Every day, Australia’s child protection workers face a heartbreaking and fraught decision: leave a child in a potentially dangerous family situation, or place them in foster care?
Taking them out of harm’s way might seem like the obvious option. But removing them can place them at risk in Australia’s child protection system, and can lead to long-term psychological damage to the child and other family members.
“Removing children from their family of origin is a huge loss, even if that family of origin is abusive.”
Can you make the impossible choice?
The six cases below are real situations where child protection workers had to decide whether to remove a child from their family.
Make your choice, then see if the experts agree.
You are asked to visit Amanda and her toddler Jakob by a childcare worker, who has concerns that Jakob is not meeting his developmental milestones.
Amanda readily admits that she struggles to stay on top of her daily routine and to manage Jakob’s behaviour.
She gets welfare benefits but is behind on the rent at a public housing unit in the southern suburbs of Brisbane that she finds unfriendly and sometimes scary.
She seems depressed and admits that she has been taking strong stimulants and anti-anxiety prescription drugs to “help her through” and sometimes feels like killing herself. Amanda says that some days she can’t get out of bed to wash, feed and dress Jakob.
She admits that at times she is on a “particular high” and plays with Jakob and buys him presents and other times she “can be off in her own little world and forget Jakob is there”. One time she left Jakob in a shopping centre.
She also struggles to manage his behaviour and has sometimes lost control and smacked him harder than she meant to.
Amanda experienced neglect and abuse in her own childhood, living with a mother addicted to drugs.
She tells you she loves Jakob and wants the best for him. She is worried that if she doesn’t get back on track that “the same thing might happen to Jakob” as happened to her.
Would you remove Jakob from Amanda's care?
You attend a house in the outer suburbs of Adelaide to see Abby, a two-month-old Aboriginal girl, and Bree, her 22-year-old mother.
But Bree is not home and Abby has been left with her grandmother.
Abby’s grandmother has bipolar disorder and a history of illicit drug use and lost custody of Bree when she was a baby.
Bree is from Western Australia and her mother is her only family member in Adelaide.
Just after Abby was born, the local police arrested Bree’s partner James after an argument with Bree where he damaged a car and cut up her clothes.
James is 13 years older than Bree and has a history of domestic violence and illicit drug use. He has agreed as a condition of his bail that he will not make contact with Bree, her mother or Abby.
Bree had another child when she was 17 but agreed to share the child’s care with their paternal grandmother because of concerns about Bree’s drug use and parenting ability.
A social worker visited Bree in hospital when Abby was born: she interacted well with the baby and agreed to use support services once she left hospital.
Bree returned two days after leaving Abby with her grandmother, having been using methamphetamine with an older man who was known to police as a domestic violence perpetrator.
Would you remove Abby from Bree's care?
3. Tom and Jade
You are asked to visit 25-year-old Belle and her children Tom (6) and Jade (10), following a report that Belle has moved in with a new boyfriend who has a long criminal history that includes offences against children.
Belle is extremely hostile to any interference from child protection services and does not think her new partner is a risk to her children.
The children’s father has been located and he is willing to care for the children and has no child protection or criminal history.
But he has had little contact with the children since he separated from Belle because things have been so hostile between them.
There are no family law parenting orders in place.
Would you remove Tom and Jade from Belle's care?
You are asked to visit 12-year-old Jackson at home after his school reported he repeatedly arrives with no lunch, falls asleep in class and wears dirty clothes.
He has missed 10 of the last 40 days of school. Jackson’s mother Amy has refused requests from teachers to discuss the issue.
When you go to the house, you learn that Amy is in very poor health, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis and extreme obesity. She has recently had pneumonia and still needs oxygen.
Jackson is his mother’s primary carer and he does all the cooking, shopping and cleaning. Amy regularly runs out of money between fortnightly welfare payments.
Jackson’s uncle was recently helping out but has moved interstate and there are no other family members to help.
You observe that Jackson has a very strong relationship with his mother but he is very concerned about her health and has started having nightmares.
Would you remove Jackson from Amy's care?
Local police ask you to attend a public housing property in the outer suburbs of Adelaide.
While attending a domestic dispute, the police found four-year-old James after forcing their way into a bedroom. James was found locked in a room, sitting in a small clearing on the bare floor, naked and holding a plate.
When you arrive, the house is squalid, smells of rotting food and every surface is covered in rubbish. James is malnourished (weighing little more than a toddler), shivering with cold and is developmentally delayed.
There are other empty plates near James and a dried brown liquid on the floor.
His 22-year-old mother Fiona and father Gary appear to be drunk or under the influence of drugs.
Further investigation reveals that as a child Fiona was neglected by her mother, who eventually died by suicide. Gary grew up witnessing and himself experiencing domestic violence.
Would you remove James from Fiona and Gary's care?
About this story
- The names in this story have been changed and case details have been simplified.
- Social workers often have a lot more information on the child and their family than is presented here, but there are also cases where the information is limited or wrong and they need to rely on their intuition and experience to make a decision.
- Child protection workers have to work out the level of risk to children and also any protective factors, such as an involved grandparent or parents being willing to get help, when they make a decision to remove a child.
- The judgement to remove a child is not made by one person but a whole team, sometimes including police and doctors, and ultimately the children’s court.