National comparison of cross-agency practice in investigating and responding to severe child abuse
Responding to allegations of child abuse and neglect typically requires the involvement of workers from different agencies and professional disciplines working in concert. Systems inquiries, critical incident and child death reviews commonly highlight poor information sharing across agencies and service coordination as key issues for severe child abuse cases (e.g., Child Protection Systems Royal Commission, 2016; Community Development and Justice Standing Committee, 2008). Providing a holistic and coordinated response is commonly identified as crucial to addressing these issues and fostering improvements in child safety and child wellbeing (e.g., Child Protection Systems Royal Commission, 2016; Community Development and Justice Standing Committee, 2008; NSW Ombudsman, 2017).
This paper focuses on severe cases of alleged child abuse, in which a police investigation is required. In these cases, police and child protection statutory authorities need to work together to conduct their investigations into whether there has been criminal conduct, and whether the child is safe in their present setting. Forensic medical evaluation may be required, and ideally interventions to address any remaining problems within the family environment and therapeutic services to assist the child and their non-offending parent(s) in recovery will be put in place.
While all workers are required to operate with the best interests of children in mind, how this is interpreted will likely differ based on professionals' disciplinary background and the roles of different organisations involved. These differences in interpretation and a lack of communication and understanding between agencies and workers can result in a poor response; causing confusion and distress for children and their families. Poor communication and coordination between agencies can also have other critical consequences where child-related risks are not properly identified or managed.
To better manage the response to cases of severe child abuse, many jurisdictions have implemented practice frameworks aimed at improving collaboration and coordination across agencies and disciplines. This paper:
- provides a brief description of multi-disciplinary team responses and an overview of important characteristics of responses;
- presents a national comparison of multi-disciplinary teams/centres for investigating cases of serious child abuse in Australian jurisdictions;
- summarises the key elements of planned cross-agency responses: integration of supportive and therapeutic services, co-location of workers, and the governance structures supporting cross-agency responses; and
- presents key areas for research and policy development.