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

The structure of the service system: A whole-of-government approach to service delivery

Child protection service systems across Australia are struggling to meet the needs of families with multiple and complex problems (Wood, 2008). This is not only because of a lack of services for children and families but because the service system is designed as completely separate organisations and agencies or, in effect, "silos" (Bromfield & Holzer, 2008). Services for children and families come from a variety of sources (and not just child protection departments) including other government departments (e.g., health, education, juvenile justice) and the non-government sector, yet most services tend be focused on one problem. For example, a parent with a dual diagnosis maybe referred from child protection to a rehabilitation service for a substance abuse problem, but then referred on to a mental health service without either service providing background information on the family, or either service knowing that their client is a parent. Worse still, a parent may be refused mental health services because of a substance abuse problem. A further example of the difficulties with a "siloed" system is that families may be unable to claim social welfare benefits due to homelessness or housing instability. Services may be available (albeit often with a substantial waiting list) but families who need them these services the most may not know how to access them. In many instances, a siloed service system further compounds disadvantage and exclusion.

Bromfield and Holzer (2008) concluded that, to respond more effectively to families with multiple and complex problems, a whole-of-government approach is needed that facilitates integrated working relationships between child protection and different government agencies and the non-government sector (e.g., adult services, family support services and child care). A systematic, multi-agency approach promotes multilateral departmental initiatives to protecting children, whereby service provision is jointly funded between departments such as health, education, the police and child protection/communities in collaboration with the non-government sector. A holistic approach promotes greater service collaboration and information sharing so that families are provided with the most appropriate support (Wood, 2008). Services that have first contact with a family play a more active referral and linking role. Joining up services may help to reduce situations where families with multiple and complex problems are referred from one service to another where little or no history of the family is known before their first visit.

An example of a whole-of-government cross-departmental approach to protecting children is the Think Family program in the United Kingdom. The aim of the approach, developed in 2008, is to make sure that the support provided by child, adult and family services is coordinated and takes account of how problems affect the whole family. The initiative was designed to build on the capacity of all services to reduce the negative impact on children of parents with multiple and complex problems. The core principles of the initiative have been that:

  • there is no wrong door - contact with any service offers an open door to joined-up support;
  • services look at the whole family - they take into account family circumstances, and adult services consider clients as parents;
  • services build on family strengths - relationship and strength-based engagement; and
  • services provide support tailored to need - rather than a "one size fits all" approach (Scott, 2009).