Enhancing the implementation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle

Policy and practice considerations
CFCA Paper No. 34 – August 2015

Strategies for improving adherence to the Principle and strengthening outcomes for children

A number of strategies have been identified which in part may support improved adherence to the Principle, and afford more chances for children to remain connected to their families, communities and culture. These strategies are based on partnership approaches between communities and governments, with a focus on:

  • enhancing understanding of the intent of the Principle as being far greater than the hierarchy of placement options;
  • improving links between legislation, policy and practice;
  • providing earlier intervention, prevention and healing supports for families in the context of their communities;
  • recognising and enhancing leadership, participation and decision-making of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in child protection matters; and
  • enhancing the recruitment, assessment and support of carers.

Some of these approaches represent a seismic shift in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and children, and their communities - from a "power over" to a "power sharing" relationship, and hopefully to an empowering one. The approaches also include a clear focus on the professional development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous workers to undertake this work in a culturally safe and evidence-based way.

Enhancing understanding of the intent of the Principle

Although the intent of the Principle is to keep children within families, its current definition and description in the legislation conjure negative connotations focused on the removal and placement of children into out-of-home care. This essentially creates a notion of the Principle based on child "rescue" and removal, rather than around family preservation and reunification.

A new understanding, driven by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, has the potential to re-focus system and practice activities on family preservation and keeping children within culture. It is important that the broad intent of the Principle, to keep Indigenous children within their families and communities, is understood by the general public, practitioners and policy-makers.

This includes an understanding that in order to implement the Principle, and to reduce the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being removed from families, there needs to be a focus on and investment in culturally appropriate early intervention, prevention, family preservation and restoration activities, rather than simply a focus on the placement hierarchy. The five elements of prevention, partnership, placement, participation and connection emphasised by SNAICC (Tilbury et al., 2013) provide a clear framework for this.

It will also be possible to then develop target outcomes and best practice standards based upon this refreshed understanding of the Principle, which can consequently be monitored and overseen at a national level.

Improving links between legislation, policy and practice

Application of the Principle as it was intended requires a shift in attitudes and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family structures and world views. This shift must also occur in parallel across the court and judicial systems, as well as child protection systems. Framing practice and policy approaches with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families in the child protection system within the context of trauma theory and cultural identity has great potential for breaking intergenerational cycles of child protection involvement (Northern Territory Government, 2010). Including a focus on the child's Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander culture as a protective factor, rather than the current conceptualisation of Aboriginality as a risk factor, can strengthen cultural identity and promote links to cultural practices which will promote safety and security for children (Australian Centre for Child Protection, 2013b).

"Compliance" with the Principle is not just about focusing on what individual practitioners do, it is also about the systems and programs practitioners work within. Thus a wider perspective of "compliance" can be developed which takes into account practitioner and system/programs levels. For example, the identification of children as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and the identification of kin can be supported at a systems level through the development of policy and practice resources (e.g., to assist with the development of genealogies and links with formal tracing services), cultural competence training specific to child welfare, and the valuing of cultural knowledge through cultural support workers and family finding teams with knowledge of kinship ties in their local region.

Similarly, data gathering and monitoring which assists to educate and inform decision-making for the workforce will support better links between the Principle, policy and practice. The current focus of reporting on the living arrangements of children in out-of-home care does not reflect the original intent of the Principle, which is a focus on keeping children at home or restoring children to the care of their family (i.e., family preservation or conservation and connection). The development of national best practice standards for data collection and monitoring of the Principle could better support policy and practice decisions. These could include standards mapping out data requirements with regard to out-of-home care, reunification, diversion, cultural connection and the decision-making processes. Incorporating the voices of children and young people will also enhance and inform decision-making. Hearing about the experiences of young people will assist in improving quality of care and increase the depth of understanding of the application of the Principle.

Providing earlier intervention and prevention supports for families in the context of their communities

In response to the growing concerns about crisis-based approaches proving ineffective in preventing harm to children and young people, there has been a call for universal, secondary and tertiary prevention efforts that include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, communities and organisations in service design and delivery (Arney, 2010). For example, Indigenous child and family centres can be used to provide support to all young children and their families in a community, as well as platforms for more targeted services and supports for families who might be vulnerable to future problems or who are currently experiencing difficulties in parenting (Arney, 2010; Australian Centre for Child Protection, 2013a).

The following strategies have been identified as ones that could reduce the need for statutory intervention and child removal (see also Arney, 2010, p. 24; Northern Territory Government, 2010):

  • Parenting- and family-focused - ensuring that families are strong in culture; connected to other families; and free from substance abuse, mental illness and violence, by:
    • providing intensive family support services to strengthen parenting skills and provide respite;
    • building social networks and services attuned to child development and connected to specialty care;
    • building strong attachment through improved parent-child relationships and communication; and
    • addressing parental mental health, wellbeing and safety through provision of child-sensitive adult-focused services.
  • Community-focused - ensuring that communities and neighbourhoods are safe, stable and supportive; and that vulnerable communities have a capacity to respond, by:
    • promoting strong community norms about the wellbeing of children and young people;
    • helping communities to function well and support families within them;
    • promoting community healing;
    • providing opportunities for participation and the development of social supports; and
    • providing services and supports that target populations in communities with concentrated risk factors.
  • Child-focused - ensuring that children and young people are nurtured, safe and engaged, by:
    • promoting early detection of and response to health, mental health and developmental concerns;
    • providing high-quality child care and schools; and
    • providing opportunities for youth to engage in civic and community life.

