Including the interests of children and young people in policy development

Current challenges and opportunities

Content type
Event date

15 September 2021, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (AEST)


Anne Hollonds, Monica Campo, Heidi Saunders, Rachel Carson




About this webinar

This webinar was held on Wednesday 15 September 2021.

Australia is in the midst of reformulating a number significant policy frameworks that influence responses to children and young people at the state, territory and federal levels. These include the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children and the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children. In addition, a family law reform program is in train following recommendations from the Australian Law Reform Commission and three recent parliamentary inquiries.

These developments will impact children and young people, including those in the most vulnerable groups who engage with child protection systems, whose families experience separation and who are affected by family and domestic violence.

Bringing together the National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds, researchers Rachel Carson and Monica Campo and practitioner Heidi Saunders, this webinar sets out the importance of ensuring that policy frameworks respond appropriately to children and young people, considers processes that support this and discusses research on the needs of children and young people affected by family violence and safety concerns.

Specifically, this webinar will:

  • Discuss processes for the development of the new iterations of the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children and the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children
  • Consider research findings that demonstrate the importance of policy settings that respond to the needs of children and young people
  • Provide a practice perspective on the needs of children and young people who experience family and domestic violence.

This webinar will be of interest to professionals working in policy and practice in child protection, family and domestic violence, family law and other allied services including child mental health, law reform, mental health, and other social services.

This webinar is presented in collaboration with the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Australian Human Rights Commission logo

Human rights: everyone, everywhere, everyday.

Audio transcript (edited)

RAE KASPIEW: Welcome everyone to today’s webinar, Including the interests of children and young people in policy development: current challenges and opportunities. My name is Rae Kaspiew and I’m the Executive Manager Family Law, Family Violence and Elder Abuse at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. I’m speaking to you today from Melbourne where AIFS is located on the lands of the Bunurong and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin nation. I would like to acknowledge the aboriginal owners of this land and pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging, and I extend that respect to any elders and First Nations people attending the webinar today. Today we have assembled a panel to discuss the opportunities and challenges associated with the reviews that are currently taking place regarding policies that influence responses to children and young people. These policies impact all children, but especially those engaged with child protection systems whose families experience separation and who are affected by family and domestic violence. Our national children’s commissioner, Anne Hollonds, researchers Rachel Carson and Monica Campo, and practitioner Heidi Saunders will discuss where these reviews are at, the research that is hopefully informing these reviews and what the research and policies mean in practice.

So I invite the presenters to turn on their cameras, and I’ll set the scene. In the past two decades there have been significant shifts in the recognition of the prevalence of and harm done by child abuse and family and domestic violence. In the mid 2000 our governments at state, territory and federal level woke up to the fact that our jurisdictionally-fragmented approach to addressing these issues was doing no favours for the most vulnerable children and young people in our community. This led to the development of two significant national frameworks: the national framework for protecting Australia’s children and the national plan to reduce violence against women and their children. These frameworks have now reached their use-by date, and new frameworks are being developed in each of these areas as well as several others such as child mental health. At the same time, the family law system is undergoing reform. All of these policy developments affect children. Today, our panellists are going to discuss why it is critical that the views of children and young people feed into policy development.

Rachel, the Australian government is embarking on a reform program in family law. Thinking about the messages from your research with children in separated families, why is it important for children’s perspectives to inform this policy agenda?

RACHEL CARSON: Thank you for your questions, Rae, and good afternoon everyone. Yes, that’s right, the Australian Law Reform Commission has made some recommendations in their recent final report for their enquiry into the family law system, the relevant to the inclusion of children and young people in decision making and policy development, and the government has responded to these so I’m going to briefly run through these relevant recommendations.

Recommendation 44 proposes that the Family Law Act should be amended to include a specific duty for the independent children’s lawyers to comply with the guidelines for independent children’s lawyers. And one other thing is these guidelines provide that it is the right of the child to establish a professional relationship with independent children’s lawyers, that the best interests of the child would ordinarily be serviced by enabling the child to be involved in the decision making about the proceedings should they wish to do so, having regard to their age and developmental stage, and there’s an expectation in these guidelines that the independent children lawyer will meet with the child, unless the child is under school age or there are exceptional circumstances or significant practical limitations such as geographical remoteness.

Now the government in their response has noted this recommendation, although they’ve questioned the benefit of enshrining these guidelines in the Act because they’re already a requirement of the family law rules, and the guidelines for independent children’s lawyers are not prescriptive anyway and they don’t compel engagement with children, although they encourage it, and they also don’t have any consequences for non-compliance.

In a similar way to this Australian Law Reform Commission recommendation, the Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Family Law System in March of this year also recommended in recommendation 18 that the government can consider amending the Family Law Act to require independent children’s lawyers to comply with the guidelines for independent children’s laws to provide a child with an opportunity to express a view in relation to their matter and to seek to meet with the child unless there are extenuating circumstances. And recommendation 15 of the Joint Select Committee recommendations also proposes that all family law professionals including judges undertake regular professional training including in the area of engaging with and communicating with children.

And recommendations 51 and 52 of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Report also make proposals in relation to these relevant skills and experience and training family law practitioners. So that’s at a specific Family Law level in terms of practice. At a broader policy level, the Australian Law Reform Commission recommendation 50 recommends that the Family Law Council should establish a children and young person’s advisory board which would provide advice and information about children’s experiences of family law system to then in turn inform policy and practice. Now the government in their response has agreed that the experiences of children and young people are important factors in policy and legislation about the family law system, noting that these policies and processes and outcomes in family law matters can have a very significant impacts on their lives.

