Essay: Child protection policy and reform

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  • Child protection policy and reform
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The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) Child Family and Community Australia (CFCA) (2014) identified that the current approach to child protection in Australia has acknowledged the roles the state and territory governments must play in protecting all children from abuse and neglect. It also explained that governments had assumed their obligation in meeting the essential developmental needs of all children, particularly those children whose parents cannot or do not provide a safe, protective environment or whose parents are responsible for the abuse or neglect these children experienced.
The Community and Disability Services Ministerial Advisory Committee (CDSMAC) developed the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009’2020 (COAG 2009) which included a wide range of child protection strategies and interventions that the state and territory governments will implement to prevent child abuse and neglect. The focus of these mixed strategies and interventions will be on the provision of primary service and early prevention programs which will be carried out and coordinated by non- government agencies as these have received government funding, including the provision of out of home care services.
All social policy including child protection policies are the result of government legislation, which is the result of a political process, and all policies are the result of an inherent political, ideological process. As critical social workers, it is essential that we are attentive, try to understand and question the changing social and political context in which policies and public interventions are developed and implemented. It is important to be critically aware of the effect of a dominant ideological discourse in policy and actively engage in a wider debate. Healey (2012) has expressed that policy may shape the constraints and the scope of the work social workers do and impact on the potential benefits offered to children and families. Being able to understand what systems of ideas operate at a policy and organizational level assist us in understanding how and why government and service respond differently in relation to child protection at a particular time.
This essay will firstly provide a brief historical overview of the diverse ideological factors influencing child protection policy and practice in Australia and illustrate its evolution. Starting with the child “rescue movement” and philanthropic initiatives in the nineteen century to more current formal measures through government policy and legislation.
Secondly, it will focus on more recent government child protection policy responses and reforms, the Special Commission of Inquiry into Child Protection Services in NSW which specifically identified challenges and gaps in the NSW child protection system. And made specific reform recommendations to be made and applied across NSW child protection system through the rolled out of the NSW Keep Them Safe Action Plan.

Child protection policy ideology
We have seen diverse Government policy and practice responses to child welfare and protection problems resulting in significant changes to child protection practice over time. Ferguson (2004) states that the ideologies that underpin the context of child protection policy and practice have changed. In the mid ‘ 1800s, we saw in Australia the establishment of voluntary non – government child welfare sector with Christian churches running orphanages and care of children in institutional settings. According to Liddell (1993) this was the main response especially in NSW which experience an increase in numbers of abandoned and neglected children as a result of the gold rush period and the growing population . In the late 19th century, we saw the establishment of a Children’s Court, the development of child protection legislation and the rise of what is referred to as the “child rescue” movement (CFCA, 2015).
This movement underpinning ideology consisted of the belief that parents had a moral responsibility to care for their children that parents were expected to assume. The ideology behind this movement sadly was later responsible for the development of very detrimental intervention policies that have become known as the “Stolen Generations” removing Indigenous children from their families. This was an early example of policy taking a wrong course of action and an example of colonialism at work impacting on families, in this case, Indigenous children and families through legislation and policy.
By the 1950s, we began to see a different response from government assuming more responsibility and increasing its use of legislative power to enforce adequate standards of care. We saw the closing of many large institutions and the establishment of smaller residential facilities for children in need of care and protection (Tomison, 2001, p.48). The ideology behind this child protection reforms Harris (2003) explained that was driven by a more overarching business discourse to increase the effectiveness and efficiency in the provision of services .
In the 1960’s we saw the rise of what is known as the second wave of the child “rescue movement” driven by research professionals such as Dr Henry Kempe who introduced the concept of the “battered- child syndrome” providing medical evidence of physical injuries of abuse by the family and other care givers. (CFCA, 2015). Laws also began to change at around this time, making it a legal obligation for health professionals to report apparent child abuse. (CFCA,2015). We began to see the evolution of different theoretical models that inform the development of child protection systems Nett and Spratt (2012). Not only did philanthropic communities felt an obligation to act and protect children from abuse and neglect, but the government began to assume responsibility to examine apparent child abuse cases and provide child protection services (Lamont & Bromfield, 2010).
