The good practice guide to Child Aware Approaches: Keeping children safe and well

CFCA Paper No. 21 – May 2014

E. Child Aware Approaches are culturally competent

Cultural competence is "the organisational and professional capacity to provide effective and appropriate service delivery to individuals from non-dominant cultural groups" (Armstrong, 2013, p. 49). Armstrong identified culturally competent workers as those who display "cultural awareness" (knowledge of particular cultural norms) and "cultural sensitivity" (an understanding of the diversity within cultural groups) (p. 49). Further to this, being culturally competent involves understanding one's own cultural norms and appreciating the significant influence that culture may have on individual and community identity. Developing this understanding is a lifelong process. Armstrong suggested that culturally competent workers approach clients "from a perspective of ‘informed not-knowing', which places the client as the expert in their relationship with their culture" (p. 50).

Organisations and workers who are culturally competent take into consideration the historical context and broader social disadvantage that clients may be experiencing. For example, when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients it is critical to have an understanding of the complex and chronic issues facing these families, such as racism and intergenerational trauma. These may be compounded by other issues, such as community isolation, under-use of mainstream services, low levels of trust in mainstream services, and high community levels of anxiety, disempowerment, disorganisation, and mobility (Herring, Spangaro, Lauw, & McNamara, 2013; Price-Robertson & McDonald, 2011).

In terms of Child Aware Approaches, culturally competent workers and organisations will not only incorporate all of the above into policy and practice but will also consider how culture may influence family and parenting practices and how these practices may affect children's safety and wellbeing. It is a necessity for caseworkers and managers to have ongoing and updated cultural competence training.

Principle 10: Understand cultural influences on family and parenting practices and respond in a culturally sensitive way

Practice considerations

  • Do you understand the ways in which culture can influence family life and parenting practices? Do your organisation's policies and procedures reflect this understanding?
  • Do staff members in your organisation participate in ongoing cultural competence training?
  • Does your organisation have an Aboriginal advisory group? Do your staff and clients have access to Aboriginal support workers?
  • Do you have workers with knowledge of the norms and practices of particular cultural or linguistic groups with whom your organisation routinely works?
  • Does your organisation have a community consultative forum or group for newly arrived humanitarian refugee communities to assist in two-way learning of parenting practices/ expectations?
  • Have you translated your resources and information into languages other than English? Do you have access to interpreters?

Further resources

Tips, tools and resources

  • The Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health offer a range of brief tip sheets for assessing and improving cultural competency at an organisational level: <>.
  • The National Cultural Competency Tool is an organisational self-assessment tool for use by the mental health services when working with culturally and linguistically diverse communities: <>.
  • The Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care have produced a range of documents on Meeting the Needs of Our Children: Effective Community Controlled Family Strategies That Prevent and Respond to Family Violence:
    • Fact Sheet 1 <>;
    • Draft Process Framework for Good Practice Principles <> and
    • Literature Review <>.
  • The Salvation Army has produced three Tasmanian Aboriginal children's books written by two Aboriginal women, a non-Aboriginal teacher and an Aboriginal artist and illustrator: When daddy Hits the Table, When Mummy Shouts and Little Jack the Wallaby. These can be ordered through the Safe From the Start website: <>.

Further reading

  • Armstrong, S. (2013). Good practices with culturally diverse families in family dispute resolution. Family Matters, 92, 48-60.
  • Herring, S., Spangaro, J., Lauw, M., & McNamara, L. (2013). The intersection of trauma, racism, and cultural competence in effective work with aboriginal people: Waiting for trust. Australian Social Work, 66(1), 104-117.
  • McGlade, H. (2012) Our greatest challenge: Aboriginal children and human rights. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.
  • Price-Robertson, R., & McDonald, M. (2011). Working with Indigenous children, families, and communities: Lessons from practice (CAFCA Practice Sheet). Melbourne: Communities and Families Clearinghouse Australia, Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from <>.
  • Sawriker, P., & Katz, I. (2008). Enhancing family and relationship service accessibility and delivery to culturally and linguistically diverse families in Australia (AFRC Issues No. 3). Melbourne: Australian Family Relationship Clearinghouse, Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from <>.
  • Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care. (2012). Cultural competence in early childhood education and care services: SNAICC consultation overview. North Fitzroy: SNAICC.

