Families and communities hold the solutions in child protection – we just need to use them

Jessica Cocks
Rob Ryan
Ben Spence

Harnessing the skills and insight of people with experience in the system is the key to sustainable and transformative reform of our child protection systems.

31 May 2024

Child abuse and neglect cause great harm to children and society. Despite considerable effort and good intentions, statutory child protection systems in Australia are not offering the right solutions. However, proven alternatives already exist within families with lived experience and the communities they come from. If we deliver such community-led ideas, we will transform our system for the better.

Why do we need new solutions?

Child protection systems in Australia are consumed with managing overwhelming numbers of reports about child abuse and neglect, in associated legal processes and in out-of-home care. Over 60 per cent  of all child protection government expenditure goes to out-of-home care. We are investing heavily in keeping children away from their families. Meanwhile, Australia has chronically under-spent in prevention and family support, despite long-standing evidence that this is where investment will have real impact.

This approach also runs counter to evidence from the important Australian Maltreatment Study which found that harm to children is caused by an array of familial, social and systemic drivers. It is rarely the sole result of intentional harm caused by individual parents. For most Australian families, access to resources and a decent income keeps them out of the grasp of the child protection system. Yet poverty, unaffordable housing and other issues causing deprivation are not addressed by our child protection services.

While there will always be some need for out-of-home care services, investment must shift to prevention, family strengthening, parent and caregiver support and reunification. We need new solutions that disrupt and dismantle current approaches and create the conditions for families to succeed.

Parents, families and communities have the solutions we need

We propose three strategic areas for development. These are based on our Churchill Fellowship findings into family inclusion and child protection, on research findings and, perhaps most importantly, our shared years of experience as practitioners. These are not the only possible areas of change for consideration – but they are excellent places to start, are not costly, and can occur without delay.

In this, lived experience participation is central, starting by conceptualising parents and families as resourceful and knowledgeable experts by virtue of their own experience. Lived experience initiatives are emerging in the child protection sector (see here and here for two examples), but remain small scale and under-resourced. Implementing these strategies requires trauma informed implementation and steadfast relational leadership. It is not simply a matter of bringing people with lived experience to the table and into new roles.

Children and young people are part of families. They also bring lived experience expertise and can fulfill the roles and functions we describe here. Many young people with lived experience are already contributing through advocacy organisations such as Create. Many parents and family members who experience the loss of children into out-of-home care are also care-experienced themselves, and bring this perspective to service design.

Strategic area one: parent and family peer advocacy and support

Parent and family peer advocates are people with lived experience of the child protection system. They have experienced investigations, child removal, reunification or other processes. They can offer advocacy and support to families currently involved in the system to help them participate in processes. Peer advocacy at a group and individual level has a growing evidence base in reunification and in prevention. It is especially powerful when combined with specialised legal representation, where there is strong international evidence that it drives reunification. Early Australian evidence suggests that being a parent advocate is empowering and satisfying. Our experience also suggests it offers pathways into the labour market for some parents and family members, directly addressing one of the underlying causes of child removal. Peer advocacy is emerging in Australia but requires investment to thrive, along with evaluation to ensure its effective implementation and scaling.

The benefits of parent and family peer advocacy and support extend beyond the families and children being supported. It brings families with lived experience into the child protection workforce at agency and sector levels, challenging misleading narratives about parents and family. When child protection practitioners are working alongside parents who have successfully navigated the system, the deficit-focus and risk aversion embedded in child protection and out-of-home care practice is challenged every day.

Peer advocates are emerging as trainers and educators of child protection staff and foster and kinship carers. They are participating in the design of services and the development of knowledge translation tools and resources. By providing education and training, parent advocates further demonstrate and model the importance of parent and family participation to professionals. Workforce capability to partner positively and respectfully with family is urgently needed in Australia. It has been identified as a policy priority in the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, endorsed by all Australian governments. 

