Protecting children

20 Jul 2012

Child protection is often labelled a 'wicked' public policy issue, resistant to change and innovation, writes David Griffith of Allen Consulting.

The warning is stark. If Victoria's current reporting rates continue unchecked, one in four Victorian children born in 2011 will be reported to child protection by their 18th birthday.

This dire forecast is one of many insights drawn from the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry (the Cummins Inquiry). Led by a distinguished panel and given broad terms of reference, the Cummins Inquiry tabled its report in the Victorian Parliament in February 2012. 

The scale of change recommended by the Cummins Inquiry constitutes a major challenge to Victoria's public policymaking community.

Child protection is often labelled a 'wicked' public policy issue, resistant to change and innovation. Comprehending the interconnection of issues at hand, developing the frameworks and tools needed to drive and measure change, presenting the evidence, and challenging assumed ways of thinking are central to addressing such complex social policy issues.

The complexity of child vulnerability

The Cummins Inquiry follows a long tradition of review of the child protection system. What distinguishes the Cummins Inquiry is its comprehensive documenting of the nature and incidence of child vulnerability within the community. Key findings on the unpredictable nature of child vulnerability, include:

  • the fluidity of vulnerability within the family environment
  • the interconnection of risk factors, including parental, social, economic and community risk factors, compounded by developmental needs of children at different stages of their life
  • the concentration of vulnerability in particular areas of Victoria
  • the financial costs of abuse and neglect to the Victorian community.

These findings align with our own conclusions from a recent project evaluating service delivery systems for disadvantaged clients. This work demonstrated the prevalence of risk factors amongst vulnerable members of the community and how the coexistence of these factors compounds the likelihood of poorer outcomes.

The challenge of implementation

Having presented the case for change, the Cummins Inquiry outlines 90 recommendations aligned to 10 major system reforms. 

The report's recommendations are directed in two separate though interconnected streams:

  • the design of new governance and accountability mechanisms
  • the development of an efficient, effective and child centred service system.

New governance and accountability mechanisms

The major features of new governance and accountability mechanisms recommended in the report include:

  • whole-of-government performance and accountability arrangements
  • regulatory frameworks and performance measures that clearly define the differing roles of government and non-government agencies and what is expected of them
  • the collection of data and feedback that are focused on outcomes and shared learning rather than compliance alone
  • industry wide strengthening of the capability of the human services workforce.

A child centred service system

The Cummins Inquiry outlines an evolutionary transformation of current services into an efficient and child centred service system, characterised by:

  • an area based approach to service delivery to drive greater coordination and integration of services
  • redesign of funding to out-of-home-care to reflect the needs of traumatised children
  • specific measures to address the needs of Indigenous children and young people
  • significant changes to the Children's Court to address its adversarial nature.

At ACG, our view is that the recommendations are ambitious, and if implemented, will transform the service system.

Recently we undertook a project examining child protection workforce issues. A key finding of our work demonstrated the potential of quality data. Data - collected and analysed with a view to program improvement rather than compliance - can be used to improve system wide knowledge, enable practice innovation and improvement at the local level, and ultimately deliver better outcomes for at risk children.

The need for evidence and evaluation

A common theme running through the Cummins Inquiry is the paucity of evidence demonstrating the impact of alternative initiatives. A lack of clear data and program evaluation has been a characteristic common to human service industries. 

For the Victorian Government to have confidence that scarce public monies are spent well, and for the community to have confidence that vulnerable children are getting the support they need, program evaluation needs to move from an afterthought in the policymaking process to a core consideration.

Achieving change

The foundations for a reformed and truly child centred system are laid out in legislation and captured in the best interest principles that underpin the Children Youth Families Act 2005. However, since its implementation in 2007 the voice of the child has been increasingly crowded out and lost. The Cummins Inquiry provides the opportunity to put it back at the centre of decision-making, where it belongs.

In our experience, organisational and cultural change in a complex human service environment is difficult but it is achievable, particularly if government agencies are willing to seek input from across the community to help reorient the system to a child centred service delivery model.

A preparedness to leverage particular expertise from both within and outside government will be the first step in ensuring the Cummins Inquiry proves a watershed in Victorian social policy, shaping how the state engages with and protects vulnerable children into the future.

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