So the government has indicated they are going to undertake further investigation as to how the intended outcome of this recommendation can be effected. So that’s what’s on the table at present in terms of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s recommendations, the government’s response to those and current relevant recommendations of the Joint Select Committee, but to address your questions specifically as well, Rae, taking a step back in terms of why it’s important to have children and young people involved in policy development, the Australian Law Reform Commission in their enquiry acknowledged that views about how we interpret children’s rights to participate are now being informed by changing understandings of children and child development, and we’re now moving away from seeing children’s passive and dependent to seeing them as active social actors and viewing safe participation as a protective mechanism.

Our research at the Institute including the children and young people and separated families project and our independent children’s lawyers study, as well as other Australian and international research, indicates the importance of providing children and young people with safe and effective options to have their views and experiences heard and considered in the decision-making processes that affect them. And this research illustrates that it’s important for a number of reasons.

First, it’s important to do so to ensure that we’re making informed decisions in policy and practice that affect children and young people’s lives, and in order to make informed decisions in this space, it should be based on evidence including that that’s gathered directly from children and young people themselves. It’s also important to provide children and young people with the opportunity to participate, because providing this opportunity is consistent with their best interests and their sense of agency and self-efficacy. By listening to and responding to their views and experiences, we’re acknowledging that these views and experiences are valid and important, and also promoting children’s and young people’s safety and best interest.

Thirdly, we’re also giving effect to the participatory rights of children and young people as they’re enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the rights of the child, which Australia’s a signatory. And in the national principles for child-safe organisations that are based on a child rights strength-based approach. So then we move to the question of how do we listen to children and young people in policy development, and no doubt we’re going to speak in more detail about this, but in summary, we know from our research that from children and young people’s perspectives, effective professional practice involves empowering child-inclusive approaches that provide them with safe and effective opportunities to participate.

It involves genuinely listening and providing space and time for children and young people to speak and process events. It involves taking the time to develop trust and rapport with them. it involves professionals who are approachable and empathetic and who are prepared to be proactive and act protectively. And these professionals keep children and young people informed and support them to be accurately heard. So while these findings were directed at family law system professionals, they can also inform our practice and approaches when engaging children and young people more generally in a policy context. But as I mentioned, I’m sure we’ll delve into these facts of effective professional practice throughout our discussion today. Thank you, Rae.

RAE KASPIEW: Thank you, Rachel. You’ve made some very important points there and it’s – there’s a lot going on in the family law space at the moment and more generally as well. Monica, you’ve also spoken to children in separated families including children who have experienced family violence. I’m interested to know from your exploration of what home means to them in your research project, what the messages for policy – what messages for policy come out of your work?

MONICA CAMPO: Thanks, Rae. I’ll just say that the research was not just my own. I’ll acknowledge my co-researchers Belinda Fehlberg, Kris Natalier and Bruce Smyth. So our study explored the meaning of home for children and young people after separation, which highlighted the complexity and multidimensionality of home, but children and young people’s descriptions of home and what home meant to them really conveyed a sense of what they saw as being in their best interests, so primarily home was a place associated with safety, meaningful activities and spaces but most importantly relationships. And time spent with a parent was less important than the quality of relationships in the home, regardless of the site home was built and shaped by relationships and people who mattered most in children and young people’s lives.

So in a family law context where the value of maintaining relationships with fathers after parental separation is strongly emphasised. Research suggests that attending to children’s understandings and experiences of home can assist in developing a child-centred understanding of the best needs – best interests assessment. This is especially relevant when children and young people spend time with fathers who use violence. So descriptions of home for these children and young people convey a complex picture, and our research highlighted the relevant points for policy in this context, so for when children are spending time with fathers who use violence. Firstly children and young people could be incredibly loyal to their parents.

This included not wanting to choose between parents or not wanting to appear to be criticising their parents, wanting to be fair to each of their parents, and continuing to express love for both their parents. And as such some children did express a reluctance to abandon the relationship with the father, and second, our research illustrated the significant emotional work that’s required by children in order to make sense of and maintain their relationship with fathers when there’s been family violence. Children and young people conveyed in different ways the enormous effort really that was required of them in maintaining those relationships, including for some having to spend time with the father against their wishes.

So these children and young people a lack of a sense of home was jarringly evident in their descriptions of the time they spent in the father’s home, including a lack of emotional presence from their fathers. Others described the burden of having to share themselves between parents and some deemphasised the family violence, including sometimes not wanting to acknowledge the violence that continued to have serious impacts on them and their family. Third, our research conveyed how children and young people – what it’s like – what it felt like for children and young people to spend time with fathers who use violence, and there was great complexity in these feelings. So some did clearly describe their objection to having to spend time with their father. Others a sense of resignation and acceptance that they had no agency to change this, to change their parenting arrangements. Some described a sense of responsibility and sadness in attempting to support both their parents, and others as I mentioned before conveyed a continuing loyalty to their fathers and a desire to maintain that relationship with their father.

And finally our research highlighted the importance of listening to and engaging with what children say about spending time with fathers who use violence as essential aspect of the best interest assessment. We want to emphasise that our research really does convey the need to be careful about interpreting children’s willingness to spend time with fathers who abuse domestic and family violence. The desire to appeal fair and loyal to both parents needs to be a consideration but we suggest that children and young people wanting to maintain these relationships – for those children that want to maintain those relationships, safety should be a primary consideration. So for the children and young people in our study, relationships were the foundation of home and maintaining relationships with fathers could be a demanding experience with significant impacts. But by focusing on home, children and young people convey the sense of what they saw as their best interests, a place that was safe, associated with meaningful activities, spaces and relationships, but this could be at odds with their parenting arrangements. So how we bring their views into making those assessments I’m sure we’ll discuss later on.

