Disadvantage is a virus, it’s time we intervened with a vaccine

Foster Care, News, Prevention & Strengthening | Posted August 6, 2020
Disadvantage is a virus, it’s time we intervened with a vaccine

By Dr Lisa J. Griffiths, OzChild Chief Executive Officer

COVID-19 has brought the world to a grinding halt, making us all feel displaced and uncertain. Many of us feel like we’ve lost control and are fretful about what the future holds.

It has got me thinking, this ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ feeling for many of us is the everyday reality for at-risk children, young people and families across Australia who live with a constant feeling of displacement and uncertainty.

Today’s report released by Social Ventures Australia (SVA) makes a strong economic case for long-term investment in targeted early intervention and intensive family preservation to prevent children entering out-of-home care (OOHC) in Victoria.

Prior to the pandemic Victoria was on track to have almost 26,000 children in OOHC by 2026 1. According to the research released today that number has jumped to an estimated 27,500 due to COVID-19.

There is no doubt greater investment into early intervention programs aimed at keeping families together before they reach crisis point is now well and truly overdue, and the need for reform more urgent than ever before.

The coronavirus pandemic has placed families at greater risk of being separated and the risk of children entering care has increased significantly. Families are at breaking point, disadvantaged by a virus which has had a significant impact on all of us – individually, socially and economically.

Most of the time, a virus can be remedied with medicine and care – or avoided altogether with preventative measures, such as a vaccine. Like a virus, disadvantage tends to run through generations of families and communities, creating cycles that become increasingly difficult to break.

In Australia, the child welfare system is hardwired to remove children and young people in crisis by putting them into foster or residential care once their home is no longer safe for them. By the time they’re been removed, they have already experienced trauma, and the statistics say that once removed they then have a greater likelihood of ending up in the youth justice system, unemployed or homeless.

Given the pandemic has seen youth unemployment soar to one in four people in parts of the country 2, what hope is there for young people who live in out-of-home care?

The time for a vaccine to break this cycle of disadvantage is now – and evidence-based early intervention is a tried and tested solution.  Instead of removing children we must shift our focus from crisis care to preventative care to create lasting generational change.

Diverting children from out-of-home care, preserving family relationships and keeping kids with family is not only the right thing to do, it makes sound economic sense.

The latest analysis by SVA highlights that to make a significant impact on the demands that are expected on the system as a result of COVID-19 there is a need to invest in targeted early intervention now. By doing so Victoria can prevent up to 14,600 children entering care over the next 10 years and save at least $1.8 billion 3.

Evidence-based practices have gained broad usage in human-services and other fields, but their uptake in the child welfare arena has been slow. Imagine if this was the case in the medical field, the results would be catastrophic.

OzChild introduced evidence-based early intervention programs to Australia four years ago and already the outcomes are extraordinary.

The long-term social benefits of preventing children from entering care are well established. Many young care-leavers are at increased risk of a range of poor social, educational and health outcomes including homelessness, mental illness, unemployment, substance misuse, contact with the justice system, early parenthood and low educational attainment 4.

There is no doubt, children do better when they are with their families, and programs like SafeCare® – a structured training program to help parents of young children at risk of neglect and abuse – help to make this a reality.

OzChild was the first organisation to be accredited in Australia to deliver SafeCare, and the first to implement SafeCare in Victoria. Not only is the program keeping kids with family, it teaches parents how to interact in a positive manner with their children, to plan activities, and respond appropriately to challenging child behaviours and how to recognise and respond to symptoms of illness and injury.

In the past year alone OzChild received 108 referrals to the program. At the end of treatment 94% of parents were able to correctly identify when they needed to take their child to the emergency department and 100% knew when it was appropriate to take a child to the GP, compared to 47% pre intervention 5.

Similarly, Functional Family Therapy – Child Welfare (FFT-CW) has shown remarkable outcomes strengthening relationships in at-risk families by equipping them with skills and strategies to manage challenging behaviours and situations. Already, over 800 Australian families have successfully graduated, with a 95 per cent average of children and young people remaining with their families in the last 12 months 5.

In Victoria, OzChild has been successfully delivering FFT-CW in Bayside Peninsula, Outer Eastern and Goulburn regions. Having engaged 226 families, 86% of these families successfully remained together 5.

In this time of great disruption, all industries are reforming and it’s time we challenge the current child welfare model to give at-risk children and young people what is needed, and what the evidence says works.

1 SVA report – The economic case for early intervention in the child protection and out-of-home care system in Victoria, 2019.

2 Australian Bureau of Statistics data

4 See for example, evidence summarised by Campo, M., & Commerford, J. (2016). Supporting young people leaving out-of-home care (CFCA Paper No. 41), for the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

5  OzChild program data collected 1 October 2018 – 30 March 2020

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