In the Spotlight

Imagining Families and Communities front and centre in child protection

Chris Boyle, CommSync’s Director, recently spoke to his Churchill Fellowship report Imagine – A System Willing and Able to Protect Children and Young People and Support Families. In his presentation to the AASW/PeakCare Child Protection Practice Group Who is the Client? Chris outlined the importance of families and communities being front and centre in child protection, family support and domestic and family violence practice.

“We’ve had numerous inquiries and royal commissions into child protection. They all say the same thing – we need to intervene earlier. The constant dilemma is the choice between doing nothing or the need to remove a child. We don’t have enough carers. We also spend 5.2 billion dollars per annum nationally on child protection systems alone. Two thirds of that money are spent on Out of Home Care,” said Chris whilst asserting that it is essential that we work to enhance family and community agency.

The constant dilemma for today’s child protection worker seems to be the choice between exposing a child to abuse or neglect through either their family or the ‘system’. How can one practitioner, service or government end the ‘vicious cycle’ of abuse and neglect that children are exposed to with each passing day? Chris commented that despite the best efforts of committed staff and services, existing policies, systems and structures have proven ineffective in addressing the multiple and complex needs of our most vulnerable children and their families. “Regrettably, it is the children and families who frequently bear the consequences of our risk averse system, to which the demand for intensive, holistic supports are not forthcoming and out of home care placements have long surpassed the supply.”

Chris outlined briefly the key messages he learned through his Churchill Fellowship:

  • Complex issues such as child abuse and neglect / domestic and family violence do not occur in isolation, rather in contexts. (Melton, 1987)
  • Blood is thicker than child protection services (Berg, 1999)
  • Youth need family, not just skills for independence. Without this, young people care are more likely to experience a devastating storm of academic, physical and financial struggles
  • You can’t just ‘plug and play’ services into families or communities and expect them to engage – it just won’t work!
  • We need a system that shares, not shifts responsibilities for our most vulnerable
  • A political and public will must be established in order to challenge the hearts and minds of the community to assert that our most vulnerable children, young people and families are worthy of respect, care and support – whatever it takes.
  • Most importantly, in order to achieve change, one must first seek to understand what maintains our existing rules.

“The pull of history is powerful! We need to recognise it, understand it and make conscious effort to change it. Historically, we have separated the child and young person from the family and the child, young person and family from the community. We need to re-think the paradigm to one of inclusiveness that sees the child, young person, family and community as a whole – as the “client”.

(Dr William Bell, President and CEO Casey Family Programs)

Chris noted the importance of looking at context. “We want to operate in a way that we all can see the context of how these children and families live.   Blood is thicker than child protection services. You’ll get a lot of nodding when you go out to see a family as a worker. It means no. I’ll tell you what you want to hear to get rid of you and regain power. No one will give information to you. They won’t trust you – especially when they don’t know what you will do with that information. Also, young people need family, not just skills for independence. Transition to Independence alone doesn’t cut it.“

In terms of systems change, we need to look to the culture. “How do we change culture? That requires public and political will. How do we become a system that shares, not shifts responsibility?” Chris views relationships as key alongside the important consideration of asking: What maintains our existing rules? What is it we are not understanding? What’s the status quo? These considerations need to be unpacked and rethought within a paradigm of inclusiveness whereby children, young people, parents, family and community are our clients – that is where change occurs.

We then need to simplify our complex work. Chris laments that so much time in this sector is spent assisting families to navigate our complex systems. Services offer time limited support that is not around the clock; with shared resources and situations where there is not always a relationship with the worker. As such he’s passionate about working in the family and community system with no conditions or accessibility requirements.

“We need to know our purpose and why we are involved, consider safety issues and ensure we plan for safety whilst also clarifying need and risk. Then we gather information and analyse” Chris says. He asserts that it makes sense to focus on reconnecting families and communities.

The benefits of reconnecting family and community systems:

  • Primary responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of children
  • Operate 24/7
  • No conditions to access support
  • No mandated time limit for support
  • No waiting list for support

Why is it important to see children, families and communities as the client? Chris views the network of safety and support persons as those who can work with the children, young people and families to develop and implement an immediate safety plan and over time, support and implement their longer-term plan for safety. Research shows that people report being more likely to intervene and help in scenarios of child maltreatment or domestic violence where a person known to them is involved (Research Report on Community Focus Groups, Feb 2015: Special Taskforce on Domestic & Family Violence Queensland).

“The needs of the children we serve as workers are the same the needs as your children and mine” says Chris. “The success of those children directly impacts the success of our children. Creating a world where a child’s postcode or cultural background no longer determines his or her future health and well-being is something that must be done. All of our children have the right to grow and thrive in safe and supportive environments, with lasting connections with people, not services.”

As part of the process in keeping children and families safe and together, CommSync have combined safety planning processes used with families with a technological response aimed at enhancing safety.

Chris notes that the safety planning they undertake alongside wearable devises assists vulnerable women and children out of the queue: “Building networks of safety and support is the work we need to do.” CommSync is working across the sector with organisations including Act for Kids to look at how they can work differently in this space. “We’re collectively starting to think differently about who else is part of the conversation. Part of this is looking at information sharing which is critical to integrated responses.” Chris is clear that relationships remain key: “Don’t be mistaken though, the solution is found in the relationships with their safety and support network – not the technology!”

“It’s time to be different…We have to talk about the reality we live in and challenge how we think, and start investing in children, not in systems.  We have to change the way we think, plan and act.”

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