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Part of a 5-post series on a social innovation perspective on the Nyland Royal Commission into Child Protection Systems.

Many have said it; Australia’s child protection system has failed on its promise to children and their families. The Nyland Royal Commission has made an effort to rectify that —  expectedly, it’s seen some praise along with harsh critiques since its release. 

TACSI look at the complexities of systems change for social good on a daily basis, so we know making recommendations to transition a fraught, half-century-year-old system — from ‘failure’ to functioning — through a set of recommendations wasn’t an easy task.

That said, critics have had their share of fair points — take for example Simon Schrapel of Uniting communities:

“Whilst these fixes may, if implemented, help to iron out many of the shortcomings and deficits in our systems and services they are unlikely to do much to turn around the underlying causes and drivers of child abuse and harm in our state.”

While treating underlying causes of child maltreatment didn’t appear to be centerstage in the strategy or rhetoric of the recommendations, we were pleased to see that this Royal Commission identified prevention and early intervention as key areas to focus on. Nyland raises ideas like: increasing long term funding allocations for early intervention services, establishing an Early Intervention Research Directorate, improving call centre and intake efficiencies in referral processes, and improving assessment expertise — all valuable, if not necessary for improving the current statutory system.

Child protection and family welfare is a marathon “not a sprint”

There’s an assumption embedded in the way the statutory system typically approaches prevention: that prevention is an intervention at a point in time that prevents a family from going down a certain track.

SA’s current approach to preventing harm looks something like this:

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If we find families are in need, the system triages and sends them down a track of receiving some ‘preservation’ supports or some ‘in crisis’ responses. In a recently lecture, Fiona Arney from The Australian Centre for Child Protection noted that in SA there was little difference in risk factors and needs between kids who were ‘screened out’ and those who were ‘screened in’ the child protection system. Unfortunately, the families receiving either of those supports are often already in quite bad shape by the time they’ve received enough notifications with enough severity to warrant a child protection intervention. Typically supports will remain until major risks have subsided, but not until a family is thriving.

“We’re not getting families to a point where they’re doing awesome; we’re getting them to a point where we no longer have statutory responsibility.”

– Caseworker

Standard prevention strategy sees family well-being as a spectrum — from at risk to doing well — where families slot in at different risk levels warranting different interventions. Unfortunately due to demand and strain on the system most statutory supports to prevent harm are allocated to families already in crisis.

Efforts to do better prevention usually take an approach like this (which might be like what Nyland is suggesting to put more supports at the front end to prevent families from slipping into crisis at the outset):

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However you’ll notice that in both of those illustrations there’s not much attention paid to family in the recovering, rebounded, or doing well spaces.

To genuinely and effectively prevent maltreatment to children is to change (for good) the behaviour that could result in maltreatment. Good prevention is not just about a response — although that is necessary. Effective prevention is about creating and sustaining a behaviour change for a whole family, for a lifetime.

For families with competing and compounding stressors (like poverty, mental health, addictions, minimal parenting knowledge, low positive social capital) sustaining behaviour change, is significantly more challenging. Short term responses to cumulative harm or embedded habits might not stick, as new types of chaos roll in and out — as a result we often see families (74%) cycle back through the child protection system over time.

To get people out of crisis and keep them out of crisis, we need to categorically increase the instances of positive familial interactions and reduce the malignant interactions. We need to get parents passing on good things to their children and those children, in turn, passing on good things to their children.

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What’s more is that, both of these perspectives miss out on the realities of these families’ lives and the challenges of adopting new behaviours.

  1. Small additional, unexpected triggers can push a family from doing well into being at risk. The line between doing well and being at risk is precariously thin.
  2. Trying to change entrenched behaviours, treat trauma and build new habits takes time; it needs to be reinforced and supported as new and added forms of chaos evolve or pop up in a family’s life. Prevention as a singular intervention is Sisyphean.
  3. Any stage a family is in serves as an opportunity for preventing maltreatment, the type and functionality of the support just looks different. Family wellbeing is not a spectrum, but rather a cycle with ebbing highs and lows at any phase.

Without converting intergenerational cycles of disadvantage into cycles of advantage we are trapping families in inheritance patterns of hardship.

