I am pleased to present my fifth Children’s Rights Report as the National Children’s Commissioner. This report details how I have fulfilled my statutory functions, outlined in Section 46MB of the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth) (the Act) during 2016–17.
During this period, I have continued to monitor Australia’s progress in meeting our responsibilities to children and young people under international law. The work I do as Commissioner is guided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which articulates all the basic conditions children and young people need to thrive and flourish.
This report sets out significant advances in community understanding of children’s rights and of our obligations to ensure that these are respected and upheld. I also point to areas where more action is needed and refer to the major strands of advocacy and research activity I have undertaken throughout the year.
Following on from my work in previous years, I have continued to advocate for a national focus on suicide and self-harm among children and young people, and for improved responses to the needs of children affected by family and domestic violence. I also continue to seek improvements in the oversight and treatment of children in custodial detention.
I am pleased to note that this report outlines positive progress in these areas, including the Australian Government announcement in April 2016 that it intends to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture by December 2017.
This year my major project has focused on the rights and needs of young parents and their children. Recent modelling has shown that life outcomes are particularly poor for this small but highly vulnerable group. They may struggle to complete their education, find stable housing, or get a job. Without access to adequate health services, the wellbeing of these families may be compromised. Young parents may need help to learn about parenting and may be unable to afford or access early childhood services. Some are at risk of having their children removed and taken into care.
In doing this work we have spoken with many young people who told us about the struggles, stigma and barriers they face. Despite this, overwhelmingly they are motivated to be great parents, to provide the best care for their children, to get an education and to do well in life. I hope that the findings of this investigation will help to identify the supports these young families need at different points in time.
As children are increasingly recognised as rights holders, citizens, consumers, clients and customers, the idea of engaging them in the design and delivery of programs and services becomes more natural. The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020 (National Framework) provides an example of this, where ongoing consultation with children and young people is now embedded in its development, implementation and evaluation. I wish to thank the jurisdictional Minsters, the officials and non-government representatives involved in the work of the National Framework who have supported the rights of children by ensuring their engagement in the process. I have no doubt the actions that flow from the Framework will be more successful as a result.
Every year I have the privilege of talking with a diversity of children and young people. This year I listened as they told me about: what makes them feel safe and welcomed; the help they need as they grow into adulthood; and, for some, their experiences of being young parents. What they have said about these issues very much relates to their individual journeys and circumstances. Understanding their ‘backstories’ is vital if we are to effectively tailor our supports to them. I thank all those children and young people for opening up to me, letting me into their lives and giving me such sound advice to pass on to decision makers.
I could not do my job without the generous support of the many individuals and agencies who care about and care for children and young people and I thank them for their assistance.
In closing, I wish to acknowledge the tireless work of the staff of the Australian Human Rights Commission who have supported me in all the activities undertaken over the year, and who were instrumental in delivering this report.
Chapter 1: Promoting discussion and awareness of children’s rights
Chapter 1 examines the work I have undertaken throughout the past year to promote discussion and awareness of matters relating to the human rights of children and young people in Australia. This work is reported against the five themes which emerged from my consultations with children and young people when I started my term in 2013. The chapter also discusses the encouraging progress in relation to recommendations I made in my previous Children’s Rights Reports.
Chapter 2: Children’s rights in Commonwealth legislation and court proceedings
Chapter 2 reports on the consideration of children’s rights in the development of Commonwealth legislation and related policies. In particular, it reviews the comments of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights (JPCHR) in 2016–17 on how children’s rights are taken into account in Statements of Compatibility with Human Rights, which accompany Bills introduced to federal Parliament. It includes summaries of submissions made by the Australian Human Rights Commission in relation to these Bills. On the consideration of children’s rights in court proceedings, I include a case study on children with gender dysphoria.
Chapter 3: Young parents and their children
Chapter 3 presents the findings of our project on the rights of young parents and their children. Young parents and their children are particularly vulnerable to breaches of their rights to health, education and care, and are at risk of long-term disadvantage and welfare dependency. For this project, I hosted a series of expert forums across Australia, received submissions, consulted with young parents, and conducted a survey of young parents. I also considered key data and research relevant to the wellbeing of young parents. This chapter identifies gaps in knowledge regarding the experiences and trajectories of young parents, and analyses good practice in early intervention and support services that lead to better outcomes for young parents and their children. I make a number of recommendations to improve the protection of human rights for this vulnerable group of children and young people.
Chapter 4: Child safety and wellbeing
Chapter 4 outlines our contemporary understanding of child harm and abuse in Australia, with a particular focus on children and young people in organisational settings. It highlights data on child harm and abuse, noting trends and gaps in available information. It also refers to findings from recent government inquiries that emphasise the importance of valuing and empowering children and listening to what they say. In addition, it describes the work I am leading to embed child safe cultures and child rights knowledge throughout organisations that work for and with children across Australia.