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The Difference Between Saying and Doing

by PeakCare Qld. on 15th June 2011

Home -> Articles -> 2011 -> June -> The Difference Between Saying and Doing

To put it bluntly, I seem to have a whole superstructure with no foundation. But I’m working on the foundation.
Marilyn Monroe

Are our child protection systems superstructures without a solid foundation?

As we introduced theMunro campaignlast week we outlined that Professor Eileen Munro had extensively explored the experiences of British children, young people and families who had contact with child protective services and the impact of current policies and practice on their experience. This landmark report contains extensive research which also offers significant insight for child protection in Australia.

Whilst we analyse the key components of Professor Munro’s report, we will also draw parallels with ourNational Child Protection Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children2009 – 2020. This report talks about the need for a shared agenda for change with national leadership and a common goal. It also focuses direction towards much needed early intervention reforms to combat the annual child protection expenditure across the states and territory in excess of $2 billion and rising on average of 12% per annum.

So why are child protection systems around the world spending billions per annum yet struggling to protect children?

The reasons are many and varied. The most obvious being that this is an incredibly complex arena to navigate and hits at the core of many competing societal and political factors including: values, safety, privacy, parental rights, children’s rights, community responsibility, government responsibility and parental responsibility to name just a few.

Retrospective analysis of the child protection system led Professor Munro to conclude that reactive responses had led to a culture of blaming professionals and to a focus on details of errors made instead of on causal factors. She also spoke of an overarching belief that the complexity of child protection work can be eradicated – optimistic but unlikely! Another key issue noted was that the over significance placed on performance indicators and targets has eroded the focus on the quality and effectiveness of assistance offered. These factors she argues have built a defensive system with an over emphasis on procedures and recording and insufficient attention to supporting and developing the expertise needed to work effectively with children, young people and their families.

Well intentioned endeavours according to Munro have clearly missed the mark. That all sounds very familiar to our experiences and critiques of child protection in Australia thus far, as echoed in our National Child Protection Framework. “The investment by governments and the non-government sector into family support and child protection services is significant, yet our separate efforts still fail many children and young people” (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision 2009).

Munro is also calling for systemic change. First and foremost she argues against a ‘tick box culture’ and states we need to move from being over bureaucratised and concerned with compliance to focusing on learning. She asserts that professionals must be afforded the freedom to assess need and provide appropriate assistance. She further argues that when something goes wrong a focus on why that happened and not what happened is paramount.

Munro is also clearly advocating for greater preparation of Social Workers with higher education institutions and employers doing more to ensure students are equipped for the challenge of child protection work. Her call for increased professionalism and support for Social Workers in our sector sounds alarming warning bells for child protection in Queensland. Whilst she argues that child protection reform requires further skilling of professionals, in Queensland we have regularly responded to our sector’s difficulty in attracting and retaining staff by lowering qualifications and standards and thus largely de-professionalising our sector. Our key focus has been on responding to the immediate requirements of the system and workplaces as opposed to those of vulnerable children, young people and their families. The Munro report argues that systems need to value professional expertise and should be built on assisting professionals to make the best judgments they can to protect vulnerable children. It’s a common sense approach but is a far cry from our response in Queensland.

Whilst the majority of industries across our country that value expertise respond to the competing demands of attracting and retaining staff by offering greater incentives and improved wages and conditions, our industry has done quite the contrary and has elected to accept a less skilled workforce instead of offering competitive arrangements to ensure the retention of competent and highly skilled professionals. Clearly this is fraught. Given our core business is the well-being of vulnerable children and families our decision making in this instance is of significant concern. Munro argues that clear lines of accountability are vitally important. She maintains that processes of monitoring, evaluating and adapting practice are essential whilst her suggested culture of learning is developed.

At the heart of the Munro report is the aim for the child protection system to becometrulychild-centred. If we look for the heart of our National Child Protection Framework it could be clearly argued that the intent is the same: “The actions and strategies that governments and others will agree to take under this National Framework are all aimed to achieve the following high-level outcome:Australia’s children and young people are safe and well.”

I’m reminded of the Italian Proverb: “Between saying and doing many a pair of shoes is worn out”. In spite of our National Framework’s many sound utterances including the adherence to the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child and the clearly articulated principles and supporting outcomes, the ‘how to’ arguably requires significantly further development.

Through all the 173 pages comprising complex research, analysis and findings that is the Munro report the overarching message is unmistakable: a sound child protection system requires Social Workers and a team of professionals who are supported across systems and by educational institutions and employers in their fulfilling the complex role of providing the most appropriate and timely supports to meet the needs of vulnerable children, young people and their families.

There is no doubt that our child protection system has the superstructure. Perhaps we can stand on a more solid foundation when we genuinely identify and then truly uphold our key objective of ensuring the well-being of children, young people and their families. Then in turn we need to be willing to ensure that we holistically support the professionals who provide these essential services to our most vulnerable children, young people and families.

Lorraine Dupree – Policy and Research Manager