RAE KASPIEW: Thank you, Monica. That’s a very complex and multilayered picture that emerges from your work. I’m particularly struck by your points about the emotional work that children need to do in this context, and that I think brings us very nicely to Heidi. Given that you’re a practitioner and you work with children and young people experiencing violence – family violence and potentially child abuse on a day-to-day basis, I’m interested in your reflections about what we all need to know, especially the people that are making policy in this space.

HEIDI SAUNDERS: Absolutely. Thanks, Rae. To answer that question, I’m really speaking from an interaction between research. A lot of what we see in our practice really resonates with what Rachel and Monica just covered so closely. But also looking at theoretical and practice perspectives, and talking from a broad view because I’m mindful that there are a mix of practitioners, maybe other people involved in more policy level development in this webinar. I’ll be talking through challenges that we see and also a key way to assist recovery and increasing the capacity for children to have a voice. So I guess to start with the challenges part, it’s looking at the effective domestic and family violence and abuse on children. Despite the importance of hearing children's voices, their voices often get lost in the context of domestic and family violence, for various reasons.

In general, it’s because these situations are complex as it has already been highlighted. You know, within this it is concerning that children’s experiences and voices can be overlooked, particularly with the viewpoint that if a child doesn’t directly see incidences of domestic and family violence, they’re not affected, because in fact witnessing domestic and family violence can be – if the child is in the next room with their headphones in, as domestic and family violence doesn’t stop with a single incident. As violence is defined as including verbal abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse, and the list does go on. And controlling behaviours are consistent.

So it is really important just reinforcing that point around how important it is to listen to children’s voices here, and how considering the impact of domestic and family violence I think it’s really important to consider trauma in understanding what young people are going through and understanding how to best hear their voices in this context. Because trauma can – from abuse or being in the context of domestic and family violence can present differently in each child. Even with significant differences in between siblings that are quite striking, and that’s our practice perspective.

Often there are challenges with what’s been touched on already with having a felt sense of safety, particularly in the context of people and even with people who like us want to help and listen. So that’s a challenge that we face there. There are certainly children who have been through these experiences that are clear about their needs and can communicate these when they’ve developed trust in a safe person. However, for some, trauma can make higher cognitive processes and communication difficult to accurately express their needs. And I think this is important to consider when listening to children’s voices or finding ways to, but also development of policy.

This really does link to some points that have already been covered that what children say is not always what we expect to hear, particularly as adults when we are sitting with wanting to keep them safe. For example, we’ve seen in practice that there may be one sibling who wants to see their father who is adult male perpetrator of violence and another sibling who – one who does and one who doesn’t, and a lot of this can be due to age, the level of direct abuse experience as well. There’s multiple reasons because their level of attachment with their father can be different, depending on the developmental stage they’re at when they experience the violence. So it can be quite complex.

It’s particularly difficult when they are expressing perhaps in play, in behavioural ways, in emotion dysregulation that they’re feeling unsafe and they’re showing themes of that in their therapy or whatever context you’re working with them in. But they’re reporting that they want to see their father, for example. And I think this really highlights the need to acknowledge a complex attachment needs for young people experiencing interpersonal trauma and that is a complexity that yeah, needs to be considered – it’s a hard one to consider in policy development, but also on the groundwork just holding that in mind.

I think what is important to keep in mind on a day-to-day basis is looking for various ways that young people might communicate, being really present-focused through looking at their behaviour they can show – they can show their experience of trauma in that way through aggressive play, for example. But then they report that they’re feeling good. And it can really be different to what they say. So we need to keep in mind what we know as practitioners and the research that’s being done as well. And this altogether really comes in to a key focus, a key way that I think needs to be considered in policy and also where we know the children’s voices can be heard. And we see their needs being met is when we work in a medium to long-term capacity with young people.

This is therapeutical. It can be in any other kind of support setting. I think this is where we know we see – we hear the voices and the accurate kind of voices that when they’re feeling safe and they feel they can be honest. I think this is important. I know the national framework and the review of the national plan to reduce violence there is a focus on being able to – on prevention, on being able to prevent for example young people using violence in the future, adolescent to parent violence can be reduced this way. But also for young people to avoid mental health problems being - experiencing future abuse in future. And other health problems. There’s all of these factors can relate back to trauma, so where we can, having this ongoing relationship for a young person with someone who is safe is really key to hearing them properly, for that recovery and prevention.

And within this, I guess I’m moving down into what this looks like now, it really does come back to providing safety first. Having the opportunity to work with a safe person, whether therapeutically or otherwise over time, provides a young person or child with a felt sense of safety and allows them to express their needs honestly. And this if you’re wanting a bit of a therapeutic understanding or theoretical understanding to take forward, the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics is an importance one from Bruce Perry that does highlight that for young people to have access to higher-level cognitive processes where they’re able to communicate and have relationship with others that are safe, have that voice that we want them to have, it is important to work from – we’re looking at the developmental stages and that with young people who go through violence or abuse, sometimes their development is interrupted and that means that brain development is interrupted, which means the lower levels of the brain that help regulate them, create a sense of safety are impacted.

So being able to target those first by providing a sense of safety, teaching them about their emotions, how to regulate them, working with them through that tough space, is important, because over time their readiness to kind of verbalise their views will increase. For example, I have a young person I’ve been working with for three and a half years and their voice is just coming out now. There was a lot of regulation, a lot of safety to create first. And that is the reality here which can be tough. For other young people, as I said though, their voices are clear pretty early on as well. Every young person is different with their experience of trauma.

