Developments to strengthen systems for child protection across Australia

CFCA Paper No. 44 – November 2017

Efforts to improve systems for protecting children

There has been a remarkable degree of reform and change in child protection systems across Australia in recent times. All jurisdictions with the exception of the Northern Territory currently have a major plan or strategy for reforming their system (or a subsystem such as the OOHC system) for protecting children. The Northern Territory has a number of major activities and initiatives underway. Plans for system reform include:

  • Safe Home for Life (New South Wales);
  • Their Futures Matter: A New Approach (New South Wales);
  • Building a Better Future (Western Australia);
  • Building Safe and Strong Families (Western Australia);
  • A Step-Up for Our Kids (Australian Capital Territory);
  • Supporting Families, Changing Futures (Queensland);
  • Strong Families–Safe Kids (Tasmania); and
  • Roadmap for Reform (Victoria).

Specific reform efforts are described next.

Principles

Permanency for children is a principle that appears in new legislation in New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Victoria. The Tasmanian Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1997 is strongly based on the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCROC) and New South Wales has strengthened children’s participation rights in respect of whether a Guardianship application proceeds. New South Wales legislation requires a child or young person’s consent before a Guardianship Order can be approved. Introducing an expanded paramount principle of “the safety, wellbeing and best interests of a child now and throughout their lives” is one of the options being considered in a current review of child protection legislation in Queensland. Jurisdictions have also articulated a number of principles that underpin and guide reform directions that reflect current attitudes and values about the operation of systems for protecting children. Aboriginal consultation, dialogue and, in some cases, control are key principles of reform, as are principles such as working together and intervening early.

Goals and priorities for reform

While the Commonwealth Government has articulated six high-level outcomes or goals for protecting Australia’s children, with the exception of the Northern Territory,2 which specified five strategic outcomes for the Department of Children and Families, jurisdictions have not articulated an overall purpose for their systems for protecting children. However, jurisdictions have developed outcomes frameworks for human services more broadly (e.g., the New South Wales Human Services Outcomes Framework and the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services Outcomes Framework).3

Jurisdictions have specified remarkably similar strategic goals for reforming systems for protecting children. They include:

  • diverting children from statutory child protection;
  • reducing re-reporting to statutory child protection;
  • increasing exits from OOHC;
  • reducing the number of children in OOHC;
  • improving outcomes for children in OOHC and post-care; and
  • reducing the over-representation of Aboriginal children in the statutory child protection system.

Jurisdictions have also specified how they plan to achieve these goals, such as:

  • better use of evidence and building the evidence of effective programs and interventions;
  • enhanced analytics capacity;
  • use of big data and actuarial calculations to derive evidence and insights about where to target interventions;
  • sharing responsibility across organisations and government departments;
  • greater use of client-directed and other devolved approaches;
  • strengthened processes for continuous improvement;
  • improving workforce capability and cultural competence; and
  • enhancing prevention and early intervention efforts.

Rules

There have been changes to principle Acts of Parliament relevant to child protection in a number of jurisdictions. Legislation has also been introduced to establish oversight agencies (e.g., Advocate for Children and Young People in New South Wales, Queensland Family and Child Commission (QFCC) and Office of the Public Guardian, and the National Commissioner) or to define and strengthen responsibilities of existing oversight agencies (e.g., Commissioner for Children and Young People, Tasmania). A number of jurisdictions have also made consequential amendments to key child protection legislation to support reform directions. It is particularly noteworthy that within the time frame for this comparison, several jurisdictions have established time limits for reunification and/or introduced new court orders to give children in OOHC a more permanent family life (Australian Capital Territory, Northern Territory, New South Wales and Victoria).

