It is widely agreed that there are too many children and young people in out of home care in Australia and that rates of restoration home are too low. It is also accepted that children have a right to be cared for by their families whenever this is safe and for their families to be supported to be the best families they can be. Even when children stay in care and cannot go home, it is vital for them to know and have relationships with their families, especially their parents and siblings. This Churchill Fellowship has explored family inclusion initiatives in the USA, Canada, Norway and the UK and has found that family inclusion is a pathway to better outcomes for children and young people including restoration and permanency.
Section one of the report provides some of the contextual and background information that supports family inclusion including the social context of child removal in Australia. All Australian governments hold policies that are consistent with family inclusion. Restoration home is the first legal priority for all children in care. However there is strong evidence that policy is not being translated into practice. Family inclusion is important to build safe and permanent care for all children, including restoration. However, in Australia we have conflated permanency with legal permanence outcomes, such as adoption. In fact, it is children’s enduring relationships and sense of belonging that we need to focus on. Family inclusion contributes to relational permanency as a goal for all children.
Section two describes the practice elements that emerged from this project. These elements characterised the programs and people I visited and are important parts of building a family inclusive approach in Australia. Firstly, family inclusive practices acknowledge the power imbalances that parents and children face in the child welfare system. When we reduce power imbalances through advocacy and support we make children safer. Secondly, we need to respond to the social causes of child removal including poverty, homelessness and family violence rather than our current approach which tends to focus on parenting and family deficits. Thirdly our use of evidence based programs in prevention, restoration and permanent care needs to proactively integrate family inclusion in order to maximise their benefits. Fourthly, it is proposed that an ethical lens be integrated into all our work, including evidence based programs. It is not enough to do what we think works – we need to combine this with what is right. Fifthly, I have found that parents need to be viewed and understood as parents with agency and as leaders of change within families and in practice. If we see parents entirely through the lens of risk then we construct barriers to inclusion and deny their children the right to truly know them and be cared for by them. Finally, I have found that family inclusion requires a refocusing of child welfare work on relational permanency and a relationship based approach.
Section three provides description and analysis of three areas for innovation.
- 1. Peer work in child welfare. Peer workers are parents who have had personal experiences with the child welfare system and offer advocacy and support to parents currently involved in the system. Peer work helps to address the power imbalances parents’ face. It supports relationship based practice, not only between peer workers and parents, but also with caseworkers. Unlike other child welfare staff, peer workers do not take notes or gather evidence. They are a safe source of emotional and practical support that directly addresses barriers to family engagement that caseworkers struggle to overcome. Peer workers are best employed outside statutory child welfare agencies through NGOs, preferably in parent led organisations.
- 2. Child focused relationships between parents and carers contribute to relational permanence for children. Processes are explored which ensure that parents and carers meet early in a child’s care experience and that these meetings set the scene for restoration focused casework and care. Carer and parent relationships require intentional work and leadership from caseworkers and agency leadership. They thrive in a restoration and family inclusive agency culture. Ultimately they rely on parents, carers and young people themselves. Just as importantly, children in permanent care benefit from carer and parent relationships and an ongoing important role for parents in their lives. An open adoption agency in Oregon is doing great work supporting children in permanent care. Their approach has implications for all permanent care in Australia – not just adoption.
- 3. Parent leadership is important for both of the previous areas and has perhaps the greatest potential for change. It is also likely to face resistance and it is vital that as many people and organisations as possible offer partnership, encouragement and support to parent leaders and organisations and are steadfast in this support. Possibilities exist for leadership and parent involvement in staff and carer training, agency culture change, service design, policy and legislative development and, most importantly, in connecting parents and family together to support each other and advocate for a more family inclusive system.
Section four provides a brief comparison of the various programs and initiatives I visited. There is potential for implementation of family inclusion across the sector as described in this diagram. If change is to be realised then initiatives in casework and group work processes, agency and sector and societal levels are needed.
Section five is made up of recommendations for change about the implementation of initiatives in all three areas. My recommendations include practical suggestions for building family inclusion including peer work, carer and parent relationships, parent leadership, refocusing on relational permanency and integrating an ethical lens to child welfare that reflects children’s rights. Dissemination strategies are described. With the application of these ideas and the inclusion of family as leaders and service providers, better outcomes for children in Australia are within our reach.