Additionally, strategies aimed at healing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and addressing the impacts of intergenerational trauma can help to reduce the need for statutory intervention and child removal. Established in 2012, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation aims to do this by supporting local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies to develop, deliver and evaluate culturally strong healing programs specifically designed for children and young people, their families and communities. These programs aim to improve the wellbeing and resilience of children, young people and adults by providing opportunities for healing, and to develop positive strategies to cope with pain and loss, as well as to strengthen cultural connectedness and identity.

Recognising and enhancing leadership, participation and decision-making of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in child protection matters.

The success or otherwise of attempts to develop culturally appropriate services (at least from the Indigenous perspective) will be dependent on the agreed basis by which Indigenous communities are to participate in the formal child welfare system, and more importantly the extent to which the relevant State Agency is willing to devolve responsibility for decision making to Indigenous communities. (Litwin, 1997, p. 322)

The importance of leadership and participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including children and young people, in policy development, system monitoring, service design, program evaluation and at the level of individual cases has been emphasised repeatedly (Cummins, Scott, & Scales, 2012; McGuinness & Leckning, 2013; Northern Territory Government, 2010; SNAICC, 2013; United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2012). This has included calls for the expansion in the roles of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies in child protection matters, oversight by Aboriginal Children's Commissioners and community involvement in determining priorities for local action and family decision-making approaches that emphasise family involvement in decision-making. Combining decision-making authority for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies and individuals with the delivery of culturally based programs (e.g., Indigenous parenting programs), identification and assessment of kin, family decision-making and cultural care planning, has been identified as holding great promise.

Where families have greater involvement in decision-making in child protection, there is greater trust and less adversarial relationships between families and child protection services (Rodgers & Cahn, 2010). Since their inception, family decision-making models (such as family group conferencing) have been developed and implemented in a number of Australian jurisdictions and internationally (Arney et al., 2010; Brown, 2003; Harris, 2008). Family decision-making processes aim to redress the power imbalance in child protection matters by providing an alternative forum where families are active participants in the decision-making process (Connolly, 2007; 2010). Family decision-making models for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families involve including extended family and respected Elders in decision-making and case planning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, and may be used in family preservation and reunification processes (Ban, 2005; Department of Human Services, 2007; Linqage International, 2003).

These models have spread widely, albeit not always consistently, because of the appeal of the values underpinning family decision-making models (Arney et al., 2010). This includes the promotion of families' rights to participate in decision-making about their children, and children's rights to have involvement with their family (Barnsdale & Walker, 2007; Brown, 2003; Sundell & Vinnerljung, 2004), the congruence of the model with the Principle (Ban, 2005), participant satisfaction with the elements of the model, and the perceived adaptability of the model to different contexts (Arney et al., 2010). Unfortunately, in some Australian jurisdictions, these family decision-making processes are under-utilised and appropriate weighting is not given to the input of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities involved and therefore limits their influence on decisions relating to child protection (SNAICC, 2013). It is important that these conferences are co-facilitated by a representative from both an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander agency and child protection services so it is indeed used as a joint decision-making process rather than the presentation of pre-arranged outcomes to the family.

As many jurisdictions are looking to review, reintroduce or reframe family decision-making models in child protection matters, there is a role for a national implementation and support body to promote best practice, share learnings and evaluate the impact of family decision-making approaches on the wellbeing and safety of children and the involvement of their families and communities.

Increased involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies in providing cultural advice and support during decision-making processes allows them to act as an independent voice of the community and enhance community leadership and participation in child protection matters (SNAICC, 2013). Several initiatives designed to enhance community leadership and involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies in child protection matters are currently being trialled or implemented across Australian states and territories. One such initiative being trialled in Victoria is the transfer of guardianship for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies within Victoria.

Enhancing recruitment, assessment and support for carers

Effective approaches must be found to increase the recruitment and retention of Indigenous carers. These include increasing the role of community members in identifying potential relative carers and enhancing the understanding of mainstream child practitioners about the resources within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to provide care. Work needs to be done at legislative and policy levels to eliminate the perceived and real barriers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people becoming registered carers; for example, that prior criminal convictions may not preclude people becoming carers. Furthermore, there is a need to reduce the stigma that exists about being a carer by developing culturally informed progressive recruitment, screening and training processes. For example, the Yorganop program (Higgins et al., 2005) actively encourages former young people in care who have had positive experiences to become carers themselves.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kinship carers are a precious and valuable source of care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and require appropriate practical, financial, social and emotional support delivered in a non-invasive way. Culturally appropriate carer assessments, which are based on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander world views and concepts of family structure, are important, rather than relying on assessment systems based on Anglo-centric concepts of nuclear family functioning. This requires the development and use of culturally appropriate assessment tools for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, which can be delivered by appropriately skilled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander assessors and practitioners. The Winangay Kinship Carer's Assessment Tool is a promising resource that has been developed and is undergoing a nationwide evaluation (Blacklock, Arney, Menzies, Bonser, & Hayden, 2014).

Strategies for recruiting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers are likely to be more effective when they are community-generated and conducted by Indigenous people through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2014). The involvement and resourcing of these agencies in the recruitment, assessment and support of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers means that culturally appropriate approaches can be used that are informed by community knowledge and cultural understanding. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies can liaise between departments and carers (or potential carers) to address the shortfalls that come with non-Indigenous models of recruitment, assessment and support for carers and suggest alternatives that are more suitable for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Ongoing education and cultural awareness training and supports for non-Indigenous carers and practitioners should be improved to enhance their knowledge and skills to work with Indigenous families and provide cultural care to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. For example, supporting non-Indigenous carers to provide enhanced cultural care through designated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers or links to communities to provide connections to cultural practices and events for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people in their care.