How would you invest in child protection? – survey results

chart of survey results

Two weeks ago we asked our colleagues and friends to spend a hypothetical $100 to improve child protection in South Australia.  These were their top five choices:

#1 More early intervention and family support (29.6%)

The range of comment showed that this meant different things to different people.  Varying interpretations included using education and public campaigns to reduce unwanted pregnancies, decreasing the social isolation of parents, removing children from ‘failed’ mothers or families at birth and building the capacity of struggling families to become suitable parents.  Several respondents noted that supporting Aboriginal families entailed culturally suitable practice, engaging Aboriginal communities and the use of Aboriginal staff.

#2 More therapeutic placements for children in care (10.1%)

Trauma-informed care, therapeutic placements and related matters occurred very often in the comments.  Training in understanding a responding to trauma was proposed for foster and kinship carers, residential care workers, social workers and even management and policy makers.

#3 More effort to recruit foster carers and kinship carers (8.5%)

Good family-based care was noted as the best out-of-home care placement option by many respondents.  Poor remuneration, lack of support and bad treatment at the hands of DCP and NGO staff were cited as reasons why families did not take up fostering or did not return to it.  More rigorous selection, training and review for foster carers could improve the quality of foster care and make it a more attractive option for more people.

#4 More psychological services for children in care (8.3%)

Comments included many calls for much greater access to psychological services for children entering and during their time in care.  This was seen by some as a natural complement to therapeutic care.

#5 More child protection report investigators (8.2%)

Comment on this was limited and concerned mostly the conduct of investigations and the interface with the court system.  A report on the lack of response to child protection reports by the former Families SA was current at the time of the survey, which may have influenced responses.

Download the full report, including all comments, as a PDF.

Responding to abused or neglected children

8 November, 2016

Themes from Nyland  #10

The team from the Guardian’s office have analysed the 850 pages and 260 recommendations from The life they deserve: Child Protection Systems Royal Commission Report1.  We have extracted some themes and priorities to allow us to critique the government’s response, judge the improvements over time and to shape our own work.  Following is a description of the issues and a short list of things to watch for in the reform process.  The first nine in the series are available.[2] We will post the rest over the next few weeks. 3 

Commissioner Nyland proposed no change in the current responsibilities of mandated notifiers but recommended that there be two quite different pathways through which those duties can be fulfilled by notifiers.  The Child Abuse Report Line (CARL), would be maintained and improved and another, non-statutory option, added.

She acknowledged the shortcomings of CARL, particularly the extended wait times for callers and the closing of cases due to workload issues which sees ‘children left in unacceptable circumstances in which they needed help’.  She recommended the addition of extra call centre staff, making the call-back system widely available and promptly advising notifiers of the intended response so that they can take other action if required.  The setting of service delivery standards for call answering times and call-back times are other measures aimed at restoring confidence in the system.

Once notifications were received by CARL, more problems were evident.

…consistently poor quality assessments undermined by excessive optimism, lack of focus on the child’s experience, too little reliance on the expertise of other practitioners and unrealistic reliance on informal agreements in which parents promise to reduce their dangerous behaviour. 

She recommended substantial increases in and upskilling of the workforce, development of more rigorous and standardised assessment tools and giving greater powers to acquire information from government and non-government sources.  Targets should be set for the reduction of backlogs and progress publicly reported.

For matters that proceed to court, she proposed a greater reliance on independent expert opinion to inform court decision-making and the granting of orders.

To take the load off CARL and to provide a way to divert appropriate families away from the statutory system, Commissioner Nyland recommended legislative change to allow mandated notifiers to discharge their obligations by referring concerns to one of a set of ‘child and family assessment networks’ to be established in metropolitan and larger regional locations.  Specially trained staff in government agencies could assist and guide colleagues to understand their obligations to notify and the best options for troubled families.

The Commissioner recommended ways of reducing the numbers of children coming into care while still protecting those who need to be protected.  This will require a substantial investment in preventative and early intervention services and a solid strategy to guide funding and service design and delivery.  A cross-department Early Intervention Research Directorate would identify innovative and evidence-based services.  They would be to be provided by non-government organisations and be of the type and in the locations identified by an analysis of needs.

