As the embarrassment and shame around the ‘resignation’ of our last Governor-General indicates, the abuse of children and young people has become a major public issue. An increasing body of Australian research reveals a history of violence against young people while media reports reveal a history of serious physical and sexual abuse and exploitation of young people by professionals responsible for their care and protection.
Moreover much of this systemic abuse took place in educational and welfare sectors that were and are relatively unregulated in respect to the professionalisation of workers. While there are now formal professional registration processes affecting teachers and psychologists, there is no equivalent for youth workers, social workers or community development workers.
The disclosures of abuse and neglect revealed the suffering and harm experienced by young people, and in turn seriously damaged the professional standing of those working with young people, as well as the public trust traditionally conferred on professions and institutions.
I argue that restoring public trust in the institutions and services where abuse took place, and indeed may still be happening, is an issue of considerable importance.
I critically review the conditions necessary for restoring public trust. Those conditions include improved governance and systematic improvements in the intellectual and professional education of youth workers to ensure that they have the requisite capabilities such as critical insight, advocacy skills and political resolve. The value of establishing a code of professional practice ethics is also considered.
Finally it is argued that advocating for young people's rights is another means of securing their well-being and workers' professional standing. I point out, however, that the rights option is somewhat limited because, although it obligates, it does not specify who owes the obligation, and for this reason rights talk too often remains ineffectual because it's abstracted. I suggest that the identification of obligations is also necessary for securing public trust and young people's well-being because, unlike rights, they specify who is bound and to whom the obligation is owed.