And in terms of doing that in a practical sense, that safety, it’s about regularity, predictability, being able to create routine appointments for example that they’re seeing you in the same space, having the same objects and appearance of the room or if something changes, bring awareness to it to create that – sit with them in that discomfort of the change. Finding a way of emotionally checking in, which can be – you might have to get creative with that sometimes, a bit of a visual drawing if the young person is unable to talk about how they’re feeling. Following the child’s lead but also including boundaries where necessary to maintain that safety for them. It’s really allowing that balance between the exploration and expression, whether that’s non-verbally or verbally, and being a safe person to return to time and time again.

Having that experience will increase their likelihood of help-seeking. It does help with that recovery and prevention and giving them that self–building that self-esteem and confidence to have the voice we want them to. So I hope that that answered the question in terms of broader focus on what’s needed in policy to help – or what’s needed practically to support policy implementation but also to help children have that voice on a day-to-day basis.

RAE KASPIEW: Thank you, Heidi. You’ve brought in a lot of insights from different areas that I think have been really, really informative. It is great to have both the practice perspective and the theory you’ve brought in as well. Thank you. Now, Anne. As national children’s commissioner, you’ve got birds-eye view of the policy-making process, and a brief that involves foregrounding the needs of children and young people. What challenges do you see ahead of us?

ANNE HOLLONDS: Thank you, Rae, and thanks very much for having me on this webinar. I’m coming to you from the lands of the Cammeraygal people of the Eora Nations. And thank you so much Heidi and Monica and Rachel. It’s just so thrilling to be part of this process with such strong advocates for the voices of children and for us to be able to hear their experiences. And as some of you have noted – of course sometimes we hear stuff that is a little – makes us feel uncomfortable, is not what we expected, is a bit surprising, and that just reinforces for me how much we need to listen, because otherwise we just assume that we know what kids are going through.

So look, it’s actually been quite difficult, Rae, for me to choose what to sort of focus on, because there’s just so much going on. We’ve got about 11 national strategies being developed at the minute. Of course and then we’ve got COVID. So I might – hopefully I might get to touch on various things through our conversation. But let me just start by really noting that how great it is in Australia that we are generally trying to do more. I mean there’s a much greater awareness perhaps as a result of the Royal Commission I think which really reinforced that children who are silenced are never protected. So that we actually have to try to do more to listen to kids.

But unfortunately, it’s still often a token exercise and it’s a – it is still a battle to get kids’ voices listened to in the policy development process, and indeed in the implementation, the monitoring of the implementation of policy. It’s sort of – it’s not just a one-off but the beginning of a new initiative; we’ve got to keep going back and back and – of course that costs money. It takes time. It takes skill, and I think we’re all learning how to do it well and what we also need to learn more about is how to translate what we’ve heard into policy. So it’s one thing to be listening, but we’ve got to actually do it in a way that’s meaningful to kids and accountable to them. So we don’t want to be asking them stuff that’s going to go nowhere that there’s no audience that’s able to have any influence on anything.

I think that we have to really ask ourselves some questions first before we go consulting kids. So one of the reasons why it’s really important though I think is because policy generally that we see around us is developed by adults and for adults, and adults’ issues really their concerns – adult’s concerns take centre stage and we know that children’s issues are way off on the periphery and out of sight and out of mind often. And we’ve got to somehow collectively try to draw back attention to children at the centre of things and that relates to whether it’s decisions made in a family law environment perhaps that are meant to be in the child’s best interests, so involving children in the making of those decisions in careful, safe ways, because these are key decisions that will affect their lives on an individual level but also at the national – right up to the national policy level where decisions are made about investments in policy initiatives that aim to help, often the most disadvantaged kids in our country - know that we need to work really hard to ensure that we understood what their experiences are and how we can make policy that absolutely is helping them.

So I thought maybe because of proximity and time I’d just quickly refer to the Women’s Safety Summit as an example, since last week it collided with Child Protection Week, as you know. And that was a really good example of where the Women’s Safety Summit got a lot of attention in the media and in public discussion and Child Protection Week really struggles to get that even at the best of times. But that last week was particularly difficult. And yet ironically they really intersected as issues and so it really provided an opportunity to highlight the children in their own right are victims and survivors of violence and that in order to get serious about preventing violence in adult life we actually need to prevent violence in childhood, which we know it’s well documented that there’s a connection between childhood and adult violence.

But also that we need to understand that for children the implications are devastating as our panellists have pointed out, and that children in situations of violence in the home are often the ones who are removed, and the child removal because of domestic and family violence, again we know has very serious lifelong negative consequences for their relationships, their development and their wellbeing. So it has been a real objective to try to ensure that children are recognised in the national plan for preventing violence – was it reducing violence against women and their children. Even though children are in the title, children have been largely invisible. And there was no section on children in the main summit itself online, but there was a roundtable on children in the week prior, which was good.

But it was pleasing at the end of the summit to see in the summit statement that we managed to get one sentence in – and I’ll read that to you because I’m really pleased we got it in – it was to ensure children and young people are acknowledged as victims and survivors of violence in their own right with serious lifelong negative consequences and economic costs. So just a one-liner doesn’t sound like much in a statement that went for several pages, but it’s a start. And I guess it just sort of really highlights how hard it is to get the experiences of children where they legitimately belong at a national policy level. Of course we know that children’s issues actually stretch right across all of the 11 national strategies that are being worked on at the minute and that should be a hint I think as to the importance of children and the fact that if we don’t pay attention to children’s experiences they will fall between these siloed policies and they’ll fall in the gaps. That’s what we need to avoid, absolutely.

So we need to work extra, extra hard and in a very skilful way as the other panellists have outlined, to ensure that children are brought into these conversations and that we understand better from them themselves what is helping them to be safe, to be well, and to be able to grow and develop well, and what’s not. What’s getting in the way. What’s making it hard? What makes it hard for families to get the help they need to keep kids safe and well? It’s a hard job to do, but as I said in my early remarks, I’m really pleased to be part of a growing community of interest to ensure that we’re doing this better and better. Thanks, Rae.

