TACSI is reimagining child protection possibilities to foster thriving children and families
Over the past decade Australia has seen 39 inquiries, reviews and Royal Commissions  dedicated to finding better ways to protect children against abuse and neglect. Billions of dollars have been spent, yet incidents of abuse and neglect in Australia have more than doubled. Child maltreatment has become so prevalent that children in Australia are more likely to experience abuse or neglect than experience asthma. Today, 1 in 4 children are notified to child protection services before the age of 15, and currently 43,000 children have been removed and do not live with their birth parents (1 in every 125 kids). Aboriginal children are increasingly overrepresented in the child protection system, where currently 1 in 19 of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are in out-of-home-care.
Once entering out-of-home-care, few children return home to their families (only 885 in NSW were restored last year) and if they do return home, many re-enter care within the first years of being restored to their families.  Children continue to cycle through the child protection system throughout their lifetimes. Recognising that restorations comprise only a small portion of the outcomes for children Australia, there has been a recent shift in prioritisation for restoration as an option for children and families. However, there is still little nuanced evidence about how to broaden the cohort of families who could thrive with restoration, what ‘good’ or ‘successful’ restoration looks like, and how to ensure safe, sustainable restorations over the long term for children and families.
The experience of leaving home, placement breakdowns, and inconsistent out of home care experiences can be traumatic for children and families. Too often services and families feel constrained by the resources provided despite massive investments by the government ($3.3 billion nationally). Consistently, children receive heaps of notifications before investigations are made, escalating issues to the point where extreme, intensive, tailored support is required and situations are critical for children and families. Government staff, service providers, carers, and families agree that we must and can do better for children.
What we’re doing
Recognising the current challenges within child protection, The Sidney Myer Fund approached TACSI in mid 2014 to explore strategies for moving away from funding singular service models and investing in a process that could unlock systemic insight and scalable solutions. We’ve partnered with Family and Community Services (FACS NSW) as well as the Australian Centre for Child Protection as a strong resource of child protection research data and evidence. Together we’re looking to test entrenched assumptions and identify opportunities to better enable children and families engaging with the child protection system to live safely and thrive.
The project is exploring innovation opportunities within services, policies, and institutional cultures to impact the escalating issues of intergenerational trauma, abuse, neglect; inefficient responses to children and families at risk of harm; rising overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in out of home care, as well as contracting incentives that do not effectively foster quality outcomes for thriving families and children.
Over the course of three years, the Rethinking Restoration project aims to develop more effective ways to approach family preservation and restoration. For the remainder of 2016, we’ll work to develop insight into the experience of parents, children and workers and identify promising opportunities to transform and/or introduce new services approaches within child protection.
Throughout 2017 and 2018, we’ll co-design, test and implement new models for supporting children and families to thrive; we’ll shape new approaches to child protection alongside families, government, and service providers. We’re committed to trailing, experimenting, prototyping, and iterating strategies so that we’re confident they work for people and yield intended outcomes for families. In doing so, we aim to build an evidence base to inform what needs to change in child protection, catalysing the adoption of tested innovations across NSW and Australia.
What we’re learning
We’re looking at the challenges within the child protection landscape through a systemic, holistic lens, learning from people’s perspectives and experiences throughout the system: from NGOS and service providers to lawyers and magistrates, from birth parents to carers, from font line government workers to high-level decisions makers. Currently we’re deepening our knowledge about when/how restoration is the best option for a family, which supports are needed to ensure that children are thriving over the long term, and what influences the likelihood and stability of restoration from the various actors and interactions at play.
Through in-depth interviews and observation, extensive review of existing secondary research, and working closely with stakeholders across the child protection system, we’re exploring policy, practice, and service barriers to restoration — what works and what doesn’t along the restoration continuum.
Child protection issues are interwoven with other socio and political realities— every family is unique and will prefer and benefit from different types of supports and responses; while novel and transformative family services do exist there are few and often participation in such programs is reliant on referrals, availability, geographic locations, and timing. We’re exploring opportunities to improve the experience of restoration for actors across the system, facilitate the process of getting more kids home safely when that’s the right option, and most importantly begin to understand how we effectively prevent the need for removal in the first place. To best understand the potential for systemic change within Australia’s child protection system, we’ll also explore the cost and benefit of existing approaches, programs and processes as well as emergent shifts in thinking, policy and public opinion relating to preservation and restoration.
In the future
Our aspiration is bold: we believe that all children deserve to live a great life and, whenever possible, a life with their family. We’re exploring how we can collectively and inclusively build a system that works for children and families, a system that also works for front line staff and policy-makers.
We recognise that we can’t continue to look at these needed systems change and paradigm shifts as something too big, too complex to solve; we can’t continue to implement singular service solutions that treat symptoms rather than root causes; we can’t continue to try to transform child protection one organisation at a time. We’re looking to work toward moving the needle on intractable social issues through uniting multiple players at numerous levels in a collective quest to build a different and better child protection system in Australia.
We’re committed to trailing, experimenting, prototyping and iterating strategies so that we’re confident they work for people in ways that empower families their best lives. It’s our duty In doing so, we aim to build an evidence base to inform what needs to change in child protection, catalysing the adoption of tested innovations across NSW and Australia.
We know that Australia isn’t alone in searching for answers to complex child protection challenges; we look forward to sharing with and learning from others nationally and internationally to encourage innovative systems change in the interest of families, children and young people.