Sarah was just 16 when she left home after being sexually abused by her stepfather, unable to get her mother to believe her.
She moved interstate to Adelaide to stay with her father and older sister but was kicked out after relationships broke down, shortly followed by her now pregnant sister.
She had no money, just the clothes worn that day.
But as The Australian Child Rights Taskforce’s “The Children’s Report” -- being released today -- shows, Sarah’s situation is sadly not unique.
Sarah, which isn’t her real name, was just one of 527 brave children and young people from across Australia who spoke to the report’s authors about a crisis facing our nation.
Last year in Australia, more than 42,000 children aged 15 to 18 and young people aged 19 to 24 presented as homeless.
Like for Sarah, now 17, violence is a visceral part of many of these stories. Yet Australia is one of the few developed countries that has not conducted a national prevalence study, which would provide a full picture of child abuse and neglect.
And the responses to the issues young people at risk of becoming homeless face is poor: many specialist homelessness providers refuse to accommodate children under 16, while children between 12 and 15 years of age are often considered “too old” for appropriate foster care placements.
In outer urban and regional areas, the availability of these services is even worse.
Homelessness often impacts school attendance, weighing on the nation’s broader issues around educating our next generation. Just this week, a UNICEF report showed Australia ranked in the bottom third of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries on educational equality across early, primary and secondary education.
Our position is dropping year on year, despite the platitudes we are all very familiar with, such as “children are our future”.
But only a week after the national apology to children abused in institutional settings, the findings and 190 recommendations contained in The Children’s Report show we should be looking at things differently and asking the question – “how have we lost track of children in our country”?
It’s an awkward question for a developed, high-income country that is for the most part stable, and in which many children and young people enjoy love, nurturing, a good quality of life, safety and education.
However, too many children and young people face enormous challenges and persistent disadvantage, are not safe and do not have access to basic shelter.
They are being left behind.
In 2014, one in seven children aged between four and 17 experienced a mental disorder, while in 2016, almost 23 per cent of 15 to 19 year olds were recorded as having a probable serious mental illness.
A significant number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are not registered at birth or issued a birth certificate, creating difficulties in things we take for granted, such as enrolling in school, accessing health services, gaining employment or opening a bank account.
Meanwhile, between 2012 and 2016, 788 children aged 15 and younger took their own lives with the suicide rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people five times that of their non-Indigenous peers.
Why are we so clearly failing children and young people on so many fronts and where is their voice, including in parliaments?
Speaking to children is key, which was at the core of the way this report has been researched. And a clear message was that many young people from all walks of life and locations referred to “feeling invisible”, an experience also reflected throughout the completed royal commission.
This picture was thrown into stark relief in consultations we held in South Australia about out-of-home-care, where children are among the most vulnerable. Again, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are disproportionately overrepresented.
A powerful point was made by one young girl, who said: “…people (are) sitting at their desks making decisions about our lives and they have never once, I’m assuming, set foot inside a residential care home or a foster care house. Spend a week there every day for eight hours. Live it. I dare you.”
It is a challenge to us all.
More inquiries aren’t the answer. There have already been 42 inquiries into child protection around the country in the last two decades alone, and 14 national inquiries and commissions into the juvenile justice system.
It’s time Australia had a “big” agenda for children given the amount to address and action.
It is critical for our children’s safety, well-being and development today. It is also a critical aspect of our nation building for tomorrow, with youth unemployment levels already higher than they were a decade ago. As Reserve Bank of Australia deputy governor Guy Debelle pointed out last month, long-term unemployment results in “adverse social and economic consequences”.
So we clearly need big ideas and commitments.
Children and young people are full of big ideas and need to be included. They have many identities – by race, cultural expression, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, language, gender or religion – and are the best authorities on their own lives. So we need to be better listeners.
At a high level, I see four concrete areas worthy of debate.
- A funded and independent national youth peak body to advocate for the rights and interests of children – governments should hear from and act on the concerns of children and young people, in their own words.
- A dedicated and resourced Minister for Children and Young People who can drive whole of government agendas;
- A federal Child Rights Act to give practical meaning to the Children’s Convention in Australia;
- A national action plan for children that focuses on preventing violence, and on wholesale reform in juvenile justice, child protection and education;
It is sobering to remember that, back in 1987, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke famously announced that “no child will live in poverty by 1990”. Today, over 739,000 children live in poverty, or one in six children under the age of 15.
And if we think about housing affordability, the widening disparities in incomes and the impacts of climate change, children are inheriting growing levels of inter-generational inequality.
In a country where most of our political debate is centred on baby boomers, it is time for this to shift.
This is a big and complex problem that deserves our best, our brightest and our biggest thinking.
Yet underlying this is a simple idea – that our children need a fair chance at life – and a fairer Australia.
And that should be our legacy.
This is an edited version of a speech given to The National Press Club on November 1, 2018. UNICEF Australia acts as Convenor for The Australian Child Rights Taskforce.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Westpac Group.