AIFS Seminar presented by Emeritus Professor Dorothy Scott OAM
Seminar summary written by Lalitha Nair1
Emeritus Professor Dorothy Scott’s presentation at the AIFS Seminar Series offered a timely and insightful analysis of the challenges and avenues for reform in the child protection sector in Australia.
The presentation drew upon the numerous inquiries and reviews that Professor Scott has conducted – including Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry in 2011, which investigated the child protection system in Victoria.
Professor Scott outlined a number of compelling reasons for immediate reforms in the child protection sector:
- The prevalence estimates of child physical abuse, penetrative sexual abuse and children witnessing domestic violence remain alarmingly high.
- The long-term effects of child abuse can devastate lives.
- Demand has outstripped capacity of statutory child protection systems. The large numbers of children in contact with the child protection system make it difficult to respond effectively to the small minority of children with the greatest need. There is a similar pressure on the out-of-home care system.
- Although removing children from their families may be needed to ensure safety, it should be undertaken with caution, as removal can pose serious long-term risks to children’s wellbeing.
The presentation raised pertinent questions that the sector will need to consider to be able to respond to children’s needs effectively.
The co-occurrence and frequency of factors such as family violence, substance misuse and mental illness, the “unholy trinity” as Professor Scott described them, highlight the multiple and complex needs of families that enter the child protection system.
The strong association between child protection involvement and the complex needs of families in turn highlights a major challenge in child protection – breaking the link between adults’ problems and children’s pain. This would mean enhancing the capabilities of specialist adult services to take a broader role in responding to the needs of children of parents in contact with other support services.
Professor Scott described the misalignment in the service response to the needs of families, with the current system organised almost exclusively around single input services. This arrangement compels families with multiple and complex needs to connect with a large number of organisations, which in turn can result in a “revolving door” of referrals and fragmented care.
Moving to a child and family inclusive practice model requires service reform at three levels – workforce development in terms of values, knowledge and skills, organisational setting and the policy context that mandates the practice. Effective collaboration between adult specialist services and the child and family services sector would be another vital step to enhance the capacity of services to respond to both child protection and parental needs.
Professor Scott argued that the type of reform the child protection sector needs is one that would restrict the Statutory Child Protection Service to only those children who require a forensic investigation and possible placement in out-of-home care.
While there are isolated exemplars of best practice in the sector, Professor Scott emphasised that the problem of child abuse and neglect will not be solved by service solutions alone. There is an urgent need for population-level approaches to tackle identified risk factors, such as parental alcohol misuse, and to promote protective factors such as parent-child attachment and social support.
Presentation slides, audio and a transcript are available from the AIFS website.
You can access the report of the Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry here.
1. Lalitha Nair is a Research Officer at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.