Audio transcript: 'A community that values its children will cherish their parents': Family inclusion in child protection systems
Return to CFCA webinar – 24 October 2018
Audio transcript (edited)
Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to today's webinar, "A community that values its children will cherish their parents. Family inclusion in child protection systems." My name is Karen Broadly and I'm a senior research officer here at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Today's webinar presentation will discuss research on international family inclusion initiatives in child welfare and how they can be applied in Australia. Before I introduce our speaker, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we are meeting. In Melbourne the traditional custodians are the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I pay my respects to their elders past and present and to the elders from other communities who may be participating today.
It is now my pleasure to introduce today's presenter, Jessica Cocks. Jessica Cocks is a social worker, a researcher with over 25 years' experience in the child and family practice including out of home care. She is the national practice leader for children, young people and families at life without barriers.
Jessica is the founding president of Family Inclusion Strategies in the Hunter, a parent and worker co-led organisation based in New South Wales. This promotes family inclusion and parent led change in the child protection system. In 2018 Jessica completed a Churchill fellowship researching family inclusion in child welfare in the USA, Canada, Norway and the UK. Now I will ask you to please join me in giving Jessica a very warm welcome.
Thank you very much for that lovely welcome, I really appreciate that, and I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to everyone today about my Churchill fellowship. So before I start I'd just like to acknowledge the Awabakal people, I'm talking to you all today from Newcastle in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales where the traditional custodians of the land are the Awabakal people. I pay my respects to their elders past, present and future. I acknowledge that the Awabakal people have suffered and continue to suffer from the policies and practices of the child protection system in Australia.
And I'd also like to pay my respects to any Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander people who are with us today on this webinar. Okay. So I'd just like to start with a – with some contextual information about the reasons why I wanted to go on this fellowship and the reasons why it was awarded. And so I'll start with going through the context for family inclusion, I'll then move on to explore some key elements, six key elements of family inclusive practice that emerged from my project, I will briefly describe three areas for innovation which we can apply here in Australia, and I'll briefly discuss how these innovations can be integrated into policy and practice in Australia, or at least my ideas for how they can.
So, first of all I'll talk through the context, why is family inclusion important and why this Churchill fellowship. So we all know, most of us here on this webinar will know and be cognisant of the pressing importance of family engagement in child protection. We know from research and from practice wisdom that when parents and family are engaged and working with case workers and social workers that children do better, they're more likely to stay at home, they're more likely to be returned home. We know that even when children stay in care when they have enduring relationships with their families that they leave care better equipped.
We also know more recently from the findings of our Royal Commission, in terms of our organisations having the capacity to include families, the Royal Commission has identified family involvement as one of the ten elements of a child-safe organisation. Many of the people in this webinar who are listening today are working for organisations where children have been harmed by our staff, by our carers, and our organisation sadly may not have responded very well historically to keep children safe. The Royal Commission is now telling us clearly that by involving families in our organisations and in our practice we will make children safer. And child welfare practice and social work practice, I reflected before I went on the fellowship about whether or not we are part of the problem or part of the solution. I'm a social worker, I've been a social worker for a long time, and part of the – or one of the key purposes of my profession is to challenge social injustice and to support vulnerable groups. But overall I think my profession has not worked with or helped parents with children in care and nor have we advocated for them in the public sphere, and, in my view, we have failed to critically analyse prevailing discourses about families including conventional understandings of children's rights discourses, and in doing so we have left children down.
It's interesting to me that social work and child welfare work is often regarded as a profession with limited power. Yet, in child protection at least I think we exercise considerable power. Arguably even greater power in ways that continue to oversee the removal of large numbers of children, especially from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and in ways that, I think, virtually ignore the social and economic conditions that contribute to the plight of children and families.
I also think that some of the policies, models and programs haven't helped as much as they should. I know our policy framework in child protection is largely consistent with family inclusion. I think we all know that. I've seen the increasing availability of models, frameworks and programs that despite their promise don't always help as much as they should. For example, lots of people on this webinar will be familiar with family group conferencing which we've had access to for a very long time in Australian child protection systems and we also have assessment tools that claim a strong evidence base, but we still struggle to achieve good outcomes for children across the board and I speculated whether or not family inclusion might be, at all levels, a missing ingredient for these programs and models.
