Co-design in child protection and out-of-home care research

Content type
Short article

August 2022


Amy Conley Wright, Susan Collings, Billy Black, Bobby Hendry, Tegan Whittaker, Chantelle Rozzi


Children, young people and families who have personally experienced child protection and out-of-home care have intimate knowledge of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of casework services. Co-design is an approach that recognises this specialist knowledge from lived experience and its value in informing improvements to service delivery (Schlebe & Geiger, 2022). We are a project team that is applying a co-design approach. We use our project Fostering Lifelong Connections as an example of co-design in out-of-home care.

Engaging lived experience experts in research and policy

Co-design evolved from research traditions that foreground diverse experiences and grapple with questions of power, expertise and quality (Zamenopoulos & Alexiou, 2018). While becoming commonplace in fields such as disability studies, the use of co-design in child protection and out-of-home care research and policy is still new; yet its value is increasingly being recognised.

Governments are starting to incorporate co-design methods to ensure that people with lived experience can have a voice in policy decisions. For example, SNAICC held a series of national consultations to guide the co-design for the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2021–2031.

An example of co-design in practice

Co-design is only just emerging as a method in research, practice and policy making on child protection and out-of-home care and there are few examples of its use. One example, however, is our project, the Australian Research Council Fostering Lifelong Connections for Children in Permanent Care Linkage project, which has co-design as a central element.

In our project, people with lived experience of out-of-home care (called experts-by-experience) work alongside professionals (designated experts-by-profession) to build practice knowledge on how caseworkers can support positive relationships between children’s carers (kinship carers, foster carers, guardians or adoptive parents) and children’s family members that do not live with them. In addition to contributing to data collection tools and emerging findings, this group has designed a set of resources for children, young people and family members that draws on the project’s principle of trauma-informed practice.

These resources, created by experts-by-experience Billy, Bobby, Tegan and Chantelle, are freely available online for use by practitioners, families, children and young people. Billy created Roar, an illustrated storybook that tells the story of a lion cub’s journey to understand their big emotions at family time and how their gorilla carer and bear caseworker help them learn to regulate these emotions to enjoy family time. Bobby created My Family Time is Mine, a guide for young people in care that is packed with tips and tricks on how to understand, regulate and communicate their feelings and needs around family time. Tegan and Chantelle created a series of tip sheets that support family members to be aware of their own feelings as family time approaches and ways to promote positive family time experiences.

What are the implications for practice?

Co-design in out-of-home care can be used to hear the voices of children, young people, families and carers. One way is through advisory groups composed of people with lived experience who can provide perspectives on service design and delivery. It is important for researchers and practitioners to offer support and encouragement while building trust and rapport, recognising that children and their family members do not hold power in the out-of-home care system. Co-design is a way to give back some power to create changes that can affect the lives of others still involved in these systems.

To sidestep the tokenism trap (Hart, 1992), co-design should be grounded in a set of practices and principles. Key considerations are summarised as compensation, culture and collegiality (see Rudd, Kalra, Walker, & Hayden, n.d.). Experts-by-experience should be compensated for their time and expertise, just like professionals in advisory roles are compensated for their time or may advise during their work hours; failure to do so is exploitative. The culture of the project team should be welcoming of a diversity of views and safe for dissenting voices. This comes from collegiality; building genuine relationships that can allow these collaborations to flourish (Rudd, Kalra, Walker, & Hayden, n.d.). As a team of researchers and experts-by-experience, our evolving collaboration has worked within these practices and principles.


By bringing a focus to the lived experience of children and families involved in out-of-home care, experts-by-experience can help researchers and professionals working with children and families to better achieve their goal of helping others like them. Their accounts of lived experience can show where and how changes need to be made.

Further reading and related resources


Hart, R. A. (1992). Children's participation: From tokenism to citizenship, Innocenti Essay no. 4. Florence: UNICEF. Retrieved from

Rudd, C., Kalra, S., Walker, J., & Hayden, J. (n.d.). How can organizations assess their readiness to co-design? Seattle, WA: Casey Family Programs.

Schelbe, L., & Geiger, J. M. (2022). Ensuring authentic representation and collaboration along with research to re-design child welfare. Research on Social Work Practice, 10497315221074937.

Zamenopoulos, T., & Alexiou, K. (2018). Co-design as collaborative research. In K. Facer & K. Dunleavy (Eds.) Connected Communities Foundation Series. Bristol: University of Bristol/ AHRC Connected Communities Programme.