Family Matters No. 88 - August 2011

Clearinghouse publications

Family violence: Towards a holistic approach to screening and risk assessment in family support services.

AFRC Briefing No. 17, Elly Robinson & Lawrie Moloney

Research suggests that family violence is not always recognised by practitioners working in family support services, and that even when it is recognised, appropriate actions aimed at creating or preserving safety are not always taken. This paper reviewed the current research and literature specific to family violence screening and risk assessment. The aim of the paper was to assist service providers and practitioners in developing and evaluating screening and risk assessment tools specific to family violence issues.

There are several issues that are relevant to the best methods of screening and assessing clients for family violence, including:

  • whether the same worker or two separate workers should screen and assess for family violence;
  • the formalising of screening and assessment procedures;
  • the limited evidence base for the most effective screening and assessment tools;
  • the ability of victims to predict future risk; and
  • what the tools are measuring.

Without information regarding the validity and reliability of the tools, it may also be difficult to confirm whether any of these things is, in fact, being measured, and to what extent.

A consensus regarding the best tools for the job may be ambitious. Anecdotal evidence does suggest that family relationship service providers, however, are drawing on an enormous wealth of experience and judgement to create a range of tools that meet the varied needs of their clients. This flexible approach gives credence to the different circumstances, including cultural factors, which will occur for different groups accessing services in multiple areas.

Evaluation in family support services

AFRC Issues No. 6, Robyn Parker

AFRC Issues No. 6 was developed as five resource sheets aimed at prompting family support service providers to think carefully and systematically about evaluation, and to guide and support them through the evaluation process. These papers are not intended to turn practitioners into expert evaluators. They aim to build the capacity of practitioners to design and conduct or collaborate on evaluations of their programs and services, and to:

  • feel reasonably confident in their ability to formulate and implement an evaluation plan in their agency;
  • be able to anticipate and address the practical requirements of the various stages of an evaluation, including the resources and infrastructure needed to support an evaluation; and
  • understand what needs to happen at each stage of the evaluation to the extent that potential obstacles can be anticipated and, if not overcome, at least managed or accommodated.

While the papers are related, each is also designed to stand alone. Related terms, concepts and sections are cross-referenced. The papers can be read in any order. An online Quick Reference Guide also allows the reader to navigate across the papers to find information quickly and easily.

The emphasis in these papers is on the practical task of designing, conducting, interpreting and reporting an evaluation. Where appropriate, references and links to other resources are provided.

Enhancing access to family dispute resolution for families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds

AFRC Briefing No. 18, Susan Armstrong

This paper explores the extent to which federally funded family dispute resolution (FDR) services are accessible to families from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD( backgrounds. The paper draws extensively on literature identified for and the findings of a qualitative research project, conducted by the author in a research partnership with CatholicCare Sydney and Anglicare, which sought to develop a culturally responsive model of FDR.

While all federal family support services are required to offer accessible, equitable and responsive programs, it appears that CALD families are not using FDR at a rate proportionate to their presence in the Australian community. Recent reviews of FSP services indicated significant gaps in service provision to clients from CALD backgrounds, barriers limiting their access to the services and lack of confidence by staff to engage with CALD clients.

Like many separating families, those from CALD backgrounds may need assistance at, or following, separation. It is quite possible that the need of some CALD families will be acute because of their particular experience of migration and acculturation and the resultant disadvantage and marginalisation they face. Most people will turn first to family and friends and non-legal professionals to resolve problems, particularly those people whose cultural norms are collectivistic, which may discourage approaching outsiders for assistance.

The paper concludes that there is no magic solution to encouraging a greater proportion of CALD clients to use mainstream FDR services. Family dispute resolution services wishing to attract a greater proportion of CALD clients need to acknowledge the complex socio-cultural and gender dynamics relevant to separations by CALD couples and to recognise that there may be more barriers to using FDR services - which may be perceived as facilitating separation - than to using more benign services. However, the strategies described in this paper have been shown to be successful in other contexts and, if appropriately adapted to FDR, may engage more CALD clients in mainstream family dispute resolution.

History of child protection services

NCPC Resource Sheet, Alister Lamont & Leah Bromfield

In Australia, there has been a variety of responses to protecting children and supporting families in need. Many of the early forms of child protection work in Australia were modelled on those seen in the United Kingdom and United States. The establishment of voluntary and non-government child protection societies were followed by the introduction of legislation to protect children and, by the end of the 19th century, children's courts.

Although the Commonwealth of Australia was established in 1901, the provision of children protection services remained a state responsibility, which meant that legislation and practice differed somewhat between each state and territory - something that continues today. In the early 1960s, the child protection landscape changed significantly, with increased public and political awareness of child protection issues. Sustained debates and dramatic changes to approaches in protecting children soon followed. Significant social change, particularly in relation to family structures (i.e., more families of single parents and families where parents had divorced or remarried), also broadened the scope of families in the child welfare system and added to the complexities of providing child protections services.

Mandatory reporting laws of child abuse and neglect were introduced in most states of Australia during the 1970s. Definitions of child abuse and neglect were also expanded so that by the late 1980s, definitions in each state included emotional abuse, neglect, sexual abuse and physical abuse.

The focus on professionalising child protection services also saw most states move to a more legalistic approach to child abuse and neglect during the 1990s. This approach meant that for child protection workers, investigative and administrative work took up a significant amount of time. Together with reduced government funding at the time, child protection systems found it increasingly difficult to meet demand. Seeking an alternative solution, the 21st century saw most states and territories in Australia adopt new models of child protection and family support. New child protection models sought to achieve a balance - this has lead to child protection services and family support services working more collaboratively in order to assess family need.

