Published in The Australian

It goes without saying that every child deserves a loving home. Further, it’s surely self-evident that government’s duty, as far as humanly possible, is to keep children safe in their homes. Yet all too often officialdom puts the rights of dysfunctional parents ahead of the rights of vulnerable children. The ideology of keeping children with their biological parents is plainly putting hundreds, if not thousands, of Australian children at extreme risk.

This week there are reports that an autistic teenager was chained to his bed so his mother could go shopping: “Angry neighbours said they had raised concerns … before but their warnings had fallen on deaf ears.”

Another story reports a drugged man hurling his girlfriend’s son to the ground and hitting him because he thought he was faking a fit. The seven-year-old subsequently died.

To our shame, these all-too-common reports are the tip of an iceberg of neglect and abuse. In thousands of households around Australia, parents with massive problems remain in charge of children they have let down at every turn.

Of course, the ideal is that children should grow up with at least one biological parent. And dysfunctional parents should be helped to turn their lives around so that they can adequately care for their children. But leaving children to parents with a proven record of neglect is the triumph of ideology over common sense. Worse, it’s the victory of politically correct fashion over decency and compassion.

It’s true earlier generations were far too quick to remove children from their parents. Until the 1970s, tens of thousands of unmarried mothers were more or less forced to surrender their children for adoption. Official policy sometimes separated children from their parents simply because they were Aboriginal. But just because children were once too readily removed is no reason not to remove them at all; or to remove them only once they have been physically or mentally badly damaged.

Jeremy Sammut’s new book, The Madness of Australian Child Protection, should be a wake-up call to all governments and child protection authorities. We have never spent more money on family services. We have never had more people employed in child protection. We have never been more concerned to save vulnerable children from abuse, especially­ sexual abuse. Yet every day, horrors are visited on innocent children left in the care of those incapable of treating them properly.

In a tiny but tragic minority of cases, parental love simply cannot translate into the care that every child deserves. Sammut’s point is that children whose parents can’t look after them should be given the chance to have parents who can.

“The cycle of prolonged maltreatment at home, removal as a last resort and the extended instab­ility of ‘temporary’ periods in care — involving multiple entries­, exits and placements — can consume entire childhoods,” he says. “In practice, family preservation does not prevent child abuse or neglect or keep families together. In reality, it puts children on a treadmill that destroys childhoods, perpetuates intergenerational dysfunction and ultimately creates the next generation of abusive and neglectful parents.”

Last year in Australia, there were just more than 200 local adoptions — but more than 40,000 children were in care. Sammut argues that if more children were adopted out of dysfunctional families sooner there would be fewer damaged children forced into more or less permanent foster care. If Australia’s adoption rate mirrored the US’s (where there are 50,000 adopt­ions a year), there would be about 5000 adoptions here which, Sammut thinks, would be enough to make a big difference to the 20,000 or so frequently reported-on neglectful families.

As prime minister, I took the view that more people should have the chance to be parents, especially when there was every reason to think they’d be good ones. My government put new processes in place to help pros­pective parents more smoothly and quickly navigate the often needlessly complex processes of overseas adoption. It’s vital to guard against any possibility of children for sale, but it’s still hard to see why the average time to secure an overseas adoption should have blown out to five years.

Meanwhile, local adoption remains the responsibility of the states. At the Council of Australian Government, premiers and chief ministers have committed to making adoption easier, but turning good intentions into better practice remains a challenge. Parents shouldn’t have their kids stolen through misguided policy; but children shouldn’t have their childhood stolen either, through policy no less wrongheaded.