And finally, I wanted to challenge the competing rights discourse. We're commonly asked to balance the rights of children against the rights of their parents, but I wondered is this discourse helping children? And does it uphold their rights? It makes sense that families continue to be involved and supported and helped even when children stay permanently in care and in my experience many of the families with children in long term care are great advocates for their children. They fight for their children's rights and all children have the right to their parents to be helped and to be cared for. When I applied for this fellowship I was already making changes in my work that integrated parents and family as part of a children's rights approach. I had begun connecting with parents as experts and learning from their experiences and from the experiences of their children. So that's the context.
So I'm now going to go on and explore the key elements of family inclusion that emerged from my project and I just want to emphasise that these elements add to our understandings of family engagement. They don't throw out the old – they don't throw out previous understandings. Family inclusion is still an evolving concept and I hope this project is contributing to understanding it. I think they help us continue to describe and conceptualise it and I do think they challenge some, perhaps, conventional notions of family engagement and relationship-based practice and I hope they're helpful to people.
So the key elements are acknowledging power imbalances, integrating the social causes of child abuse and child removal. Family voices in implementation and design. Using an ethical lens including children's rights. Understanding parents as leaders and relational permanency. Okay, so just briefly, family inclusive practice and programs need to acknowledge and attempt to address the power imbalances that parents face when dealing with the system. In the places I visited power was acknowledged and ameliorated in a range of ways. Especially through the purposeful provision of information and advocacy.
In legal service delivery models in New York City parents never had to meet with statutory agencies including foster and residential care agencies without an advocate by their side. That wasn't necessarily a lawyer, but they always had an advocate. Parents here in Australia have told researchers here how much they value having a support person who understands the system by their side and that they feel this impacts on the way caseworkers talk to them. Just having an observer, someone there for parents, does help to level the playing field.
For the next element, element No. 2 is to integrate the social context and causes of harm to children. Some of those social problems that families with children in care
face – children and families face, are poverty, family and gendered violence, addiction, which is a public health problem, homelessness, a lack of social support and isolation, racism and intergenerational trauma. Most people in this webinar will recognise these issues as commonly experienced by families with children in care. Practitioners and parent leaders I met with overseas talked about social structures and historical conditions that contribute not only to child harm but also to child removal and that's an important distinction to make that we rarely discuss.
Parent-led groups used parent stories to highlight the long-term causes of child abuse and to describe how forensic investigatory responses don't help solve social problems like domestic violence and poverty. Child removal doesn't solve those problems. I heard from Casey Family programs who argued that a range of issues, like the ones on this slide, that we tend to treat as parenting problems should, instead, be responded to through a more complex social lens. Casey Family programs weren't suggesting that these things don't cause harm to children. He was saying just the opposite and that to be family inclusive we need to ensure that we respond to those problems in a very practical way with families. And just staying on that theme of the social causes of child harm and child removal, I'd just ask people to reflect on this quote from research done in the UK into the social causes of child removal in care. Most of us on this webinar work with families every day who are dealing with profound social problems including intergenerational poverty. If we want to be family inclusive we need to make visible the social context of child removal. This is the only way we can genuinely start where children and families are and to respond to the lived experience of children.
The quote on this slide is, "Poverty is the wallpaper of practice in child welfare. It is unremarkable and unremarked upon." So researchers were saying that even though social workers and caseworkers were aware that poverty was the backdrop of their practice they either felt powerless to, or felt it was not their role to respond to poverty in any way. Their research found that deprivation is an incredibly common experience for children in the child protection system. Perhaps the single most common experience.
Australian research, although still limited, suggests a similar situation here and I'd really encourage listeners to check out research done by the Social Action Research Centre in Tasmania, Anglicare Tasmania, which suggests that social disadvantage, issues like income, low incomes and housing are a major barrier to safe reunification and also contribute to recurrent child removal. So what little data we do have in Australia is consistent with most children in our care system coming from poor families.
