assault and possessing an unauthorised firearm. The children were promptly removed and put with another foster carer. 

Although these children had been removed from their mother’s care due to domestic violence issues, her actions showed her desire to act to protect them. There are few other ways in which these children could make themselves heard – but apparently we weren’t listening.

In the past, vulnerable children went into the care of large institutions. Today, children who can’t live with their parents or carers due to protective concerns are mainly in private homes – either the homes of their family such as grandparents, or in the homes of non- family members, commonly known as foster carers, who are accredited to do this important caring work. 

The majority of foster carers are providing much-needed love and care, often in difficult circumstances, to children whose past lives may make such care challenging. 

Foster carers receive limited financial and service support in these roles. 

We know there is a significant  under supply of people willing and able to do this caring work.

We know from past experience that some carers may abuse their young charges. 

A society who cares about vulnerable children and young people should be mindful of these possibilities and have good processes to identify and limit such harm. Such harm has ongoing repercussions for these children and our community, both socially and economically.

The protection of vulnerable children is a complex and difficult task. In NSW the Department of Family and Community Services have the responsibility for some of this protection – but child protection is a responsibility that belongs to us all.

The accreditation processes for foster carers in this instance did not work properly. The role of  foster carer accreditation is  being transferred to private non-government agencies in NSW (with oversight of the Office of the Children’s Guardian, who reports direct to the Minister for Family and Community Services) and the department is on track to fully transfer this responsibility during the next 18 months. 

We need to ensure the processes for protection of children in care are right now. 

We need to think carefully about how we listen to children or their advocates when they complain of abuse.

Then we need to take these concerns seriously and implement systems that ensure accountability for children for their safety and well-being. If we don’t, then arguably we are complicit in their ongoing abuse.

Children need to be seen and heard.

Nicola Ross is a senior lecturer in law at the University of Newcastle.

* Opinion pieces represent the author’s views.