Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

committed to preventing tragedy that arises from illicit drug use

Focus must be parenting, not framework to micro-manage

Bill Bush
Published in the Canberra Times on Wednesday 27 September 2006, p. 13

The deaths of three more babies from families known to child protection authorities (CT, 22 Sept. p. 1) rightly dismays us all. A firestorm of fury is an understandable response but it is essential that we take stock of the facts.

The focus of political and official comments is on process and resources and not on the part played by underlying policies that contribute to the problem. Thus, media comments of Minister Katy Gallagher and her Opposition critic, Jacqui Burke, mention improvement of assessment skills, better placement systems, more resources, streamlined protection procedures etc. In that, they repeat the approach of a string of investigations including the Vardon and Murray reports.

The Australia-wide crisis in child protection has brought the system across the country to its knees. It is getting worse rather than better in spite.

The existing focus on process and resources is an unsustainable drain on budgets. In the ACT, operational expenditure has increased by an average of around 19 per cent a year. According to an ACT departmental report, "the cost of providing 24-hour supervision seven days a week for children at high risk for extended periods or providing specialist services for young people with multiple needs can exceed $500 000 a year per child or young person."

The current approach is unsustainable because it seeks to micro-manage the lives of other human beings. If parents are not fulfilling their responsibility towards their children there is no way that the state can hope to provide a substitute on anything like the scale and quality needed.

Parents have obligations but so do governments. They should not obstruct parents doing what they should do. In particular, governments have an obligation to ensure that the environment for parents to raise their family is not undermined by their laws and policies.

As should be blindingly obvious from the circumstance of the latest three dead babies and the experience of child protection across the country, drug laws and policies are among the key determinants of the environment in which parents bring up children.

Parents who are drug addicted often find themselves crushed between their obligation to be good parents (which they overwhelmingly want to be) and drug laws and policies that insist that they overcome their addiction. That is wrong. Being a good parent should be the overriding objective. Whether someone is doing what she should as a parent is far more important than whether she has a "dirty" urine.*

The priority of government should be to provide an environment in which anyone with a health problem (including addiction) can have access to necessary treatment, not punish them as a criminal because of that problem. That addiction itself is not the issue is demonstrated by the many, many exemplary parents leading stabilised lives on methadone maintenance programs.

The death of these three babies will not be in vain if it jolts us all to turn our attention from the continuing preoccupation with process and resources to the laws and policies that shape the environment in which the shame of child abuse and neglect flourishes.

The author is a member of Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform

*This sentence included in text submitted.