Child Aware Approaches in action…

Cultural supervision, consultation and collaboration
Organisation Relationships Australia Northern Territory (RANT), with Australian Children's Foundation (ACF)
Program Holding Children Together Service
What is it? The Holding Children Together Service was designed to provide a culturally relevant therapeutic service to children in Alice Springs who had experienced trauma (RANT, 2013). The program involved direct service delivery to children as well as the formation of networks of practitioners who were supported through professional development, training and supervision. The program was informed by recent research on the neurobiology of trauma and its effects on children.
How is the program child-aware? The program highlighted the potential effects of trauma on children and families and the connection between parental risk factors and child abuse and neglect. The program was created in collaboration with Aboriginal workers to ensure that it was culturally relevant and appropriate for use with Aboriginal communities, families and children.
Who is it for? Those working with children and families exposed to substance abuse problems, family violence, parental/carer mental health issues, and children who have experienced abuse
Practice inspiration

The Holding Children Together service expressed significant commitment to ensuring that its service considered and met the needs of Indigenous children, families and communities. This was achieved through cultural supervision, consultation and collaboration at each stage of service planning and delivery.

An evaluation of the program (by Arney & Brooke, 2012) identified a number of initiatives that encouraged culturally sensitive practice, with two being particularly helpful:

1. An Aboriginal advisory group, which comprised six Aboriginal members chosen for their involvement in therapeutic practice. This group not only provided cultural input into the design of the service but were also available to provide advice to practitioners. As one service provider explained:

I've certainly used the Aboriginal Advisory Board in some fairly high risk situations for kids with DCF [the statutory child protection department]. So I've gotten advice individually through a few of them and gone to DCF with the board's recommendations. (p. 16)

2. Aboriginal support workers, who were "Aboriginal colleagues from within their own organisation or from other organisations" and assisted them to "improve connections with families, promote relationship building and to ensure common understanding and accurate assessment" (p. 17). One non-Indigenous service provider explained the benefits of working with an Aboriginal Support Worker:

Well that's the great thing about having an Aboriginal support worker on the team. They can have conversations and connect with families in a way that I can't. [The Aboriginal support worker] does a great job of actually brokering our programs' connection. I definitely see it as crucial to my role to up-skill [the Aboriginal support worker] because she's the one who can actually drive a lot more of the real change than I can. I can do some of the specific things and help with the logic of the program and to help with the child therapy. But to have her doing that with the parents and talking to the parents and using some of the language and the ideas, she can explain them to Aboriginal families in a way that I can't. (p. 17)

The evaluation found that the Aboriginal Advisory Group and the Aboriginal Support Workers allowed the service to "incorporate Aboriginal world views and to work in ways which recognise the role of culture in healing for children" (p. 24).

Acting out issues of violence
Organisation Halo Leadership Development Agency Inc. and Act Out - Theatre for Transformation
Program Building Awareness and Resilience with Community Theatre
What is it?

The program involved an innovative set of five theatre performances for young Indigenous men involved in the Halo program (Palmer, 2013). Fifteen young male participants developed the theatre scripts with Halo and Act Out workers during a series of 10 workshops, with additional support from counsellors and Nyungar elders for special sessions. The issues of child safety and violence against women were the focus of the workshops, during which a script was developed, rehearsed and produced.

The performances adopted a forum theatre approach, encouraging audience members and performers to interactively address issues such as child safety, violence against women, trouble with the law, and addiction. The 35 young Aboriginal men (targeted ages were between 14 and 25 years) and 150 audience members (comprising service providers, students, young people and community members) were also involved in the performances.