New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory have also strengthened Working with Children legislation, while the Australian Capital Territory has amended legislation to better facilitate information sharing. New legislation in New South Wales and Victoria advances self-determination, or the opportunity to participate and exercise meaningful control in the protection and care of children for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Operational protocols, standards and regulations

There are a number of developments designed to strengthen control of how systems for protecting children operate and to ensure that organisations and services adhere to high quality standards. Child-safe standards and guidelines for organisations providing direct care and support to children and for individuals working with children (including carers) are apparent in several states. The Commonwealth Government has also developed national OOHC standards, which the Australian Capital Territory has adopted. New South Wales has developed its own quality assurance framework for OOHC and Tasmania has a quality and regulatory framework for OOHC in development. Similarly, the Northern Territory has introduced a charter of rights for children in OOHC and Victoria is introducing spot audits for residential care units. Several jurisdictions have also established new oversight committees, departmental branches or extended the role of external oversight bodies in relation to system monitoring, as well as new or improved systems for managing adverse incidents and complaints (e.g., New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Victoria).

Decision-making

Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, Queensland and New South Wales provided information about the establishment of new committees and governance bodies for integrated and/or localised governance and to strengthen relationships between government departments and funded NGOs. Several jurisdictions are also making better use of client feedback and insights, especially in relation to the involvement of children and young people in OOHC or who have had an OOHC experience. This is through the establishment of advisory groups and other innovative methods of engagement. Other stakeholders, particularly funded non-government organisations, are also being engaged in policy design and implementation processes through Ministerial Advisory Groups and other consultative arrangements (e.g., stakeholders were engaged in the design of the Hope and Healing trauma-informed therapeutic framework for the residential care of children and young people in Queensland and ChildStory in New South Wales).

Information was also provided on new frameworks for commissioning services and driving improved outcomes, such as utilising social investment approaches and initiatives under the broad framework of payment or contracting for outcomes (e.g., New South Wales, Tasmania and Queensland) and flexible models for commissioning services, particularly in relation to complex families and OOHC clients (e.g., Victoria and New South Wales). States/territories also indicated more robust performance monitoring approaches as well as targets designed to change operations (e.g., targets for provision of services to Aboriginal children and families and contracts requiring partnerships with Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations in Western Australia). The Australian Capital Territory has established a flat fee for OOHC to encourage efforts to keep children in home-based care instead of residential care.

Feedback on system performance

While current reform agendas have been driven by an external inquiry, internal feedback mechanisms are emerging, particularly in relation to capturing client outcomes and service experience data in OOHC so problems can be detected and acted on in a timely manner. There have also been developments in New South Wales and the Northern Territory to improve system analytic capability. This is in addition to performance monitoring approaches (understanding the processing of cases through targets) outlined under “Decision-making” above.

Knowledge and evidence

There is considerable effort underway to bring practice more in line with research and thereby improve quality of care. This is occurring through building understanding of interventions and service components that are effective, and rigorously evaluating innovative service models. In Queensland, the Queensland Family and Child Commission (QFCC) has legislative responsibility (under s 9(1)(e) of the Family and Child Commission Act 2014) to assist relevant agencies to evaluate the efficacy of their programs, identify the most effective program models and to analyse and evaluate whole system policies and practices. There is also significant investment in testing new initiatives, such as the practice first model in New South Wales, Family Support Networks in Western Australia and the Step-Up for Our Kids reform in the Australian Capital Territory. Some state departments have also formed partnerships to develop new, science-based interventions that can better protect children, such as the Northern Territory partnership with the Menzies School of Health Research to develop a logic model for remote family services.

Jurisdictions are also investing in strategic research to understand how policies are currently working, and to plan for the future. For example, New South Wales has the Pathways of Care Longitudinal Study (underway since 2010) and Western Australia is planning their own longitudinal study of OOHC. Queensland, the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales and the Northern Territory are collaborating with the university sector to develop the evidence base for child and family services (e.g., the establishment of the Institute of Open Adoption Studies in New South Wales). Victoria is undertaking an evidence gap map to inform the development of a child and family research agenda.

At a national level, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) continue to explore options for improved national data analysis and reporting, including longitudinal studies of children in OOHC.

