The critical importance of supervision in child protection: Harnessing the energy of teams

The critical importance of supervision in child protection: Harnessing the energy of teams

Kate Alexander
26 November 2014

This webinar discussed the importance of supervision in child protection, and outlined lessons from a group supervision approach adopted in NSW.

Audio transcript: The critical importance of supervision in child protection

Audio transcript (edited)

Webinar facilitated & speaker introduced by Elly Robinson


Good morning everyone and welcome to today's CFCA info exchange webinar, “The critical importance of supervision in child protection: Harnessing the energy of teams.” My name is Elly Robinson and I'm the manager of the CFCA information exchange here at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Today we'll hear about the exciting work of our child protection colleagues in the Office of the Senior Practitioner in New South Wales and the lessons they have learned, and continue to learn, from the group supervision approach adopted by Practice First.

This webinar is part of a series of resources we are currently releasing on supervision, with a focus on supervision in services for adolescents. A practice guide and two infographics were also available and we'll send you links today after the presentation. Before I introduce our speaker, I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we are meeting. In Melbourne, the traditional custodians are the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I pay my respects to elders past and present, and to elders from other communities who may be participating today. Just some brief housekeeping details before I hand over to our speaker today, Kate Alexander.

One of the core functions of this CFCA information exchange is to share knowledge. So I'd like to remind everyone that they can submit questions via the chat box at any time during the webinar. There'll be a limited amount of time for questions at the end of Kate's presentation, and we'll try to respond to as many as possible in that time. We also invite you to continue the conversation that we have here today, and to facilitate this, we will set up a forum on the CFCA website, where you can discuss the ideas and issues raised and share your own experiences of what has and hasn't worked regarding supervision. We'll send you a link to that forum later this afternoon. Please remember that the webinar is being recorded and the audio transcript and presentation slides will be made available on the CFCA website in due course.

It's now my pleasure to introduce today's presenter, Kate Alexander. Kate is the executive director of the Office of the Senior Practitioner for Community Services in the New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services.

Kate has a Masters of Social Work and has worked in child protection for over 20 years in a variety of roles, including therapeutic, case work and management. In 2010, Kate was awarded a Churchill Fellowship and travelled to the UK, Norway and America, researching child protection systems with a focus on the skill set of the frontline workforce. The Practice First model that we'll be hearing about today was designed by Kate and is based on this research. So, without further ado, please join with me in giving Kate a very warm, virtual welcome. Thanks, Kate.


Hello everybody and welcome. Yes Kate here, it is a little odd for me to be presenting this way. It’s unusual to not have smiling faces in front of me but we'll plough on. I do also want to start by acknowledging that we're meeting on Aboriginal land, and, for me in Sydney today at Ashfield, I'm meeting on the land of the Gadigal people, and to pay my very genuine and heartfelt respect to elders past and present and Aboriginal colleagues who may be listening today.

This presentation is focused on group supervision. I feel that it's very hard to tell the group supervision story in New South Wales without giving you an overview of the Practice First model and the principles upon which it's founded. It's certainly our view that the success of group supervision so far in our Practice First site has a lot to do with, not only the supervision model we use, but the principles of the practice upon which the model's framed. So it's important for me to talk a little bit about the Practice First framework and the principles. And I'll keep referring back to group supervision as I go, because it is certainly group supervision that brings the principles to life, if you like.

Just so that you know a little bit about my role quickly, as Elly said in the introduction, I'm a social worker and I have worked in child protection all of my career. It's the only work I'm really interested in and certainly I think the most important work you can do. For the last 15 years or so I have worked in the statutory system and this work very much reflects the context of statutory child protection. And to any statutory child protection workers out there, a very special hello to those of you on the frontline who are doing such an important job.

The Office of the Senior Practitioner was established nearly two years ago. It was a significant move by the New South Wales Department to acknowledge the importance of us focussing on practice. When we say “practice”, what we mean is, and we say this every day to our field and we keep it pretty basic, child protection is what we do and practice is how we do it. So practice is the conversation, the interactions and relationships we form with families to keep children safe. And when it works, practice is the magic that keeps families together or keeps children in long-term, secure and permanent care arrangements.

So our job – and it is a privilege to lead the office that delivers this work to the front line – our job is to lead, inspire, mentor and support good practice across New South Wales. We sit on the outside of operations – that's important, just for those of you interested in structural decisions. It's an important placement for the office and it keeps us in a unique role to do review work. The child death review team sits in my office and that's important that we have some independence. We do a lot of review work with the field but we also get in and roll up our sleeves. So all of the 88 casework specialist positions in New South Wales who sit in offices all across the state, report through to the Office of the Senior Practitioner. So, if you like, they're our arms and legs of practice support in the field.

Just to show you quickly some of the work that's come out of the Office of the Senior Practitioner that it is about practice, and this is very relevant to Practice First. Since we've started, we took care and protection practice standards, which you can see. You can get all of this information online and a practice framework. So New South Wales didn't have a practice framework. We were certainly behind a lot of other states – Queensland and Victoria, South Australia – we certainly looked at all the lovely work you had done ahead of us, around a practice framework.