A particular priority she identified was the need to provide services that were culturally appropriate for Aboriginal families and communities.

As reform progresses we look forward to seeing:

  • Improvements to the CARL service including system and staff changes to meet published service standards for call-answering and call-backs.
  • Upskilling of investigation staff to ensure that the voices of children are sought and heard in the investigation process.
  • Setting of service standards for the commencement and completion of investigations as set out by Commissioner Nyland4
  • Establishment of a set of ‘child and family assessment networks’ in metropolitan and major regional locations and legislative changes to allow mandated notifiers to discharge their obligations by referring to them.
  • Setting out a five-year strategy for the provision of prevention and early intervention services that is evidence-based and suited to local needs and conditions.
  • Development of prevention and early intervention services that are culturally appropriate for Aboriginal families and communities.
  • Regular training and the development of training tools to improve the knowledge of mandated notifiers about their responsibilities.

Please join the discussion via the reply box at the foot of the page.

1 Unless otherwise noted all quotes are from The life they deserve: Child Protection Systems Royal Commission Report,

2 See also posts on Coordination and Collaboration, The voice of the child , Emergency care , Residential care Home-based care, Therapeutic care, Aboriginal childrenEducation and Stability and certainty in care.

3 This is not intended to be a précis of Commissioner Nyland’s report which provides a very clear and readable summary.  Because of the Guardian’s mandate, this analysis will tend to focus on issues for children in out-of-home-care.

4 Recommendation 177: Ensure that all care concern notifications are investigated in a timely manner:

  1. investigations should commence within 48 hours of the receipt of a notification; and
  2. in the absence of ongoing criminal proceedings or special reasons, investigations should be completed within six weeks from receipt of the notification.

Early intervention and family support tops the options in our child protection survey

Of the 358 respondents to our survey that asked ‘How would you spend extra money on child protection’, early intervention and family support proved the most popular option by a great margin.

Nine out of ten selected More on early intervention and family support as one of their options while two-thirds of the extra funds on offer would have been allocated that way if our respondents had their preference.

The online survey from December 1 to 4 canvassed the views of 944 subscribers to the Guardian’s Information Service.

More therapeutic placements for Children in care was the second most popular choice, nominated by 61% of respondents and allocated 11% of the funds.

Many respondents provided their own ideas and explanations in the free text section of the survey, so many that we will take a few weeks to work out how best to analyse and present them. In the meantime, the statistical part of the survey is on our website.

download button

The Guardian’s report Expenditure on child protection, out-of-home care and intensive family services, 2004-05 to 2013-14 shows that South Australia spends among the lowest of the states and territories per child on child protection services and on intensive family support services.

 

Cuts to family services can be false economies

picture of Guardian Pam Simmons

Pam Simmons Guardian

Earlier in the year I had the privilege of responding to a SACOSS conference address by Christopher Stone, Research Director of the Public Service Program at the Centre for Policy Development. His address was about the false economies of across-the-board cuts to public spending, among other things.#
One of the themes of the session was along the lines of: when public institutions cannot do what they promise, public trust in the institution falters and, as a consequence, the public’s willingness to comply with laws and regulations falls. This is typically considered a breach of the social contract.
The ‘state’ supports families in numerous ways: paying for or subsidising education, health care, public transport, childcare, libraries, parks, courts and police. When it comes to helping when the going gets really tough, ambivalence creeps in. Understandably there is a strong element of judgement about who gets help, for how long and at what cost. There are consequences though when the state fails to meet its end of the bargain.
We (the state) have a mandate to provide family services and we encourage expectations of support. Indeed, people get blamed if they do not take up offers of support. Take for example a hypothetical Family Q. Family Q has a reunification or safety plan which has half a dozen things they must do for the safety of their children.
Expenditure on family services though is rationed and, in real terms, sometimes cut. Family Q are overwhelmed because of ordinary and extraordinary demands and crises. They have a schedule of appointments to keep, only some of which they think will help them. The family support worker has more families and engages less with Family Q for lack of time.
When Family Q misses repayments, appointments and phone calls we think that Family Q is not really serious about doing the right thing. There is disappointment, disillusion and possibly even disrespect on both sides. The relationship with Family Q is now tense, highly emotional, with a heap of shared anxiety and possibly resentment.
The communication from the agency becomes more impersonal and directive. Family Q starts to receive letters of warning, missed calls on their phones, and sometimes more referrals to services they don’t want. Their resistance and resentment grows.
The family services department documents it all and prepares to report on non-compliance.
Family Q makes a complaint that they were not given a chance to prove they could safely care for their children. The court makes a decision that the child is better off in out of home care than living with ongoing uncertainty and chaos.
Trust has gone and all contact with the family services department is avoided, or if it can’t be avoided, is contested.
This story is over-simplified but it illustrates how a public institution that is potentially supportive, cooperative and helpful can shift to one that is controlling and scrutinising. Rule compliance becomes the currency between bureaucrat and client. Managing disagreements in the form of complaints becomes a major part of the business.
The reform underway in our child protection agency is the start of a transformation which needs to be matched with legislative change, family services planning and financial backing.