Okay, so the next element I want to discuss is including family voices in implementation and design. We write – the quote on this slide says, "Agency leaders usually think they and their staff are doing better than they actually are. Having access to parent and family experiences is an important reality check and a springboard for change." That's a quote from a parent leader in the USA who works with agencies to help them understand their agency cultures in order to drive the implementation of evidence based programs.
So many of us will know about really great programs like NEWPIN, multi-systemic therapy, just to name two. Great programs that deserve our support. We know that family engagement is crucial to their success and what my project is suggesting is that families need to be integrated into their implementation, their design and their evaluation and management accompanied by strong leadership within agencies.
The parent leaders I spoke to argued that agencies tend to overestimate their skills and cultures in relation to family engagement and parent voices can help them work out how to better target their efforts and improve practice. I think that including family voices in implementation and design is a really crucial step if we're going to build a family inclusive culture.
Okay, so the next element is about an ethical lens. So moving beyond just what the evidence says works and doing what is right. So the quotes on this slide say, "If a community values its children it must cherish their parents." The pioneer of attachment theory, John Bowlby made this quote more than 50 years ago. Sixty, 70 years ago now. "Poverty is not neglect and surveillance is not support," a quote from the Child Welfare Organising Project in New York. And finally, "Every child has the right to their parents to be represented by the best lawyer in town," which is a quote from a children's right expert in New York.
So to be family inclusive we need to do what is right, not just what works. If there is no evidence base for kindness, does that mean we don't do it? Later in this presentation I'm going to talk about family peer support and argue that we should do peer work not only because it may contribute to more reunifications but because it is the right thing to do because parents tell us it is helpful and because it alleviates people's suffering.
Another example of ethical practice really stood out for me in Norway, where I was struck by how hospitable and welcoming they were to parents who were attending group therapy and individual therapy. Psychologists, social workers and other family therapists regularly put in time and effort to cook meals for parents attending their groups and to share those meals. There is no evidence that I know of that providing a meal or even a cup of tea leads to better outcomes, but it is a caring thing and I would argue it is the right and ethical thing to do and it happens here too. I think we can learn from our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations who are often very good at being very hospitable.
Children's rights are often discussed here in Australia in ways that suggest that we need to choose between parents' rights and their children's rights. But if we deeply consider children's rights we know this is not what was intended by the UN and is not reflected in children's experiences. The quote that I just repeated by Martin Guggenheim challenges this understanding. He challenges our narrow understanding of children's rights and reframes parents and family as a key part of a children's rights approach. The other two quotes help to describe the importance of an ethical lens and reflect on how parents and families and children might experience what works. I think we need to ask ourselves, in our practice do parents and family feel cherished and supported in their roles? What does this say about our value of children? Do we sometimes use surveillance in lieu of support? Surveillance can provide us with information, but does the surveillance itself shape what happens and does it help children? And how would doing what is right and alleviates people's suffering impact on the way we support children?
Okay, nearly finished with the elements. Family inclusive practice conceptualise parents as leaders rather than subjects or clients. So, by recognising parents as leaders in their own families and more broadly we challenge power imbalances and we begin to stake out a role for parents in the system more broadly. So this quote is from a parent leader in California who was a group leader of groups for other parents. "I attended groups for quite a few years before becoming a parent leader. When I found a worker who was helpful this allowed me to lead in my own life and then to lead change in the system." This quote is from a mother with six children. Five were restored and one was adopted. For years she navigated the system to get her children back, to keep them in her care, accessing services for them and ensuring they recovered from the trauma and harm caused not only by their experiences while in her care but also by the system. She now navigates a complex and sensitive relationship with the adoptive mother of her youngest child. She does this alone and without an intermediary as adoption has meant this child has no caseworker or oversight. She also advocates for child welfare reform and leads a parenting group. I would suggest this is true leadership.
