Issues for the safety and wellbeing of children in families with multiple and complex problems

The co-occurrence of domestic violence, parental substance misuse, and mental health problems
NCPC Issues No. 33 – December 2010

Early intervention and capacity building in an integrated service system

Even with a whole-of-government approach, a key challenge will be to establish a service system that leads to early identification of children and families who may have multiple and complex problems before problems escalate. All services have a role to play in preventing children in such families from being abused or neglected and ultimately referred to tertiary child protection services. Tertiary child protection services are designed to respond to abuse and neglect situations where children have been harmed or are in immediate danger; they have a limited capacity to prevent abuse and neglect. Unfortunately for many families, child protection services are the first point of contact for intervention (Higgins & Katz, 2008). The greatest challenge therefore is to sufficiently resource flexible prevention and early intervention services to help reduce the number of children requiring state intervention (Wood, 2008). In an integrated service system, child protection services are a last-resort response and just one part of the child and family welfare service system where universal services form the foundation.

In order for early intervention in an integrated service system to work, universal and secondary services need to be available to all families (Higgins & Katz, 2008). Secondary services need to be appropriately resourced with a highly skilled workforce to have the capacity to meet demand (Wood, 2008). Building the capacity of adult-focused services (e.g., drug and alcohol services or domestic violence programs) to be child-sensitive, and child-focused services to be more parent-sensitive are also important for developing better responses for families with multiple and complex problems (Scott, 2009). Ultimately, in an integrated system, adult services would be able to determine first if their clients were parents and then be able to refer the family to further services that meet their needs. An integrated service system, prioritising early intervention and prevention, can ease demand on tertiary child protection services and lead to better outcomes for disadvantaged children and families.

Families characterised as having multiple and complex problems are likely to have experienced either substance misuse problems, mental health problems or domestic violence or a combination of the three. Such families are also likely to be living within a context of isolation and disadvantage, putting children at even greater risk of abuse and neglect. It is therefore no surprise that families with multiple and complex problems are the primary client group in child protection services. To improve service provision for such families, establishing an integrated service system may strengthen the capacity of early intervention and prevention services, which may in turn may ease demand on statutory child protection services.