Because New South Wales has the broadest entry gates of any child protection system in the country – we have, probably 20 per cent of our workforce is social work trained, 80 per cent comprises a huge mix of other professions, so former teachers, former police officers, former nurses, psychologists, welfare trained, huge mix of very multi-disciplinary work force – the need for us to have a framework and principles to unite our workforce was really strong. So you can see the practice framework, they’re the purple and blue. That framework gave a very explicit mandate to our frontline about what their role was. It was developed by our practitioner advisory group. So it was developed by our people, which is significant. And it really gives a mandate to the frontline that they can work with families to change and not just see us, ourselves, as forensic assessors and investigators of risk. And that one page, care and protection framework, helps caseworkers navigate anything they need to know. So what you can see in the next slide is that behind that framework is a site that we've developed called "I Practice", and every one of those sentences in the practice framework is a hyperlink and there's an example in front of you now. That shows how caseworkers can go in and explore the system, and explore what they might need with practical sorts of tools. There's little embedded video links in there. All of this is available online. If you want to have a look, go to the Facts website.

The next slide is about our “Good Practice Report”. For the two years that we've been up and running, we have published a “Good Practice Report”. It's quite simply – and we've certainly borrowed this idea from Victoria – it's quite simply a promotion of our stories. It's stories that we helped write with the field and just a really good way to promote the practice we're after. We wrote it in very plain language and you can have a look online. I'll show you by clicking on this link, but if you go to the Facts website you can see it. So you can see, these are our stories and we've worked hard to pull out the practice themes we wanted in those stories for people to go in and take some inspiration and some learning. And some of the Practice First sites certainly feature in those stories.

So that's just a little overview of the work of the Office of Senior Practitioner and how we're working alongside the field and the simple promotion of good practice, and the importance of doing that. So the importance for caseworkers to really feel like the agency is behind them and supports the work they're doing with families. So that's just an overview really about the work we're doing. And now I'll tell you more specifically about the work of the Practice First framework.

As you heard Elly say, in 2010, I undertook a Churchill Fellowship and travelled to Norway, the States and England. My interest was in child protection systems, mainly statutory systems and what they were doing to support the work of the frontline. I looked at systems that were getting good outcomes for children and then focussed on what those systems were doing to inspire, lead and mentor the work of the frontline to good practice. I mean there's a lot of work in that. I won't touch on that. You can see here, the lovely Cara Killen. It was really a treat for me to go to Norway and to meet with Cara Killen because I had been so influenced early in my career by her work on neglect.

And there's a little photo of my daughter in Norway – my family accompanied me for part of the trip. I was most influenced probably by Minnesota and the work over there. The case consult model from Minnesota, Suzie Lorbacher's work, is the model the practice of group supervision is built on, and I was also the influence by reclaimed social work in Hackney, England. I returned from the Churchill Fellowship and had the opportunity to work specifically with – it started with one of our offices, the Bathurst office. For those of you who know New South Wales, Bathurst is a country town on the other side of the Blue Mountains, so far enough away from head office if you like, a perfect place to run a trial.

So that was the beginning of the Practice First story, and Mudgee is another office. There's a winery part of New South Wales, and Mudgee and Bathurst come under the one manager. So, we made a decision to trial the model in both sites, even though they're an hour-and-a-half apart, because they came under the one manager. And that is the beginning of the Practice First story. We're not three years, really, down the track. Right from the beginning, the model was based on temperance book of practice, which I will just go through quickly now to give you an overview.

I do really want to acknowledge Rosemary Hailstone who led that team and the success of Bathurst and Mudgee, and the success of Practice First is, really a reflection on the outstanding practice leadership that Rosemary and her team led – and their courage, right from the beginning to work differently. As a statutory office that was quite forensic at that time, to embrace a different way of working. It was an absolute privilege to work along side them. My role with Rosemary and her team from the beginning was to help bring them around to a different way of thinking – a much more relationship-based way of working, but never to direct. Rosemary was the practice leader and embedding her as the manager of the practice leader was key to the beginning of the Practice First story.

Our managers had become very much bureaucratic leaders and to start calling Rosemary a practice leader and empower her in that role was incredibly important. So Practice First had a good impact on Bathurst and Mudgee very quickly, and we made a decision to roll out to some other offices across New South Wales. When we presented to those offices, these are the arguments for change that we relied on to try and bring on the workforce, to try and capture the hearts and minds of our workforce. So this is a very abridged version of the arguments for change, which will be familiar to all of you, and are still fairly current in our context.

So the first one was about the fact that Aboriginal children are grossly over represented in all areas of disadvantage in New South Wales. They make up probably four per cent of the New South Wales population. Probably 18 per cent of child protection reports coming in the door and what we know now is that over a third of children in New South Wales are Aboriginal, and over a quarter of deaths of children who died were known to be aboriginal. So it's certainly a no-brainer that we know that we needed to do more, to work differently and work better with Aboriginal families.

The other issue was about the mandate to the work force that I spoke about before. Not always clear was our workforce here to investigate to assess and refer on, to investigate and assess and remove, or to investigate and assess and close. And what we were saying is that is the statutory role, some of those aspects. But we're also saying, we're adding one more, which is to work with families, assess risk and work alongside families to help them change. So, see our frontline as agents of change who work with the sector. It was really important to be clear to the workforce about what our mandate was.