Parents in the US, Norway and the UK are leading agencies, leading research teams, providing training and consultancy services. Okay, so finally I just want to touch on relational permanency which I think is a really, really crucial part of understanding family inclusion for children in care, particularly long term care but also reunification.
Family inclusive practice recognises families as a key part of building permanency for children, no matter what's the legal outcome. Family inclusion and family relationships are pathways to permanency when we use this understanding. Permanency and security are a feeling and a learned experience and they're essentially not about court orders. In Australia, perhaps especially in New South Wales we're tending to conceptualise permanency through the lens of particular legal orders and case plan goals. So we ask – the questions that we tend to be asking a lot of the time is, "What is the case plan for this child?" This sort of thinking can lead to an approach to family relationships that is too limited.
A family inclusive approach asks different questions such as what do we want children to experience? How will we ensure relationships grow and thrive? How do we minimise the losses that children experience and enable children to heal? For example, a parent led agency in the US has developed an alternative approach to family contact which supports relationships and strengthens the relationships rather than surveils children's time with their parents.
I'll talk more about relational permanency when I discuss the three innovations, particularly the role of carers. Okay. So I looked at three main areas for innovation. One was peer work. Parents helping parents. Parents with lived experience of the system helping parents newer to the system. Carer and parent relationships, which, I think really have the potential to contribute to relational permanency and I hope that this – my presentation clarifies this a bit more and parent leadership. These are all things that we can do now. They are cheap or cost neutral. They are very consistent with government policy. We don't need to change any laws to do any of these things. Okay, so I'll just briefly discuss peer work or parents helping parents.
Peer workers are parents who have had personal experiences in the child welfare system and offer advocacy and support to parents newly involved in the system. While I was away during the Churchill I visited peer programs in four US States, California, Oregon, Washington and New York. I also went to a conference in Colorado and met with agencies from all over the USA. I learned that versions of peer work are widely available throughout the US in a variety of different settings. Peer workers had lots of different role titles, like the ones on this slide, parent partner, parent leader, parent advocate, parent ally.
Parent leaders tended to do group work and parent advocates and parent allies were terms that tended to be used in settings where peer work had emerged from parent led initiatives. Their roles were quite similar in terms of day to day practice. Some integrated more group work than others. Nearly all of the programs did one on one work with families as well. All of the peer work programs that I visited and I have come across were located outside of government. This quote, "I want to talk to a parent. No offence, I'm sure you're really nice, but another parent will know what I'm going through." This is actually from a parent here in Newcastle who rang Family Inclusion Strategies in the Hunter for support and was asked by me if she would prefer to talk to a parent or to a worker. I think her response really sums up the value of connecting with people who know what it's like and our work locally suggests that parents caught up in these processes can connect with peers in ways that are very difficult for caseworkers.
So what do peer workers do? They coach, they translate, they encourage, empathise and advocate. Above all they offer hope. They influence and role model. Peer workers that I met with do not take case notes. They don't give evidence. They don't assess, monitor or supervise. Family partner roles have no actual power. They have mostly influence. They don't take notes and we have an agreement with the court that they won't give evidence. That's from a manager in California. "My parent partner is my biggest fan, my cheerleader. She speaks up for me with the social worker." And that's from a parent in Oregon, I think. If it hasn't happened to you it's really hard to imagine what it would be like to be investigated, to fear and to have your children taken from you and placed in care. It's a time of extraordinary pain and when we take the time to consider what it must be like we can only begin to empathise with this.
Parents with children in care or who fear removal know when they're being judged and stereotyped. They know that for much of the time, not always, but much of the time, that the caseworkers and others that they work with don't have much idea what they're going through. They may also, for good reason, deeply distrust the system and the people who work in it. Caseworkers and social workers in government and
non-government agencies also have a very difficult job. We're expected to build trusting relationships in this power saturated environment. We take notes and collect evidence and make judgements, that's our job. Relationship building is not impossible but it is difficult and it requires a lot of skill, excellent supervision and I think it requires certain personal attributes and we know that we need to do relationship based practice because that is what is needed to keep children safe. It's not me saying that, that's well understood.