According to Harris (2003 ) in the 1980’s and 1990’s child protection services adopted a more business-like approach to child protection, employing case managers , developing business plans, following a managerial approach, measuring service outputs and entering in competitive tendering processes. Spratt (2001) also identified two other significant ideologies that have influenced child protection reform, and these are bureaucratic and technocratic ideology. This change in ideology provided different child protection work practices, solutions, case management systems that were more legalistic and bureaucratic and it involved more layers of accountability Howe (1992)
One of the criticisms of technocratic ideology is that it tends to exclude other ways of improving the skills of the workforce, for example, through staff development initiatives. History exemplifies that child protection policy and practice reform predominantly have been shaped and driven by ideology and less so by research-based evidence Gray, Plath, & Webb, 2009; Sholnsky & Stern (2007). According to Gillingham, (2014) the explanation for this occurrence is that choosing research base evidence over ideology in policy and service practice reform is not always a simple and easy task to achieve and can result as history has shown in wrong causes of action taken and inadequate service provision, however, although it’s useful to be aware of the challenging nature of using research base evidence and needs, be considered it should not be a deterrent for policy makers not to use research base evidence when creating reform.
The Wood Report
The NSW Government issued a commission for a major inquiry into the state’s child protection system, led by retired Supreme Court Judge Justice James Wood following the death of two children in 2007 as a result of abuse and neglect. The investigation focused on the actions of the Department of Community Services ‘ now Family and Community Services (FACS) and a non-government family support service.
This review examined the following: systems for reporting child abuse and neglect, management of reports including the efficiency of systems and process, prioritising and decision making, management of cases, recording of essential information, the professional capacity of case workers, the adequacy of current statuary frameworks and responsibility of mandatory reporters, adequate arrangements for interagency cooperation, the adequacy of arrangements for children in out of home care, the adequacy of resources and child protection systems and other matters agreed by the Commissioner and the Minister. The inquiry leads to recommendations, strategies for legislative, structural and cultural change in the NSW child protection system.
On 2008, the findings of this Special Commission of Inquiry into Child Protection Services in New South Wales were released in the form of a three-volume report containing 111 recommendations.
The inquiry into child protection services found that demand for child protection services was being met for only a fraction of the children reported, and that families were excluded from intervention or service provision because of the prioritisation of high-risk cases needing urgent intervention.
The inquiry noted that those reports assessed by FACS ‘many assessments lacked a holistic approach, lack rigor and did not take advantage of expertise or information of others’.
Consultations and submissions from a wide range of services such as the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies, Department of Community Services, NSW Commission for Children and Young People, NSW Ombudsman, The Benevolent Society, The Children’s Guardian and many others as part of the inquiry consultative process.
In response to Justice Wood’s report, the NSW Government developed a five-year comprehensive action plan Keep Them Safe to reform and improve the child protection system in NSW making child protection the responsibility of everyone government and non-government services and the community.
NSW Keep Them Safe Reform
The NSW Government responded to the Wood report with a $750 million, five-year plan to implement the majority of the report’s recommendations ‘ the Keep Them Safe Action Plan. The Keep Them Safe action plan has 186 proposed actions, some of these recommendations are new initiatives and others are recommendations to modify or to enhance existing programs. The budget allocation includes $300 million to the not-for-profit community sector.
In summary, the objectives of the plan are to make child protection a ‘shared responsibility ‘making it the responsibility of all other relevant government services. Making FACS responsible for responding to cases where there is a risk of significant harm, Child wellbeing units established to assist determining cases of children at risk that warrant FACS intervening. The cases that do not meet the Department identified risk of harm threshold for FACS services will be assisted by other family non-government agencies that receive funding from the Department of Family and Community Services. These changes have resulted in Non – government agencies, expanding and extending their role and responsibilities in the field of child protection.
The New South Wales Council of Social Services (NCOSS) produced a Briefing Paper: What’s good about Woods, in November 2010 and the following recommendations from the Woods report were identified and prioritized. The roll out of Family Referral Services throughout NSW. The transfer of services to the non-government not-for-profit sector included the transfer of Out-of-Home Care and the Brighter Futures program a program for vulnerable young people 9-15. The Income Management recommendation was not supported by NCOSS. More funding for early intervention and Non-government sector workforce and capacity building. NCOSS also sought commitments from the government and the other parties to develop a comprehensive industry plan for the non-government human services sector. In relation to community strengthening and service enhancements NCOSS sought commitments from all political parties to fund programs that strengthen communities and to provide additional supports in the areas of housing, homelessness services, domestic violence, mental health and drug and alcohol services. This reform has been described by The Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) as one of the major reforms to the child protection policy and practice in NSW since the introduction of mandatory reporting in 1987.
The NSW Keep Them Safe government initiative provides a five-year action plan that aims to enhance and improve the effectiveness of child protection systems in NSW. The main elements which will change is the approach to addressing the challenges faced by the child protection systems. These reforms will result in a redistribution and reallocation of government funds , shifting to non-government sector and state agencies and promoting different sectors government and non – government and community working collaboratively providing support to those families that most need support and sharing the responsibility of child rearing and child protection .