Today, most state child protection services are part of a broader department of human services and there is a growing acceptance that applying a public health model to child protection may help meet demand. The central tenet of such an approach is prevention - the framework expands the service continuum, which is likely to deliver better outcomes for children and their families.

Are social marketing campaigns effective in preventing child abuse and neglect?

NCPC Issues No.32, 2010, Briony Horsfall, Leah Bromfield and Myfanwy McDonald

This Issues paper undertook a systematic literature review to examine the evidence for the effectiveness of social marketing campaigns in preventing child maltreatment. Media-based social marketing campaigns aim to contribute to the prevention of child maltreatment by raising public awareness of the issue and educating and fostering prosocial behaviours within families. Behavioural change can range from encouraging people to change a specific behaviour on their own (self-regulation) to seeking professional help about a difficult problem.

In the past, social marketing campaigns in Australia have targeted issues such as drink-driving, heart disease prevention, use of car seatbelts and anti-smoking. However, there is little evidence regarding the effectiveness of such campaigns in Australia. Of particular importance, is the need to evaluate campaigns that relate to child maltreatment, especially those depicting hard-hitting content, because they have the potential to be harmful to vulnerable members of the community, including children and maltreatment survivors. Only 12 campaigns relating to child maltreatment were identified as having published evidence of impact and/or outcomes evaluation in the review.

Several other important issues are identified for optimising future social marketing campaigns that aim to address child maltreatment in Australia. The integration of both mass media and community-level strategies appreciates that attitudes and behaviours are complex and that a campaign is unlikely to produce long-term change without broader social reinforcement. Community-level strategies recognise that individual behaviour does not occur in isolation. For child maltreatment, pairing mass media with a community-level component would help reinforce the message that child protection is everyone's responsibility.

While television advertising continues to be a key medium for social marketing campaigns, consideration needs to be given to its effectiveness, especially when community advertising is often televised during non-peak viewing times. Furthermore, other means for accessing information are becoming more popular, especially among younger age groups. However, any use of new technologies needs to also consider access and equality issues in the population.

Social marketing campaigns related to child maltreatment must also offer ways to access further information and support that are tailored to the needs of the target audience. In turn, an increased need for assistance, information and support services is to be anticipated if the mass media has the intended effect of generating a public response.

Assessing the attitudes and beliefs of the target audience has also emerged as a key process to undertake when deciding which social problem should be the subject of a campaign. Finding out what needs to be understood from the perspective of the target population is likely to increase the impact of a campaign. Finally, underpinning the campaign with a theory of change guides the development, implementation and evaluation of the intervention. A theoretical framework provides a strategy to conscientiously tackle complex individual behaviour associated with child maltreatment and community-level change and assess its efficacy.

Issues for the safety and wellbeing of children in families with multiple and complex problems.

NCPC Issues No.33, 2010, Leah Bromfield, Alister Lamont, Robyn Parker and Briony Horsfall

Families with multiple and complex problems are no longer a marginal group in service delivery. In fact, they have become the primary client group of modern child protection services. The challenge for child protection services is to respond holistically to address inter-related problems, in order to better support families to make and sustain changes to better meet the needs of children.

This paper investigates the separate effects of parental substance misuse, domestic violence and parental mental health problems. These parental problems are commonly associated with child protection involvement and are described as "key risk factors" for child abuse and neglect. Individually, parental mental health problems, substance misuse and domestic violence represent significant risk factors for child abuse and neglect, but the reality is that parenting problems rarely occur in isolation. They also often occur within the context of social exclusion, disadvantage and past histories of trauma. Children are particularly vulnerable to cumulative harm in families with multiple and complex problems.

While this paper explores the structure and capacity of the child protection system, several implications for practice are offered. When making assessments of families with complex problems, practitioners are encouraged to go further than diagnosing parental problems such as substance addiction and mental health problems. Completing a functional assessment of the impact of parental problems of parenting behaviours is important for identifying the risks for children. Practitioners will also find it worth exploring, as part of the assessment, the extent to which children are aware of these problems. This will inform the assessment, and may also be a powerful motivator for parents to change. An effective intervention is planned and purposeful, based on a comprehensive assessment and staged to meet the family's needs and capacities over time.

Practitioners are likely to have to try and support a parent who is dealing with multiple and complex problems on a number of different fronts. For example, families with multiple and complex problems are often situated within a broader context of poverty and disadvantage. Practitioners may need to assist parents in meeting the survival and safety and security needs of their family first before they will be ready to attend any form of parenting intervention. Once these basic needs are met, interventions that deal with relational or self-esteem needs, such as good parenting skills, can begin.

At times, the effects of parents' other problems may influence their ability to take in and apply knowledge and information, and to read, solve problems or follow complex instructions. It is therefore vital that the factors that may diminish a parent's capacity to learn new skills are attended to so that parents have the best possible chance of developing good parenting skills. Redressing damage from witnessing or experiencing abuse and neglect in the family takes time. Parents need to have reached a point at which they can acknowledge that their parenting or the home environment has had a negative impact on their child.

Practitioners making assessments should include a thorough family history to identify whether current problems, such as domestic violence, mental health problems and substance misuses, are symptomatic of past trauma. Parents responding to trauma need to develop adaptive coping strategies that will not impede their parenting capacity.