Family Matters No. 87 - April 2011

Institute seminars

Current trends in child abuse and neglect in the United States: What might Australians learn from and disregard from this evidence base?

Professor Marianne Berry

Seminar held at the Victorian State Library on 8th September, 2010

Seminar report by Alister Lamont

This seminar, presented by Professor Marianne Berry, Director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection, reviewed the nature of the evidence base on child abuse and neglect in the United States. Professor Berry also analysed what services and service components are provided in the US and then discussed the practices and policies that might and might not be effective within the diverse cultures and policy frameworks in Australia.

Professor Berry highlighted that in order to understand the extent of child abuse and neglect, it is essential to have a national incidence/prevalence survey. In the 4th wave of the US National Incidence Study found that child physical abuse had decreased from previous waves, while child neglect remained the same. The question of how we can ascertain the extent to which prevention services are working to reduce incidence of child maltreatment was then raised. Berry advised that effective education about child maltreatment will lead to early identification of maltreatment. Early intervention and prevention programs can be seen to be working if abuse referrals and notifications rise (and then hopefully fall in future years). However, higher numbers of referrals and notifications are a good thing only if the system has the capacity to serve those children once identified.

To measure whether the system does have the capacity to service vulnerable children and families, Professor Berry highlighted that, from the evidence available, the most effective prevention practices should include the following components:

  • one-on-one learning and practising of skills in parenting, social skills and negotiation;
  • sharing within a strong caring relationship;
  • workers modelling these same skills in their interactions with others;
  • giving praise, praise, praise; and
  • providing clear and concise information, not lengthy or complicated.

Professor Berry emphasised the importance of engagement in predicting positive outcomes in practice, highlighting that effective engagement should include the following:

  • including staff that look like families, e.g. community members;
  • no judging or blaming of parents (keeping an open mind);
  • being honest and encouraging even when the news is less than encouraging;
  • helping with concrete needs: financial support and health care;
  • meeting with families at their homes;
  • working towards goals with a sense of urgency; and
  • providing practical support, such as transportation.

The discussion after Professor Berry's presentation focused on how the evidence presented could be adapted to an Australian context. It was widely agreed that Australia has similar (but not the same) types of issues, yet the aspects of best practice should still be universal in both contexts.

Safeguarding and protecting children across the United Kingdom

Dr Sharon Vincent

Seminar held at the Institute on 13 October 2010

Seminar report by Myfanwy McDonald

Dr Sharon Vincent is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh/National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) Centre for UK-Wide Learning in Child Protection. The centre is a unique collaboration established three and a half years ago that undertakes comparative analysis of child protection policy within the UK.

Dr Vincent's main area of study is child death review processes and her main reason for visiting Australia was to undertake research investigating state and territory differences in Australia regarding child death reviews.

In this seminar, Dr Vincent described some of the key themes relating to safeguarding and protecting children in the UK, focusing specifically on differences in policy between England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Although the UK is often thought of as a single entity in terms of child protection policy, there are in fact differences between countries within the UK. These policies have the potential to diverge further with devolution.

Dr Vincent focused on six key issues. Firstly, she discussed the thresholds for intervention. All countries in the UK have the same threshold for intervention, based upon the concept of significant harm. However, there is no working definition of significant harm; rather, it is determined via professional judgement.

Dr Vincent described the documents that have been developed to provide guidance to child protection professionals. While the English guidance document (Working Together to Safeguard Children) is 390 pages long, the Scottish Government have kept their guidance document brief so as not to overwhelm professionals.

In terms of how individual cases are managed in the UK, Dr Vincent noted that, while there have been policy reforms, the way in which cases are managed has undergone minimal changes—"the experience … for a child and for a family is likely to be almost the same". The stages involved in individual case management (i.e., reporting to statutory services, investigation, assessment, child protection planning and regular case review) are similar across the UK and broadly similar to those in many states and territories of Australia.

There has been a shift in the language used within UK guidance and legislation to describe child protection and these are echoed in the Australian context. For example, rather than focusing specifically upon "high-risk" children, the UK has seen a shift towards "safeguarding" all children, "widening the net so that you don't just look at children who are at risk, it's about protecting all children, about making sure all children are safe". The National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009–20 represents a similar shift in the Australian policy context towards protecting all children.

Another theme Dr Vincent discussed that is relevant to the Australian context is service integration. The UK provides some interesting examples of how to bring about integrated services—England has forced local authorities to restructure their services so they are more integrated, while Wales and Scotland have provided local authorities with a greater level of independence in regard to integration.

Dr Vincent went on to briefly discuss child death review processes in the UK, noting that England, Wales and Northern Ireland have made, or are making, child death review processes statutory, whereas Scotland will not.

Dr Vincent raised some thought-provoking questions about the role of comparative policy research. Is it good or bad to have divergent policies? Does it matter if different countries within the UK do things differently? Dr Vincent pointed out that perhaps the most important question is: What are the outcomes of different policies? In essence, we can only make a judgement about "good" and "bad" policies if we can answer this question. However, as Dr Vincent noted, the challenge (also faced by Australian researchers and policy-makers) is measuring outcomes when the relevant data are not available.

