Journal Summary: Second Edition

Journal Cover

We are very pleased to bring you the second edition of Communities, Children and Families Australia. When Professor Dorothy Scott launched the journal in July 2006 she did so ‘hopeful’ that it would be able to carry out its aims and that it would endure. The editorial committee recently reflected on our hopes that the journal may be a useful forum for challenging the orthodoxy of current ways of thinking in child protection. To do this we felt it is essential that it crosses the different arenas in which we work: practice, policy, research, education and management, as well as the different disciplines and sectors which all contribute to the wellbeing and safety of children and young people. Challenging the conventional gaps between primary, secondary and tertiary interventions (currently embedded in Commonwealth and States/Territories responsibilities and funding arrangements), the journal will feature articles which recognise the strong interface needed between early intervention, targeted approaches and statutory child protection.

Some of these themes are reflected in this edition. Two articles (Connelly & Doolan; Bromfield & Ryan) are the collaborations of practitioners and researchers. Three (Connelly & Doolan; Wyles; Richmond) reflect on the implications of specific child death reviews; articles (McHugh; Harries, Lonne & Thomson; Blakester) challenge conventional orthodoxies such as ethics in child protection, the cost of fostering, and the frames through which we view child abuse and neglect; two writers, (Daro; Richmond), both with extensive experience working across the early intervention and statutory child protection spectrum, explore the potential of particular early intervention strategies to prevent harm to children.

One of the positive spin offs from attending various conferences last year, including the XVIth ISPCAN International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect in York was that four high profile international figures accepted invitations to our editorial board. They are: Professor Ken Barter, Memorial University, Canada; Deborah Daro, Research Fellow, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago; Nigel Parton, Professor in Child Care and Director of the Centre for Applied Childhood Studies, University of Huddersfield and Pamela Tevithick who holds the field chair in social work at the University of Bristol.

At our invitation, Deborah Daro provides an in depth analysis of research on early home visitation programs which she places within the broader context of early intervention systems generally. In Deborah’s view the prenatal care and wellbeing visits provided universally as part of primary health care throughout Australia provides a ‘promising platform on which to build a network of more intensive early intervention efforts. Although acknowledging that home visitation is not a ‘singular solution’ for preventing child abuse, Deborah claims that the empirical evidence generated so far does support the growing capacity of quality programs to achieve their aims. Deborah’s conclusions about the importance of solid internal consistency within programs that link specific program elements to specific outcomes is of great significance in the broader Australian human services context with the outsourcing of many services and the challenge to identify meaningful performance measures which drive rather than impede good practice.

The “promising platform” of maternal and child health services in Australia referred to by Daro is explored further in Giovanna Richmond’s article on ‘policy partnerships’ between health and child protection systems. Despite the extensive range of primary and targeted health services which reach a very large proportion of the population, especially in the first three years, Giovanna presents the view that the health sector’s response to child abuse and neglect at the primary and secondary levels of prevention needs to be broader in scope and directed by specific cross sectoral policy. The unintended consequence of mandatory reporting, she claims, is an abrogation of responsibility on the part of health workers to statutory workers and isolation for many health professionals who find themselves “navigating” the child protection system instead of being an integral part of it. A “policy partnership” forged between health and child protection resulted in the development of a comprehensive training strategy for all health professionals (developed by health professionals), creation of inter sectoral liaison positions, and enhanced interdisciplinary integration such as the introduction of nursing positions into key tertiary institutions. Finally Giovanna provides a conceptual framework for improving integration which includes three key elements: explicit cross sectoral policy; the identification of benefits and barriers; and the effective management of boundaries between health and child protection domains through dedicated leadership.

In past decades child death and other high profile inquiries and the media responses to them, have played a paramount role in changes to child welfare practice which has been dominated by conservative, risk averse procedures. As Marie Connolly and Mike Doolan argue, reviewing child deaths can create a culture of blame and precipitate reactive responses that do little to promote practice improvements. Marie Connolly, Chief Social Worker within the New Zealand Government and Mike Doolan, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the University of Canterbury discuss the practice issues raised by an in depth analysis of nine homicides of children known to statutory child protection services in New Zealand over a four year period. They argue there is a harsh reality that not all violence towards children can be predicted, nor does this mean that all families who struggle to care for their children should be treated “as potential child killers”. Instead fine practice judgements which balance short and long term risks to children including the risks involved in placing children in the care system, must be made at every point. Marie and Mike’s article also reminds us how important this kind of analysis is because it can help in times of high political and media pressure to explain the complexity of decision making in child protection. If child protection environments allow in depth reviews of such cases, important practice insights and improved procedures can result.

