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An invitation for different ways of working

by PeakCare Qld on 25th June 2015

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An Invitation for Different Ways of Working - Differential Response is in the Spotlight

Members of the AASW/PeakCare Child Protection Practice Group were inspired by a presentation on Differential Response by Steve Dowker, Service Coordinator of Referral for Active Intervention, UnitingCare Community. Steve delivered his introduction and before moving on with his presentation was required to field many questions from participants. The interest in this subject matter was immense.

The Carmody Report Taking Responsibility: A Roadmap for Queensland Child Protection made clear assertions with regard to the significance of Differential Response and the following key recommendation:

Recommendation 4.7

That the Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability services establish differential responses that include alternatives to a Child Safety investigation to respond to concerns that are currently categorised as notifications. This would provide three separate response pathways:

  • an investigation response by government of the most serious cases of child maltreatment
  • a family services assessment response by a non-government organisation where there is a low to moderate risk
  • a family violence response by a non-government organisation where a child has been exposed to violence.

For the latter two responses, there is no need for a formal finding that a child is in need of protection.

Carmody spoke to Queensland’s need for diversion from the statutory system at both the reporting and notification stage. A dual reporting pathway at the reporting stage was proposed and diversion to a non-government service option at the notification stage, whereby suitable families can achieve appropriate support rather than invasive investigation and assessment. A stocktake of family support and intervention services to identify service gaps and a state wide roll out of the Helping Out Families Initiative were also recommended.

It was argued by Carmody that the proposed Differential Response model would require far fewer investigations and ensure that many families would be referred quickly to the services they need in a timely manner without coming to the attention of the statutory system. This was deemed important to address both the burden on the statutory system as well as the unmet needs of families being referred to Child Safety but not requiring a statutory response.

What is Differential Response?

Steve noted in his presentation that the National Quality Improvement Centre (2009) notes Differential Response as:

An alternative to traditional child protection investigative responses and one of several responses within the differential response system that

• Sets aside investigation, fault finding and substantiation decisions for some reports

• Is usually applied to reports that do not allege serious and imminent harm

• Seeks safety through family engagement and collaborative partnerships

In Collaborating with families in differential responses: practitioners' views Healy, Harrison, Venables and Bosly (2014) note that differential responses usually involve the development of a two-track or multi-track pathway in child protection service systems. Most commonly this includes an investigative pathway, preserved for families identified at high risk of harm to children, while a different response is available to families where a lower, although still significant, level of concern is present.

Bernard Barrett points to differential response as having a broad set of principles:

Differential response is an attempt to move away from a focus on Child Protection and Risk Assessment, to Family Engagement and Collaboration. This does not mean that risk assessment is to cease, rather it is seen in the context of management and identification and within the context of a wider family support approach in which the whole set of needs of a child and his/her family are seen as their business (Barret 2011 p1-2).

Ultimately this is a shift from reactive to proactive working. The aim being to deliver the right services at the right time to families as needs emerge.

Given the recent establishment of Family and Child Connect services (the model currently being rolled out in place of the Helping Out Families Initiative previously mentioned), participants were eager to hear more about how these services were operating. What are the learnings that may benefit other regions around Queensland about to embark on similar journeys as they implement this service? What does this service mean for intake and referral? For making notifications and for working in various contexts in Queensland’s child protection system? For how Recommendation 4.7 of the Carmody Report will be interpreted, considered, understood, adapted and applied as a best-fit model for Queensland?

Discussions outlined the more open system of referrals and notifications. Referrals to Family and Child Connect can be via the Department of Child Safety, other government departments, non-government organisations, schools and other concerned parties (with consent of the family about whom concern is raised). Families can also self-refer.

The Family and Child Connect services are particularly relevant to Recommendation 4.7 in that these services are assisting in the provision of the structure and means required for an eventual implementation of a Differential Response model and for generating the shifts in thinking required for practice conducive to a differential model being adopted.

