I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land we gather on today, and across Australia, and pay my respects to Elders past, present and future. Thanks to UNICEF for the opportunity to share the moment in which both our reports are submitted, and Anne Sherry in particular. Congratulations also to UNICEF and the Child Rights Taskforce on this fabulous report.
When Australia last reported to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2012, creating the position of a National Children’s Commissioner was one of the many recommendations made by the Australian Human Rights Commission and the taskforce.
It is, therefore, with great pleasure that I am here today as Australia’s first National Children’s Commissioner to highlight some of the key issues that have emerged during my term and are included in the national human rights institution’s 2018 report to the Committee.
Most Australian children grow up in safe and healthy environments and do well. However, there are too many children in this country whose rights are not adequately protected, impacting negatively on their wellbeing and ability to thrive.
As we have heard, this includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, refugee and asylum seeker children, LGBTI children, children with disability, children in out-of-home care, and children living in rural and remote areas.
This reporting process gives us the opportunity to take stock of how we are travelling overall and refocus on the most pressing issues. The Commission’s report has 60 recommendations to reinvigorate our commitments to children in Australia and create the opportunity for them to have every opportunity and be the best they can be.
In my role as National Children’s Commissioner I have been keen to elevate the voices of this precious twenty per cent of our citizenry, and to champion their right to be heard in the spaces and places they inhabit, as well as in policy and legal contexts. The right to be heard is a fundamental right that both empowers and safeguards children.
Nowhere has the importance of this right been demonstrated more powerfully than in the context of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This Royal Commission brought to light those situations in which so many children could not speak out, were not heard, or not believed. This is why I am proud to be leading work at the Commission, supported by the Australian Government, on developing and promoting the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations.
The Royal Commission ended last year, but its legacy must be sustained, so that what happened to children in the past never happens again. The key to this is future-proofing all environments in all organisations and communities where kids play, learn and are cared for – right across Australia. This can only be done by embedding cultures that honour children’s rights and their voices, cultures that are genuinely inclusive of all children and promote their full participation. We are leading efforts internationally in this regard, and the next 12 months is critical to embed entirely new cultural approaches to children across all elements of society.
I particularly sought the views of children to inform this report and I want to thank them all. I wanted to hear what Australian children wanted to tell the UN about what it is like to grow up in Australia. I sought out these views. I did this through an online survey, face-to-face consultations with around 450 children, and I also received drawings and ideas from our littlest children.
The key themes that emerged from younger children were that they enjoy being with their families and friends, love to play, and appreciate Australia’s natural environment. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in this age-group highlighted connection to culture and cultural activities and those in remote communities emphasised the importance of a safe home.
In conversations with me, children and young people told me that they generally felt safe and protected in Australia because of our strong gun laws. They love our weather, coastline and bush, flora and fauna and being outdoors. They appreciate having the freedoms we have here, including the freedom of speech, and that everyone has access to education and health care. They said we could do better for kids who are homeless and poor, and be kinder and fairer to children from different cultures. They want our education system to be better at responding to individual learning needs, and we need to teach children about their rights and give them more of a say. They want bullying and violence in families and communities to stop.
To conduct the online poll, I teamed up with the University of Melbourne and ABC’s Behind the News. The idea was to hear from as many children as possible around Australia about which of their rights are most important to them, and whether they think that Australia is meeting its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Just under 23,000 children aged 6–17 years completed the poll, which tells us something about just how keen children are to be heard and to participate. The poll questions were co-designed by children.
The rights that children ranked as most important were: being safe; having a home and being cared for; and having a clean environment. Older children ranked getting an education in their top three rights. The majority of children felt that their rights were being met most of the time.
However, the poll also revealed that access to accurate information, being treated fairly, and being able to participate in decisions that affect them were the rights least likely to be met. These findings were most pronounced among children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
This reminds us again that not all children are doing so well. And while we know that the rights of these children are not adequately protected, and there is some information that tells this story in my report to the United Nations, overall we have very poor data available in the Australian context to assess the wellbeing of these children properly or to inform policy-making and service provision. This is a critical issue across a range of health and wellbeing domains. For example, data is typically provided in age spans which include children across a wide range of developmental ages, as well as adults. These are too broad to be helpful.