The other bit of that is how our workforce is using their time. I have to say we've still got a long way to go on this. When we started at Bathurst and Mudgee, they estimated they spent 80 per cent of their week in the office, behind their computer, and 20 per cent of their time with families. When we asked them, of the 80 per cent that they spent in the office, how confident they felt they were doing things in that time that led to children feeling safe. They estimated that probably 10 per cent of their time they believed they were doing meaningful tasks to keep children safe. Now management may disagree about that. It doesn't really matter. It was the perception of workers that mattered to us on that one. And their perception was they came to work, four out of five days a week, and of those four days, they were occupied, 90 per cent of the time with tasks that they didn't believe directly led to the safety of children. It was a very clear message to us. It's almost a call to arms that we needed to do something different about changing the perception of the frontline if we wanted them to be meaningful agents of change for families.

The other really clear message is that the confidence of our workforce is not always in their skills. It may have been more in how they worked, bureaucratically, how they worked as people who wrote reports rather than in their written skills, analytic skills, skills of relationship, skills of motivation with families – so not always investment in the right areas of the workforce. We know that children away from home, we know that New South Wales was at a point, tracking in recent years of having the highest proportion of children in care. Against outcomes of the children in care that we know are not good.

So that's a snapshot summary of the reasons that we've helped the workforce understand why it's time to look at doing something differently. And really emphasising that we have, as a state in New South Wales, privileged the accumulation of a good evidence base. So good written records, good evidence for court, good information in case something goes wrong. We've rarely privileged such a priority on an evidence base above and beyond the building of relationships. Unintentionally of course, the path New South Wales went down was not dissimilar to the paths of other big statutory systems that have been overburdened with more cases than they can get to. But that's the context and the back drop for us trialling something different with Practice First.

The key parts to Practice First, just to get your heads around, and there is a whole Practice First manual that we're happy to send online to people that sets out the research and the evidence base in far more detail than I can do now. But just in essence, there are three parts – the structure, the principles of practice and the culture that number one and number two impact on. The structure is all about group supervision. In a Practice First site, all significant decisions about children are made in teams. They're made in group supervision, not in one-on-one discussion. And that teams see themselves as responsible for cases rather than individuals. So while an individual worker may be the person who forms the relationship with the family, they are not on their own to make significant decisions that impact on children. And that clearly modelled from every bit we do with Practice First from the beginning.

The principles of practice are what I will give you a quick overview of now. The longer we've been doing this, the more we believe that the principles practice has actually been fairly key to the culture change we've seen in units. And the culture is really impacted upon by how well we do number one and number two. Depends on the culture of the unit. So that's just the simple overview of the model. Then what we get to is as I mentioned before is that we've really aimed to unite our people by principles not tools. New South Wales was heavily focussed on rules and tools, and legislation – an enormous investment in the knowledge base of our workforce. Whereas what we've really pushed here is uniting people by principles not rules.

And that's the importance of the principles of practice. So when we do, when we bring on new sites, we certainly give them training and some things to fill their kitbags up, but essentially we do a big focus on the principles of practice. It's what we call the hearts and minds session. It's a two-hour briefing at each site, where, the quick run through I'll give you now, we can spend two hours on and we use real case studies to help break it down. And then we go back into sites and try and keep these principles alive. So in summary, the first one is about ethics and values that are being integral to good practice. And we talk with the workforce about the fact that we absolutely know they have a good ethical base. We know most people joined up to make a difference. It's not about the black and white of ethics; it's much more about the shades of grey.

So, conversations about we how we use our statutory power – how we define success. We challenge workers a bit about the way they write, about the way they talk about families. We may challenge them about options to do – we need to always – not tell what we call cult calling. Is it respectful to ring people beforehand and to let them know we're coming out. How would we like to be treated? So really clear of examples of trying to help the workforce put themselves in the shoes of family, and to have the courage to challenge each other, and using group supervision on the subject of ethics is really important.

Where should we start? Should we always interview children at school first or should we go to their parents first? And when we do it one way versus the other, what is the impact on longer-term relationships? So really trying to bring ethics and values into our conversations. We use some fairly real examples to do that. So examples – one example we might use was an example of a file record that described a mother after her four-year-old child had come into care and the weeks that followed him entering care. He was moved three times because we weren't able to find a placement that could accommodate him. In those three weeks, there's an entry on the file about the mother making her second
un-announced visit to the local office, and we talked, we would talk about examples about that, about how our language is very, can be very distancing – describing a mother as making an un-announced visit to the office when in fact what arrived at the office to drop off a new pair of pyjamas she had bought her son.

So helping the field understand that had we written that differently – the one thing this mother thought she could do for her son at that time, to keep him in her mind and to give him a message of her care was to deliver him some pyjamas – but the way we'd recorded it had missed the essence of all of that. So helping people know that it's okay to record strengths about families not just weaknesses, and challenging bureaucratic language that keeps us distant from our families.

So the ethics and values is a big part of our focus. This is obviously helping people to think about what's the point of trying to catch families unaware all the time and does it always keep us in our forensic role?