Whilst recommending a Differential Response model in Queensland and noting many improved outcomes for children and families in overseas jurisdictions, Carmody also noted potential challenges to implementation recognised by the Institute of Applied Research in the United States:

  • Family assessments required caseworkers to think and act differently and some were resistant to change.
  • Under-funding of services required caseworkers to do more work with families.
  • Under the new model, caseworkers needed to develop new relationships with stakeholders including police and the courts. This was more successful in areas where collaboration between key institutions and agencies already existed.

The need for partnerships in particular was a significant part of both Steve’s presentation and the general discussion. Given that Differential Response is a shift from reactive to proactive work, partnerships across government and non-government organisations are acknowledged as essential in quality service provision to children and families. Needs led responses are key to assessments and ensuring that children and families receive the appropriate services required at the time they require them. The earlier in the trajectory of concern, the more likely a positive outcome for the child and family. Needs led can also mean prioritisation in order to meet the most urgent need.

The aim is to ensure the needs of the child as the priority consideration whilst seeking to promote and foster collaboration with children and their families as a parallel consideration. The intent being keeping children with their families whenever possible.

In order to achieve this aim, as previously mentioned, the emphasis is on families receiving holistic support and intervention in a timely manner in order to ensure that issues arising are addressed as they arise. It’s about the right service at the right time by the right service provider. This involves a commitment to specialisation in service provision to ensure that provision includes specialist staff in various areas within the overall remit of meeting the holistic support and well-being needs of children and families.

Steve noted this shift already becoming evident in Queensland: “We can see evidence of a similar model coming into Queensland with the employment of Specialised Domestic Violence Workers and the positioning of Principal Child Protection Officers within Family and Child Connect programs”.

Bernard Barrett (2015) suggests it’s probably easier to think of Differential Response as a principle that can be embodied within a number of different models and programs. Within the Australian context this principle has been implemented in a number of States. Lamont, Rhys Price-Robertson & Bromfield (2010) highlight how Australia across a number of States including South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria have all established Differential Response models. Western Australia was the first State to implement New Directions as a Differential Response model in 1996.

In summarising his presentation Steve focused on implications for practice and the initial invitation to find different ways of working. This included highlighting decision making tools, measurements and practice wisdom, all of which help keep children safe. When considering the significance of Differential Response in practice, a commitment to team learning and development which includes professional supervision informed by reflective practice, strengths based approaches whilst also looking at competencies is key. This endeavour will go some way in alleviating the concerns raised by the Institute of Applied Research. Furthermore it is important to support practitioners to see both the inherent and overtly stated issues alongside the more innocuous and covert issues at play.

The practice discussion on Differential Response ended with case study analysis and the shared experiences of three workers. These cases and experiences opened further discussion in the group and highlighted significant enthusiasm about renewed opportunities for child protection and family support in Queensland.

There is no doubt that the Queensland Child Protection system is undergoing significant change as a result of the reforms intended by the Carmody Inquiry. This offers various opportunities for all those working in the child protection and family support system. Whilst Steve presented excellent research about Differential Response and its history, Queensland is about to embark on its own journey. With the benefit of the wisdom of many who’ve ventured there before, when Queensland implements Differential Response we can not only learn from others but ensure that implementation is relevant and appropriate in our context whilst also vigorously evaluating each stage of the process through the lens of critical analysis.

This is only the beginning of conversations of Differential Response in Queensland. The enthusiasm of the group demonstrated the significant interest practitioners have in this model. Some noted they already work this way. There is much work to do in preparing for and implementing a Differential Response model across Queensland but this work is already underway. How Queensland implements the ‘best fit’ of Differential Response will depend on further research, discussion and debate. These factors are critical to ensuring that the implementation of recommendation 4.7 leads to a significant enhancement to holistic child and family practice across government and non-government partners and thus to the wellbeing of children and families in Queensland who require assistance.