Strategic area two: developing parents and family with lived experience to be leaders

Groundbreaking research from NSW explored how the role of family in the lives of children in out-of-home care is understood and experienced by practitioners, carers and parents. The research found that families want to play normative, responsible and central roles in the lives of their children, just as parents and family in the lives of most Australian children do. This and previous research by the University of Newcastle and Life Without Barriers found parents and family have a lot to offer, but are shut out by processes and practice. This exclusion of families also occurs at a systemic level, when policies and legislation is written, in the governance of organisations and when services are being designed.

By reconceptualising parents and family as leaders and bringing this to our policy, management, system structures and service development, we can create accountability and enact change. This means that parents and family are paid and supported to bring their lived experience to leadership. It will mean parents and family with lived experience are appointed to leadership roles in government and non-government settings. It will mean exposing organisations and decision-makers to direct accountability to people with lived experience. It will mean lived experience is integrated into sector agencies’ governance mechanisms. It will see meaningful complaints and review processes that give families advocacy and support to genuinely influence the care of their children and ensure they are safe and connected.

Strategic area three: reengineering foster care to become a safe pathway home

There is a critical shortage of foster carers with the skills and commitment to look after children for short periods and partner with families to pursue reunification and kinship care.

Current approaches to foster care tend to separate carers and families as if they are opposing parties in a tangle of case management relationships. Foster carers tend to be understood as providing long-term care to children, as an alternative or replacement family. In many cases, foster carers may not even meet parents and family or may do so only after a lengthy period. Foster carer and family relationships are often mediated through practitioners and agencies with varying beliefs, biases and values about the importance of family and the roles of carers.

But it need not be so. A reengineered approach to foster care would see highly skilled foster carers engaged and supported to build relationships with families and work towards reunification or, when this is genuinely not possible, kinship care. Permanent out-of-home care with unrelated people would become rare.

We know from our own practice that there are already parents and carers who persevere through barriers and form supportive relationships that benefit children and lead to reunification. There are also some services emerging which harness the vital role of foster carers to support reunification, with promising results such as the Generation-by-Generation program. However, these initiatives remain embryonic and need scaling.

There is hope for change

Australia has child protection systems mired in hopelessness and risk aversion. We are caught up in a cycle of inquiries, successive “silver bullet” policies and poorly designed reforms that change little and often make things worse. Tweaking the system and making practice improvements are no longer options. Radical and multiple changes to child protection processes are needed, including the strategies proposed in this article. The child protection system needs a thousand new flowers to bloom that challenge, dismantle and reconfigure the structures of power within which current practice occurs.

These strategies – with their emphasis on strength and potential in families and community – offer hope. We must hold on to hope in this sector. Parents and families with lived experience are messengers of this hope. It is incumbent on us all to commit to proper investment in these and other lived experience driven strategic initiatives, evaluate and scale them. We have the solutions right now, it’s time to use them.

Jessica Cocks is a social worker and researcher with a focus on developing and studying family inclusive initiatives in child protection, working closely with people with lived experience of the system. In 2018 Jessica completed a Churchill Fellowship into family inclusive initiatives and has written and spoken widely on this topic. She is currently leading service design and innovation in the Stride Team at Life Without Barriers.

 Rob Ryan is currently the CEO of the Parenting Research Centre. Rob formerly worked at Life Without Barriers and has also held roles as the Chief Executive Officer of Key Assets, a children services agency where he had responsibility for operations in the Asia Pacific Region. Prior to this, Rob had senior roles with the Department of Child Safety and Youth Justice in Queensland. In 2009 Rob was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study child protection across the United Kingdom USA, and Canada.

Ben Spence is an independent practice and policy consultant with a particular interest in rights-based, anti-oppressive and dignity-driven practice, family strengthening and whole-of-family inclusive practice for vulnerable children and families. Ben is currently a practitioner-at-large, following a lengthy career in roles at operational, strategic and executive levels across government and non-government sectors.

Image credit: Getty Images

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