Journal Summary: Fourth Edition

ICPS Edition 4 We are pleased to bring you the fourth edition of the journal, Communities, Children and Families Australia – July 2008

“…need for skilled and resilient people, working from universal settings who can really support parents”

The recent discussions around the country about the proposed national framework for child protection reflect a groundswell of conviction that keeping children “safe and well”1 is a genuinely shared responsibility across families, communities, the non government sector and all levels of government. A cross sectoral approach will also require a willingness to engage with a broad range of specialised technical discourses, such as those found in psychiatry, psychology, social work, law and public administration. Making this knowledge accessible to practitioners and policy makers is challenging but essential for understanding the breadth of approaches needed. We are pleased therefore to bring together a group of articles in this edition which are from different disciplines and which demonstrate examples of the diverse knowledge base required for a genuinely cross sectoral approach.

The first article identifies the lack of research into work with parents of very young children who present with signs of borderline personality disorder (BPD) Louse Newman, Professor of Perinatal and Infant Psychiatry at the University of Newcastle provides an overview of theories of attachment and borderline personality disorder and discusses the overdue need for attachment focused ways of working with parents to assist them build relationships with their babies and young children. . Her analysis of how attachment experiences affect neuropsychological wiring in infancy builds the case for an early intervention approach to parenting initiatives which specifically aim to help parents improve emotional interactions and the quality of their children’s attachment experience.

The focus of Louise’s article is on the body of available knowledge about attachment and the implications for very young children of parents who are unable to respond to what their children are telling them. A key message is the need for skilled and resilient people, working from universal settings, who can really support parents in non judgmental ways. Dedicated support, for example, by child care staff or maternal and child health nurses can help parents recognise the link between their own early experiences and the way they respond to their infants. Dedicated resources to universal settings also requires support for staff as they work with parent’s who have such an enduring and highly articulated level of personal need

Dr Lesley Laing from the University of Sydney contributes to a growing understanding of how violence often continues to occur after parents separate. She presents findings from an exploratory study that documents experiences of women involved in post separation contact between children and former partners who were violent. The findings reveal the debilitating effects of ongoing intimidation on women and their children and the need for greater support to women’s efforts to keep their children safe. The findings of this and other studies which challenge myths that women and children are safe once they leave violent partners call for more integrated service responses between Courts, State Child Protection and the Commonwealth funded family relationship service system.

Dr Joanna Zubrzycki and Lorraine Thomson from Australian Catholic University and Dr Pamela Trevithick from University of Hull in the United Kingdom provide research findings which inform international recruitment strategies in child protection. Their study of the recruitment of 23 child protection workers to the Australian Capital Territory from England, Scotland, Northern Island and the Irish Republic in 2003-5 describes workforce issues generally in child protection and the particular challenges of overseas recruitment, especially professional identity, qualifications, understanding of cultural influences and the integration and transferability of existing knowledge and experience. It identifies the need for targeted support, information and training during the transition in order to maximise the contribution which overseas qualified workers can make to Australian Child Protection.

Critics of the Commonwealth’s discussion paper on Child Protection call for recognition in the Framework of children and young people as actors in their own right. Central to any contemporary discussion of issues affecting children and young people should be recognition that children are a diverse group who contribute to society and are competent in voicing their experiences. The focus of an article by Dr Fran Gale and Associate Professor Natalie Bolzan’s paper is young people, social capital and mental health. The article reinforces the importance of a commitment through research to hearing directly from children and young people. The authors argue that without this commitment we cannot know how young people experience the world or understand how social arrangements impact on them. An additional benefit of hearing directly from young people is the contribution they can directly make to effective research. For example the young interviewers in this study suggested ways that ambiguous and hard to pin down concepts such as ‘social capital’ and ‘resilience’ could be explored with young people. They were also able to provide anecdotal information about where young people with diverse interests could be reached.

We are really pleased to feature a reflection by Dr Sue Packer, ACT Community paediatrician. Sue shares the wisdom of her more than 20 years practice with children who have suffered harm through child abuse and neglect.. She identifies few real advances in some spheres over all those years, pointing, for example, to the continuing need for changed court procedures to enable children to present evidence in more developmentally appropriate and supported ways so that the court experience itself is not more damaging than the abuse.. Sue argues also that the closed nature of the Children’s Court (intended to protect the identity of the child) means that the public is prevented from learning about how child abuse is a problem in their community as well as the decisions which are being made for children’s futures through the courts.

Sue’s vast experience of children referred for the management of violent behaviours have led her to the conclusion that almost all have experienced violence directly in their lives, particularly domestic violence. This “pervasive trauma” tears their lives apart and isolates them from the childhood experiences which best equip them for successful adulthood. Along with general observations about the impact of mandatory reporting she argues that reporting sexual abuse before it has actually been disclosed by the child imposes barriers to these children seeking help. Sue’s reflection should be read carefully; it contains many messages about the long term failings of current approaches and enduring frustrations which require a much greater effort to overcome. Success will only come, she believes, “when children are universally recognised as the highly vulnerable, but valued inheritors of our world”.

Gail Winkworth


July 2008

1 Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (2008)