The key objectives of Keep Them Safe is to create an integrated system that supports vulnerable children, young people, and their families, it has included the establishment of new reporting and referral arrangements to allow families to access appropriate services from government agencies and non-government services without having to come in contact with statutory child protection
The focus for action has been on the following key areas; the amendment of the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act 1998 so only children and young people who are suspected, on reasonable grounds, to be at risk of significant harm should be reported to FACS.
The implementation of a universal service system, e.g.:1. Universal parenting education erg: Triple P, for parents with children 3-8, universal home visits to every parent with a new baby.2 Strengthening Early Intervention and Community Based Services e.g., expanding Brighter Futures program, health home visiting for at-risk teenage mothers, 3. Better Protection for Children at Risk e.g.: violence prevention coordination units, review of police response to domestic and family violence incidents 4. Better Supporting Aboriginal Children and Families e.g.; Two Ways Together ten year plan, Universal services: Aboriginal Maternal and Infant Health Strategy, 5. Strengthening Partnership across the Community Services Sector e.g., Building the capacity of the non- government sector, Workforce and cultural change. 6 Changing practice system e.g.; the establishment of the Child Wellbeing Units, the Regional Intake, and Referral Services.
Key reform changes include increasing the threshold for reporting children and young people to the Child Protection Helpline from “risk of harm” to “risk of significant harm”. Establishing Child Wellbeing Units in the major government reporting agencies. Establishing a network of Family Referral Services. Enhanced service provision, including prevention and early intervention services and acute services. Increasing the role of non-government organizations in delivering services. Changes to processes in the Children’s Court. Providing better services to Aboriginal children and young people, with the aim of reducing their over-representation in the child protection system.
Keep Them Safe Reform Review
According to the National Approach to Child Protection Project Report, child protection systems in Australia have experienced higher numbers of notifications and larger administrative burdens. Systems are facing many more complex challenges trying to reduce the number of children which require the state to interject to keep them safe.
The legislative and practice reform in Keep Them Safe have attempted to incorporate a range of core values and principles which are very compatible and complementary to Social work values for working in the child protection context, such as children’s rights , promoting good parenting , providing a safe and stable home for children and young people in care , and creating a child focused system , interagency collaboration to promote child wellbeing and child protection , the principle of openness and engagement with children young people and families, respect and cultural understanding , empowerment and participation in decision making all identified in the Engaging children, young people and families, Child Wellbeing and Child Protection ‘ NSW Interagency Guidelines (2011) . A key priority, the NSW Keep Them Safe reform agenda is to develop long-term solutions to support parents, families, and the community services sector by channelling resources into services that identify children and families who are vulnerable or at risk and provide them with services and support before problems escalate.
However, when critically analysing the impact of the Keep Them Safe reform it is evident, according to the findings from the NSW ombudsman’s Bruce Barbour report, that many of the priorities on the reform agenda and expected outcomes were not achieved. In fact, according to the ombudsman the results of the review paint a disturbing picture. A review of child protection services in New South Wales found that too many children are still getting “lost in the system”. Only 21 per cent of children at risk of severe harm had face-to-face contact with a case worker. More than two-thirds of children reported at risk of serious harm remained unlikely to receive a face-to-face assessment, the response to adolescents remain inadequate, despite in-principle support given for a senior group to be established to coordinate a strategy for vulnerable young people, young people continued to get lost in the system there has been an increase in the number of cases that are being closed due to “competing priorities”.
Leading researchers and practitioners both in Australia and overseas have suggested that applying a public health model to care and protection will deliver better outcomes for our children and young people and their families (Holzer 2007; O’Donnell, Scott, & Stanley 2008; Scott 2006; ARACY 2007).A public health model offers a different approach assisting families early enough to prevent abuse and neglect occurring.
The Keep Them Safe Interim Review Spatial Mapping and Analysis Final report also found that expenditure on Keeping Them Safe projects has generally been directed towards areas of high need, is had also highlighted some locations with apparently high needs that may still be missing out.
One of the key recommendations of the Wood Royal Commission, and consequently a primary objective of Keeping Them Safe, is for the NGO sector to play a more significant role within child and family services.
Keeping Them Safe and the NSW state plan emphasize the importance of coordination between multiple government agencies that have an increasing child protection responsibility, and between the government and non-government sectors. This involves changed work practices for government agencies and NGOs. This approach will require the establishment of new, shared governance arrangements and the development of partnerships across the sector. However it remains to be seen whether the establishment of the above will be affected by systemic tensions that arise between mandating partnerships between agencies competing for the “Keeping them Safe” program dollar.


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