Service components

Several jurisdictions have funded new programs and services that extend the range of services and/or substitute or adapt existing services for protecting children. The details are outlined below.

Early intervention

There has been increased focus nationally on developing early intervention services and approaches in order to divert families from statutory child protection. Most jurisdictions have invested in new and enhanced models of intensive family support (such as the introduction of the SafeCare program in New South Wales and adaptations to the Best Beginnings home-visiting program in Western Australia). The Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory have also invested in new intensive family preservation/support programs and introduced new ways of working with families with complex needs and risks who are involved in multiple services. Aligning the work of family and domestic violence services with family support and child protection is a common theme across these developments.

Queensland has enhanced universal prevention by making the Triple P parenting program free of charge to all Queensland parents and carers of children 16 years of age and younger. Queensland has also taken steps to enhance the natural support networks of parents through the Talking Families social marketing campaign and has integrated the functions of several family support programs into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Family Wellbeing services to provide holistic prevention and early intervention services.

Statutory child protection

Jurisdictions have made several changes across the reporting, intake, investigation/assessment, case planning and case management phases of child protection services. In terms of mandatory reporting requirements, Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, Queensland and Victoria have all broadened the occupational groups designated as mandatory reporters (relating to sexual abuse in Western Australia). The Australian Capital Territory has introduced a reportable conduct scheme to ensure that allegations of child abuse and certain criminal convictions are identified, reported and acted on. In Western Australia, psychological abuse has been removed as a separate ground for protection. Instead, a definition is provided of emotional abuse that includes psychological abuse and exposure to domestic violence. New South Wales and Queensland have improved and clarified their mandatory reporting guidelines and the Australian Capital Territory is working with the police to improve the quality of reports (notifications). FACS (NSW) is also reviewing its prenatal policy to improve its response to expectant parents and their unborn child who is the subject of a prenatal report.

In relation to the intake phase of child protection, there have been changes to the way government reporting agencies are structured and operate. Western Australia (metropolitan district offices) and the Northern Territory have moved to a central child protection intake model, with the Northern Territory providing a 24-hours a day, seven-days a week response. In Victoria, eight business-hour regional intake services have been replaced by four business-hour divisional services.

Regarding the investigation and assessment phase of child protection, following the example of New South Wales with its introduction of the Joint Investigative Response Taskforce (JIRT) model in 1997, several jurisdictions are moving to a more multidisciplinary approach to the statutory child protection investigation process. This includes the introduction of Multi-agency Investigation and Support Teams (MIST) in Western Australia, a MOU for joint investigations with police in the Northern Territory and multidisciplinary units consisting of police, centres against sexual assault and statutory child protection in Victoria. In March 2014, New South Wales JIRT Agencies implemented a statewide protocol (JIRT Local Contact Point Protocol (LCP)) to assist with the provision of information and support to parents and concerned community members where there are allegations of child sexual abuse involving an institution. This JIRT LCP Protocol has been supported by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Structured Decision Making (SDM) tools have been introduced in the Northern Territory to facilitate decision-making at critical points in the child protection investigation process.

In terms of case planning and ongoing child protection intervention, models of family group conferences/meetings have also been introduced or are being strengthened at various points in the child protection process (e.g., prior to court proceedings and/or during case planning) to empower families, enhance partnerships with parents involved with statutory child protection and avoid contested court hearings. Family-inclusive decision-making processes include Family Group Conferencing in New South Wales, Signs of Safety Pre-Hearing Conferences in Western Australia and Children’s Court Conciliation Conferences in Victoria. Queensland also has plans to strengthen its family group meeting model.

Measures have also been introduced to help navigate and support families through their involvement with statutory child protection. The Australian Capital Territory has introduced independent advocacy support to birth families of children and young people at risk of, or who have entered, the care system when they are dealing with statutory child protection.

