Access in the early years to integrated community-based services that are flexible in their approach, holistic and culturally strong is a proven critical predictor of a child’s successful transition to school and lifelong education and employment outcomes, providing long-term wellbeing. Studies show that participation in maternal and child health (MCH) services in Victoria, Australia, improve health outcomes for children and families, particularly for Aboriginal families. Poorer health outcomes and lower participation rates for these families in MCH services suggest there is a need for an urgent review of the current service model.
Development of the Early Assessment Referral Links (EARL) involved the core principles of appreciative inquiry to change existing patterns of conversation and give voice to new and diverse perspectives. A broad cross-section of the Aboriginal community and their early years health service providers were consulted and stakeholders recruited. Regular meetings between these stakeholders, in consultation with the Aboriginal community, were held to identify families that weren’t engaged in MCH services and also to identify families who required further assessment, intervention, referral and/or support, ideally from the preconception or antenatal periods. Outcome measures used to evaluate the EARL concept include stakeholder meetings data, numbers of referrals, and participation rates of women and children in MCH services.
Participation of Aboriginal women and children in MCH services was consistently above the state average during the pilot period, and significant numbers of Aboriginal women and children were referred to EARL stakeholders and other health professionals via EARL referrals. Additionally, there were increases in Aboriginal children being breastfed, fully immunised and attending Early Start Kindergarten. Identification of Aboriginal women and children at risk of vulnerability also improved with a dramatic increase in referrals for family violence and child protection, and decreased episodes of out-of-home care (OoHC) for children.
Evaluation of pilot outcomes indicate that the EARL concept improved women and children’s access to and engagement with MCH services, and identified more families at risk of vulnerability than the traditional MCH service model, particularly for Aboriginal women and children.