And I think peer work has got a role to play in improving those relationships. So the importance of trust. "Ultimately parents don't trust the social worker. They do trust us. We help them to navigate the system. We encourage them and highlight areas they can make choices." That's a quote from a peer worker. "I can trust my parent partner. I can't totally trust the social worker, it's as simple as that. I know I won't be judged by her. She helps me work out how to talk to the social worker." That's a parent.
Trust is the basis of relationship-based practice. Parents who can build trusting relationships with helpers not only benefit while that relationship is in place, they can take that experience into their future relationships. Trust and a trusting relationship can be a starting point for change. I want to draw your attention to the last quote I made and emphasise to you that this parent had a very positive view of her social worker.
At first she had built a businesslike relationship with her and this was now developing into a relationship of respect as restoration was being planned. But total trust was not possible for this parent in the context of a court process and what the parent saw as deception and lies in the past. She also argued to me that the relationship she had managed to build with the social worker had directly led to the decision to reunify her with her child and I think that the evidence would support her in that.
She felt that she'd been able to do that because of the coaching and role modelling form her peer worker who helped her practice how to talk to the social workers. The parent knows that she won't be judged by the peer worker and she does feel that at some level she will be judged by her social worker.
Caseworkers often have very different histories to parents and this can make relationship building hard. Peer workers on the other hand over have very similar histories. They have experienced the difficult things that parents are going through and this is an excellent starting point for trust. Peer workers use self-disclosure purposefully to build trust. I saw experienced peer workers do this in court and at the child welfare office with extraordinary skill and confidence and the response from distressed parents was amazing. Immediate eye-contact, de-escalation, a willingness to talk and engage. All things that caseworkers rarely achieve quickly and perhaps not when we have removed or placed their children just a day or so before.
The photo on this slide is of a parent holding hands with her peer support worker while they await the outcome of a decision in court. Imagine the power of that support? The parent in this photo knows her hand is being held by someone who has experienced the same foreboding fear and distress as she is. Imagine how much easier it could be for parents and family you have worked with if they could experience that sense of connection and empathy.
So this diagram is my attempt to conceptualise the role that peer workers play in contributing to professional relationships between parents and family and agency workers. Bearing in mind that improving professional relationships with caseworkers is a key aim of peer work. A peer worker called Dave in California helped me to develop this image. He described himself as operating in the grey area between two contested positions. So he conceptualised peer workers in the grey. Both the agency and the parent positions are dominated by anxiety. The agency is saturated in rules and is dominated by concerns of risk. The parent is fearful and saturated in trauma, grief and loss. And Dave regarded himself as in the middle. He wasn't making a claim to truth, just to a position of neutrality where he could enable parents to navigate and succeed. He was very aware he needed to stick around for another day and he had to be useful to the social worker as well and he did the same things with social workers as he did with parents. Forgive the use of the term social worker, that’s the title that they use in California.
So he advocated questions, navigated, interpreted,
self-disclosed and normalised in both directions with the purpose of supporting parents to navigate the system. Peer workers are so widely employed that I went to a number of places to gain information to use this diagram and spoke to a CEO of the Children's Village in New York, a very, very big fostering agency, where the CEO conceptualised parent advocates and peer workers as credible messengers. In his view, the key value of the peer workers was their credibility to parents and social workers and in doing so they helped build bridges and bring parties together in relationship.
Okay, so here's some quotes from a frontline social worker and a more senior bureaucrat in the administration of children's services in New York City. The New York City quote says, "Having the Bronx Defenders office and the Centre for Family Representation [They are parent advocates working with social workers and lawyers] has improved outcomes for all parties. Parents have difficulty trusting child welfare authorities and strong support and advocacy for parents has helped build trust and engagement." And the social worker from Oregon said, "Parent partners have brought a relational focus back to child welfare. I highly value them as team members. They have improved my relationship with clients."
So relationship based practice, I would argue, can be improved through support and advocacy. It's important that we include advocacy, from people with lived experience. And when you think about it, it makes sense. Relationship based practice will never thrive when power is so unequal. By introducing sound advocacy and support we mitigate those power imbalances and we actually create the conditions for better relationships as they have found in New York City.