RAE KASPIEW: Thank you, Anne. I’m now going to turn to questions from the audience. We have a very engaged audience and are asking lots of very interesting and very thoughtful questions that perhaps may not be all that easy to answer, but we’ll have a go. One of the things in these questions concerns trauma-informed practice. The audience wants to know how we can embed trauma-informed practice not just in the kind of the obvious settings such as counselling settings, but across other settings including homelessness and education, settings such as those. So Heidi, I think from your perspective you’re probably well placed to offer some thoughts?

HEIDI SAUNDERS: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s a very important question and one that myself and my colleagues at Carinity Talera often have on our mind. It comes back to education of going – services that do know trauma-informed care and therapy well to one client system at time to educate them but also bigger picture I think it’s important to actually have a focus on providing mandatory education within all of those settings across education and across all the kind of social services settings that work with young people who – work with young people full stop actually, because even if they’re not domestic and family violence specialist services, this issue is everywhere.

So I think that’s a really key factor is to educate, because it’s certainly understanding it can take time. It’s understanding the theory and then being able to understand it in practice, and that’s harder for services to implement. So it is I think realistically one - we target one family system or child system at a time, but eventually, the word does continue to grow. So what you know, sharing the knowledge with one extra person is the only way that this will happen. That’s our philosophy. I hope that answers the question. I can elaborate if needed.

RAE KASPIEW: Thank you, Heidi. Another theme that’s coming up in the questions concerns particular groups of children, including for example children with disability, children and young people living in rural and remote communities. I think, Anne, the audience would be pleased to hear from you to provide some understanding about how those particular groups of children are being included in these policy development processes.

ANNE HOLLONDS: Thanks, Rae. Perhaps I’ll share a little bit about the consultations that I’ve been doing to inform the successor to the national framework for protecting Australia’s children, because these were targeted consultations for the four priority groups that the plan is targeting and that includes the children that you just mentioned. And I’ll just – the work’s not finished, but I’ll just share some themes that have arisen out of the consultations that I was able to do around the country. So overall what I’d say is there were these kids and their families have complex and multilayered problems and that these issues are made worse by the complex and siloed service systems that they have to do battle with. And so again and again, I heard stories which made me feel overwhelmed at how hard it is for people to get help for the complex issues that they face.

So I’ll go through some of the barriers to their safety that I heard about. I heard about violence being experienced at home in the neighbourhoods on the streets and in school, kids not feeling safe at school. I heard about housing as a huge problem, one that seems to have only grown during COVID, heartbreaking stories of young parents with babies and toddlers couch surfing because they had left a situation of violence. They’re young people themselves already raising children, young children. And really raising the question for me about how can we expect these parents to keep themselves and their kids safe if we don’t help them with access to secure housing. Lack of access to mental health services, lack of access to adequate public transport.

Schools and education systems and this is really relates to kids in those regional and remote areas in particular and kids with disabilities that the questioner was raising, there was a lot of I guess what I heard was a lot of acknowledgement of the hard job that teachers have, but – kids and families said that teachers need more support and schools need to be redesigned, because essentially they only address the needs of the average white mainstream student, and if you divert from that, that average, then often school is not a good fit for you, and you’re meant to be fitting into that system. So I think that the education systems – I’m not talking about the teachers here – I’m talking about the systems, the way we organise our schools, was a really, really big theme.

And these themes came up, I have to say, in response to very general questions about what helps you to be safe and well and what makes it hard to get the help you need when you need it. What are the barriers? So these themes came up in response, so they’re mentioning schools, they’re mentioning the violence. These are the things that matter to both kids and often to families in those areas as well. And so I guess – I should also mention that in response to questions about why the services that were helpful, what was helpful about them, they talked about that they needed to be able to trust the service provider and to know that they would be treated fairly and with respect, that they often experienced judgement, discrimination - -and discrimination in the services that were meant to help them.

So they were able to – kids were really able to articulate very clearly who they trusted and who they didn’t and why. So this was really illuminating and there were some fabulous frontline services that we were able to engage with – I mean they helped set up a lot of these sessions that we ran and supported the participants. So and there are some fabulous models out there, but as we all know, it’s patchy. The landscape is very fragmented. It’s a lottery depending on where you’re born in this country, and there are many, many children and young people who are missing out right now because of the broken service systems or the broken safety net as we sometimes call it. Even the best services that we met were unable to conjure up secure housing for some of these parents and kids. There are limits to what they can do because the fragmentation is so dire. So overall, I’d say lack of – the lack of safety and wellbeing is a symptom of underlying broken systems which are failing our children and their families, and we need to get serious about fixing this if we want to improve their wellbeing and their safety.

RAE KASPIEW: Thank you, Anne. Very many challenges there. Another set of questions has referred to age and age guidelines, particularly a couple of people in the audience have raised the issue of very young children including babies. So one of our comments says, “Babies often get overlooked. Are we factoring in the voices of babies in a family violence or policy context? The first thousand days are developmentally vital in brain development, more so than any other age. Rachel, I know that you’ve looked at this quite carefully in the context of research with children and young people and professional practices in working – thinking about working with very young children. What observations would you have to make about those questions?