Dr Vincent concluded her seminar by highlighting that while child protection policies are often developed in response to things that have gone wrong, "a lot actually goes right". Sharing good practice is essential to developing our knowledge of what works in the field of child protection.

Fractured families, fragmented responsibilities: Responding to family violence in a federal system

Professor Rosalind Croucher

Seminar held at the Institute on 9 November 2010

Seminar report by Briony Horsfall

On 9 November 2010, the Australian Institute of Family Studies was fortunate to host Professor Rosalind Croucher, who is the Commissioner for the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC). Professor Croucher presented a seminar about the review of family violence and recommendations for a national legal response conducted by the Commission. The presentation preceded the release of the ALRC report, which occurred the following day.

The ALRC review was launched in response to the 2009 Time for Action report by the National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children. In that report, the Council had identified the complexity and inconsistencies between federal and state and territory laws pertaining to family and domestic violence, sexual assault and child protection, among other issues.

Working jointly with the New South Wales Law Reform Commission, the ALRC inquiry focused on two key terms of reference: the interaction of family violence legislation across jurisdictions (family law, child protection and criminal law); and the laws concerning sexual assault occurring in the context of family and domestic violence. Professor Croucher illustrated the challenge of such a review given that these issues are connected with approximately 26 pieces of legislation across the federal and state and territory legal landscapes.

Professor Croucher suggested that, in practice, fragmentation has resulted in "silos" between magistrates courts and family courts. Families can be caught in more than one legal proceeding across the different jurisdictions. For example, this might mean that a parent who experiences family violence may be assessed differently depending on the court context, ranging from the perspective of victim safety (state family violence law), to being a friendly parent (family law), to failing to protect a child from exposure to family violence (child protection law). Fragmentation and divided responsibilities across jurisdictions also make it difficult for decision-makers to attend to children as participants in the legal system who need safe outcomes.

Professor Croucher highlighted the need for better integration of family violence legislation to improve the legal experiences for victims of family and domestic violence. Possible options outlined to achieve this include developing integrated services (such as specialist courts) and drawing on the example of the Magellan case-management model to develop a coordinated system. The full suite of 187 recommendations for reforming legal frameworks and improving legal practice can be found in the Commission's report.

As well as describing the ALRC review, Professor Croucher provided insight into the benefits and challenges of joint national law reform projects. Collaboration between the two large organisations of the ALRC and NSWLRC involved sharing different technology and resources; dividing responsibilities; reaching stakeholders for national consultation in (sometimes in remote locations); and complementing other concurrent research and reviews while avoiding duplication. These considerations would be likely to help other national collaborative projects in the future.

The Family Violence: A National Legal Response final report <> and summary report <> are available from the ALRC website.

International presentations on Australian leave policies and arrangements

In October 2010, AIFS’ Principal Research Fellow Dr Michael Alexander attended the annual seminar of the International Network on Leave Policies and Research, of which he is a one of four Australian members. The network currently has 48 members from 27 countries—mostly from Europe, but also Australia, Canada and the United States. It is organised jointly by the Flemish Government’s Centrum voor Bevolkings- en Gezinsstudie and the Thomas Coram Research Unit (TCRU), Institute of Education, University of London. The network meets to discuss developments on issues related to the reconciliation of employment and family responsibilities, including leave policies. It also publishes an annual review of leave policies and associated research in the 27 member countries (see <>).

This year, the network held its seventh two-day seminar in Bologna, Italy. Dr Alexander updated the network on the new Paid Parental Leave scheme that commenced in Australia on 1 January 2011.

Prior to attending the network seminar, Dr Alexander was also able to bring an antipodean perspective to a half-day seminar held in London and hosted by the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills on parental leave arrangements and the role of fathering in Europe and Australia. As well as Dr Alexander’s presentation on the Australian parental leave arrangements, including some highlights from an upcoming Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) research report on fathering, the seminar heard from the two UK members of the Leave Network, Professor Peter Moss from the TCRU, and Professor Margaret O’Brien, Co-Director of the Centre for Research on the Child and Family, University of East Anglia. Professor Moss is co-coordinator of the Leave Network and presented an overview of the parental leave arrangements across Europe and the UK. Professor O’Brien is a leading UK expert on the role of fathers and fathering and discussed the latest evidence on the role of fathers in the care of young children within families. The seminar was attended by the new UK Minister for Employment Relations, Consumer and Postal Affairs, Mr Edward Davey MP. The seminar provided a timely opportunity for the minister and members of his department to hear the latest research and policy developments in the area of parental leave and the role of fathers, as the new UK coalition government is looking to make some changes to the UK’s parental leave arrangements within the next year or so.

Dr Alexander was also able to make a presentation to the Economics and Social Policy Masters program at the University of Barcelona, where he presented on LSAC, including highlights from the upcoming LSAC research report on fathering.