Court processes and child protection orders

There have been several changes to the way in which child protection matters are resolved including changes to court processes, new court networks that allow for greater collaboration with other courts, and changes to care and protection orders. For example, Western Australia is trialling child protection matters in the Family Court to achieve greater collaboration between the family law and child protection systems. A Koori Court has also been established within the family division of the Children’s Court of Victoria. In Queensland, new legislation has enabled the establishment of a new court work model for the statutory child protection system.

As highlighted under legislation in Appendix A, New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Victoria have introduced a new placement hierarchy or set of child protection orders that aim to achieve greater permanency for children in or entering OOHC, while Western Australia has expanded responsible parenting agreements (formal written agreement between a parent and an authorised officer in one of the departments of education, child protection or corrective services).

Out-of-home care

Across Australia, there has been the widespread introduction and/or development of therapeutic care frameworks and care models, including:

  • a new evidence-based therapeutic residential care system in New South Wales;
  • the introduction of therapeutic assessments and plans in the Australian Capital Territory; and
  • the introduction of the Hope and Healing therapeutic framework for residential care in Queensland.

Models of therapeutic residential care are in development in the Northern Territory (in partnership with the Australian Childhood Foundation) and Victoria. In Western Australia, the Department of Child Protection and Family Support (DCPFS) has been certified as a Sanctuary organisation4 contact centres using the Circle of Security (see <www.circleofsecurityinternational.com>) model. Western Australia has also introduced the Circle of Security model for day-to-day therapeutic practice with children in residential care facilities and is proposing further changes to focus on healing from trauma. A range of other initiatives to reform the OOHC model are being trialled in Victoria, including a trial of the program Treatment Foster Care Oregon (see <www.tfcoregon.com>). Queensland is currently reviewing its investment in placement services and the Australian Capital Territory is establishing new and differentiated models of OOHC.

Carer and birth parent supports

New South Wales has expanded its intensive family preservation program to support authorised carers and birth parents. Western Australia has introduced a one-off establishment payment to informal relative carers. Victoria has made additional funding available in connection with new permanency legislation for flexible packages to work with birth families intensively to support reunification and family preservation. Queensland has committed to have all kinship carers supported by a Foster Care Support Agency. Both New South Wales and Victoria have introduced tailored support packages/targeted care packages to provide children and families with services based on need.

Leaving care and aftercare

Ensuring that care leavers have sufficient opportunities to progress toward a satisfactory standard of wellbeing in adulthood has been a focus of reform across several jurisdictions and the Commonwealth. The Australian Capital Territory has extended financial support to young people leaving care until the age of 21 and extended voluntary support to the age of 25. Queensland has introduced new post-care support through the Next Steps After Care service. New South Wales is further developing a leaving care strategy. Under the Care for my Future reform strategy, New South Wales is implementing a number of changes including a reconfiguration of the specialist aftercare services program to provide better access to care leavers from high-risk cohorts. Victoria is trialling the Better Futures leaving care model as part of a system redesign initiative. The Commonwealth funded a trial of Towards Independent Adulthood, an intensive, wraparound case management service in Western Australia. Queensland has also developed the Kicbox mobile phone app to support care leavers, while the Northern Territory has expanded on pre-existing preparation and planning requirements for young people transitioning from care.

Service connections

Several jurisdictions have introduced, or are planning to introduce, common assessment frameworks to build shared knowledge and capacity across the whole system for protecting children. New South Wales is planning the introduction of a common risk and needs identification tool. In Western Australia, a common client self-assessment tool is used across Family Support Networks. Tasmania has committed to promoting the use of the Common Approach more broadly across services, while the Commonwealth has trialled an adapted version of the Common Approach in 13 mental health support services across Australia. The Queensland Strengthening Families Protecting Children Framework for Practice includes a collaborative assessment and planning framework.

