As far back as 2001, at a time of deep public concern over a string of horrifying cases of child abuse, this newspaper criticised the haphazard nature of child-protection procedures.
"Those who become involved in child deaths, whether police, pathologists or support agencies, seem to operate in an ad hoc manner," it noted. So glaringly fragmented was the system that it seemed it would surely be addressed as a matter of urgency. Regrettably, nothing much seems to have happened. The same ground has been traversed by the Experts Forum on Child Abuse, which reported to the Social Development Minister this week.
The forum found, unremarkably, that data sharing between state agencies was inadequate, and that no formal mechanism for this existed. Further, government departments did not talk to each other enough about how to protect children from abuse and neglect. There was also no routine informing of doctors when a child they were treating was at risk. In some serious instances, the birth of a further baby into a previously abusive family was not even known because cases are closed when a child dies from abuse or has been removed by social services.
The forum's practical response is to suggest an alert system for all abusive mothers, so officials know when they have more children. Cases would remain open indefinitely, so an automatic flag rises when a mother has another baby, thereby alerting doctors about the family history of abuse. The change would mean a mother was effectively tracked throughout her life and if she changed partners. The forum also recommended that all agencies involved in child abuse should be required to share information about an individual child as a matter of course.
So logical is all this that most people would have imagined it was being done. That such is not the case may, in some instances, have something to do with turf protection. In others, it may be because of privacy issues arising from the sharing of information between agencies. Or it may be the product of civil-liberty concerns, including that a mother would be permanently tainted by one episode of child abuse.
Such responses do not acknowledge the importance of having such information. Nor do they indicate an appreciation of the bigger picture. This involves an internationally high rate of abuse and neglect that shows little sign of falling. Even a lengthy period of economic prosperity during the past decade, when work was more readily available and living conditions should have been less miserable among the poor, did little to improve matters. Nor, indeed, did the spending of millions of dollars on various programmes.
The main focus should always be a child's safety. It should not be the mother who has declined to accept her responsibility.
Every child has the right to expect to be raised in a safe environment that nurtures its development. It is quite reasonable for the Starship hospital's Dr Patrick Kelly to suggest the monitoring of a mother would be no different from someone's driving record being relevant to a job that requires driving.
Early intervention and effective parent support services have always stood out as the most likely solution to child abuse. State agencies need to be able to monitor the births of children in worrying circumstances and get alongside the parents as soon as possible. Their attention must be unstinting. Intervention, as the forum suggests, must be "intentional, integrated and co-ordinated between agencies". It is deplorable that this is not happening. A culture of shared responsibility must prevail among government departments, just as society has come to accept collective responsibility for ensuring the wellbeing of our children.