Monash-led research highlights neglect of children with disability in child protection systems

Monash University

A Monash University led report into the criminalisation of children with disabilities reveals systemic neglect of these most vulnerable Australians.

The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has just published a commissioned report led by Monash University researchers on Care Criminalisation of Children with Disability in Child Protection systems. The 300+ page report, led by researchers from the Monash University Department of Social Work, was conducted in collaboration with researchers from Western Sydney University and the Centre of Evidence and implementation.

The report’s lead author, Dr Susan Baidawi stated that, “The findings point to systemic neglect of children with disability in child protection systems that too often results in devastating outcomes, including criminalisation of this group of children.”

The study’s findings outline how children with disabilities within child protection systems face a heightened risk of becoming criminalised, and how understanding these pathways is crucial for disrupting the over-representation of people with disability in Australian youth and adult criminal justice systems.

Several factors appear to increase the chances of justice-system entry of children with disabilities in child protection systems, including male gender, being Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, experiencing physical abuse and neglect, as well as specific disability diagnoses such as neurodisability and complex trauma, and experiences of substance use. Conversely, factors associated with a decreased chance of criminalisation included female gender, connection to culture, and being located in a metropolitan area.

According to Dr Baidawi, the research also emphasised the importance of adopting an intersectional lens to understand the compounding factors that contribute to the criminalisation of culturally and racially diverse children with disabilities in child protection systems.

“The cultural conceptions of disability held across Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and other racially diverse communities often differ from those of disability service providers, and these were critical barriers to overcome in generating more appropriate responses to the diverse needs of children with disability and their families,” she said.

The report highlights challenges that contribute to the criminalisation of children with disabilities. These include:

  • systemic neglect of children in out-of-home care;
  • insufficient appropriate therapeutic and support services;
  • punitive approaches within the education system towards children with disabilities;
  • poor understanding of disability within the justice system, and poor service integration across sectors.

“Overcoming these challenges requires the provision of intensive family-centered support approaches, early disability assessment and intervention, and the adoption of cultural-, disability-, and trauma-sensitive responses across all sectors,” Dr Baidawi said.

While the study identified six policy approaches around Australia that aimed to reduce the criminalisation of child protection-involved children with disabilities – including joint protocols between police and residential care providers; child protection policies addressing harmful sexualised behaviours; guidance for responding to children with complex needs; policies on school exclusion; and multidisciplinary practice policies – there were wide inconsistencies and gaps in these policies and practices. “This emphasises the need for more comprehensive and evaluated approaches to support children with disabilities in child protection systems,” Dr Baidawi said.

Because most children at the nexus of child protection and youth justice systems have contact with the child protection system before entering the justice system, “this underscores the importance of early intervention, assessment, and support to prevent the criminalisation of children with disabilities. Yet too often, these opportunities are not realised,” Dr Baidawi said.

“Put simply, children are more likely to enter the justice system if they don’t get disability support. This can happen if there aren’t enough disability support services where they live; they don’t get support early enough in their life or the support they get doesn’t match their background and needs.”

The Report recommended that the Commonwealth, states and territories commit to a national inclusion framework to provide policy cohesion for reducing the criminalisation of children with disability in child protection systems. “We should not accept as a given that children with disability in child protection systems are more likely to enter youth justice systems; national guidance in this area would be hugely beneficial to disrupting these unacceptable outcomes”, said Dr Baidawi.

The study findings also made several recommendations for states and territories to improve policy and practice in these areas, including making sure that intensive supports were available to enable children with disability to remain safely at home with families, to minimise their exclusion from school, to reduce the number of children with disability who enter and who are criminalised in residential care settings, and to make sure appropriate healing and therapeutic supports were provided to children with disability in child protection systems.

The study also recommends approaches that consider the cultural views and beliefs around disability within different communities, barriers to accessing services, and the impact of broader factors such as colonisation, trauma, racism and discrimination. Culturally-led and culturally-appropriate programs were found to be vital in providing safe and accessible services for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and culturally and linguistically diverse children with disabilities in child protection systems.

/Public Release.