Several jurisdictions have introduced, or are trialling, common, visible entry points into community-based services as a way of better connecting families with a network of local services without unnecessary contact with the statutory child protection system. Western Australia is establishing Family Support Networks, the Australian Capital Territory has established the OneLink service and is planning the establishment of Family Safety Hubs, Queensland has established a Family and Child Connect service, Victoria is planning the introduction of Support and Safety Hubs with a focus on the safety of women and children, and New South Wales is trialling local child protection intake and referral services. New roles (lead workers and system navigators) have been introduced to further enhance integrated system and person-centred change.

New multi-disciplinary service models introduced include:

  • multi-disciplinary family violence response teams in Western Australia;
  • joint childFIRST and Western Australia Police Child Assessment and Interview Teams;
  • Child Safety Coordination meetings in remote areas of the Northern Territory;
  • Lookout Education Support Centres in Victoria to improve educational outcomes of children in OOHC; and
  • the Child and Youth Protection Service (CYPS), providing integrated care and protection and youth justice management in the Australian Capital Territory.

New information-sharing protocols have also been introduced to improve service journeys, service collaboration and client outcomes. They provide detailed guidance and procedures to inform the way professionals in social care, health, education, domestic violence and police services work together to safeguard children and young people. New legislation has been introduced or is planned/under consideration to facilitate information sharing between prescribed or authorised agencies in Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory, Queensland and Victoria. The Northern Territory has introduced information-sharing guidelines to assist authorised people and organisations to share information about a child or family in order to facilitate working together for the safety and wellbeing of a child.

Building on earlier legislative reform to allow information exchange between human service and justice organisations, New South Wales will soon fully commission the ChildStory client information system, which allows real-time information sharing between FACS, NGOs, education, health, police and justice, and Patchwork, an app that supports team collaboration. In the Australian Capital Territory, Child, Youth and Family Services (CYFS) has access to the police referral gateway SupportLink.

The Commonwealth is also currently developing a best practice model for information exchange, drawing on jurisdictional approaches.

Workforce

There are a number of new measures to better resource and support the child protection workforce. New South Wales and Queensland have introduced practice frameworks that guide statutory child protection: Practice First (New South Wales) and the Strengthening Families Protecting Children Framework (Queensland). Western Australia has implemented the Signs of Safety Reloaded Project to strengthen practice.

Other initiatives to support the child protection workforce include the development of a child protection academy and group supervision sessions in New South Wales, a supervision case practice policy and a learning and development centre in Western Australia and the establishment of case analysis teams and a refreshed supervision framework for child and youth protection services in the Australian Capital Territory. The Northern Territory has also enhanced supervision training for team leaders and managers and established a practice reflection forum and learning hub.

Efforts have also been made to increase workforce capacity in statutory child protection services. Queensland created 47 new frontline and frontline support positions in September 2016 and a further 86 frontline positions in October 2016. The Northern Territory is dealing with critical workforce shortages in child protection through a partnership with Charles Darwin University.

Foster carers and residential care workers

New measures have been introduced in several jurisdictions to better support foster carers and enhance quality of care. These include improved preparation training in Western Australia, Victoria and the Northern Territory as well as new trauma training for carers in the Australian Capital Territory, new training for kinship carers in Queensland and ongoing training opportunities for carers in the Northern Territory, Victoria and Western Australia (via a mobile app). Victoria has also invested $8 million in the immediate upskilling of residential care workers and will introduce mandatory qualifications for residential care workers from 2017 (Certificate IV Child, Youth and Family Intervention (Residential and OOHC)).

Service providers

New South Wales indicated a progressive transition of the provision of OOHC to the NGO sector, while this is planned in the Northern Territory. Queensland is currently reviewing its existing investment into OOHC, which may result in a change to the supplier profile or market.

2 New South Wales has proposed a single outcomes framework for vulnerable children and families in Their Futures Matter: A New Approach.
3 Outcomes frameworks have also been specified for OOHC (see Appendix A).
4 See <www.dcp.wa.gov.au/Resources/Documents/Residential_Care_Sanctuary_Framework.pdf>