The next principle building on this is about the importance of families having a right to respect. We borrowed straight from (audio malfunction) Rob Sawyer who was a really key architect of the differential response in Minnesota. When we asked him what he would say of the key to success, he would say that it was forcing caseworkers in the frontline to speak with respect about families. It sounds fairly simple, but what we do in all Practice First sites is that we ask that the frontline and management sign up to an agreement that they will never speak about families in a way that if they were to overhear they wouldn't feel respected. So that means conversations anywhere – tearooms, kitchens, families – need to be respected. They don't need to agree with what's being said. They don't need to like it. But they do need to feel respected.

We feel that that change has been key to helping people change the way they think. If they change the way they speak, they're more likely to change the way they think, and our hope if that's still having interactions with families. This one pushed some buttons with the field – some parts of the field thinking it was us being, "Big Brother" and trying to control their conversation. It's been great to go back and help challenge people about what their resistance is and notions that you can't debrief if you can't speak about families in certain ways and really try to unpack what that means.

Another part of respect is the importance of the frontline being prepared to practice their practice, if you're having a hard conversation for the first time with families. You owe it to them to practice before you go out the door. So really encouraging that practice and role plays in group supervision is one way we bring that one to life, and being prepared to admit to worries and being prepared to admit to uncertainty, and modelling that through supervision.

The third principle is really the heart of Practice First and it's about trying to break down the, "us and them" culture, and really being very frank. In New South Wales, we had become too far of an "us and them" culture. Breaking that down and helping the frontline put themselves in the shoes of families is really important. We use lots of examples and case studies to help them do that. So really understanding what it's like to be poor. What's it like to be disadvantaged, isolated in remote parts of New South Wales and really helping people understand that and putting themselves in their shoes. And that is really the heart of what we're doing in groups with vision. The importance of empathy and getting some of our workforce, who perhaps have become a little frightened about empathy and if they show empathy to families it might mean that they lose their objectivity in managing with. So really challenging that for people and helping them understand that you can't do this work without empathy.

The fourth one's about the importance of language. So challenging the way people speak. We've asked that people replace the words unco-operative and hostile with fearful. So when they describe families as resistant, unco-operative, hostile, we would ask them to replace it with fearful, and we've seen a fairly major shift in practice. When our workers view the families as fearful rather than unco-operative, it helps them prepare for how they may knock on the door. The other bits about language are, obviously, in a nutshell, how we talk about violence, how we talk about family problems. This example here is encouraging people to speak in plain English – to get away from the bureaucratic description. For instance Billy was exposed to incidents of parental domestic violence keeping it real. Billy saw his dad hit his mum and he heard her crying. Helping the workforce say, what we say to them is, "Which one is harder to ignore? Which one tells you more about what's going on for Billy?" So just really the importance of our use of language in everything we do right up to the level of managers.

The fifth one's very straightforward. It's the difference between the knowing and the doing. So the importance of skills as well as knowledge in reminding our workforce that they know a lot but knowing doesn't equip you with the skills or the doing. We've done a lot about the doing in group supervision, in trying to bring role plays to life.

The sixth one is about the culture of the office and the importance of allowing workers to feel hope and the importance of curiosity. Curiosity comes through in group supervision all the time, through the use of a passive specialists and psychologists. They have a mandatory attendance in group supervision – the input of one additional person to the team. So a psychologist or a passive specialist that I've mentioned – that's the pragmatic use of New South Wales' resources. We didn't have new positions for Practice First but we used the positions we had, and the role of those positions is very much about using your curious stamp to help unpack the case and to help unpack the dynamics in the case and to foster hope in a workforce that has sometimes lost hope or didn't feel confident to have hope anymore.

The importance of keeping on learning – we refer here back to some fantastic research done many years ago out of the Kent Centre in Colorado – that was able to isolate the factor that workers who said they read just one article a month were less likely to agree with the statement. Sometimes I feel there is nothing I can do to help those people – the workers who didn't engage the theory at all. So really keeping theory alive. We use group supervision as the only formal training our local offices now. They used to have a separate time for training. We now really rely on the manager, the specialist and the psychologist to bring learning into group supervision. It's much more real learning. It's much more real time if the case being discussed, for instance, is a case about sexual assault, that would be the learning that someone would be prepared to bring article theory to try and capture that.

We really push on our workforce the importance of them having perspective and engaging with children outside of work and becoming experts in children and not needing courses of behavioural milestones – actually getting themselves to be experts and chanting for children is really what we're pushing. And that one is all about the culture, obviously, of the office.

This one is a no brainer to all of you – it's about the importance of reflective practice, and, again, it's all about group supervision for the importance of reflection. We've done a lot to give questions for people who are not confident in reflective practice about what a reflective question might look like and how we bring those to life in group supervision. Simple questions about what do you think mum understands about why we're involved in her life? That's such a simple question, but it's had a major impact with caseworkers saying I'm going back out to ask my families now if they know why we've been knocking on their door. What do children think we're doing in their family? So good reflective questions that have helped discussions in group supervision.

All of this is obviously building up. This principle is about the sharing of risk leads to better decision making and that is the harder group supervision and it's what I mentioned before – that no significant decisions are made in isolation anymore.

The ninth one is the key to relationship. We've really pushed this, It's not rules and tools that keep children safe – it's people and their relationships. And that was really important for the New South Wales workforce who, as I said, had become very forensic.

