Australia’s child protection systems are ‘in crisis’ but some programs are making a positive difference

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Meg Benson is a professional therapist whose job has become a 24/7 job.

She opened her home to a child who had previously struggled in foster care and government-run residential care.

“It’s definitely a challenge, but I knew it, so I had the long game in mind the whole way through,” Ms Benson said.

She is part of a new out-of-home care model helping a small number of children in New South Wales.

It is based on a German concept and involves a professional social worker, counselor or therapist who is paid full time to care for a child in their home.

Caregivers use their professional skills to manage the child’s trauma and build relationships.

Ms Benson said that in just a few years the results for the child she is caring for have been “phenomenal”.

She said that after a few months he had “gone from minimal attendance” at school with “lots of suspensions” to “100% school attendance”.

“He skipped a few grades every school year to start catching up.”

Ms Benson said she was working to maintain a connection with the child’s birth parents.

“I want to see the kid happy and not heartbroken, and that means we’ve increased some phone calls, we’ve increased some visits.”

Ms Benson said the benefits of establishing a relationship with the child in her care were clear.

Regarding the round-the-clock nature of the job, Ms Benson said that while she did volunteer her time outside of her 40-hour work week, there were opportunities for downtime.

“If your child has a high academic commitment, you have time to sit down and have ABC talks,” she said.

Access to “real relationships”

Jarrod Wheatley is the managing director of Professional Individualized Care, which he describes as “the final stop in out-of-home care” when all else has failed.

The program has been running for five years and works with children who have been in multiple foster homes, group home placements or even live in hotels where they were supervised by shift workers.

“What that means for the child is that they actually have access to real connections and relationships, not eight-hour shift workers,” Mr Wheatley said.

“They have that with someone who has the professional skills to respond appropriately to the complex trauma and attachment needs of the child.

“Kids can do something pretty amazing, which is to rewire their brains and regain trust in relationships.”

Jarrod Wheatley says there is “huge demand” for the program he leads.(Provided: Bryan Mills)

Mr Wheatley said the model could only support a small percentage of out-of-home children.

But he said there were lessons to be learned from the model for all stages of child protection intervention.

“The problem is that the vast majority of our interventions are currently spending 90% of their time on paperwork, 90% of their time on system needs, but not really investing in those real connections with children.

“But policies and procedures don’t meet people’s needs – people do.

“It is certainly possible for us to run relationship-based models in the early intervention and family preservation space.”

Help parents when their children are removed

At the time Grace*’s child was taken away by child safety officers, she was struggling.

Grace also found it extremely difficult to deal with child protection workers.

“I couldn’t talk to them… basically they were going against me,” she said.

She credits support from the Salvation Army’s Doorway to Parenting program with being key to better access to her child, who remains in the care of a parent.

“I can basically see my child whenever I want; they have a lot of faith in me now.

“I’ve been drug free for two years, I don’t smoke anymore… I have my own car, I work.”

Grace worked directly with Salvation Army social worker Erica Heffernan.

“Families going through are at the most vulnerable stage of their lives,” Ms Heffernan said.

“They are at risk of either having their children taken away or having their child taken away and placed in a relative or foster care placement.”

The hands of an unidentified child playing with building bricks.
The Salvation Army’s Doorway to Parenting program helps parents build a relationship with their children who have been removed by child protective services.(Pixabay)

She said the aim of the program was to create a bond between parents and their children and to reunite families whenever possible.

This means supervised visits in a home environment and parenting classes.

To help with reunification, parenting programs are offered along with other supports.

“A reference for drugs and alcohol [for example] or letters of support for housing, addressing their mental health, going to an appointment with a psychologist,” Ms. Heffernan said.

“The other goal is to work to help parents work alongside child safety officers.

“We find that parents have been through so much trauma that [there’s] so much emotion behind the meeting with the child safety officers.

“Having someone speak on their behalf or support them in what they want to say…helps them more in their case.”

The program successfully reunited 11 families in Tasmania between 2017 and 2019.

But with a limited number of social workers, there is a waiting list of people wanting to access the program.

“We work with long-term families, we know it’s not a magic bullet,” Ms Heffernan said.

Child protection is ‘in crisis globally’, but there are examples of good practice

An ABC survey prompted 700 people to express serious concerns about child protection systems across the country.

The inquest heard stories of rape, abuse, neglect and racism within the system, which National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds described as “broken”.

Professor Leah Bromfield, director of the Australian Center for Child Protection at the University of South Australia, said Australia was not alone.

“I really wish I could tell you that there is a country where child protection has been done brilliantly that we could just copy, but sadly child protection is in crisis globally “, said Dr. Bromfield.

“There are things we do well in slices of the system.”

A woman smiles at the camera
Professor Leah Bromfield says child protection is in crisis globally.(Provided: Australian Center for Child Protection)

One example is the Murri School in Queensland, which “said a lot of our children had trauma,” Dr Bromfield said.

“So [it has] trauma-friendly classrooms, having additional things like allied health professionals on campus providing services to children.

“All of these things are really designed to say…we’re going to put this system in place to give these kids the best chance of success.”

System designed around “outdated assumptions”

Dr Bromfield said in Australia and overseas, child protection models seek to intervene early.

But she said the system was designed around outdated assumptions.

“We are seeing severe complex needs of active mental illness, active substance abuse and unmanaged domestic and family violence, homelessness and housing instability.

“This means that early intervention actually needs to be designed around families with multiple and complex needs.”

Dr Bromfield said Australia could look to places like Canada for models on how to shift legal responsibility to indigenous and community-controlled organizations “which we believe are best placed to respond. to their children”.

Dr. Barbara Fallon, from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Social Work, said First Nations sovereignty over data and services is imperative, but First Nations children continue to be overrepresented in the Canada’s child welfare system.

“First Nations children were 17 times more likely to be placed in formal care following an investigation than a non-Indigenous child,” she said.

Anne Hollonds is sitting in a park
National Children’s Commissioner Anne Hollonds has called the child protection system “broken”.(ABC News: Elena de Bruijne)

Australia’s National Children’s Commissioner, Anne Hollonds, said there had been more than 2,000 recommendations from various inquiries into child protection in Australia.

She said the recommendations needed to be implemented and national leadership was also needed.

Federal Attorney General Mark Dreyfus met with Ms Hollonds to discuss the ‘horrifying’ cases of abuse in care that have come to light following the ABC investigation.

Mr. Dreyfus indicated that he paid particular attention to the points raised during the briefings.

“No child should be abused or neglected, especially in the child welfare system,” Dreyfus said.

*Name has been changed.

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