Incidents of child abuse and neglect in Australia have more than doubled over the past decade*. Billions of dollars have been spent on a continuous cycle of inquiries and reviews into child protection systems in nearly every state and territory, a cycle that has played out almost identically in many places across the world. In Australia, there have been at least 37 inquiries and reviews over the past decade; there are currently three royal commissions being conducted across the country. These efforts are aligned in their ambition to design a better system for children and families. They repeatedly conclude that radical change is required to achieve this.

This urgency hasn’t resulted in inaction. However, despite acknowledgement of the need for radical change, the majority of recommendations are for improvements to the current system, a system designed in the 1970s when our definition and understanding of child abuse was very different. There is a reluctance to consider more transformative innovation – to challenge the assumptions on which the current system was built and to build a system based on contemporary understanding of child abuse and neglect.

Over the past six years, The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) have spent significant time on the ground, working alongside and learning from children and young people, families, social workers, managers, policy makers and foster carers. This quote from Mystic 21, who was removed from her family as an infant and officially left state care at age 18, gives a very vivid picture of an inadequate system.

“What I’m doing is not living. I’m better off than others. But this is not life; this is not what I want. I want to increase the chances of having a proper survival, a proper life, and a happy, healthy life. Not on drugs, in and out of jail, in and out of bad mental health”.

How devastating that this is the aspiration of a young person. This outlook comes from a life in ‘the system’, not from parental influence.

The frontline workers we work alongside are often not much more hopeful. They feel like they exist in a perpetual world of redesign and restructure which adds to the already overwhelming day-to-day duties of their role.

It’s TACSI’s view that many reforms and inquiries have been limited in effect because they’ve specified the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’. The ‘how’ is crucial when designing for such complexity. Often the performance indicators, methods used, resources invested and environments created reinforce business as usual rather than support the quest for a better alternative.

We need to acknowledge that in child protection, the stakes are high. We are talking about protecting society’s most precious resource – our children. Hence it is not surprising that child protection systems rest in a culture of risk avoidance with staff reluctant to step too far outside the norm. “No one wants to be the one thrown under the bus” is a statement we’ve heard more than once.

With a topic as emotional as child abuse and neglect, it’s human nature that we look to blame individuals when something goes wrong, but as so eloquently put by Dr Roseby, “Child Protection hasn’t failed because of individuals, it’s failed because it’s the wrong system**” This culture is certainly exacerbated by media and their constant calls for resignations and punishment of workers, showing little insight into systemic issues.

So how much worse do things need to get for us to realise that it is too risky not to innovate and radically re-think the current system? What will be the catalyst for large-scale disruption and the paradigm shift that is so greatly needed?

Over the years, TACSI have had the privilege of working alongside some brilliant practitioners, leaders and academics to explore some great questions such as: How do we move beyond resilience and support families to thrive? What does it mean for young persons to leave care and live the life they want to live? Whilst we can demonstrate that much of our work leads to improved outcomes, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of change that must occur to meet the needs of children and families who are struggling through life.

Recently we’ve found ourselves asking – is our work in fact just reinforcing a broken system, or will the insight, trust and understanding we’re building in child protection help us define a new paradigm? Are we getting too deeply embedded, or is that a prerequisite for transformation?

As I head to the global LabWorks conference in London this month, I will be joined by many people from around the world asking similar questions, about child protection and about other complex and inadequate systems such as education, health and criminal justice. How can the independent social innovation labs best contribute to the transformation of big and complex social systems?

Child Protection in Australia is not unique; systems worldwide are grappling with the same issues, but the sheer size and level of complexity overwhelms us all. Our aspiration is bold. We believe that all children deserve to live a great life and, whenever possible, a life with their family. So how do you build a system that works for children and families? We may never crack the code, but we won’t stand a chance unless we try.  And we are committed to that.

Carolyn Curtis, CEO, The Australian Centre for Social Innovation

References
* Council of Australian Governments, 2009, Protecting Children is Everyone’s Business, National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, 2009–2020, pg. 6.
** Roseby, Dr R, 2010, Media Release for Inquiry into the Child Protection System in the Northern Territory, 2010, pg. 3.