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Re-shaping the System. But into What?

Widespread media commentary has noted that, whilst most inquiries into the abuse and neglect of children are ‘crisis-driven’ and prompted by scandalous treatment of an individual child or family, no such impetus has underpinned the establishment of Queensland’s current Child Protection Inquiry.  Rather, its stated rationale is to deliver a ‘road map’ for child protection over the next decade.

Jurisdictions across Australia and internationally are struggling with re-shaping or reforming their child protection systems.  Queensland is similarly struggling and, despite the absence of a high-profile scandal relating to ways in which an individual child or family has been dealt with by the system, it may be easily argued that Queensland’s child protection system is nevertheless in crisis.

The Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Foster Care completed by the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) in 2004 led to significant increases in funding to and for government and non-government services.  Despite this, or even because of it, ‘demand’ for statutory and non-statutory services has increased, while ‘supply’ is outstripped.  For example, notifications of abuse or neglect that have been assessed as a ‘high priority’ are not being promptly investigated and less-than-suitable placements in out-of-home care are often occurring.

Queensland’s situation has characteristics and elements that are the same as those that exist in other jurisdictions within Australia as well as some that are significantly different.  Queensland is the ‘same’ in so far as the ‘child protection system’ as it exists within all States and Territories is complex, it encompasses multiple government and non-government service providers and child and family needs are becoming increasingly complex.  ‘Differences’ in Queensland which must also be accounted for stem from, for example, the spread of population across a vast and diverse geographic area, the comparatively more recent provision of government-funded services by community-based organisations and rapid expansion of out-of-home care placements.  Despite knowledge about the economic and human benefits of investing in prevention and early intervention, resource allocation as it is managed by all States and Territories, remains skewed towards tertiary interventions to a greater or lesser extent.

At the commencement of this inquiry, the most recent publicly available data (2010/11) indicates that while there has been movement up and down in the number of children entering and exiting out-of-home care each year, the actual rate/1000 children entering care in Queensland decreased from 2.5/1000 in 2009/11 to 2.2/1000 children in 2010/11. Children are however staying longer in out-of-home care, and a contributing factor to the overall situation is that children who entered around the time of the CMC Inquiry have remained in the system.

Despite the examination of components of the system by previous inquiries, demand increasing and resources tripling, the pathway provided to children and families through Queensland’s ‘child protection system’ remains fundamentally the same as it exists in other jurisdictions, with more or less attention given to the pathways into or those that sit alongside the system.

Inquiries typically fail to conceptualise the child protection system in a different way and therefore focus on doing the same things ‘better’ or doing ‘more of the same’, rather than advocating for different and new approaches.  Usual recommendations have included standardising or automating procedures, introducing structural changes for administering the system and underlining ‘reforms’ requiring legislative changes.  Examples from the CMC inquiry include the recommendation to regulate kinship care in the same way as foster care which has become problematic to the recruitment of potential Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kinship carers, whilst more fundamental issues such as the need for a devolution of responsibility for protecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to community-controlled and led organisations were not addressed.

This inquiry has an advantage over previous inquiries in that the Commissioner has been charged with making a “full and careful inquiry in an open and independent manner of Queensland’s child protection system”.   In taking advantage of this opportunity, It is imperative that the inquiry works back from the desired outcomes being sought for children, families and communities, informed by what is known about ‘what works and doesn’t work’, rather than simply recommending ‘more of the same’ in terms of existing solutions (eg. more resources, training and early intervention) or approaches (eg. adopting a public health model).  Whilst recommendations of this kind may, at least in part, carry some benefits, they are unlikely to significantly re-shape the child protection system or pave the way towards the adoption of a new paradigm.

To really make a difference for children and families whose circumstances lead them to being at risk of entering the child protection system or those already in contact or entrenched in the system, this inquiry must question the drivers that are immobilising the child protection system and making it resistant to change.  These are the drivers that are apparent not only in Queensland, but elsewhere as well.  They are the drivers that lead to the under-inclusion of some children and families and the over-inclusion of others, the ongoing insufficient capacity to properly service children and families arising from mismatches between the interventions individual families need and what they are offered, and the inequitable spread and access to services.

From the start of the inquiry, the Commissioner should be thinking about how to focus the recommendations on ‘outcomes’, rather than confining his examination to a review of ‘outputs’ or ‘processes’. The Commissioner should also be mindful of the ways in which the development and implementation of responses to his recommendations will be independently monitored to ascertain that the outcomes being achieved for children and families actually improve, in preference to simply reporting on the progress of implementing responses to recommendations.

In addition, a major challenge that exists concerns the context of fiscal restraint in which the inquiry is being conducted.  In accordance with the terms of reference established for the inquiry, the recommendations made by the Commissioner must be “affordable, deliverable and provide effective and efficient outcomes”.

This imperative sits within an environment where a major scaling back of the Queensland public service is taking place that has included the shedding of employees (albeit those who are purportedly not in ‘front-line’ positions) who have exercised roles and functions within a number of government departments that are related to the administration or delivery of child protection services as well as the discontinuation of grants to a number of non-government organisations.

The concern that must be considered by both the Commissioner and the government is whether the reduction in numbers of personnel across both the government and non-government sectors will deplete capacity to properly and adequately implement the recommendations which may arise from the inquiry.  Reductions in ‘policy’ and ‘program development’ personnel and system administrators within both the government and non-governments sectors may not be an effective cost saving measure in the longer term if there is insufficient capacity left to undertake the detailed policy analysis, program development, change management and monitoring functions that will be needed to implement major reforms.