# See https://cpd.org.au/author/christopher-stone/ The reference for this letter is primarily in MacDermott, K and Stone, C (August 2013) Occasional Paper: Death by a Thousand Cuts: How governments undermine their own productivity, CPD Australia.

 

link to GCYP twitter

ISG a vital tool in early intervention

Access Economics’ November 2008 report, The Cost Of Child Abuse In Australia, estimated the annual cost of child abuse and neglect in 2007 at  $4 billion. The report conservatively places the value of related costs at a further $6.7 billion.1

The social and psychological costs of child abuse and neglect to individuals and communities are huge and those who pay most are the children and young people who have been abused or neglected. According to a major review conducted by the National Child Protection Clearinghouse in 20052, child abuse is associated with low self-esteem, increased fear, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, homelessness, suicide and many other physical and mental ailments. Even for resilient individuals, these events can have a significant negative impact on success in employment, educational attainment, relationships, parenting and capacity to participate in and contribute to society.

Over the past decade the focus of child protection policy has moved away from punitive measures to an emphasis on early intervention, improved interagency collaboration and education strategies.

The key to success is to intervene early, when children are beginning to experience difficulty, share the warning signs, collaborate and take action before the problems become entrenched.

Keeping Them Safe p.12 3

Child protection reviews and reports, like the 2009 National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children and the 2003 Layton Review Report, advocate early intervention, interagency collaboration and improved information sharing among agencies.

In October 2008 the South Australian State Cabinet endorsed the Information Sharing Guidelines for Promoting the Safety and Wellbeing of Children, Young People and their Families (ISG), a state wide framework setting out how information can be shared to enable early and more effective coordination of services and to prevent further harm.

The first stage of implementing the ISG began in mid 2009. Participating agencies report that:

•   The ISG supports and expands on existing good practice within organisations.

•   There is benefit in having one overarching framework that provides a consistent approach and explains simply and directly how and when to share information and for what purpose.

•   Acting to protect vulnerable children and young people frequently involves sharing information about the adults whose behaviour poses a risk to the safety and wellbeing of the children and young people they relate to.

•   Supporting vulnerable adults supports vulnerable children.

We work from an early intervention and systemic framework anyway, so we always consider the safety and wellbeing of the whole family in what we do. The ISG reinforce that. This process makes staff feel more confident they are doing the right thing.

Group Manager, UnitingCare Wesley Adelaide

Every family that is successfully supported will save the costs to government of investigations, prosecutions, responding to homelessness and provision of state care, mental health facilities, drug and alcohol services and other services.

We have some very strong interagency groups set up across the region and we are continuing to set these up in areas of need. The ISG, and particularly the flow chart, have been used as an induction tool for these groups. Information sharing for us has been significantly supported by the existence and promotion of the ISG. … if anything it’s legitimised the practice we have always had and has strengthened interagency collaboration by removing some of the aspects of uncertainty that seemed to exist across agencies in the past.

Regional Manager Support Services, DECS

The final word is from a Child and Family Health Service worker about a positive intervention involving a young mother and her six day-old child escaping family violence:

… the ISG gave all of the workers involved in this case the extra tools and permission they needed to ‘join the dots’ and provide the multi-agency support this family really needed.

