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

CFCA Paper No. 21 – May 2014

C. Child Aware Approaches are strengths-based

Strengths-based approaches employ theories and strategies that focus on clients' capabilities and resources rather than the more traditional focus on deficits and pathologies. Clients' abilities, resources, personal characteristics, interests and wishes are all taken into consideration and are seen as motivators and tools for positive change. The approach is built on the premise that the normal human development process tends towards healthy growth and fulfilment, and that everyone has strengths that will aid them in this process (Hunter, 2012). When working with families with complex issues, in order to ensure child safety, service providers will need to identify and address risk factors and deficits as well as acknowledging and building on strengths and capabilities (Scott, Arney, & Vimpani, 2013).

Research evaluating the effectiveness of parent education programs in preventing child maltreatment found that programs that incorporated a strengths-based approach (i.e., they identified parents' existing skills and built on them) tended to achieve more positive outcomes than those that used a deficits perspective (Holzer, Bromfield, Richardson, & Higgins, 2006). In practice, when families are facing multiple and complex issues, it may be difficult to identify strengths, and risk factors for child maltreatment (such as mental health issues or substance misuse) may further increase the difficulty in building an open and trusting relationship that will allow for the identification of strengths (Holzer et al., 2006).

In the context of Child Aware Approaches, using a strengths-based approach involves not only focusing on the client's capabilities and resources, but also specifically ensuring that the parenting role is viewed as a positive motivator for change. Organisations and practitioners should also promote parenting attitudes that protect and strengthen children's resilience and reduce vulnerabilities.

Principle 7: Enable parents by promoting their parenting role as a motivator for positive change

Practice considerations

  • Has having children motivated your client to seek services?
  • Does your client see the parenting role as a component of their recovery? In what ways could you work with clients to ensure that their family life strengthens their efforts at recovery?
  • Has your client's situation improved since becoming a parent? How can this improvement be built upon?

Principle 8: Build children's resilience by addressing their vulnerabilities and promoting effective, consistent caregiving

Practice considerations

  • Does your organisation train staff to discuss sensitive topics with clients, such as factors that may be undermining children's resilience?
  • Do you work with parents to identify key relationships that might help with providing consistent care and physical and emotional safety to their children?
  • Does your organisation provide, or refer clients to, parent education programs?

Further resources

Child Aware Approaches in action …

Trauma-informed family sensitive practice
Organisation The Bouverie Centre, La Trobe University
Resource Guidelines for Trauma-Informed Family Sensitive Practice in Adult Health Services
What is it? Through consultation with practitioners in a range of adult health services, the Bouverie Centre created a resource that provides information on trauma and trauma-informed family sensitive practice (Bouverie Centre, 2013). This concise resource offers facts and figures about trauma, including some common reactions to symptoms of trauma. It offers practical information on the effects of trauma on adult clients, on infants, children and adolescents, and also on the broader community. It provides case examples and a number of further resources.
How is the resource child-aware? The guidelines focus on the client in the context of the family and their potential role as a parent. It considers how children may be affected by trauma and offers information on how to talk about this with adult clients. Finally, it provides culturally specific information for working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Who is it for? Practitioners working in adult-focused services, but also relevant to those working with children and families
Practice inspiration The Bouverie Centre was aware that one of the main obstacles to starting conversations with adult clients about their children and families is workers' fears about what will happen if the client reveals significant trauma or child protection concerns. Thus, in this resource, the Bouverie Centre (2013, p. 4) provides responses to some of the most common fears for workers:
Common fears for workers What we know
My organisation is not funded to do trauma or family work. There is no workplace support for me to do this kind of work. Talk to your manager about supervision and organisational support, but keep in mind that trauma work might not be that different to what you already do. You may wish to seek additional training or do some reading in the area of trauma responses within your sector.
Involving children might compromise my relationship with the adult client. What if I have to report to child protection? Child safety comes first. Openness and transparency with parents helps them know how information will be used and what your obligations to notify are if children are at risk or are experiencing harm. Except in extreme cases where children need to be removed, child protection services will generally work to support parents to ensure the safety of their children, (e.g., refer to child and family support services). Respectfully putting issues "on the table" is usually more preserving of relationships in the long run.
I don't have the skills to work with children. I don't know how to work with them in a clinical setting. Most of the time children are aware of the struggles in their family, even if they are not talked about. It can put children at ease to have a space to talk about fears and worries and to know someone can help. As with adults, curiosity, gentle engagement and going at their own pace are key ways of working.
What can I say to parents with the child in the room? Check out sensitive topics with parents before raising them. Ask parents what's OK and not OK to talk about in front of children.
I don't know what is appropriate for each developmental stage with children. It makes identifying trauma difficult. Having an idea of developmental milestones and signs of trauma will help. The Department of Human Services Child Development and Trauma Guide is a helpful resource.
Working with traumatised individuals or families seems like slow and difficult work. A lot can happen in a short period. Listening and understanding, giving information and, where necessary, making referrals to a trauma specialist can all be helpful.
Further information The resource is available for download (PDF 206 KB): <www.bouverie.org.au/images/uploads/Bouverie_Centre_Guidelines_for_trauma-informed_family_sensitive_practice_in_adult_health_services.pdf>.
Building resilience and attachment in young mums
Organisation Young Parents Program (YPP)
What did they do?