Prevention:  an adaptive, responsive process

There are at least three different ways to think about prevention. One way to ‘prevent’ is to prevent things from getting worse for families that area already at risk. Another way would be to ‘prevent’ families becoming at risk in the first place. A third way is to work with the assumption that families will always be at risk of risk, especially those that have been there before and therefore effective prevention needs to be an ongoing activity or process rather than a point in time response. 

‘Prevention as a process’ changes and looks different over time, depending on the amount of growth a family has gone through and the type of situation they’re in. Moreover it works with a goal in mind  — to help a family transition out of reliance on social services, to transition out of an intergenerational trap, and toward thriving. At any point in time there is an opportunity to prevent imminent, future, or different kinds of harm from coming to a child.

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This is exactly what one proactive caseworker we met in NSW does. For every family she works with, she develops a plan to get that family transitioned out of needing any statutory child protective services in the next two years. Together, they plan to work toward self-sufficiency, healing trauma, building in safety precautions and enhancing social capital to lean on when things get tough to prevent things from getting worse. She looks at what preventative measures are put in place throughout their recovery journey.

This scenario was unique, most of the parents we spoke to were frustrated by the lack of utility of spotty intervention supports like cleaners or sporadic home visits prior to children being removed. One father asked “Why don’t they help us sooner rather than just coming in and taking all of the kids away?” Another mum suggested said she understood only after going through a meaningful training on dealing with domestic violence how her partner’s behaviour toward her effected her children — she wished she had known sooner. Another mum expressed anxiety over attending nearly 30 courses hoping to demonstrate parental capability, she suggested that one longer more intensive support could group up the courses you need when you need them (more like an intentionally-paced school curriculum) – so that you learn first aid when that’s relevant and you deal with trauma from the get go.

All of this in mind, what could prevention as a process or a journey look like in our current system? 


Maybe it’s something where different preventative and behaviour change measures are available over the course of a family’s experience, supports that evolve alongside them — a process where we spin families into recovery, rather than let them slip into crisis. A process where when a family is stressed they receive positive behaviour change support programs that build their social capital and resilience for coping with future problems, like Family by Family.

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When a family is  slipping perhaps they receive more intensive supports that help them bypass crisis but stay with them until they have recovered, rebounded, and are doing well. What has appeared successful in NSW is a combination of in home and centre based supports which help treat trauma, build new habits, and maintain change. Supports provided by peer specialists, regular peers, and specialist professionals help families re-learn and sustain productive parenting techniques from individuals they trust.

We could do more to amplify the robust supports to all parents pre and post birth which can prepare parents for positive parenting approaches and techniques from the very start, ensuring early childhood development is positive and not neglected. Finland offers all new parents ’baby boxes’ to ensure parents are prepared with knowledge, support, and materials to effectively raise children.  In Ireland, the Parent Child Home Program targets families in areas of high deprivation and uses specialist peers to train new parents in effective reading and play techniques with the intention of developing investment in children’s education and preventing high school dropout rates by 30%, in turn creating new opportunities for that generation.

Thinking wider

Genuine prevention could leverage the breadth of resources we have in Australia rather than rely solely on Child Protection to identify, triage, treat and respond to all issues relating to children at risk. Working across all levels, taking a unified responsibility for the wellbeing of children, we might expect to see something like:

– Public and policy perspectives such as high level policy intentions, cultural attitudes, and media narratives that drive encourage supportive and constructive responses to families in need and children at risk

– Service delivery approaches that foster professional and institutional responsibilities toward whole-family long term self sufficiency across health education and child protection agencies

– Community level expectations and the role of neighbours and peers to step in and help out

– Family-based, proactive efforts amongst children and extended family to practice effective help-seeking behaviours

These are some of the things that TACSI will be testing and trialling alongside families, NGOs and government agencies in NSW. We’re exploring co-parenting foster care models which can simultaneously keep children safe and also leverage opportunities to invest in birth parents,  improve their parenting capability and treating the issues that resulted in needing child protective services, building out a community-based peer support network for them to lean on over time that more closely resembles extended family, and can help kids return home safely or keep steady contact with parents when that’s the right option. We’re also prototyping ways to put families’ ideas into action, such as a joined up service model that intensifies and consolidates the types of learning an support a family needs at a given time, one that tapers to provide more peer support and less professional support as the most complex issues are resolved.

We’re keen to start to build an evidence base of what works in helping more families thrive, advocating for decisions that do more than improve our current child protection system, but start to transform it so that it works for the people who rely on it most.