RACHEL CARSON: Well certainly our research speaks to children aged ten and above, but there are some learnings from that that we can apply to younger children as well. As I outlined when I initially spoke, we did certainly get some feedback about what from children and young people’s perspective, effective professional practice is, and it’s not the same for all children. There are variations. But there are some themes that came out of those and it’s about how you implement those themes. And Heidi, I remember when you were speaking earlier, there were a lot of synergies between what you were saying and what we were told in our research, so I was really pleased to hear that. In terms of demonstrating to children that you are genuine and a good listener, so things like demonstrating to children of all ages that you’re interested, you’re not – you’re paying attention, you’re not patronising them, you’re taking that time to build rapport with them and to demonstrate quality such as patience, empathy, respect.

You’re giving them active listening cues to show that they’re being heard. The difficulty I guess is that there are variations of course, and you need to be able to read the children that you’re engaging with. So for some children that we spoke with, active listening was demonstrated by taking notes. For other children, active listening was demonstrated by having and engaging in that eye contact and maintaining that. Providing children with those opportunities to have the space to speak and to ask questions and to be able to address those questions and to engage in a feedback loop, to provide them with information, to take the questions if you can’t answer those and to provide answers to those later. And similar to what Heidi was saying before, having that opportunity to actually build the relationship, which in a family law context can be very difficult, particularly for younger children as the question is we’re raising.

So having that capacity or professionals in the family law space from where our research was concerned with, but more generally the policy perspective to engage, having ongoing engagement and having an openness to that. Something else that Heidi spoke about that resonated with our results was that thinking about the space that you’re actually engaging with and the children having – providing safe spaces for children to engage. And that again may be different for various children – physically and emotionally safe spaces, so for some it’s a parent-free zone. For others, it might that there is some parental support. But having their measures in place that scaffold or support the children and young people to participate in the decision making process, and that might be by rephrasing the questions that you’re asking, making sure you’re not using language that is jargon or technical so that you can speak plainly and clearly with children and young people. Having an openness to providing support if they need it to engage in that conversation.

So for those younger children that you speak of in your question, Rae, being open to providing supports that can enable them to engage in the decision-making process certainly in terms of that engagement where children are coming from traumatised backgrounds where there is domestic and family violence, providing them with the added support to enable them to effectively participate, it’s what Kay Tisdall describes as supporting that agency and capacity to participate. So checking in with those children and ensuring that although they are – they have additional risk issues that we need to consider, supporting them to safely and effectively articulate their concerns and so that feeds in. So there’s quite a myriad of ways, and I think there’s much that we still need to learn about how to engage with children and young people, but I do think the research that we conducted with team to 17 year olds provided us with the insight into what that effective professional practice might look like, but there’s still much work to be done, particularly with children under the age of ten that our research was not able to engage with, unfortunately.

But learning from what other areas of practice are engaging with, child-inclusive practice with younger children, engaging with children in play-based ways, as Heidi mentioned, so that we can involve them in the decision-making process. So there is much work to do, nevertheless, to understand how best to engage.

RAE KASPIEW: Thank you, Rachel. Okay, we’ve got another question here. COVID has increased the public’s understanding of a public health approach. How might we be able to build on this to reframe the way we understand a public health approach to child protection systems? Anne, I think that one’s got your name written on it.

ANNE HOLLONDS: Thanks, Rae. Well look, I think it is about really – like if we are really listening to what kids themselves are saying who are at risk of if you like entering the child protection system, certainly what I’ve been hearing in these consultations is that it often does relate to those basic services and supports that are not there or are difficult to access or are somehow not reachable by the people who need them. And I think of it as – we used to talk about a safety net that’s there – it’s got holes in it and so I think a public health approach really does allow us to think about that, those basic universal systems that should be available wherever you are in the country, you should be able to get these kinds of basic services. And that’s a first step, then being able to ensure that those who need extra help – and I’ve met many of them now – those people, those kids and the families raising them will be able to get the extra help that they need at times when they’re struggling. So that would be – I guess if we were able to think about it that way, we would go some way towards ensuring that we’re preventing child maltreatment or harm to children in some way, and I think it is – we need to really focus on upstream measures to prevent the problems because we know what the downstream looks like. We know what the downstream costs, something like 15 billion per annum it’s been estimated to cost. And we know that there’s a huge human cost as well as economic cost. We have to start to do the upstream work fixing the safety net and a public health approach can really help us to do that, but as we’ve been discussing, it’s all about listening to what kids themselves are saying they need to be able to be kept safe and well.

RAE KASPIEW: Thank you. So another audience member says a lot of what we’re discussing today isn’t new. What do you think is holding back the system change that has been discussed for years and is still needed. Monica, I think your thoughts here would be really valuable.

MONICA CAMPO: There’s a hard one. What’s holding back system change? I can only I suppose speak about the family law system. That’s where our research spoke to I suppose. We’re seeing just countless inquiries and countless various different research and so many people have got and invested interest in changing the family law system. What stops it changing I suppose – god I really – I don’t even think I can answer that. It’s entangled up in so much – I guess there’s so much emotion in what people bring to their policy in family court, in family law. There’s a whole heap of vested interests, as we know. We’ve had unsupportive governments in the past. In terms of bringing children’s voices in, I think Rachel’s previous research around listening to children in the family law system really highlighted how difficult it was and we know that children, even when they have an independent children’s lawyer don’t necessarily have their voices heard in those cases. Yeah, I think we need to just keep plugging away at that.

RACHEL CARSON: I think you’re absolutely right, Monica, and the fact that we still have an adversarial system in the family law system I know that from our research there is a great deal of hesitation in engaging children to participate in that adversarial process for fear that that may give rise to harm. So that’s why our research has been really important to show that we must come up with ways that we can safely and effectively enable children to participate should they wish to do so, because we know that where they don’t have that opportunity to participate and their voices aren’t being heard and they wish to have their voices heard in that decision process we actually may be causing harm by not listening to those voices and not providing that opportunity to safely engage. Particularly in circumstances as Heidi has pointed out where there are cases characterised by domestic and family violence and the children would like to have an opportunity to have a say and to have their voice heard, but for various reasons, primarily out of protective concern, it’s benevolent in its intention but not facilitating that opportunity to participate can be particularly harmful for those children if they’re placed in unsafe situations and we don’t have the benefit of that evidence that children can provide us about their experiences.