Eric was – Eric is the name of the senior man from New York. Eric was quite clear that strong advocacy had improved the administration for children's services ability to engage with families by levelling the playing field. A little bit more on the model in New York. I'm not going to be able to describe it much, but it's essentially a multi-disciplinary legal service model made up of lawyers, social workers and parent advocates. It's called a family defence model. The team – so everybody – all parents who would qualify for our version of Legal Aid in New York get access to a multi-disciplinary team of a social worker, a lawyer and a parent advocate and, as I said before, never have to meet with their foster care service provider or the child welfare authorities on their own. Data collected within these services suggests that these models are significantly increasing reunification rates and reducing the time children spend in care.
And I'll just very briefly touch on benefits to peer workers. "When I worked with peer worker," this is quote from – peer workers tended to graduate. So they would engage with a peer worker, navigate the system and then some of them would then go on to become peer workers themselves. So this quote is from someone like that, "When I worked with peer worker, she gave me hope. She believed in me when I didn't even believe in myself. This made a big difference to my
self-esteem." And the next quote, "It never lets me forget where I came from. It keeps me humble and it keeps me sober. They give me more than I give them. To see their success, the daily impacts of my work, makes my life richer. I'm right where I'm supposed to be." So peer workers benefited from their roles. They had taken a terrible experience and had turned it into a positive. They had close-knit teams and they tended to be quite passionate about their work. At the very least parents get paid, they have a career and a pathway on to other roles and this directly addresses poverty.
All right, I'll quickly move on to innovation area No. 2 which is parent-carer relationships. And this has got particular interest, I hope, to people. It certainly does to me. About its link to relational permanency. So as everybody will know, the child welfare system is only one way children experience separation from their parents and siblings. It's actually quite common for Australian children to live apart from one or both parents and one or more of their siblings and other family, especially if they share only one parent or have a big age difference and while there are sometimes problems these relationships are generally managed by family and children know their parents, siblings and other family in a fairly normalised way. Sometimes it can be a bit bumpy, but most of the time it's okay.
This is not so for most children in a care system in Australia. The care system often restricts relationships between carers, parents and siblings of children in care in a range of ways. In some jurisdictions it is still quite common for unrelated carers not to know the parents of the children they're knowing for and sometimes they've only met briefly and may not meet for quite some time when they do eventually meet. If they do meet roles can sometimes be quite restricted and increasingly carers are being asked to supervise family contact which is quite, I would argue, quite a limited role. Communication with parents can be limited to occasional one way information provision and sadly, for some children, contact with parents and siblings and other family may drop away. As a consequence children experience multiple losses of the people important to them and may experience divided loyalties.
We know that many children do want to return to the care of their parents and many children blame themselves for their loss and may feel unable to discuss this with carers who do not know their families well. Many children feel stigmatised and may find it difficult to explain their family circumstances to others, to school friends, to teachers and I think that that can manifest itself as another form of secrecy. I think that impacts on children's sense of belonging and can be deeply traumatising and I think that the research bears this out.
So the first quote on this slide, "It's good for the children to see the relationship and I don't want Lawrence to lose Sarah and her family from his life. I've been lucky. Not everyone is so lucky with the foster carer." So this mum had her child restored home. Note that she says it is good for all her children to see the relationship that she has with the foster carer. Unlike most child welfare systems who are usually solely focused on the child in care, Sarah and Helen integrated in the whole family including Lawrence's siblings and the carer's siblings. This expansive understanding of permanency from the perspective children and not courtrooms comes more easily to parents and families than it does to systems.
I met with two agencies who were building carer and parent relationships into their child welfare work with different emphases and perspectives. One was the open adoption and family services agency in Oregon which supports adoptive parent and birth parent relationships when children are in permanent out of home care arrangements in the form of open adoption. And the second one is from Fairfax Family Services in Virginia and I'll go through those initiatives now.