Footnotes

1  Taylor, P., Moore, P., Pezzullo, L., Tucci, J., Goddard, C. and De Bortoli, L. (2008). The Cost of Child Abuse in Australia, Australian Childhood Foundation and Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia: Melbourne.

2  N. Richardson, Social costs: The Effects Of Child Maltreatment, National Child Protection Clearinghouse, AIFS, Resource Sheet no. 9, 2005.

3  Government of South Australia (2004) Keeping Them Safe

What’s been done – September to November 2010

The Office has joined the consultation on the 2010 update of South Australia’s Strategic Plan to propose this target specific to children in care:

Exceed the Australian average for wellbeing of children and young people in out of home care, as indicated by educational achievement, stability and successful transition to adulthood.

We are also supporting new targets for healthy child development and prevention of abuse and neglect of children.  Team members have attended consultation workshops, participated in online conversations and prepared a submission, Making our state a better parent.

The Charter of Rights was tabled in Parliament on 30 September 2010. Two additional agencies, Cora Barclay Centre and West Coast Youth Services, have endorsed the Charter, taking the total to 45 agencies. A survey of agencies who have endorsed the Charter closed on 11 October. The response rate was very high and a report on the findings will be finalised in November.

A discussion paper on improving the mental health of children under guardianship was released for consultation on 16 September. Work on this will continue in November.

Advocate Belinda Walker spoke at the ICAN and Mentoring Statewide Conference, Youth development: everybody’s business, on 27 August focussing on the importance of children’s rights and involvement in developing Individual Education Plans.

The Guardian’s Office has released A Community Visitor Program for Children in State Care report on the feasibility of introducing such a program in South Australia. The report includes background research on other community visitor programs, the outcomes from a discussion with South Australian experts and consultation with the Guardian’s Youth Advisors.

In the period August to October staff from the Office audited 57 annual reviews and conducted 21 monitoring visits.

A report on the Office’s audit of annual reviews of children and young people in care has been compiled and provided to the Minister following opportunity for comment from Families SA.  A Summary of the 2009-10 Audit of Annual Reviews is available in PDF.

With the South Australian Council of Social Service (SACOSS), the Office continued a series of information sessions for the NGO sector about the Information Sharing Guidelines (ISG) and is receiving positive feedback about the booklet A Guide to Writing an ISG Appendix. We have been working with Anglicare and Community Centres SA, formerly CANH, to promote the ISG.

The selection process for committee members for the Youth Advisory Committee (see the article on page 6) was held in August and September and the first meeting was held on 1 October.

The Guardian’s 2009-2010 Annual Report, was tabled in Parliament on
30 September 2010.

The independent Report on the Review of Performance and Effectiveness of the Office that was commissioned in April has been delivered.  As well as the evaluation, the report contains suggestions about needs and priorities gleaned from a wide range of stakeholders which will  be included in forthcoming strategic planning.

The brochure You and your future: choosing the right path to university has been updated and reissued for 2010-11 with the assistance of the three South Australian universities.  Distribution has started with the help of Families SA offices, the Department of Education and Children’s Services, the universities and YACSA.  Copies of the brochure can be ordered from the materials page of our website and can also be viewed  in a PDF version.

The Office responded to the Department for Families and Communities’ consultation on directions in alternative care which closed on 3 September.  The Response to Directions for alternative care is available in PDF on the Guardian’s website.

Fewer children to rescue – more families to help

Pam Simmons Guardian

Working in human services is rewarding and challenging, and child protection every bit so. I was reminded of this during Child Protection Week when I listened to Justice Robyn Layton talk of the need to combine practice supported by evidence of effectiveness, with personalised and individualised service. This requires a high level of skill and use of professional knowledge. A great deal of satisfaction results when they come together to help and empower someone in need.

At the same time, I was reading Rosemary Kennedy’s book Duty of Care in the Human Services: Mishaps, Misdeeds and the Law. The responsibility sometimes feels overwhelming, not for fear of legal action but for fear of getting it wrong and the harm caused. Ms Kennedy comprehensively argues that, while the costs of mistakes are high, the value placed on human services is relatively low. The low value attributed to human services partly stems from society’s unease about the people we serve and the ambivalence about those considered ‘undeserving’.