Early on, when Bathurst and Mudgee were doing so well, we saw a very quick change in the data out of those units – a noticeable drop off in the number of children who were entered in care as the workforce felt more able to be more creative and take more risks together in working with children to stay in families. When we rolled out to the new sites, we made a little movie, because what happens in New South Wales is that the grapevine is very strong across 82 frontline offices. When we went to 16 new sites, what they all did is pick up the phone and rang Bathurst and Mudgee to get the real deal on what was the go with this model. Bathurst and Mudgee were saying, "Look we're going really well with our families, but we're overwhelmed by the number of phone calls we're getting from other offices". So we took a video camera out to Bathurst and Mudgee and true to the Practice First model we didn't script anyone, we just asked them to talk about how they thought Practice First had changed the way they worked – good, bad and indifferent.

One really crackingly good caseworker from Mudgee told a story that she was wearing her gloves and boots to work because she was in the kitchens and laundries, and the gardens of the families she was helping. We knew when we put that video out there, that that little bit of footage would push some buttons and it did with our workforce. But for us, it was let's bring on the conversation behind that reaction, which was people saying, "We're not here to be doing people's gardening or their washing up", and, of course, that is true long term. We do not build dependency of our families and it's not good use of the statutory workforces’ time, obviously, when we're not getting to all our cases. But at the same time, the notion of rolling your sleeves up and just being prepared to help families differently. Really powerful and was really powerful for her, who was able to point out that she was very forensic in the past and that she'd noted herself with some irony that by being less forensic, more hands on, that she gathered far more assessment information than she had with a more forensic approach. So really emphasising relationship-based practice.

This research from a large-scale intervention in Dublin, is great research by McKewan, and he highlights that the most powerful impact in cases that had successful outcomes of more than two thousand cases was the client and worker relationship. Interestingly the sense of hope families brought to the table featured as one of the successes that obviously we've really pushed as well.

The tenth principle is about the impact of repeating relationships and this was there from the outset, but we've certainly learnt a lot about this as we've gone along the way. I think that it's fair to say that we, in the little Practice First team, have a view that as an agency we weren't good at trusting families, and as an executive or a management we weren't good at trusting our frontline. So the relationships repeat is about the parallel or the cascading relationships up and down the line and how that impacts on children's families as the receivers of our intervention.

So they're the principles of practice in a nutshell. How we bring those to life in group supervision is really important. This slide now is just a little summary of the framework we use. So as I said before group supervision is compulsory. We are really strict about helping managers become empowered to say that group supervision is the heart of the model and compulsory for all staff. So it's a three-hour session every week where Practice First staff are flourishing. We know it's because group supervision is being attended to properly and managers are taking responsibility for it. So just simple things like people are not to have their mobile phones on. They're to come prepared. They're to come as professionals and we've worked hard to cut out the storytelling so the case consult model helps workers prepare. They present their cases and to really hone their worry statements about why they're presenting and articulate those under the headings that you can see in front of them. So the framework helps distinct conversations in a workforce that wasn't always good at distinct conversations and could get into a lot of long-winded storytelling.

So that's really the importance of the framework. Obviously group supervision depends significantly on the quality of the skills of the person leading it. When we did the big, our first big rollout to 16 sites, we had 76 managers case work – that's what we call our frontline managers – we had 76 managers case work, stepping up to the mark in a really big way, for practitioners who largely had not had their skills honed in being facilitators of groups. A lot of our managers had done a lot of individual supervision. They felt overburdened with risks themselves.

They saw themselves as holding full responsibility and having to be the decision maker, and for those practitioners to stand up and facilitate groups of vision at a whiteboard, which was what the template relied upon, was an enormous curb for them. Obviously some did it better than others, that was always clear to us from the beginning. We worked with what we had. We did get some push back and some executive concern about how is it a risk. Some of our managers who have never worked in this way of doing it before, and certainly it was a risk, but our response to that was that yes it's risky but running. But the same people are running individual discussions all over the state behind closed doors and the more the professional we can support these forums to be, the better.

Here's a reference here to Suzie Lawbarcher's work and her article, which is fantastic – you can get that from the Social Work Now Journal August 2008. It really describes very nicely the group supervision model that certainly came from Minnesota and we've relied on. So as I said it's compulsory – we probably only get through three or four cases at a time. So the first question every new site asks us is how are we going to talk about all our cases every week and what we say is, “you're not”. It really relies on building the confidence and the independence of our frontline workforce. If they do a very good job articulating the worries of three or four cases, the hope is that that the skills and the learning and the conversations will spill over into their other cases. We are asking professionals to be more independent with their cases and not to feel the need to drop back into their manager on every single development in the case. So we're pushing the professionalism of the frontline.