YPP delivered workshops to young mums on building resilience and strengthening attachment and provided training in resilience and attachment to service staff (YPP, 2013).

YPP also developed a website where resources on resilience and attachment in young mums and information regarding the YPP program (an evidence-based best practice model) and referral pathways could be accessed.

What is it? YPP is a youth service for marginalised and at-risk pregnant and parenting young women. While the program assists young mums and pregnant young women up to the age of 23, some young mums are still children themselves (12-18 years of age). Two series of workshops on resilience were run for young mums in partnership with Pathways and Flipside Circus. Further workshops were held within the Young Mum's Group programs, using activities such as baby massage and peer mentoring with young mums from YPP's healthy relationship project. All workshops focused on resilience, bonding and attachment knowledge and skills, both in direct content and also through the processes that were used. Service staff also undertook training in assessing infant-child attachment and building resilience. This training then enhanced staff awareness of mother-child interactions within the current service delivery to young mums.
How is the program child-aware? Resilience training is a strength- and relationship-based prevention and early intervention model of support. Building resilience enhances existing parental strengths and is protective of future mental health for both young mums and their children, as well as facilitating strong attachment between mother and child. The program is child-inclusive, with all activities focusing on young mums responding to their child's needs. By developing resilience and improving bonding and attachment between young mums and their children, the YPP strengthens family bonds, and takes into account the contextual family experience of very young motherhood. The contextual family experience was also highlighted through the outreach activities workers were able to undertake while visiting many young mums in their homes, which further enhanced the workers' ability to identify individual family needs.
Who is it for? Social workers, program service providers, and program coordinators, along with any professionals working with young parents and their children
Practice inspiration

Embedding resilience and attachment activities in the existing YPP groups has ensured that building strengths and relationship is automatically and deliberately sustained for generations of new young mums and their children as they progress through the service.

Funding from the Child Aware Approaches initiative allowed YPP to increase their outreach activities by visiting approximately 75 young women and their children at home. In one case study, a young mum who did not have an Australian background, identified her lack of confidence in using public transport. The worker took public transport to the woman's home and then guided her through catching public transport back to the YPP program site to attend her support program. This very practical exercise allowed the young woman to gain access to the YPP program independently, and improved her ability to confidently gain access to other services and activities.

Further information

Information on the service delivery model developed by YPP is available on the website free of charge. Details of the various group programs that YPP runs for young mothers are also available on the website: <www.youngparentsprogram.org.au>.

Further information on Flipside Circus and Pathways can be found at: <www.flipsidecircus.org.au/#2> and <pathwayshrc.com.au>.

Young children and family violence
Organisation Salvation Army Tasmania
Resource Safe From the Start resource kit
What is it?

The Safe From the Start project is an evidence-based project developed in partnership with two universities (University of Tasmania and Swinburne University). The project consists of a training program and resource kit for professionals working with children aged 0-5 years who have been exposed to family violence, abuse and trauma. The main goal of the project was to increase awareness of the effects of witnessing family violence on young children (Kuilenburg, 2013).

The one-day training sessions were conducted nationally and aimed at both professionals working in family violence and mainstream services (such as child protection, education, child care and schools) to encourage participants to use the kit resources in "activity-based play" or "therapeutic counselling".

In addition, 100 Safe From the Start resource kits were distributed to rural, remote and disadvantaged services, all of which were family/domestic violence women's refuges or rural or remote services supporting Aboriginal/Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) families who were experiencing violence. Thirty per cent of these services could not attend training due to prohibitive travel costs and therefore found the kits highly useful. Extra Indigenous resources were also sent to 200 previous users of Salvation Army resource kits, including the Northern Territory Indigenous book, How Do I Feel, and newly published Aboriginal books: When Daddy Hits the Table, When Mummy Shouts and Little Jack the Wallaby (including a wallaby puppet).

The Salvation Army Tasmania also developed and launched the Safe From the Start website, which provides services and community members with access to the latest research and new resources, links to relevant children's domestic violence networks, upcoming training sessions and resource kit order forms.

