In the line of duty for the sake of the most vulnerable

first_imgWhen Jenny Mikakos was appointed as the Minister for Families, Children and Youth Affairs in the newly-elected Andrews government, she knew she was taking up one of the most demanding and challenging posts in the state government of Victoria.Family violence, ice and drug use in general, combined with a culture of cover up and corruption in the state child protection services, had been creating headlines for all the wrong reasons, making it obvious that the decades-old system was entrenched in corruption, unable to cope with the needs and challenges of today.Allegations about rape and sexual abuse of children and young teenagers under state care were paraded in the media. The horrific stories of neglect had no end.The system was broken and Mikakos had to find ways to improve it, if not fix it. The task was of herculean proportions. In the 14 months that followed her appointment, more than $300 million of additional funding went into new and existing programs aimed at bettering the life of family violence victims, the improvement of child protection and family services, as well as programs to implement the changes needed in order to meet current demand.The Royal Commission into Family Violence, an initiative of the Andrews government, will hand down its recommendations on 29 March and the state government has committed to take them on board.It is obvious that things are moving in this area but the question remains: are they moving in the right direction?After more than a year on the job the minister now has a better understanding of social policy and the bigger picture, but also of how these issues affect the most vulnerable of the Greek Australian community.In this context Neos Kosmos spoke to Minister Mikakos.You took up a position that many of your colleagues would be reluctant to. The child protection system was in crisis. In the meantime, the driving forces contributing to family dysfunction such as family violence, drug use and mental health problems are still on the rise and you are on the receiving end of all this. What is your assessment of the child support system’s current situation? Jenny Mikakos (JM): I’ve got the honour of having a portfolio that has a big impact in society. Families are experiencing a range of complex issues. Why there is family dysfunction and why the children are being abused or neglected, and as a result of that end up to the state’s child protection system, are issues that are largely unseen to many people in the community. It is the ugly face of our society and we tend to ignore it. What we have been doing is looking at how we intervene earlier and provide support to families. That’s why we had the Royal Commission into Family Violence, which will hand its recommendations down to the government at the end of this month. This will lead to sweeping changes on how we provide social policy and social services in our state. Family violence is a very big factor in the families who are in the child protection system, so we look at how we promote relationships in our society and this starts at a young age. We need to encourage children to interact with each other respectfully, irrespective of differences whether it’s cultural, a disability, or any other issue. We need to be mindful of the fact that children see what their parents are doing and that we have to break the generational cycle. We know that the boys who see their fathers hit their mothers can grow up and become perpetrators themselves, while the girls that see violence among their parents can grow up to have self-esteem issues and have a particular understanding about what is normalised behaviour in a relationship. So it’s very important that we recognise that as a society; this is an issue that affects one in three women and one in four children. There is no doubt also that the ice epidemic is causing significant issues, resulting in more and more children coming into the child protection system – in fact, child protection reports in Australia have doubled in the last five years. In this financial year we are expecting 100,000 reports in Victoria alone. Currently we have 8,000 children in out of home care, residential care, foster care, kinship care (living with a family member – there are a lot of grandparents out there looking after their grandchildren). Four hundred children live in residential care. So we handed down a record budget in terms of child services, in total $257 million of new funding – a 17 per cent increase compared to the budget of the previous government. Now we are spending a billion dollars on the child protection services of Victoria, with a bigger emphasis on early intervention.Can you be more specific? JM: I inherited a system that was in crisis and there was no doubt that there would be problems. When I was in opposition there were media stories about children being sexually abused while they were in out of home care. This is why, in the first 100 days being a minister, I made a significant announcement; we introduced spot audits in residential care units for the first time. They never existed before. The department now goes on visits and makes sure those children are being well looked after. I increased the funding so that staff can be put on overnight, so that they can adequately look after these young people. And there are very traumatised young people in residential care who had been abused and sometimes they can exhibit challenging behaviour, so I recently appointed a commissioner for young people. We are prepared to ensure that the department is accountable for its performance to get the best possible outcomes. In the first 100 days we also made an announcement on our foster care recruitment and retention strategy. We spent some money on a big advertising campaign in January looking for more foster carers because I do not want children to be put in residential care just because there are no other options for them. The best outcome for children is to live in a home, to live with a family, so I want foster carers from diverse backgrounds, including from the Greek community.There is a common belief in the Greek Australian community that we are immune from these issues. True or false? JM: I want to stress that family dysfunction, family violence, drug use, as well as child neglect, are not issues confined to one part of society. It’s across every class, every ethnicity. It’s sad that it’s been a taboo subject in our community. I do notice when I see Greek names come up and I think it’s now time we start talking more openly. So yes, I do see children from families of Greek background ending up in the child protection system. As far as family violence is concerned, the royal commission has heard evidence about children of our community who are physically assaulting their parents. We’ve got young adult males who in some cases have particular behavioural issues and they can be very intimidating to their mothers in particular, extracting money from them for drugs. There are many mothers out there who are very reluctant to get the police involved because they worry about what will happen to their children, especially their sons, and they do not want to see them locked up in jail. So they are putting up with some very difficult behaviour and I do not think that anybody should put up with that. It is important that people seek help when things like that are happening. And this is happening, it is true. As a community we want to believe that we value the family unit and that our culture puts extra emphasis on its supportive mechanisms. What you are saying, though, is that we are slowly moving away from this core principle of our cultural understanding of family. JM: Unfortunately that is true and I have a bit of a theory about why this is happening. I think the very close ties that existed in our community, like with extended family, in the first and second generation have broken down, and I now see alarming levels of third and fourth generation kids getting into trouble with the police, with drugs, with a whole range of things. I think that’s because all the protective factors that we had as a community when we were a little bit more insular have broken down. We lost those protective factors. To be fair, I think there were a lot of women who had been in very unhappy marriages in the first generation, who just would never have thought about leaving and were victims of family violence. There was a lot of that hidden away back then. I am not glorifying the ’50s and ’60s saying all was perfect back then. But I think the stronger extended family networks, community networks, just made the families more resilient, and these are breaking down. I am disappointed seeing this. We as a community aren’t quite aware of it yet. It’s complicated but it is certainly happening. What does the future hold in this area? JM: I cannot pre-empt the budget, but the premier has said that we will implement all the recommendations of the royal commission. That makes it pretty clear of the direction the government is going. The premier has made clear that this is the number one social policy area that we are going to respond to. I see it as being very closely linked to the challenges that the child protection system is experiencing. This is a generational thing; you’re never going to be able to eliminate family violence in 12 months. This is going to take a whole lot of effort by both community and government, to acknowledge that we have to work together on this issue. And I say to men, who might recognise that they have a problem, if you don’t do it for yourself, do it for your children, think about the impact you are having on the next generation and your children. It is now time to break the cycle. It has been left under the carpet for too long. Facebook Twitter: @NeosKosmos Instagramlast_img read more