I've put this slide here because we're often asked a question from our frontline about what they often say to us is, “Look, we really love this group supervision. It's working quite well. But we don't think we should call it group supervision. It's more of a case discussion or a case consultation.” And they're likely to say that in the early months of working this way and what we keep saying to them is we realise that calling it group supervision is an aspirational term, but done well, group supervision attends to the needs of the case, so it formulates a case plan. It must resolve in a clear case plan and a clear articulation of risk at the same time as attending to the needs of the worker who is presenting this case, the workers’ needs for support, reducing the isolation or the worry that the worker may feel and the learning needs of the group. It was incredibly rewarding for me – six months down the track of the rollout to the 16 sites. We have a Friday teleconference – in the six weeks leading up to the big roll out, we thought how could we support these new sites so we offered to do a drop in teleconference every Friday morning. But we would just run from here – we made it not compulsory – we just said, “if you want to drop in during the six weeks in preparing your site”, just to the managers who we were empowering to be Practice Leaders, and we said it's non compulsory, that we'll just run it for the six weeks.

Two years down the track, we're just hitting the two-year mark now, we have only cancelled for Christmas and Easter. They're every Friday morning – people are still ringing through as we've added new sites in Bayjoin. People don't come every week but as a support group it has been incredibly useful. And what we've talked about at those groups is, six months down the track, I asked at that group for people to put up their hand about cases they were most worried about as Practice Leaders and cases where they believed they would have brought the children into care in the days leading up to Practice First. What I did is I went and sat in on the group supervision sessions on those cases – six different cases. It was incredibly rewarding for me to sit as a participant in a group supervision session and to watch the skills of some of our people who are absolutely flourishing. The feeling for me is no longer do we need to bring people from Minnesota out to show us how to do this. We've grown some of our own experts who could attend to the needs of the case at the same time as attend support needs of the worker. We know that sharing responsibility works better for children and we certainly pushed that message. that in group supervision it’s children who need you to be brave. Children need to be strong and children need you to challenge each other and put your skills on the line.

This little slide was done at the six-month mark at the Bathurst and Mudgee site. We asked a simple question, which was, “Have you ever felt alone in the worries about children on your caseload?” Now the blue bars were the Practice First before they – Bathurst and Mudgee – started. Six months down the track the red bar reflects a significant change in the workforce, which actually to us is more powerful than any of the changes we saw in numbers about cases, which was that it showed the workforce was feeling. These are the two red bars at the end were, well I never feel alone in the worries about our children and we know that that is really important for children because we know that practice is better when people feel supported.

So this one is the stuff we've pushed in group supervision and messages around that. We expect our families to be brave every single day and we ask a lot of children every day to be brave and talk about hard things, but we need to respect them by being brave in supervision. And if we don't agree with the path of our colleague, or we don't agree with the casework approach that our colleague may be taking, we have a responsibility to talk about that in group. We often use the practice specialist or the psychologist to play roles of devil's advocate to challenge. Perhaps the risk of group is going on or we might use them to encourage role-plays on the spot. Our workforce didn't like work role-plays – fair to say they probably still don't like them but they have been brave in supervision around how are you going to raise that with dad. Let's just do a quick role-play on how you may say that? So really encouraging them to make good use of those sessions to bring to life. What we know is through many examples of our team and many group supervision sessions that we've sat in is that group supervision has been key to challenging risk that has meant that some children have not come into care that would have. One worker in particular I'm thinking about said she couldn't sleep for worry. These children needed to come into care. "I was so anxious, I couldn't sleep" and "I went to group to convince them that the children needed to come into care."

One hour later she said the group had convinced me that there was a lot of work to do with parents and a lot of strength and the group held my anxiety back so that we could work differently with the family. So that's an example where the group certainly challenged the risk and children stayed safely with evidence of improvement. There are equal examples of cases where group supervision has lead to children coming into care because the group challenged the worker around the level of risk that was not okay. What we've noticed is that the time children come into care is different in Practice First sites. We have seen a reduction across all sites. It's quite noticeable now two years down the track that Practice First sites have a lower rate of children entering care than our non-Practice First sites. At the same time, we've seen a decrease in re-reportable cases that were closed. So that's really significant to us. But we're also noticing that we think – and we need to understand this more – that the point when children do enter care, they’re entering at a different point in the cycle and often then they may be less likely to go home because our evidence becomes all the things we've tried with the family. All the supports that have been put in place that haven't made a difference to the children's safety, rather than removing early on, then pulling children back and forth. So we really think that is because of group supervision that we're seeing that.

Four months into the new site, but a year into Practice First at Bathurst and Mudgee, Eileen Munro came out from England and did a bit of an evaluation. This question here reflects the impact of group supervision. So the question to the workforce – and she surveyed over 200 staff – was: “Do you think the way your teams are organised encourages critical reflection?” You can see that the blue line represents Practice First at Mudgee – the most established site. The red line represents the pilot sites that had only been running for four months at the point of this finding, and the green line is the rest of our offices. So you can see that there is a fairly strong difference in terms of how staff felt about the importance of critical reflection, and that is to do with group supervision.

The next question was: “Are there good opportunities for direct work in clinical supervision during casework practice?” Now this finding really debunked any concern people had about not having individual supervision – that they would lose support and not have the opportunity to develop their skills. You can see from this finding the trend is strong in the Practice First sites in terms of debunking those kinds of concerns.

