On November 20, 1989, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The following year, Australia ratified the convention. It rapidly became the most widely ratified of all human rights treaties - and has been ratified by all nations except the United States.
Its advocates hailed the convention as a game-changer that would improve the lives of children around the world. Its detractors warned that it would threaten the authority of adults, undermine families and create self-interested little monsters who demanded their rights at every turn.
Thirty years on, neither the promise nor the threat has come to fruition. There have been positive outcomes globally and in many countries as a result of the convention - including greater protections for children from abuse and exploitation, a focus on the nature and quality of education (rather than simply getting children into classrooms), and advances in child health.
Spaces have been created for children to engage in public debates on issues that matter to them. Although arguably, this has had less to do with the CRC than with young people's frustration at the failure of adult leaders to address issues such as the climate emergency.
While there is a long way to go before children's human rights are secured, there has been progress. We have certainly not seen the demise of the family, of schools, or indeed of adult authority.
Like other human rights treaties, the CRC is a complex document. It ranges from broad concepts such as the best interests of the child through to specific issues such as care for children with disabilities, standards for adoption, and school discipline. But fundamentally, the convention is based on a relatively simple idea: children are human beings. They are entitled to care, support, and a reasonable standard of living. They are entitled to live with dignity. Because of their stage of development, children have vulnerabilities and are entitled to special protections from neglect, abuse and exploitation.
The CRC is described as promoting three Ps: provision, protection and participation. This is something of a simplification - but it is useful. Provision means that children are entitled to an adequate standard of living, including food, housing, and clothing, and to health care and education. Protection means that children must not be abused, exploited or neglected. Children who are vulnerable should not be ignored by their governments or abandoned to their fate. Participation means that children should be given a real opportunity to express their views on issues that affect them.
So how does Australia fare in fulfilling our commitment to children's human rights signalled by our ratification of the convention almost three decades ago?
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors countries' progress in implementing the convention, has consistently pointed out that Australia has failed to adopt national child rights legislation. The language of children's rights has infiltrated some laws and influenced some areas of policy, such as the Charters of Rights for Children and Young People in Out-of-Home Care adopted at state level. But overall, our response to the convention is best described as muted and patchy.
The denial of children's rights to provision and protection in the current context of poverty is not a failure of their families, but a failure of policy to create the conditions for an adequate standard of living.
As one of the wealthiest countries in the world, where our prime minister declares "How good is Australia!", we should do well in ensuring that children are provided for, protected, and have a chance to share their views. This might be expected, even if a national legislative framework is not in place. Our report card should be quite impressive.
It is not.
We continue to fail the most vulnerable children in our communities. There are many examples, but our failure is especially marked in two areas: the care and protection of children who are removed from their families and the extent of child poverty.
Like most countries, Australia has a system whereby children who are neglected or abused can be removed from their families and placed in state care. Out-of-home care is the responsibility of the states. However, in 2009 the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) endorsed the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children in response to concern about the number of children exposed to abuse and neglect. A roadmap to 2020, the national framework is based on key principles of the CRC. In 2011, Commonwealth, state and territory governments agreed to National Standards for Out of Home Care. These are important initiatives. But in practice, they have not resulted in substantive improvement in the lives of many children who are in the care of the state.
Children who enter out-of-home care are necessarily traumatised - they have experienced sufficient abuse or neglect for the state to intervene in their lives and they have then been taken from the people closest to them. In the process, they are usually separated not only from their parents but from brothers and sisters, pets, friends, school, and familiar places. There is no doubt that it is in the best interests of some children to be removed from their parents - but imagine for a moment what that experience is like for a child! Once in out of home care, many children's lives are shaped by instability, uncertainty, and vulnerability. Research indicates that almost one third of children in out-of-home care have had more than eleven placements, while about one third have had more than five caseworkers. This level of instability means that children cannot form strong, ongoing relationships with others; they cannot re-establish their lives. Of course, some children find themselves in stable, supportive relationships - but too many fall between the gaps.
In my own research with children and young people in care, the most heartbreaking but common concern raised by children is the sense of no-one listening and of having no-one who is truly "in their corner". Not surprisingly, the health, educational, and employment outcomes for children who have experienced out-of-home care lag far behind those of the rest of the population. Provision? Protection? Participation? We are not hitting the mark on any of these.
Perhaps most disturbingly, while Indigenous children are only 5.5 percent of the overall population aged 0 to 17 years, they make up about 37 percent of those in out-of-home care. We seem to be sleep-walking towards another stolen generation - despite having the data that clearly show what we are doing.
From a child rights perspective, we should not be congratulating ourselves on the success stories of some children who have had positive experiences of care and protection systems (as important as those success stories are) - but acting to improve the lives of those whose human rights are not met. Moreover, we need to be far more committed to addressing the factors that result in children being removed from their parents.
The second area in which Australia is doing badly is child poverty. On the most recent figures, one in six children live in poverty. The dismantling of the welfare state, and the impossibly low rate of benefits for single parents, those who are unemployed, and people living with a disability, have direct and devastating consequences for children.
Our research with 8-12 year old children across three states showed the coping strategies children employ when their families are struggling financially. From throwing away excursion notes to "choosing" not to take part in sport or other activities - many children try to protect their parents from the pain and shame of being unable to provide such things. The cost to children is enormous in terms of social connection, education, health, and sense of self. The cost to society is also great, as we create a society that is divided and unjust. Our research also revealed the consequences of housing unaffordability and insecurity on children, as their families move from suburb to suburb, school to school in search of manageable rent. The denial of children's rights to provision and protection in the current context of poverty is not a failure of their families, but a failure of policy to create the conditions for an adequate standard of living.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has criticised Australia for our record in securing the rights of the most vulnerable children: including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children in out-of-home care, and children with disabilities. The committee has also documented Australia's complete failure to act in the best interests of children seeking asylum and has consistently called for reform. Most pressingly, it has identified the need to create an independent guardian for unaccompanied child asylum seekers and to adopt adequate mechanisms to monitor the well-being of children seeking asylum. Successive Australian governments have ignored these concerns.
Three decades after the adoption of the CRC, Australia has failed to take seriously our obligations - or to use the convention to promote the well-being of children. Deeply entrenched and growing inequality and insecurity among the most vulnerable means that change will not be quick or easy - but change is urgent and it is essential. The CRC provides a way forward - but we need to grasp and make real the promise it offers to children.
- Sharon Bessell is a professor at ANU's Crawford School of Public Policy, where she heads the Children's Policy Centre.