RAE KASPIEW: Thank you, Rachel. Now, another question raises issues around a particular group of children, children as perpetrators. So the question I would like to know, how can the justice system be reformed to ensure that we are helping them rather than merely punishing them. How can we ensure that their voices are heard in policy making? Heidi, would you have some thoughts there?

HEIDI SAUNDERS: Yeah, in terms of kind of practice – I’ll speak from the practice perspective but may also start talking about systems approach to this issue for young people. The issue around adolescent to parent violence typically – most typically young male person to their mother is growing in awareness and being acknowledged in the sector, and there’s increasing number of therapeutic programs around the country, for example, the Carinity Talera where I’m from delivers a ReNew program and so instead of that approach of punishment, what we see needs to happen is an integrated service response, so ensuring that there’s service, ensuring safety for the family, not just mum and son but the family, the rest of the siblings, for example, and any other key people who go into the household.

But also a therapeutic approach, what we know that can assist young people with recovering from use of violence is having a trauma-informed and attached-informed approach, so building that sense of safety again as I’ve mentioned with that recovery lens while building the relationship between mum and son gradually over time can help mum respond to really difficult circumstances with her son in a safe way, and that can help the young person feel safe and – because most of the time that use of violence is a response that incorporates trauma. So if they’re feeling safer with their mum, they can build safety and empathy that can over time reduce use of violence and also reduce the likelihood of future use of violence in intimate partner relationships as well.

So to kind of come back to the main point, having an integrated service response around it including justice system as well to hold that, but also considering specialist domestic violence services to ensure immediate safety but also that longer-term therapeutic care where it’s a joint therapeutic approach with mum and son broaching individual needs but also joint needs, yeah.

RACHEL CARSON: Rae, can I just throw in there as well just on the justice system part of that that there are models that are being looked at all around the country in various places now like restorative justice methods where really embraces the idea that when it’s children and young people, these are relational issues and that as Heidi has rightly pointed out, it’s the remediating the problems in the relationships can be one of the important healing elements, but also it can fit within I guess a justice process. So I think watch this space. I think there’s a lot happening, and I hope that we’re doing all of this a lot better in the future.

RAE KASPIEW: Great. And now we’ll have one more question, and this audience member is asking whether or not any of the panel is aware of any tools or resources for consulting with young people and including their views in policy. Now Anne, I might throw to you first and then anyone else can chip in.

ANNE HOLLONDS: Yes thank you, Rae. Look I’ll just refer to one that we’ve used. I think there are other models available, but I think this is one that’s widely used internationally now. Many will be familiar with the Laura Lundy model from Ireland, Professor Lundy from Ireland. We’re basically – the model has four elements and as kind of links to what you were talking about before, Rachel, about she has a sort of a set of questions that we need to answer about the way we are going about the consultations and the engagement that addressed the issue of space as you mentioned, Rachel. Is there a safe space, for example, where the kids can express their views freely is one of the questions, and there are a number of others. The issue of voice, have they been given the information they need to appropriately participate and have we created the conditions that are right for them?

The third one is audience. Who is the audience that are going to listen to the children’s perspectives if we’re talking at a policy level and how are we going to communicate it, and is anyone in that audience – do they have any power to do anything, right, or are we just wasting the time of these kids? I think these are really important questions. Influence is the last one. How are we accountable back to the kids? How are we showing them that what they said was considered in a meaningful way? Did we convey their views faithfully and what was done with them and how are we being accountable back? And obviously not over-promising because it’s not a straight line into kid said this, it’s in policy.

But still I think we have to work really hard to have that feedback loop to ensure that children are respected for their views and that their views are taken into consideration and we show them how they were taken into consideration. So those four elements I think are an important guide. You could look up the Lundy model of consultation of children; I’m sure it’s quickly available on Google. But I do think that there’s more work that we can do, Rae, in Australia particularly to evaluate how helpful a model like the Lundy model is in our environment, how can we improve on it, how can it be applied in a really rigorous and careful and skilful fashion. So I’d like to see more work done on methods of consulting and engaging children.

RAE KASPIEW: Thank you, Anne. I think that will be very, very useful information for our audience. Does anyone else on the panel have anything else to add there?

RACHEL CARSON: I was just going to reflect that much of what Anne has said in terms of a policy development perspective reflects the guidance that we take in the context of engaging with children and research. So there’s a wealth of academic resources and literature in relation to the safe conduct of engagement in children in that context. There’s materials that are available from the Children’s Biopic Centre at Melbourne Children’s Research Institute, which talk about understanding consent and engaging with children. In addition to the academic literature, of course there’s always the National Health and Medical Research Council’s national statement and I think we conducted research and we have the national principles for child-safe organisations and the state and territory child safety standards that can inform child-safe policies, which often provide guidance there as well.

So I think my encouragement would be to familiarise yourself with the resources and to reach out to organisations that engage with children in the conduct of policy development so that you can access their policies, but also look internally to your own organisation and check out your own child safe policy to see what guidance there is there too.

RAE KASPIEW: Thank you, Rachel. Look we’re coming to the end of the time allocated to the webinar, so thank you for the questions. By way of a wrap-up, I’d like to invite each of our panellists to spend 90 seconds explaining the main takeaways from your perspective and I will be ruthless. I have an egg timer at hand. I might start with you, Monica.