We have had workers ask, “How can I talk about personal stuff in front of the group?” Obviously we haven’t insisted that caseworkers can’t speak to their managers in private. Professional development, career progression – all those kinds of conversations still happen with managers, but we’ve really pushed the frontline to voice personal concerns about a child, that there is a responsibility to talk about that concern with the group for the benefit of that child. We have been overwhelmingly surprised by how quickly our staff have taken to group supervision and how much they love it. For a workforce that had been described, certainly in pockets, as cynical and resistant to change, we have been overwhelmed by just how well they have received group supervision, and how they have stepped up to make those sessions really meaningful.



The transcript is provided for information purposes only and is provided on the basis that all persons accessing the transcript undertake responsibility for assessing the relevance and accuracy of its content. Before using the material contained in the transcript, the permission of the relevant presenter should be obtained.

The Commonwealth of Australia, represented by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), is not responsible for, and makes no representations in relation to, the accuracy of this transcript. AIFS does not accept any liability to any person for the content (or the use of such content) included in the transcript. The transcript may include or summarise views, standards or recommendations of third parties. The inclusion of such material is not an endorsement by AIFS of that material; nor does it indicate a commitment by AIFS to any particular course of action.

Slide outline: The critical importance of supervision in child protection

Slide outline

  1. The Critical importance of supervision in child protection: Harnessing the energy of teams
    • Kate Alexander
    • NSW Family & Community Services.  Office of the Senior Practitioner
    • The views expressed in this presentation are those of the presenters, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Institute of Family Studies or the Australian Government.
  2. Welcome
    • Good colleagues
  3. The OSP
    • Practice leadership
    • Partnering with the frontline
  4. ...filling the tool kit
    • Motivational Interviewing
    • Care and Protection Practice Standards
      • Practice leadership
        • "I need you to step up to be a leader on my behalf, role model good practice and be open to being guided by others."
      • Relationship-based practice
        • "I need you to build a relationship with me, my family and other people so that together we can work out how to make my family safe. I need you to include us in decision making and creating change."
      • Holistic assessment and family work
        • "I need you to consider who I am, who my family and community are and all of my experiences. Partner with us to create change. Review case plans and decisions regularly."
      • Collaboration
        • "I need you to work in partnership with my family and people around me, to support and challenge each other and have the same goals about my safety and wellbeing."
      • Critical reflection
        • "I need you to be curious, creative and reflective so that the work you do is ethical, thoughtful and in my best interests."
      • Culturally responsive practice with Aboriginal communities
        • "I need for you to acknowledge the trauma and impact of the Stolen Generations. Genuinely value my Aboriginal culture and connection to the community."
      • Culturally responsive practice with diverse communities
        • "I need you to seek and learn from and be responsive to my culture and the language spoken by me and my family."
      • Practice expertise
        • "I need you to have a depth of child protection knowledge and well practiced skills to keep me safe. When you are not sure about something, I need you to seek out the expertise of others."
      • Sharing risk
        • "I need you to share decision making about my safety and wellbeing with my family, your colleagues, managers and interagency partners so that the right decision is made for me and there are clear bottom lines."
      • Documentation in casework
        • "I need the records about my life and my family to be clear and respectful so that I understand why decisions were made and what happened. There needs to be a balance between documenting the important stuff and having the time to visit."
    • Care and Protection Practice Framework
      Improving children's lives every day
      • Our mandate
        Is to understand each child's experience, build relationships with parents, families and communities and use collective wisdom, skills and courage to achieve change
      • Our values
        • Trust
        • Service
        • Accountability
        • Integrity
      • Our principles
        1. We keep children and young people at the centre of our practice with families
        2. We use contemporary skills and knowledge in a work culture that shares risk.
        3. We build relationships to create change.
        4. We respect culture and context.
      • Our skills
        We strengthen our skills through:
        • Practice expertise
        • Critical reflection
        • Respectful engagement
        • Holistic assessment and family work
        • Cultural consultation
      • Our knowledge
        We get our professional knowledge from:
        • Children and young people
        • Families
        • Communities
        • Partners
        • Peers
        • Research
        • Theory
      • Our culture
        We work within a culture of:
        • Relationship-based practice
        • Share management of risk
        • Continuous learning
        • Collaboration
      • Our organisation
        Our approach is framed by:
        • Legislation
        • Policy and procedures
        • Practice First
        • Structured Decision Making
        • Aboriginal Commitment of Service
  5. iPractice
    • Our skills
      • Practice Expertise
      • Critical Reflection
      • Respectful Engagement
      • Holistic Assessment
      • Cultural Consultation
  6. Shining a Light
    • Shining a light on good practice in NSW 2014
  7. United Kingdom, USA & Norway
  8. Bathurst and Mudgee
    • Courage from the start
  9. An argument for change
    • or two...
  10. Aboriginal families
  11. Our mandate
    • … is not always clear
  12. Our confidence
    • … not always in our skils
  13. Children away from family
    • … what we know
  14. What to do?
    • 'The Truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off' Gloria Steinhem
  15. Three parts to Practice First
    1. Structure
    2. Principles
    3. Culture
  16. Our people united by principles, not tools
  17. 1. Ethics and values are integral to good practice
    • It's about how we use our statutory power
    • It's about how we define success
  18. It might mean rethinking
    • Our evidence
    • Cold calling
  19. Are we...
    • Trying to catch people at their worst or get them to their best?
  20. 2. Families have a right to respect
    • 'What's being said in your kitchen?'
  21. … depends on modelling
    • Practise practice and what we preach
    • Admit to uncertainty
  22. 3. It's not us and them
    • "If we think about it, save for the vagaries of birth, errant biology, class and status, or simply circumstance, we are all but a half step away from the 'other' families we describe as in need of service or 'at risk'. In the final analysis, it is not 'us' and 'them'. It is all of us. Together." Whittaker in McKeown 2000
  23. An appreciation of context strengthens practice
    • Walk a mile
    • Be honest
    • Check your glasses
  24. Empathy…
  25. 4. Language impacts on practice
    • What's in a word
  26. Keep it real
    • 'Billy was exposed to incidents of parental domestic violence'
    • 'Billy saw his Dad hit his Mum and he heard her crying'
  27. 5. Know the difference...
    • ... between the 'knowing and the doing'
  28. 6. Foster hope and curiosity
  29. because it matters
    • 'Sometimes I feel there is nothing I can do to help these people'
  30. ... and have perspective
  31. 7. Reflection leads to better outcomes
    • What does it mean?
  32. 8. Sharing of risk leads to better decision making
  33. 9. The key is relationships
    • 'No matter what the theoretical model by which one human being attempts to be of help to another, the most potent and dynamic power for influence lies in the relationship'. Pearlman 1972
  34. ...more on relationships
    • Tools are only as good as those who use them
    • Factors common to the effectiveness of all therapeutic interventions, McKeown 2000
      • Client hopefulness
      • Model
      • Client worker relationship
      • family resources and social support
  35. 10. Relationship repeat
    • ... the domino effect
  36. Minnesota Group Supervision
    • 1 and 10. Purpose/Focus of Consult.
      What are you looking for in this consultation?
      Was what you needed met?
    • 2. Genogram/Ecomap
    • 3. Reason for Referral
      Why are we working with this family?
    • 4. Grey Areas
      hunches, speculation, gaps in knowledge
    • 5. Risk Statements
      The worry.. then the context of the worry
    • 6. Complicating Factors
      The families situation, events and research based factors captured as the consult proceeds
    • 7. Strengths/Protective Factors
      Assets, resources, capacities that exist and research based factors about these
    • 8. Safety
      Protection demonstrated over time and patterns of exceptions
    • 9. Next Steps
      Clear direction about the consultation purpose
  37. Lohrbach describes GS as..
    • "…as a place where emotional support is available, questions can be responded to, professional development and leadership skills can be honed and where social work knowledge, research and skills can come alive and have meaning in the field...
  38. Group supervision...
    • is an aspirational term...
    • is not case consultation
  39. Shared responsibility
    • works better for kids
  40. .. Sharing of risk leads to better decision making
  41. children need us to step up
    • To challenge
    • To support
    • and to be courageous
  42. Early signs
    • Munro Review
      • This diagram shows that respondents in the Bathurst and Pilot areas agreed with the statement "The way our teams are organized encourages critical reflection on the information we have" much more than respondents in the Non Practice First areas.
  43. Encouraging start
    • Munro Review
      • This diagram shows that respondents in the Bathurst and Pilot areas agreed with the statement "There is good opportunity for direct work and clinical supervision during case work practice" much more than respondents in the Non Practice First areas.
  44. Winding up now
    • Remember - rules and tools don't keep children safe
    • People do
  45. Questions?