So firstly, let's talk about promotion reunification home through carer and parent relationships. And again this is Fairfax County in Virginia. Over a number of years and in partnership with a range of agencies, Fairfax have been trying to bridge the gap between parents and carers and they do this in a range of ways. These quotes are from a carer and parent who got to know each other very well and are from the previous slide.
Sarah and Helen met early in Lawrence's care experience. Sarah, the carer, saw her role as a bridge to get Lawrence home again safely. She saw herself as on the team. Her role was one of family engagement and inclusion and she was able to do this more easily than caseworkers as she did not have decision making authority and could concentrate on building a caring relationship. And her quote is, "Be non-judgemental. We, carers, are here to get families back together. We are not long term baby sitters. We do a lot more than care."
The parent in this situation was a young mother with other children at home. The loss of her child into care had caused her enormous grief and she worried deeply about him. Meeting Sarah was reassuring to her and allowed her focus on the case plan goals.
They have now become friends and expect to stay in each other's lives. This is what I mean by relational permanency. Lawrence has experienced relational permanency. Although he experienced disruption when he was removed, he never experienced the loss of his family including his mother, his father and his siblings, and his trauma has been minimised as both his parents and his carers were able to work together to care for him. He has kept his relationships with his family and also with carers who looked after him. So the close relationship that he formed with Sarah while he was in her care has also continued.
So in Fairfax the foster care system is the bridge between children and families. Its function is to strengthen family relationships and whenever possible children go home. By bridging the gap and having the bridge metaphor, we make foster care more expansive and flexible. We provide a scaffold for carers' roles and the type of things that might happen to bridge the gap. There are steps along the way across the bridge to help carers and parents decide what to do. At support carers and parents will meet as early as possible, get to know one another and make decisions together as much as possible. All the way across to participation where the bridge is crossed, relationships are relaxed and normalised and children experience relational permanency.
Okay, and just very quickly I'll talk about carer-parent relationships when children are in permanent care and I'm going to use an example of open adoption and just bear in mind that my project has defined children in care as any child who is not living at home with their families as a result of child protection intervention so I'm including children who have been adopted from care. This is a much more common outcome for children in the US and the UK than it is in Australia and bear in mind too that in the US and the UK almost all adoptions from care are closed, so this example I'm giving you is an exception.
So when children are in permanent care open adoption and family services in Oregon run open adoption services that seem to be taking openness very seriously and I think there's a lot to learn about them, and it's certainly not just limited to adoption. So maybe a mum can't succeed at being a full-time parent at this point in her life but she can succeed in her role as a birth parent and this means everything to her and her child. The director said to me, "A lifelong carer and parent relationship is crucial to open adoption. Sometimes birth parents are struggling and may lose contact for a while, but the door stays open. So, under this program parents who face the prospect of child removal in the child welfare system and including a closed adoption can avoid this by choosing an open adoption with this agency.
In this process, when they go through this process with this agency, they read the adoption assessment of prospective adoptive parents. They choose the parents they want for their child including meeting with a range of potential parents first. They are not seen as relinquishing or losing their child to adoption. They are seen as entrusting their child to the new carers. This challenges power imbalances and sets up an accountability role. There are legally enforceable contact plans as part of every open adoption and this agency was very clear that this was to protect children's rights to see and know their birth parents.
The last quote on this slide is interesting, which is "A lifelong carer and parent relationship is crucial to open adoption. Sometimes birth parents are struggling and may lose contact for a while, but the door stays open." Consider how we tend to treat parents in Australia when children are in permanent care. What if parents are struggling? They may go missing for a while. Do we keep the door open in the interests of children? Do we minimise children's losses and support parents as much as we can to stay connected through their grief and loss or do we tend to give parents chances that once gone will not be given again. Is this child focused or is it really concerned with adult behaviour? The agency in Oregon's approach was not about chances or failure. It is less conditional because the enduring importance and centrality of the birth parent role is seen as a child's right. It is much more child centred and aims to prevent them from losing their families. This agency offers lifelong and free counselling and support to all birth parents in recognition of their trauma, loss and grief and the importance of their ongoing role to children.
Okay, now I'm on to innovation three and I think I'm running out of so I'm just going to go as quickly as I can through this section because we really need to bear in mind that peer work and carer-parent partnerships are forms of parent leadership. But just to be clear that there are a range of parent led organisations in the United States and Norway in particular. They are using their – they are having a voice with legislation and with politicians in Washington State and elsewhere in the US are coming to these parent led organisations for advice. I sat in on some of these meetings and they were strategic, savvy and organised groups.
These are just some of the organisations that I visited. So the Child Welfare Organising Project in New York City, Rise Magazine in New York City, Washington State Parent Ally Committee, The OBF in Norway, Your Family Your Voice in the UK. These organisations are parent led and bubbled up from parent and community activism aided by allies. They were all aided by allies. They all had allies in universities, in agencies. They relied on partnerships with social workers and others and lawyers and others. Your Family Your Voice is a group that's part of the Family Rights Group in London. It's a partnership or alliance of social workers, kinship carers and parents. It's co-chaired by a parent who has had two children adopted. But not solely parent led.
Okay, so I just wanted to call out this particular aspect of parent leadership because I think this is something practical that we can start to do quite quickly her in Australia and that's parent leadership in the form of training and consultancy with agencies and our work forces. So the first quote is about strategic sharing. Strategic sharing is telling pieces of your personal story in a meaningful and safe way using parts of your story to educate and advocate. Sharing strategically helps you to prepare with your training partner and what you may need for support when sharing pieces of your story. This was an approach to training that is used – I'm not going to try and remember the acronym. It's in North Carolina as part of the University of North Carolina, and there are links to their material in my report.
Parents in the US and Norway are providing consultancy and training services with agencies and government to help improve family engagement. In the US this is used quite pragmatically by agencies to help meet accreditation processes for example and in Norway this has emerged from parents with children in care having negative experiences and being traumatised. Agencies are now required to provide more sensitive and respectful services that meet parents' needs and parents themselves are regularly providing training with Norwegian child welfare workers to help them improve their skills.
In my experience in child protection we tend to use the pop-up parent phenomenon quite a lot and the agency training from the University of North Carolina suggested to me that we try and avoid it. This is when a parent is invited in to share their story during training and workshops. They pop in and then they pop out again. It's not unusual for parents to tell their story and for the discussion of their story to take place after they have gone. So just I guess it's better than nothing, but perhaps if we as a sector, I think we can probably do better than that.
So just very quickly, this is an example of parent leadership in Australia. This photo is of two parent leaders and a worker leader delivering a workshop at a recent conference in Sydney held by the New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services. "We started off some years ago being asked to be pop-up parents telling stories to a training group and over time we're continuing to challenge this. We're co-facilitating workshops regularly with groups of workers, managers, leaders and carers. Our organisation has developed a website for parents and a Facebook page that we hope is helping parents directly. We also run a monthly support group."
So it's an example – an Australian example of all the things that I've talked about overseas. It's still very much in early stages but I think it's starting to make a difference. Okay, I won't go any further, I think I'll just briefly describe this slide and open it up for questions. Just to help people understand the kinds of things that we can do in agencies and in community to try and build family inclusion and I've tried to conceptualise the places I visited as happening along a spectrum of activities. On one end is agency initiated change where the emphasis is essentially on practice improvement within the current system and the other end is parent community led change which is with much more of an emphasis on system change and reform as well as on practice.
So I'll leave I there now, because I think we're running out of time. The little fish on this slide is meant to suggest that Family Inclusion Strategies in the Hunter is an example of parent and community led change. Okay, and I think we need all of them. I think agency initiated change is just as important as parent and community led change but we absolutely need more parent and community led change. And just very finally here is a picture of what a family inclusive system might look like if we're lucky enough to have such a thing here in Australia and I think if we work towards it that's something that we can achieve. Thank you very much and as Karen said these slides will be available and I hope there's some questions.
Thanks Jessica, that was great and thank you everyone for attending today. If you can please follow the link on your screen to our website to continue the conversation that would be great and we look forward to seeing you next time.
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