The implications of this can be seen sharply in my work on suicide and self-harm since 2014. Concerns about children’s mental health, and the rates of suicide and self-harm among children have consistently been raised with me throughout my term.
As Anne has tragically outlined, suicide remains the leading cause of death for 5-17 year olds, and, on average, there are around 71.6 suicide deaths each year. This translates to more than one child a week taking their own lives. The most current data also indicates that there was a 10 per cent rise in suicides between 2016 and 2017.
From the limited disaggregated data that is available, we know that children in the 12-13 year age range are particularly vulnerable at a time when they are transitioning from primary school to secondary school, accompanied by the onset of puberty. Those in the 14-15 year age range are even more so. This middle year period is characterised by a significant second brain spurt and neural pruning. Knowing these trends and facts is critical to crafting the timing and nature of interventions and supports for children.
Similarly, the number of hospitalisations for intentional self-harm in children aged 3-17 years almost doubled between 2007-2008 and 2016-2017 (4,863 to 9,971). This translates to more than 27 self-harming episodes every day which result in hospitalisation - but this figure represents only a small cohort of children who are self-harming.
The raw statistics and the increase in these rates is alarming. It is clear that we need to do more to keep children safe from suicide and self-harm and we need to attend to their mental health needs.
The data to which I have just referred has only come to light because I asked for it. It’s critical that we have regular and timely national data matched to the developmental stages of children so we can identify emerging risks, build protective factors and encourage help seeking.
Another critical issue for child wellbeing in Australia relates to the operation of child protection systems in Australia. These are under substantial pressure, with increased reports of harm requiring investigation, along with increased rates of removal of children and placement in out-of-home care. There have been 24 separate inquiries since Australia last reported to the Committee, as well as a Senate Inquiry in 2015 at the federal level. Recommendations for reform have been made in each inquiry.
Despite this, there has been little systemic change to address the increasing rates of children involved in the child protection system or to address the underlying reasons why children are being placed in out-of-home care. The experience of Indigenous children in this system is of particular concern.
We must protect and nurture those already in our child protection systems and work to end intergenerational disadvantage, while also urgently prioritising measures to prevent further children entering care and protection systems.
We also know that children involved with child protection systems are more likely to come into contact with youth justice systems.
Which brings me to a final key issue. The minimum age of criminal responsibility in Australia is comparatively low compared with other countries. Our legal systems allow us to detain children aged 10.
Just think about the damage inflicted on kids that young for a moment. Think about what we saw happen to children in Don Dale.
In my Children’s Rights Report in 2016, I recommended that the age of criminal responsibility be raised to at least 12 years, with preservation of doli incapax. I have made this recommendation again in this report to the Committee.
The Northern territory Royal Commission also made this recommendation as part of the suite of reforms necessary to address the concerning issues raised in that inquiry.
It should be noted that the UN Committee considers that 12 years of age is the lowest internationally acceptable age for criminal responsibility. It encourages raising the age to 14 or 16 years, as is the case in many other countries around the world.
Addressing this should be a national effort from all governments in Australia. I would like to see progress to reform this at the federal level and in all states and territories over the next 2 years. There are so many more effective ways of dealing with challenging behaviour than locking up 10 year olds – with better long-term outcomes for all of us and significantly lower cost implications.
Going forward, we have much work to do. A central message in my report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child is the need for stronger measures in policy, law and practice to protect children and advance their rights. This includes a national child wellbeing plan, child impact assessments to assess the efficacy of all major policy and legislative changes, and urgent attention to pressing issues like those discussed briefly today.
Our report recommends that the national child wellbeing plan be based on the domains of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is imperative we move forward with a comprehensive strategy to address child wellbeing in areas like poverty, homelessness, health and mental health, bullying and harassment, exposure to violence, children in the care and justice systems, and child abuse - and that such a plan is supported by robust evidence and data. We owe this to kids right now and the kids who will lead us into the future.
Releasing these reports is a time to reflect on how well we are doing, and to aim much higher for the sake of all our children and young people.