This ambivalence is seen at times in implementing policy and planning. Six years ago, when the State Government responded to Justice Layton’s comprehensive review of child protection, the resulting plan, Keeping Them Safe, inspired a collective effort to do better by children. It also resulted in two significant boosts to the budget, the first in 2004-05 and the second in 2006-07. The bit of the plan that suffered under the twin handicaps of low value and ambivalence was family services.

As simplistic as this analysis seems, I think society feels good about rescuing children and, at the same time, feels bad, and angry, about parents’ failure. So the subsequent financial and human investment shifts from the ‘feel bad’ to the ‘feel good’.

Those of us who work in human services often end up overwhelmed, and troubled, by rescuing children while lacking the resources to intervene to prevent harm occurring in the first place. Six years ago, at the release of Keeping Them Safe, there were 4.2 children per thousand on care and protection orders. There are now around seven in a thousand. It is not that children are being brought into care unnecessarily. Far from it. Partly it is that decisions to take action are being made when children are younger. Very likely it is also partly explained by curtailed intervention services for families in crisis.

A similar fate awaits the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children. Simon Schrapel, Chief Executive of UnitingCare Wesley Adelaide, drew attention to this in a June 2010 opinion piece Can A National Approach Really Make a Difference?. [Sorry, this link is no longer available] Early action on the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of out of home care standards and a common approach to assessment, referral and support, he says, will not revolutionise the way we protect children and young people.

What will make a difference to the growing child protection demand are services to families in high need. Our most vulnerable children live in families grappling with drug and alcohol dependence, mental illness and violence, sometimes compounded by isolation and poverty. Greater focus on family services by federal and state governments will not stop the growth in numbers of children requiring state care but it will slow it down.

Even if South Australia reduced the growth to five per cent instead of the average nine per cent now, that’s 93 children at the end of the 2010-11 year who would not be in state care. The change would not happen in a single year, and probably not two or three, but it would happen. Fewer children to rescue but more families to help. This is a whole lot more satisfying and empowering for all. And working in human services would be that much more satisfying.

A community visitor program for young SA people in care?

24 August 2010The Guardian’s office has released A Community Visitor Program for Children in State Care reporting on the feasibility of introducing a community visitor program for children and young people in state care in South Australia. The report is the conclusion from background research on other community visitor programs, the outcomes from a discussion with South Australian experts and consultation with the Youth Advisors to the Guardian.

A Community Visitor Program for Children in State Care is available for download.

A better way to manage young offenders

Public debate on crime usually goes something like this. Crime rates are soaring. Crime is worse than ever. The criminal justice system is soft on crime. The criminal justice system is loaded in favour of criminals. There should be more police. The police should have more powers. Courts should deliver tougher penalties. Greater retribution against offenders will satisfy victim’s demands.(1)

This should sound familiar. With some rare exceptions, it is the extent of the public debate we have in this state about what to do about crime. It is simple, satisfying and hooks into people’s fear and loathing. It has been used recently to argue a tougher line on young offenders.

The risk with a law and order response is that we may make a far greater crime problem when more young people are caught up in the criminal justice system and live with the label of young offender. Most young people grow out of committing crime and a no- or low-intervention approach is best. (2)

But what is to be done about those who are well and truly caught up in a lifestyle of crime? If I thought that longer sentences and more time in detention would work to reduce serious crime I would support it. But it won’t. (3)  It stops crime only for the period of time the young people are in custody. Imprisonment is no deterrence for repeat offenders and besides, they don’t expect to get caught. Boot camps, wilderness and scared-straight programs also won’t work. And doing nothing won’t work.

Targeted intervention works. Engaging those who are at most risk of re-offending, working with what puts them at most risk and working on what can be changed. This spells individualised plans and programs, delivered in a way that makes sense to the young person. If you think this sounds demanding and costly, it is. But it’s a sneeze next to the costs of a life-time of criminal behaviour.

There are successful proven rehabilitation programs which help repeat young offenders develop their moral understanding, to know what impact their crime has had, to learn to deal with problems differently, and to learn to think about and treat others as they themselves want to be treated. But these on their own also won’t work if the young person is homeless, scared, without money and hanging out with older offenders.