How is it child-aware? The resource kit is strengths-based, child-inclusive and culturally sensitive. Informed by research into the negative behavioural and developmental effects, including brain development in small children stemming from witnessing family/domestic violence, the Safe From the Start program aimed to help prevent this through offering training and resources in therapeutic counselling and activity-based play. The training and resources build on strengths of mainstream services such as child protection, education, foster care and child care to engage in play with children, enhancing these existing skills when working with children who have witnessed violence.
Practice inspiration

A Safe From the Start report, Education and Therapy to Assist Children Aged 0-5 Who Have Witnessed Family Violence (PDF 2.6 MB), provides practitioners and the general community with innovative methods for working with young children who have witnessed family/domestic violence. In particular, "How Non Professionals Can Use Play Therapy" outlines methods such as art techniques, doll play and storytelling, which can be used as an early intervention strategy in the prevention of the negative behavioural and developmental effects of witnessing violence at an early age.

For example, in doll or puppet play a child will often name a family of dolls with the same names as their own family members, and will identify with the doll/puppet, projecting their own feelings onto it without the need to acknowledge that they themselves share the same feelings. The report can be found at: <www.salvationarmy.org.au/Global/State%20pages/Tasmania/Safe%20from%20the%20start/Final%20Research%20Report%20reduced.pdf>

Further information

The Safe From the Start resource kit contains 35 resources and is available for a fee: <www.salvationarmy.org.au/safefromthestart>.

An evaluation of the program, Policy and Practice Directions for a Domestic and Family Violence Intervention for Small Children: Safe From the Start (PDF 11.3 MB), is available at: <www.salvationarmy.org.au/Global/State%20pages/Tasmania/Safe%20from%20the%20start/FINAL%20REPORT%20SFTS.PDF>.

A further report, Safe Start for All: The Tasmanian Aboriginal Safe From the Start Project Final Report 2013 (PDF 9.1 MB), which was not used in the case study, can be accessed at: <www.salvationarmy.org.au/Global/State%20pages/Tasmania/Safe%20from%20the%20start/FINAL%20REPORT%20A%20Spinney%20Oct%202013.pdf>.

A practice guide for identifying and responding to the needs of vulnerable children and families
Organisation Micah Projects
What is the project? Micah embarked on a project to ensure that their service delivery and practice, across family- and adult-focused services, responded to the needs of children at risk due to parental risk factors such as substance misuse, mental illness and domestic violence. The project involved partnering with the Parenting Research Centre to develop the publication: Practice Guide: Child and Parenting Needs for Micah Projects Adult-Focussed Teams to Identify and Respond to the Needs of Vulnerable Children and Their Families (Micah Projects & Parenting Research Centre, 2012). The aim of the practice guide was to "enhance the capacity of adult focused services at Micah Projects to identify and incorporate the unique needs of children who accompany their parents and/or carers into Micah Projects services" (p. 2). The project included staff training and the implementation of the practice guide within three adult-focused service provision teams. The project also supported the enhancement of an existing evidence-based best practice framework, Family Support and Service Delivery at Micah, tailored specifically for Micah's family-focused team to more effectively respond to children whose parents experience domestic violence, alcohol and other drug or mental health issues. Practice coaching was used to ensure successful implementation of this practice framework. Evaluation and review activities conducted by Griffith University supported further service enhancement in response to the needs of vulnerable children presenting to family- and adult-focused services.
How is it child-aware? Both the practice guide and framework are underpinned by a range of guiding principles for all Micah staff, which include ensuring that adult and child voices and choices are heard, working with strengths, providing individualised support, and collaborating with other Micah Projects practitioners. They have a clear focus on working with adults on parenting issues that may affect children and highlight the importance of parenting for child health and wellbeing.
Practice inspiration

The practice guide recognises that at-risk children often present with their parents at adult services, and discussing issues around parenting is difficult for many practitioners, particularly if this is not their area of expertise. The guide includes many useful practice considerations. The information on when a parent raises a concern may be helpful:

It is important not to assume that if the parent raises the issue with you, that they want you to work on it with them. Here are some things you can do that might be helpful:

  • Validate their feelings and acknowledge their concern (Avoid advice giving, making judgements or assumptions regarding the nature or cause of the problem).
  • Clarify the nature of the problem or concern (encourage the parent to describe the problem in detail by using open questions. Explore any attempts the family has made to solve the problem).
  • Find out what the parent would like to get from talking to you (e.g., information, support, advice, and referral).
  • Invite the parent to problem solve options.
  • Be optimistic - offer hope for resolution. (Micah Projects Inc. & Parenting Research Centre, 2012, p. 8)
Further information

Micah Projects acknowledges the partnership with the Parenting Research Centre to develop and implement their practice guide and practice framework, and with Griffith University to investigate and support areas for further child aware service enhancement.

Further details of the Micah Projects Child Aware Approaches project and a range of free resources are available at: <www.micahprojects.org.au/services/innovation-research-and-evaluation-unit/child-aware-approaches-project>.