A Chance for New Directions in Child Abuse Prevention?
6 September 2012 at 10:28 am
Dr Sarah Wise from Anglicare Victoria
OPINION: Child Protection Week is an occasion to shift our minds from the operational challenges of our child protection systems to the possibility of a society that is able to prevent child abuse and neglect from happening, according to Anglicare’s, Dr Sarah Wise.
New directions in child abuse prevention over the past decade or more have centred on the design and delivery of high quality early parenting education and support programs that can promote competent parenting and have a beneficial effect on parent’s lives. A key example is the budding of high-quality and intensive nurse home visiting programs in some areas across Australia.
While we need to build on our investment in universal and early childhood service platforms as an effective long-term strategy in the battle against child maltreatment, knowledge and creativity are urgently needed at the “harder end” of vulnerability.
At present our child and family welfare systems are overloaded with complex families who bring serious psychological disorders and personal problems such as drug and alcohol addiction and domestic violence to the task of nurturing and raising children. This is often in combination with adversities such as poverty, family turmoil, homelessness, neighbourhood violence and social isolation. Such acute issues are often present before babies are even born, indicating the need for tertiary intervention during pregnancy and in the early years of life as well as during later stages of development.
Some commentators (eg. Sammut, 2011) advocate for more children in precarious family environments to be permanently removed from their birth parents and placed in the care of others. While this resonates with our powerful natural instincts to rescue children from the devastating effects of child abuse and neglect, placement is not a panacea.
There is no doubt that through good nurturing, therapeutic support and life opportunities, the right placement can help develop children who are calmer, better attuned to close relationships and more prepared for learning and life. However, the benefits to children, parents and the State would be far greater of we helped parents to overcome their problems rather than attempting to upscale out-of-home care (OoHC) services.
An obvious stumbling block to an expanded care system is the lack of alternative families. Societal change and the multitude of challenges in fostering has meant that more carers are now leaving the system than joining it (Wilks and Wise, 2012; AIHW, 2011; Department of Human Services Victoria, 2005). States are currently forced to utilize residential models of care – even for children in the middle childhood years – in order to build capacity into a system in crisis (AIHW, 2012).
Alternative care also does not address the problem at its source. Notwithstanding the suffering that separation can cause to both parent and child, evidence from practice suggests that many parents who lose children to the OoHC system have more babies, often to compensate for their loss. Anglicare Victoria’s own research, for example, highlights the high proportion of OoHC children with siblings living at home (Wise, 2011).
It also wants mentioning that while birth parents may not be in a position to care for their children, this does not mean that they no longer care about their children (Kroll and Taylor, 2003). A sense of belonging is also a basic human need, and for the majority of OoHC children parental contact ensures valuable information about their family, their past and culture is not lost. Parental contact also helps children to better understand and resolve their separation experience and to heal emotionally. It is common knowledge in the field, for example, that many young people actively seek out and even live with parents after aging out of the system.
Moreover, the intention for most children taken into OoHC is to return them safely to the care of their parents, so continuing to work with parents to support reunification can avoid repeated entry into care and cumulative risk related to discontinuity in care and education.
While it is neither feasible nor desirable to put further pressure on the OoHC system, taking chances when it comes to the safety of children in high risk situations is not an option either. As a society we have to face up to the reality that support to make significant and lasting change in the lives of families with complex problems is extremely hit and miss.
There is also no denying that Urie Bronfenbrenner’s mantra that “if you care about the children you must cherish their parents” can be difficult to abide when you are the worker carrying responsibility for children’s safety.
At present there is no systematic focus to support children at imminent risk of placement to remain at home with their families. The observed practice within child protection services of using emergency and very short-term placements for babies and young children in risky home situations is a case in point.
While short separations may be the only safe option available, this practice monopolises the time of staff who coordinate placements and displaces resources that could be put to benefit elsewhere in the system. The long-term impact on babies and small children of multiple changing carers and routines is also uncertain.
Given the current pressure on child protection systems, many community service organisations are left to support complex families without the statutory leveraging role that can only be provided by child protection. Family service workers must engage and motivate parents to commit to a journey of lasting change when demand for services is creating pressure to work with families in a more narrow and time-limited way than what is usually needed.
It’s not as if governments have failed to act. On the one hand, efforts are being made to make more effective use of what is available by untangling administrative obstacles to integrated effort within family services and across child, family and adult service systems.
The recent child and family service reforms in Victoria, for example, have lead to improvements in service coordination and integration (KPMG, 2012). The Australian Government has also introduced child protection income management to try and improve parental responsibility.
Income management may provide critical leverage in a few cases, and better case management and coordination is certainly helping. However, these initiatives in and of themselves do not turn parent’s lives around. Mental illness, problems relating to and feeling empathy for others (including the capacity to bond and commit to children) substance addiction and violence can be responses to traumatic social experiences that are very difficult to “unlearn”.
As few programs have been able to demonstrate effectiveness in changing the lives of parents with complex problems who are disengaged and mistrustful of social services, we need to improve on existing theories of change to guide the development of new interventions and strategies that exceed the impacts of current best practices.
Upscaling existing services and/or shifting the target of prevention and early intervention services to more complex cases is unlikely to have any meaningful impact.
Ensuring all children’s basic need for love, learning experiences, nutrition and protection requires new levels of assistance and program content to help parents with complex problems heal and emerge into competent and committed parents and self-reliant citizens.
About the author: Dr Sarah Wise is the General Manager of Policy, Research and Innovation at Anglicare Victoria.