Returning then to the idea of incarceration, it seems an ideal time to work with offenders because, to put it bluntly, they are captive. The problem is that this is not their regular world so on release everything changes. The transition to living within the law in the community is critical to success. Indeed, the more that can be done outside of custody the better, including assisting with the very real problems of unemployment, low income, insecure housing and destructive family relationships.

It’s not easy being a youth justice worker. Everyone working within the youth justice system has to work with dissonant community expectations of punishment and rehabilitation. The problem is that approaches that rely on punishment don’t rehabilitate and instead increase the likelihood of a young person re-offending.

So, keep young people out of prison, wherever possible. Offer judges some real choices in sentencing. If young people are in custody, then use that time to help them learn. When they are released, assist with the problems on the outside.

If you want to read more about young offender programs see the Literature Review or Consultation and Recommendations from our Review of Programmes in Youth Training Centres.

Footnotes

1 Hogg, R and Brown, D (1998) Rethinking Law and Order, Pluto Press: Sydney cited in Cunneen, C and White, R (2002) Juvenile Justice: Youth and Crime in Australia, Oxford University Press: Melbourne

2 In this letter I am writing about serious and repeat offending. We do pretty well in this state with the one-off incidents of breaking the law through diversion strategies such as police cautions. One in five young people will face law enforcers within a formal setting and all but a few will not repeat the experience.

3 See, for example, Weatherburn, D, Vignaendra, S and McGrath, A (2009) The specific deterrent effect of custodial penalties on juvenile reoffending, Australian Institute of Criminology, report no 33 www.aic.gov.au

Helping families care for kids

While more children are in state care, families at risk have been neglected by successive governments in South Australia. The erosion of funding for intensive services for families in serious trouble stems back to the 1990s and by 2006-07 this state spent only $4.81 per child compared to a national average of $30.07. Our expenditure in this area has fallen 10 per cent since 2002-03 while the national trend is a rise of 81 per cent over that same period.

This is important because, at the same time, South Australia has had a 37 per cent rise in the numbers of children in state care. In response to this the government has significantly increased expenditure on child protection and alternative care.  However, much of the additional expenditure is meeting demand from the previous year.  We are chasing our tail on child protection.

Our response to child abuse and neglect has largely narrowed to what the government agency can do in investigating reports, seeking court orders and removing children, as a last resort. The social worker faced with a child at risk has too few options. They can pick up the pieces but they do not have the time to get in early to stop the downward spiral.

Most other Australian states and territories face the same problem of a growing number of reports of child abuse or neglect and escalating demand for out of home care.

Projections in NSW show that, if current trends continue, one in every five children born in 2007 will be reported to the Department by the age of 18.

This is a shocking prospect. If we do nothing other than remove children at risk we will have many more in state care than five in a thousand, as we have now.  But the more probable scenario is that the child protection system becomes so overwhelmed with investigations, court orders and removals that the truly high-risk situations get missed.

Further, the more children we take into care the less likely we are to be able to provide a safe caring alternative.

Another approach, and one that seems to be working in Victoria, is two-pronged: invest well in looking after children in state care and invest equally well in helping families in trouble. This is not simply parenting classes, information brochures, and fortnightly visits by a nurse, all of which are good. This is something much more intensive to help families with major and protracted problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, spiralling debt and mental illness.

Early evidence in Victoria shows that where a sustained effort to help families in high need has been made, child protection reports, substantiations and court orders have fallen.

This is not cheap. Victoria commits around $75 million per year for family support services, $22 million of that in intensive services. This state reports around $2 million for intensive services. South Australia has recently spent wisely and well on universal children’s services such as home visiting and children’s centres. These universal services will benefit all children but children most in need require something more.

We understandably question why abusive or neglectful families should be given a second chance. Fair enough – a child’s safety and wellbeing comes first. But children need families and the state cannot always provide an effective substitute.

Removing children to punish parents also punishes children. It is not done lightly and, in most cases, the decision to remove children permanently is not done suddenly. But we would be so much more confident that we were doing right by children if we had first seen what their parents could do, with help.

Pam Simmons

Guardian for Children and Young People

This piece was first published in The Advertiser on 30 May 2008.