How is it child-aware? A key objective of this cultural competence program was to give young people the opportunity to retell and reconfigure their own personal stories of abuse. The forum theatre method was chosen as it is in part reflective of the Aboriginal traditions of educating young people, transmitting culture, building leaders and managing decision making through the process of storytelling. The approach was chosen due to its ability to help people work through their emotions, trauma and difficult situations in a safe and non-threatening way, and also due to its unique interactive scripting that enabled performers and audience members to work through and appropriately resolve the problems.
Practice inspiration

Dealing with topics such as violence, treatment of women, trouble with the law and addiction often elicits feelings of guilt and embarrassment among young people, and particularly for young Aboriginal men it may be considered "shame" or "karnya" to speak out publicly about matters to do with culture. As such, there was difficulty in recruiting young men to play certain roles or participate in discussions. A successful way in which the program overcame this was through using youth workers, Aboriginal actors and inviting Nyungar professionals to run workshops.

How does forum theatre work? A script for a play is developed and written by participants during a series of workshops that deals with social problems or issues relevant to the group writing it. The play is written without an ending or resolution. Participants work with actors and perform the play together for the audience. It is then performed a second time with the audience encouraged to stop the play and step onto the stage to perform different actions or interventions to change the outcome for the characters.

After the performances some of the topics the young male participants spoke about were: "feelings of low self-esteem after having kids", the importance of "empowering women so that men understand there are boundaries", "admitting to difficulties once anger has built up inside", and "recognising violence is about control and not anger".

Further information Further information on Act Out and Halo can be found at: <> and <>.
Developing a best practice model for service provision to at-risk Aboriginal children and families
Organisation Centre for Child Development and Education, Menzies School of Health Research
Resource Bicultural Practice in the Northern Territory Children and Families Sector
What did they do? The project identified the successful elements of bicultural service delivery and developed a model of best practice for working with Aboriginal children and families in the Northern Territory. Bicultural practice was defined by one Aboriginal worker as "being an individual and living the two worlds, and knowing when to start it and when to stop it" (McGuinness & Leckning, 2013, p. 20)
How is it child-aware?

The best-practice model developed by Menzies School of Health identified the elements of best practice in service delivery to Aboriginal children and families in the NT who are at risk of domestic/family violence, mental illness and sexual abuse. Six different themes of governance and leadership, recruitment and training, operational management, co-working models, cultural safety and reflective practice were identified, each with strategies and potential outcomes that took into consideration a bicultural practice model.

The best practice model was family-sensitive, taking into account the importance of culturally appropriate engagement with families through the use of language as an example. The best practice model was developed using a collaborative approach between Menzies School of Health Research, the Centre for Child Development and Education and Strong Aboriginal Families, Together, as well as nine organisations delivering services in remote, regional and urban settings.

Who is it for? Service providers and practitioners working with Aboriginal children and families in the NT where issues such as domestic/family violence, substance misuse and mental health problems are identified (key risk factors in the exposure of children and young people to child abuse and neglect)
Practice inspiration

This model of best practice in service delivery to Aboriginal children and their families was developed by taking into account key themes considered to be important to a continuum of cultural competence, cultural responsiveness, cross-cultural safety and a two-way model of practice. Collaboration was a key theme identified in bicultural practice that was culturally competent. Collaboration was reflected in the need to incorporate Aboriginal counsel and representation at all levels of an organisation, from governance and leadership through to recruitment and training.

Developing a method of practice that included a shared caseload between a non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal worker was identified as an essential component in best practice. This bicultural collaboration allowed knowledge to be exchanged between the two workers and brought together their complementary skills. The two-way shared caseload arrangement also allowed the Aboriginal worker to ensure families were culturally respected in their engagement with services. A bicultural method also takes into account cultural safety. Because the Aboriginal worker was aware of local knowledge and customs they were able to ensure that these were given consideration in dealing with Aboriginal communities, families and children.

A particularly inspirational outcome of bicultural practice was the incorporation of reflective practice opportunities, which have been purported to prevent practitioner burnout. Preventing practitioner burnout was considered important for increasing staff retention and ensuring continuity in the delivery of services to Aboriginal children at risk of child abuse and neglect.

Further information

The final report, which documents elements in the best practice model, can be downloaded free of charge at: <>.

A brief factsheet can also be downloaded free of charge: <>.