Forewarning of what may be required to re-shape the child protection system comes from the United Kingdom.  With more than a year having transpired since the conclusion of the review of the United Kingdom’s child protection system that was led by Professor Eileen Munro, those charged with the responsibility of shifting the system away from being overly bureaucratised and procedurally driven have warned that the past ‘scaffolding’ of the system must be removed incrementally and with care.

In anticipation that this inquiry will make recommendations intended to reduce the over-reliance on tertiary interventions, it may also be expected that there will be challenges posed in not prematurely shifting resources away from the tertiary end towards prevention and early intervention without giving sufficient time for the demand for tertiary services to be effectively and genuinely reduced, thereby exposing some children and families to even higher levels  of risk than those that currently exist.

The Commissioner has been assigned the responsibility of charting a ‘road map’ for the next decade.  This is viewed as a realistic time frame for re-shaping the child protection system and it may be expected that every year of those ten years will be required to implement the extent of changes that are needed.

A key question that the Commissioner will need to wrestle with concerns what the new paradigm that we are seeking looks like.  Will the new paradigm constitute a re-vamping of the child protection system as we currently understand it or is it better to seek the establishment of a system focused much more broadly on ‘child and family well-being’ – a system that integrates the full range of programs and services required to support and respond to the needs of children and families that relegates the overall approaches to child protection as they are undertaken today to the pages of history?

Lindsay Wegener

Executive Director – PeakCare Queensland

If you have a view about the matters raised in this post, make sure that you read all of PeakCare’s Child Protection Inquiry Issues Papers that can be accessed in the Members Only section of our website and enter your feedback into the accompanying questionnaires.

You may also wish to enter some comments below.  What do you think are the drivers that immobilise child protection systems and make them resistant to change?  If we are seeking a re-shaped child protection system, what should the system look like?  If a new paradigm was to be created, how would you describe it?

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gail Slocombe #

    I agree that this upcoming commission has an opportunity to examine more fully the drivers that are affecting the child protection systemic responses to vulnerable children and families. No meaningful review would be complete without an examination of how the different parts of the wider welfare system link together- the role of DV, drug and alcohol services, homelessness, poverty, mental health etc – all these service systems have developed silos which are not always helpful for families and children. If we take a child and family wellbeing paradigm more generally, with soft entry points to early helping models for families before their issues become difficult and entrenched we have a greater possibility of reducing vulnerabilities before they become dangerous. This will reduce the numbers of children entering the tertiary care system. However, this does mean that government and others have to spend more in the short term to reap rewards of reduced expenditure on health, prisons, and rehab services in the future. The Scandinavian family welfare model sees support when families need it most as a right of citizenship not a residual expectation of a few (albeit a growing a number) of vulnerable or inadequate families – the epithet depends on your political point of view!
    Rebuilding a system that is as heavily skewed as the one in Queensland will take political courage, financial resources and a skilled work force plus time and commitment – do we have those attributes at this time?
    I hope that the commission can look at best practice in family welfare and social support systems rather than in child rescue systems so that in ten years time we can be proud of working with a system that supports parents to grow their children safely, ready for their full participation in community and civic life.

    August 1, 2012
  2. Vanessa #

    Another great blog Lindsay! I support your notion that Qld’s child protection system is in crisis. I feel the sector is currently experiencing further tension and strain given the current cuts to staff within the government and the cuts to funding to non-government services, including prevention and early intervention services related to family support, domestic violence, education and employment, tenancy and alcohol diversion programs etc. I believe the Child Protection Inquiry has the potential to bring about positive change to the system. However, I agree with your suggestion that any shift towards resourcing prevention and early intervention programs should not come at a cost to children, young people and families already in the system. I feel that we cannot look at how to best meet the needs of children, young people and families without looking at the impact that the current child protection system is and has had.

    I believe that the Commissioner should focus on establishing a system focused more broadly on ‘child and family well-being’, that as you stated, integrates the ‘full range of programs and services required to support and respond to the needs of children, young people and families’.

    In regards to your point about focusing on ‘outcomes’, I feel that we need to ensure that these ‘outcomes’ are focused on children, young people and families rather than the apparent current climate which appears to be motivated by the need to stop spending. I would hope that outcomes are related to evidence based best practice. Obviously, these outcomes need to be fully supported by the government’s political priorities, otherwise it will continue to be disregarded and undervalued. It will also require a collaborative whole of government and non-government response, involving the coordination of different policy and program areas that are all expected to contribute in some way to the same outcomes. Implementing an outcome focus will require a shift in the current culture within the sector, in particular the government. This will require a shift away from a focus on process and on what one needs to do, to a focus on the benefits. It will also require the understanding that it will be a long term process, which will result in long term benefits, rather than a ‘quick fix’. Furthermore, publications have suggested that an ‘outcome’ focus requires a ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom up’ approach, in which administrative levels provide legitimacy and priority to an outcome orientation and a shared commitment by all levels or government staff so that it is meaningful. This may be more effectively achieved by ensuring that all staff are actively involved in the development of the process. As you have noted, current cuts to government have (apparently) focused on ‘policy’ and ‘program development staff’ – this is problematic and I am confused about how these staff and units can be separated when we talk about the impact on the work that ‘frontline’ staff undertake…. That may be another blog on its own!!

    I agree that it is imperative that this shift toward ‘outcomes’, includes processes for ensuring that reforms are regularly reviewed, evaluated and revised to identify what is working and what is not working and most importantly how approaches can be improved. I often feel that we all identify what does not work in our sector but there is little collaborative input into how the approach can be improved and a commitment and resourcing to implement improvements.

    August 3, 2012
  3. please continue this conversation over at our new blog site:
    http://blog.peakcare.org.au/article/re-shaping-the-system.-but-into-what%3F-1080.html

    August 3, 2012

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