Safe and supportive families and communities for children: A synopsis and critique of Australian research

CFCA Paper No. 1 – March 2012


This paper provides a synopsis and critique of research relating to the theme of building safe and supportive families and communities for children, as identified through the Protecting Australia's Children Research Audit (1995-2010) (the Audit; McDonald, Higgins, valentine, & Lamont, 2011).1 This theme is reflected in "Supporting Outcome 1: Children Live in Safe and Supportive Families and Communities", outlined in the report Protecting Children is Everyone's Business: National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-20 ("National Framework"; Council of Australian Governments [COAG], 2009). Projects included in the Audit are analysed here in greater depth to identify key issues and research gaps. The analysis will provide a pointer to priorities for the delivery and planning of services that support children and families.

The Protecting Australia's Children Research Audit (1995-2010) (McDonald et al., 2011) sought to identify, describe and disseminate information about Australian research projects and program evaluations during the period 1995-2010 on topics relating to the protection of children. The scope of the topics reflects the six supporting outcomes outlined in the National Framework (see Box 1).

The specific aims of the audit were to identify:

  • research projects (published and unpublished) undertaken in Australia between 1995-2010 on topics of relevance to the National Framework (COAG, 2009);
  • outcomes and progress since the Audit of Australian Out-of-Home Care Research (Cashmore & Ainsworth, 2004) and the National Audit of Australian Child Protection Research 1995-2004 (Higgins, Adams, Bromfield, Richardson, & Aldana, 2005);
  • gaps, duplication and areas for development in relation to the outcomes and national priorities identified in the National Framework; and
  • priorities for future research and data collection on the basis of the audit results, outcomes of the Towards a National Agenda forum (October 2009) and priorities identified in the National Framework.2

The Audit included a total of 1,359 projects. From this, the project team identified 1,239 projects as relating to one or more of the six supporting outcomes in the National Framework (McDonald et al., 2011).3 This paper seeks to review all the available publications arising from the projects identified in the Audit related to Supporting Outcome 1: Children Live in Safe and Supportive Families and Communities. A review that looks at projects with a preventative focus supports the National Framework and extends knowledge in highlighting prevention and early intervention as the desired strategies in reducing the vulnerability of families.

Box 1: National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020

The National Framework, endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments in April 2009, is a long-term national approach to enhance the safety and wellbeing of Australia's children. The National Framework seeks to provide a foundation for national reform to reduce child abuse and neglect. It stems from the basic assertion that all the children have the right to be safe and to receive loving care and support (COAG, 2009). It upholds children's right to live in a safe family and community environment and outlines long-term strategies to achieve positive outcomes for all children. Implementation of the National Framework has increased the focus on prevention and early intervention (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2011).

The National Framework acknowledges the need for a unified approach across all levels of government and an integrated response that includes various service sectors, to achieve the best outcomes for children. This will be an approach in which families, communities, government, business and services have a role and responsibility, an approach that incorporates "a shared agenda for change, with national leadership and a common goal" (COAG, 2009, p. 9).

The National Framework articulates the aim of achieving the high-level outcome that "Australia's children and young people are safe and well" (COAG, 2009, p. 11). To realise this it proposes six supporting outcomes and the strategies, actions and indicators of change that would help to focus on each outcome.

The six supporting outcomes are:

  1. Children live in safe and supportive families and communities.
  2. Children and families access adequate support to promote safety and intervene early.
  3. Risk factors for child abuse and neglect are addressed.
  4. Children who have been abused or neglected receive the support and care they need for their safety and wellbeing.
  5. Indigenous children are supported and safe in their families and communities.
  6. Child sexual abuse and exploitation is prevented and survivors receive adequate support.

The National Framework proposes a public health model to care and protection that will involve primary, secondary and tertiary level interventions with the focus on a wider base of universal prevention efforts (COAG, 2009). Primary interventions target the whole community with the aim of prevention, secondary interventions target vulnerable families and children at risk, and tertiary interventions seek to reduce the impact and recurrence of child maltreatment where it has already occurred. The focus of the National Framework is on prevention of child abuse and neglect in the first instance as this is recognised as the best way to protect children. To this end, it seeks to promote strategies and implement actions that build capacity and strength in families and communities through education and support programs and improved service delivery.

For further information, see Protecting Australia's Children <>

A universal prevention approach

The tertiary-level child protection system in Australia is overburdened as a result of high rates of child protection notifications and substantiations, children in out-of-home care, and a shortage of foster carers and child protection workers. In acknowledgement of this, all sectors of government and community organisations have agreed on the need to enhance primary prevention strategies and services (Allen Consulting Group, 2009). In order to reduce this burden, child protection needs to evolve from a response-to-risk approach to a broader notion of "child wellbeing", with a focus on family support, child abuse and neglect prevention and early intervention programs (Higgins & Katz, 2008).

A focus on primary prevention is further supported by research that demonstrates the value and significance of early intervention and comprehensive approaches involving a range of child and family welfare sectors to produce positive outcomes for children. The concept of child wellbeing demands a holistic approach that would integrate the three levels of the public health model of service delivery - primary, secondary and tertiary - into broader social issues and service systems (Higgins & Katz, 2008).4 This broader social context covers a range of related issues such as public health, housing and homelessness, education, domestic violence, substance abuse, early childhood, employment, family law, family relationship services and Indigenous health and social services.

The need for prevention and early intervention is also highlighted by the fact that child maltreatment is often a recurring issue in families, sometimes becoming chronic with multiple adverse events contributing to repeated abuse (Bromfield, Gillingham, & Higgins, 2007). The likelihood of abuse and neglect leading to negative physical, cognitive, psychological, behavioural and social consequences in adulthood (Lamont, 2010) also underlines the importance of prevention.


1 This paper is based on the final report of the Audit, a project undertaken by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) in collaboration with the Social Policy Research Centre as part of the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-20. The Community and Disability Services Ministers' Advisory Council and the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) funded the Audit.

2 The research forum, Towards a National Research Agenda: Protecting Australia's Children, was held in Sydney, 2009 and was hosted by the National Child Protection Clearinghouse. The forum involved leading researchers and policy-makers in the fields of child abuse and neglect, child protection and out-of-home care.

3 Please see the report for further information on the objectives <> and methodology <> used in the Audit.

4 For further information on the public health model in the context of child welfare, see Hunter (2011) and Barlow and Callam (2011).