Strength-based social work, Australia


Like the UK, Australia has seen rising demand for child protection and care services over the past five years. In response, the latest iteration of the federal government's 10-year child protection strategy focuses on early intervention to keep children and young people out of state care.

The South Australia state government has developed its own strategy to implementing the federal plan, one that takes a public health approach to tackling the causes of vulnerability and that aims to support families before crisis intervention is needed.

An innovative initiative developed in South Australia is helping families on the edge of care. Family by Family is a peer-to-peer programme that sees a troubled family receive support from a mentor family they are "matched" with. It has received state funding and is now expanding across the country.

REGULATION AND POLICY

In Australia, state and territory governments are responsible for the administration and operation of child protection services. Legislative acts in each state and territory govern the way such services are provided. The federal government's Department for Education largely oversees national policy on childcare, schools and skills development.

While child protection legislation is the jurisdiction of the six states and two territory governments, the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children 2009-2020 is a co-operative document that aims to provide a shared, national agenda for change in the way Australia manages child protection issues.

The National Framework outlines a long-term national approach to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of Australia's children. It aims to deliver a substantial and sustained reduction in levels of child abuse and neglect over time. It is being implemented through a series of three-year action plans, the third version of which covers the period from 2015 to 2018.

The plan includes three key strategies: early intervention, with a focus on the first 1,000 days of a child's life; helping young people in out-of-home care to thrive in adulthood; and organisations responding better to child safety concerns. Two cross-cutting areas of focus are: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families; and research and reporting.

Under the early intervention strategy, the federal government aims to improve awareness of child development and parenting and "normalise families asking for help". It also aims to improve access to evidence-based family support services, particularly for new and vulnerable parents affected by mental health, substance misuse or domestic abuse.

In 2016, the South Australia government published A Fresh Start, a detailed plan for reforming child protection services in the state. This was updated in June 2018.

It establishes a broader child development system, which aims to avoid protection measures altogether by changing parent behaviour and addressing the social factors that lead to abuse and neglect. It will focus on working with families affected by mental health, substance misuse, poverty, violence, trauma and social isolation. New referral networks have been established to co-ordinate local services and connect children and families with support.

SOCIETY AND CULTURE

Children from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities are seven-times more likely as non-indigenous children to receive child protection services, according to data published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIWH).

Around two-thirds of the 780,000 Australians of indigenous heritage live in remote areas. In comparison, just a quarter of the country's population of 24 million live in remote areas.

The institute's data also shows that children from rural and remote areas are four-times more likely to be subject to a substantiated child protection investigation than those from major cities.

A 2013 AIWH report details how early life outcomes for indigenous children are substantially worse than for their non-indigenous peers. They have higher mortality rates under five, higher prevalence of clinical, behavioural and emotional disorders, and poorer literacy and numeracy scores at school.

Indigenous children are also exposed to more risk factors that affect child development including smoking and drinking during pregnancy, poor parental health, poverty and lack of access to early childhood support.

The overall number of children involved in the care system in Australia has risen significantly over the past five years. Between 2012/13 and 2016/17, substantiated child protection investigations rose from 7.8 to 9.0 per 1,000 children; care and protection orders rose from 8.2 to 9.9 per 1,000; and out-of-home care rates rose from 7.7 to 8.7 per 1,000.

South Australia covers an area of nearly one million square kilometres containing some of the most rural and arid parts of the country. It has a population of 1.7 million citizens, three-quarters of whom live in the state capital Adelaide.

Safeguarding assessments in South Australia are undertaken by the Department for Child protection. A number of voluntary agencies provide family support services for those subject to child protection assessments.

Since 2013, the number of children subject to out-of-home care in South Australia has risen 38 per cent to 3,680, according to official data.

PRACTICE

Family by Family links families that have been through tough times - "sharing families" - with struggling families that want to change something in their life - "seeking families".

The intervention can be used as a universal, targeted or statutory early intervention. Seeking families are provided with support for between 10 and 30 weeks depending on the issues being addressed.

Sharing families work with one to three seeking families at a time and receive support from trained professionals. They are on hand to provide advice and support round the clock.

The approach is strengths-focused, encouraging families to set behaviour-change goals to tackle issues from money management, substance misuse and social isolation.

It was developed by The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) and has been piloted in Adelaide since 2010. The ethos underpinning it is that families have fewer opportunities than in the past to acquire "internal family assets" such as motivation, communication and problem solving, while "external assets" - informal support, information and services - are also harder to access due to societal changes.

A shortage of social capital to draw on results in resilience dropping and stress building.

The main issues seeking families have reported include social isolation, single parenthood and psycho-social health challenges.

Family by Family uses a range of different evidence-based theories to help participants engage and change their behaviour. These include systems theory, Siegel's interpersonal neurobiological theory, trans theoretical behaviour change and normalisation theory.

Family by Family has supported more than 1,500 families in northern, western and inner southern areas of Adelaide over the past eight years.

The only eligibility for Family by Family is that families have a child or children under 18 years living in the home, they want something to change and they live in a community where Family by Family is operating.

Family coaches support up to 15 sharing families to coach, and provide mentoring to up to 40 seeking families - who may never have experienced positive parenting themselves. Sharing Families can provide this through role modelling, peer-to-peer learning, celebrating successes and having tough talks while challenging behaviours by providing a new norm or way of being a family through building trusting relationships.

IMPACT

Family by Family says analysis of seeking families shows participation in the programme boosts confidence and self-agency, parenting skills and family health and wellbeing. It also reports a reduction in social isolation and stress levels due to improved coping skills.

In addition, child protection notifications reduced for participating families at six- and 12-month intervals post engagement.

Organisers claim that with coaches having contact with up to 100 vulnerable children at any one time, it has a cost-benefit ratio of 1:7.

Meanwhile, sharing families reported that their job and training opportunities improved as a result of taking part in the programme.

Family by Family is now being delivered in Sydney's western suburbs.

FACTFILE

  • Across Australia, the number of children being taken into care has risen over the past five years
  • Proven child protection investigations are higher in rural areas where the majority of the indigenous population live
  • The federal government has developed a national child protection strategy focused on early intervention which state governments are implementing
  • In South Australia, a strength-based approach to supporting families has been developed
  • Family by Family matches struggling families with mentor families to offer 24-hour support

EXPERT VIEW
Working with families to find and deliver solutions

By Ewan King, director of business development and delivery, the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE)

Australia and New Zealand have a long history of pioneering strengths-based approaches to social care. Local area co-ordination, which involves local co-ordinators supporting people to live good lives, and family group conferencing, a process of working with families to develop solutions, were all started by Antipodeans.

At the heart of their approach is a strengths-based philosophy which believes that we can create positive change in families by working with them to find and deliver solutions that work for them rather than try to fix problems by imposition. It looks at what people can bring to the table rather than relying solely on structured assessments linked to pre-defined packages of services.

Such strengths-based approaches are successfully transforming social care for families in many parts of the UK. In Leeds, a restorative approach that emphasises the importance of working with families to find solutions; in Stockport, multidisciplinary teams in local communities work with families to provide tailored and holistic help.

Family by Family, although different from what we are used to, has potential to be developed successfully in the UK.

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