This webinar was held on 26 November 2014.

The Office of the Senior Practitioner (OSP) is a newly established function for the NSW statutory child protection system. It is the first time the Department has had a specific unit dedicated to practice leadership. The role of the office is to promote good practice, inspire, support and review the work of the frontline.

Since it started the OSP has been rolling out a new framework for child protection and out of home care service delivery called Practice First. The framework is now operational in 45 per cent of frontline offices across the state and early data show a decline in re-reporting rates and a decline in entries into care.

At its heart, Practice First is about shared decision-making and management of risk. It is based on ten principles of practice brought to life through group supervision. Frontline staff in these offices no longer have individual supervision – all significant discussions and decisions about children and adolescents are made in teams. Group supervision has been well received by staff and has signalled a very different way of working for managers.

The group supervision approach is disciplined – it is based on the case consult model from Minnesota – and assists workers articulate concerns and to be supported and receive learning from their peers. Two years down the track the OSP has seen an incredible shift in the workforce in the way they have embraced team-based work, and the framework has been refined along the way.

In this webinar, Kate Alexander will draw on the NSW experience, against a backdrop of the challenges of contemporary child protection. It will tell a story of a large statutory system working hard to reflect on its practice, the impact of its work and to harness the collective strength of its frontline.

The webinar was part of our Focus on... Supervision in work with adolescents. We have released a range of related resources, including:

Image: Conversation by Valery KenskyCC BY 2.0.

About the presenters

Kate Alexander

Kate Alexander is the Executive Director, Office of the Senior Practitioner for Community Services, NSW Department of Family and Community Services.

Kate has a Masters of Social Work (Family Therapy) and has worked in the Child protection field for more than 20 years in a variety of roles including therapeutic, casework and management. In 2010 Kate was awarded a Churchill Fellowship and travelled to the UK, Norway and America researching child protection systems with a focus on the skill set of the frontline work force. The Practice First model was designed by Kate and based on this research.