Some of the issues raised by Marie and Mike reflect the difficult ethical dilemmas facing child protection workers every moment of every day. The paper by Maria Harries, (University of Western Australia), Bob Lonne (University of Queensland) and Jane Thomson, (James Cook University), is a fascinating and timely discussion of the ethical foundations of Child Welfare. Arguing that much of contemporary practice is fundamentally flawed by its “preoccupation with managing immediate risks and risk avoidance” (justified by the ‘highly seductive” rhetoric of the ‘best interests’ principle) they claim that decisions often fail to take into account long term impacts on the wellbeing of children “and their location within families and communities”. This attention to short term risk also overlooks the wider context of structural disadvantage affecting most families involved with the child protection system. The authors put forward a theoretical framework comprising three conceptual elements which they argue form the crux of good ethical decision making. These are: competing ethical principles; power; and complex stakeholder relationships. This rich discussion argues for a greater understanding of the context of power relations in Child Protection. It also challenges people working in the system to develop a strong value base in which “a duty to protect children is balanced with the principle of respect for all people involved and where the principle of justice is permitted to find a place back at the decision making table”.

Continuing with themes emerging from child death and other inquiries Paul Wyles, a Director in the ACT Office of Child, Youth and Family Support, explores three recent Australian child protection reviews to analyse their attention to the role professional supervision can play in improving outcomes. He finds that they offer little direction, telling us ‘what we already know and understand’. There is little focus on the central role professional supervision can play in building better child protection systems in this country. Instead supervision referred to in reviews tends to be narrowly defined as line supervision and is “almost solely about performance management and monitoring”. Paul argues from experience that “administrative supervision does not capture the inherent complexities of work in human service organisations”. The danger, he claims, with inevitable future reviews is that supervision will increasingly be seen as a tool for compliance rather than for fulfilling broader purposes such as assisting staff to think through the ethical considerations outlined in the previous article. Paul concludes with some recommendations about a range of strategies that “sit comfortably between managerial and professional paradigms”.

The importance of targeted recruitment, timely induction, entry level training and ongoing support and supervision for child protection practitioners is reiterated in the article by Leah Bromfield and Robert Ryan. Reflecting the academic and practice partnerships that the journal seeks to encourage, Leah, from the National Child Protection Clearinghouse, and Robert, from the Queensland Department of Child Safety, collaborate to provide a national comparison of child protection training in Australian. The findings from this snapshot (October 2005–March 2006), undertaken to enhance the goals of the Australasian Statutory Child Protection Learning and Development Group, are useful for policy makers, trainers, practitioners and researchers. In particular the paper increases the awareness of the knowledge and skills expected of statutory child protection workers. Of significance, only half of the jurisdictions had formal assessment processes in place to determine whether trainees had acquired requisite skills and only two jurisdictions formally evaluated their training programs. The authors identify assessment and evaluation as priority areas for future research.

In her paper about the costs of fostering Marilyn McHugh asks the question “Is it time for consideration of a carer payment?” Marilyn provides a detailed analysis of reasons for a crisis in foster care in Australia including the social and economic factors contributing to a reduction of the availability of women as volunteers, the increasing complexity of children’s behaviour in care and growing expectations on carers to perform additional tasks. Interviews with thirty foster carers indicated that carers incur psychological and emotional costs through the maintenance of a complex range of relationships; opportunity costs through loss of employment and superannuation; and time costs involved in the additional fostering tasks over and above normal non foster care specific activities. The paper examines international developments, particularly in the UK, France and Sweden, which point to financial support for carers far in advance of what is provided in Australian child welfare systems. The differences range from tax relief, payments for child expenses plus wages which are guaranteed for temporary absences of children and for three months after children ceased being placed with the carer. In Sweden, if a carer is required to stay at home due to the child’s special needs, the wage component is doubled as compensation for lost employment income.

Finally, we are pleased to publish Adam Blakester, the National Executive Officer of NAPCAN,’s reflective piece on NAPCAN’s shift to a “community-wide” and “community responsibility” focus. Adam claims that the phrase “prevent child abuse and neglect” conjures up in the public mind a need for professional intervention rather than community responsibility. He explains in depth the reasons why the “new” NAPCAN will reframe its work to encourage sustainable, child friendly communities that provide and support children’s wellbeing. Adam’s background in commerce and law leads him to explore the economic costs of child abuse and neglect, which, he points out, at an estimated $5billion in 2003 was more than Australia’s annual income from meat exports. Drawing on the parallel between the massive human and financial investment needed to combat the long term impacts of climate change and the approach to child abuse and neglect, where only one third of one percent of current expenditure is invested in prevention, Adam provides staggering evidence of the lack of a national approach to the latter. He contrasts the 1.2 billion dollars spent by state governments on the tertiary response to child abuse and neglect in 2004-2005 with the Australian government’s contribution of 4.2 million dollars to prevention, one three hundredth of this amount, in the same period.

We hope this edition is of interest to readers. Once again we thank those who have worked hard to produce it. Our special thanks go to the growing College for Child and Family Protection Practitioners for their very generous support and encouragement.

  • Gail Winkworth

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NAPCAN: National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect