Louise Voigt Barnardos CEO retiring

Louise Voigt is retiring as chief executive of child abuse charity Barnardos Australia after 30 years at the helm. Photo: Fairfax

When Louise Voigt started at Barnardos 32 years ago, domestic violence was rarely spoken of in public and children's rights were routinely over-ruled by adults. She helped transform the lives of thousands of children.

As the chief executive of the welfare group prepares to retire this month, she leaves a legacy in which family violence is firmly on the national agenda and children have a greater say in their own lives.

During her time, she estimates Barnardos has helped 30,000 children, including those whose families were supported to stay together, those in foster care and a further 246 children formally adopted by their carers.

The bulk of her work has involved helping vulnerable families stay intact through easily accessible early intervention programs.  

"The biggest problem confronting families – although it's really only been of wider focus relatively recently – is domestic violence," she said.

"It's been an endemic problem for decades and it's always been very noticeable in child protection. Very, very frequently they go together.

"Violence in households is the stuff of the work that we are engaged in. Helping to reduce the effects of that violence on children is a really important task."

When children cannot safely stay with their parents, out-of-home care is an option but one which Ms Voigt believes does not necessarily lead to a better result.

"We have seen children as young as nine who have been moved 32 times," she said. "The foster care system is a maladjusted, damaging system for children. We find the evidence of it in suicides, prisons, mental health and homelessness."

She has spent much of her time at Barnardos lobbying for easier adoption, at a time when the concept was deeply unpopular.

"When we started, adoption was demonised and I have been attacked for believing this was important," she said.

"It's because of our history. We were not talking about taking children forcibly from parents. We were talking about children who had already been permanently removed from their families of origin. Where it is too unsafe for that child to stay with their family."

Almost 50,000 Australian children are in out-of-home care, including close to 20,000 in NSW who are unable to live with their parents.

"The evil things that are done to children are not necessarily done by evil people," Ms Voigt said. "Unfortunately, there is a group in our society that is exceedingly disadvantaged and among some of that group there are children who can't be reared at home."

In a farewell video to commemorate Ms Voigt's retirement, senior Family and Community Services bureaucrat Maree Walk described her as a fearless leader.

"She's a warrior for children in Barnardos care," she said. "She'll do anything for those children."

Minister for prevention of domestic violence Pru Goward noted Ms Voigt's push for change over the past three decades, saying, "Children's rights were really not recognised. Louise has overseen a huge transition in our thinking."

Ms Voigt believes there is still plenty of room for improvement in the child protection system, particularly for Aboriginal children who remain steadfastly over represented. Her successor, Deirdre Cheers, the former head of CatholicCare Broken Bay, will oversee a program to increase the number of Aboriginal child protection specialists at Barnardos.

"The wins you have make a difference for the next generation," Ms Voigt said. "We have a long way to go yet but it's a journey worth being on."

(This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 20 July, 2015 and was written by Rachel Browne.)