Developments to strengthen systems for child protection across Australia
Discussion and conclusion
Considerable changes to systems for protecting children are planned or underway right across Australia. These are being designed and implemented mainly in response to system shortcomings identified in independent reviews. They aim to reduce the number of children involved in statutory child protection and OOHC and achieve greater permanence and improved outcomes for children who enter OOHC. Addressing the over-representation of Aboriginal children and families in all areas of the statutory child protection system, particularly the high number of Aboriginal children entering OOHC, is an area of particular focus for reform.
While strategies have been adopted in response to specific concerns and the unique context of service delivery in each jurisdiction, there are many parallels. New system architecture is being introduced in several Australian states and territories to build a more robust and coordinated community service system to refer families to. This attempts to divert families from statutory child protection and assist families in a more holistic way, and includes new entry points into the child and family system, changes to confidentiality and information-sharing provisions and new multi-agency teams and services,new professional roles to act as service integrators (lead workers, system navigators) and enhanced capacity in prevention, early intervention and intensive family support, including the introduction of innovative services as well as programs and practices that are empirically based.
Several jurisdictions are also progressively changing their OOHC systems through more decisive decision-making when children enter OOHC and new investment to increase capacity in, and diversify the type of, care arrangements. This includes replacing existing OOHC models with new therapeutic and treatment care models and introducing new specialist models of care to accommodate siblings and other client groups. These approaches are often complemented by, or incorporate, more explicit work with birth families to facilitate the earliest possible exit from care. Extensions of financial support and new aftercare services have also been introduced to assist care leavers.
States and territories are also making extensive changes to better support the goal of Aboriginal children living with their families and within their communities. This includes efforts to expand Indigenous employment and service delivery by Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) (including case management of Aboriginal children on a child protection order) by consolidating Aboriginal services and strategies and through capacity building and practice, policy and workforce development. Other measures include Aboriginal cultural training for the mainstream child and family workforce, strengthening family involvement in child protection decision-making and planning, earlier identification of Aboriginality and a strengthened approach to developing cultural plans to support the needs of Aboriginal children who reside with non-Aboriginal carers.
Other system alterations include strengthening the workforce (including foster and kinship carers) through better training supervision/coaching, enhanced practice frameworks and measures to deal with understaffing in child protection, strengthening external oversight and increasing compliance with standards (especially in relation to child-safe organisations and the screening and regulation of authorised carers), new policy-making approaches (such as social investment and co-design) and new commissioning frameworks and funding models that allow greater flexibility to work around the needs of clients and develop innovative program approaches.
While the current iteration of child protection changes are well-intentioned and, on the surface, appear substantial, the question remains as to whether they will address systemic challenges and lead to the better protection of children. Making decisions for the future has never been easy and previous reforms have not led to the expected level of improvements. Whether the changes actually get to the complex and multi-level root causes of systemic failures and challenges, whether the strategies target high impact change levers, the extent to which measures are well-designed and well-implemented, and the synergistic effect of a suite of reforms occurring in a complex environment fraught with uncertainties will all have a bearing on whether these actions today see results.
There are several things we don’t know about the success or otherwise of current reforms; however, we do know that system strengthening is not a singular “event”. The complex problem of child maltreatment and child removal will need to be managed through a continuous process of adaptation. System stewardship as an improvement model is a promising way forward. This requires leaders and decision-makers who understand how systems behave, who can foster shared learning and shift the collective focus from reactive problem-solving to co-creating future action (Senge, Hamilton, & Kania, 2015). The rudiments of a system learning approach are evident in developments in policy-making that connect feedback loops, strategic research, evaluation and data to decision-making and which engage policy people with diverse stakeholders through collaborative forms of governance and co-design. To produce real and lasting change for children and families, the principle of collective responsibility for protecting children must extend to system stewardship.
5 Often for the purpose of increasing safety for people experiencing domestic violence.