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

CFCA Paper No. 21 – May 2014

Why are Child Aware Approaches important?

The Child Aware Approaches initiative has emerged at a time of change in the Australian human service sector. In general, there is growing awareness that parental problems are often related to negative outcomes for children, and that adult-focused services need to be better equipped to understand and address the complex parental issues that can affect children's safety and wellbeing (Scott, 2009).

In our highly individualised society, issues such as mental illness or addiction are often considered to be personal problems. Many treatment modalities focus almost exclusively on the individual, as though problems can be separated from the broader relationships and social contexts in which they are embedded. Although many parents who are struggling in their own lives do manage to provide a loving and supportive environment for their children, parental problems can adversely affect children in a number of ways. In the absence of support for parents, the challenges of raising children may also exacerbate parental problems. When such problems are not adequately managed, children may be at risk for a range of negative consequences, such as abuse and neglect.

Child maltreatment rarely occurs "out of the blue". Rather, it is often precipitated by a combination of family risk factors and a weakening of family strengths and resilience (Bromfield, Lamont, Parker, & Horsfall, 2010). Some risk factors for child abuse and neglect are not easily modifiable. For instance, individual child risk factors, such as disability or serious physical illness, may not be amenable to change, at least in the short term. Similarly, modifying certain social and environmental risk factors, such as socio-economic disadvantage or exposure to discrimination, is beyond the ambit of most human service organisations. In such instances, effective intervention services will focus on promoting families' strengths and ability to be resilient in the face of difficulties.

Nevertheless, there are other risk factors related to problems faced by parents that are often amenable to intervention. The parental factors most commonly associated with child maltreatment are domestic violence, parental substance abuse, and parental mental health problems (Bromfield et al., 2010). These factors are regularly identified in families involved with child protection services; indeed, an analysis of the Queensland child protection system found that, of all substantiated cases:

  • 47% involved one or both parents having an alcohol or other drug problem;
  • 35% of households reported two or more incidents of domestic violence within the previous 12 months; and
  • 19% involved a primary carer with a current or previously diagnosed mental illness (Queensland Government Department of Child Safety, 2008).

These parental risk factors can compromise parenting in a number of ways. Family violence can affect children directly by exposing them to violence or the damage caused to persons or property by a family member's violent behaviour; indeed, a growing number of professionals regard the witnessing of family violence as a unique and independent subtype of abuse (Higgins, 2004). Family violence can also affect children indirectly, by impairing the capacity of the victim (most often the mother) to provide appropriate care. For example, research has found that in fearful attempts to placate and manage men's violence, some mothers prioritise their partner's needs over the needs of their children (Humphreys, Houghten, & Ellis, 2008).

The abuse of alcohol and other drugs, leading to states of intoxication and withdrawal, can make it difficult for parents to perform routine parenting tasks, such as supervising children, preparing meals, and maintaining a safe and clean family home. Alcohol and other drugs can also substantially impair a parent's ability to provide a safe and consistent emotional environment for children, with mood swings, yelling, and authoritarian or permissive parenting practices more common among substance-affected parents (Dawe et al., 2007).

Similarly, mental health problems (such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder) may compromise the parents' ability to provide stable emotional environments for their children, and to perform tasks such as housework, shopping or helping children get ready for school (Huntsman, 2008). Risks arise directly in relation to the symptoms of a mental illness as well as to those factors associated with mental illness, such as isolation, poor housing, unemployment and social disadvantage. Parental mental illness has been associated with a number of negative psychosocial outcomes for children, such as psychiatric disorders, emotional and behavioural problems, sleep problems, and poor adolescent adjustment (Maybery, Reupert, Patrick, Goodyear, & Crase, 2005).

It is common for domestic violence, parental substance abuse and parental mental health problems to exist in the same family (Queensland Government Department of Child Safety, 2008; Victorian Government Department of Human Services, 2002). Furthermore, these problems often occur in the context of wider disadvantage (e.g., poverty, social isolation, low education, and unstable family accommodation or homelessness), as well as histories of significant adversity and trauma. For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, this trauma is related to historical and ongoing dispossession, marginalisation and racism, as well as the legacy of past policies of forced removal and cultural assimilation (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997). When a number of interrelated, chronic difficulties exist in one family, this family is often referred to as having "multiple and complex problems" (Bromfield et al., 2010). Unfortunately, families with multiple and complex problems living in situations of significant disadvantage and social exclusion are the norm for clients presenting to Australian child protection services (Scott, 2009).

Efforts to keep Australia's children safe and well have changed substantially over the past decade. It has been increasingly recognised that child protection departments are not the best service entry points for most families who are struggling with multiple and complex problems, and that there are different populations of vulnerable children and families who could benefit from entering the system at different points. There has been a much stronger focus on early intervention and prevention. And in general the focus has shifted from risks and deficits to strengths and capabilities. The service sector has moved from a narrowly focused "silo" approach to one based on a public health model: changes that are best exemplified by the aims and activities of the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children, and the motto "Protecting children is everyone's business".

A very important component of the National Framework is building the capacity of adult-focused services (e.g., family violence, alcohol and other drug, mental health, and homelessness services) to be sensitive to the needs of children, and more generally to the ways in which children and families are often implicated in parents' "personal" problems. The Building Capacity, Building Bridges program aims to build the capacity of practitioners to support their adult clients to meet the needs of children in their care, and to strengthen collaboration between adult-focused and child-focused services.

The Child Aware Approaches initiative is important because it works within the National Framework, and builds on the successes of Building Capacity, Building Bridges, to ensure that protecting children is indeed everyone's business.

The following sections provide overviews of the philosophies and principles underpinning Child Aware Approaches. The Child Aware Approaches principles are elaborated with relevant practice considerations and further resources.