MONICA CAMPO: Okay, 90 seconds. So I guess importantly what our research suggested was that what children and young people say about home and how they say it and what home means to them provides a valuable window into what they believe is their best interests, which elicits important information about what they need to support adjustment and post-separation life for children and young people.

RAE KASPIEW: Thanks, Monica. Very succinct. Heidi, you’ve got 90 seconds.

HEIDI SAUNDERS: Thank you, Rae. Speaking from the ground up, reinforcing the role that we all have that we can allow space for children to have a voice, whether it’s verbally or non-verbally and to have a role with educating systems about trauma-informed care. And I think the research overall around long-term therapy and practice experience I’ve gone through and heard from others for children to recover and prevent future challenges for them is really considering a child’s voice about something they don’t maybe know that they need for recovery and prevention, that long-term therapy. The fact that they keep coming back is a voice itself, and they keep coming back to the safe space. And this is another way to look at children’s voices, but having that in policy, having more opportunity for medium to long-term care for young people, I think this is trickier to implement but it’s really important for the future of the young people in Australia.

RAE KASPIEW: Thank you, Heidi. So Rachel, you have your minute and a half now.

RACHEL CARSON: Okay. Look the key takeaway for me and that I keep thinking about from our research is the words of one of our children and young people who were participating, and that gives children a bigger voice more of the time. That resonates with me and I try to think about that in all of the work and research that we do. And regardless of the role of the relevant professionals and the scope of the specific services, I think some key things emerged as I was saying in our research about what is an effective professional practice, and it’s not really rocket science. It’s simple things like genuinely effectively listening to the views and experiences of children and young people, employing child inclusive approaches, having preparedness to do that, allowing children and young people the space to speak and to process the events they’re going through, being able to demonstrate an approachable manner and an empathetic manner, taking that time to build the trust and rapport with children and young people, and keeping these children and young people clearly and accurately informed about the nature of the decision-making process, the progress of the decision-making process and the outcomes that are being made. And taking a proactive and protective approach to participation and accommodating that potential ongoing communication rather than one-off cursory engagements.

RAE KASPIEW: Thank you. Thank you everybody for sticking to time. Anne, I’d like you to share your insights now.

ANNE HOLLONDS: Well look a ditto to everything they just said, and let me just – I’ll just use my time to just put in a plug for the COVID recovery plan for children that I’m calling for, so go and have a look #covidrecoveryplanforchildren. Look we’re into year two of the pandemic, kids have really been waiting a long time to get the attention that they need for their unique needs which are not just health needs but they are also cognitive social and emotional development. The indicators on mental health issues for even very young children are very bad now. All this coming through in terms of very serious suicide ideation, presentations at emergency departments and so forth, we need a plan, a multi-disciplinary plan that listens to what are the needs of children, not just the needs of adults in this pandemic. So please join me to call for this national plan that would actually make visible children in the midst of this pandemic and in the ten years of recovery beyond today, which is what I think we should be planning for. Thanks very much for this opportunity and thank you – as I said, I agree with everything my colleagues have said and thanks everyone for your questions.

RAE KASPIEW: Thank you, Anne. Thank you. We encourage you to seek out others who have listened today and discuss what it means to you, for you clients and for the programs you’re working on. Thank you for joining us and we look forward to seeing you at our next event. Until then, stay safe and have a good week.



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Related resources

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The National Children’s Commissioner

Anne Hollonds is Australia’s National Children’s Commissioner. Formerly Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, for 23 years Anne was Chief Executive of government and non-government organisations focussed on research, policy and practice in child and family wellbeing. As a psychologist Anne has worked extensively in frontline practice, including child protection, domestic and family violence, mental health, child and family counselling, parenting education, family law counselling, and community development. Anne has two small grandchildren.

Manager of Education and Engagement, and Researcher at Women’s Legal Service Victoria

Dr Campo is an educator and socio-legal researcher in family violence, family law and child protection. She was the Senior Research Fellow on the multi-disciplinary research project The Meaning of Home for Children and Young People after Parental Separation at Melbourne Law School in conjunction with Professor Belinda Fehlberg (Melbourne Law School), Associate Professor Kris Natalier (Flinders University) and Professor Bruce Smyth (Australian National University). This recently completed research explored the meaning of ‘home’ for children and young people after parental separation. The findings reinforce the importance of policy being attentive to the needs of children and young people. For participants in the study, relationships were the foundation of home. Maintaining relationships with fathers who had used violence could be a demanding experience with significant impacts on children and young people. Monica previously worked at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Clinical Psychologist and Senior Practitioner at Carinity Talera

Carinity Talera is a service that provides medium- to long-term trauma recovery therapy for children and young people, along with their protective caregiver, following the experience of Domestic and Family Violence (DFV). Dr Heidi is the ReNew Program Coordinator at Carinity Talera, which involves trauma- and attachment-based therapy for families where a young male person is using various forms of violence or power and control (Adolescent-to-Parent Violence) toward the female protective caregiver in the home. Heidi also provides clinical supervision to therapists working in the above therapeutic contexts and teaches within the psychology and counselling degrees at the Queensland University of Technology.

Rachel Carson profile photo

Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies  

Dr Rachel Carson is a socio-legal researcher with expertise in family law and qualitative research about family law disputes. Rachel has worked on a range of significant family law research projects, including the Independent Children’s Lawyer Study and the Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments Project. Rachel was the lead researcher for the recently completed Children and Young People in Separated Families: Family Law System Experiences and Needs project, and the Direct Cross-Examination in Family Law Matters Study. Rachel will reflect on the opportunities the family law reform program offers to enhance support for the participation of children and young people in family law processes.