Complex issues being addressed in the child protection sector

Opinion: Complex issues being addressed in the child protection sector

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9 February 2018

The approach to dealing with mental health issues within the child protection sector in Australia is in a state of inertia.  It’s been that way for some time now with few significant improvements in approaches or practice. All the while the number of children and young people being taken into care continues to grow, rising to over 46,500 in 2016.

This is not good enough.

Mental health issues are linked with a range of adverse outcomes including family stress and breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment and associated poverty and homelessness.

These factors can have devastating impacts on the health and wellbeing of children and young people and increase the likelihood of abuse, neglect and the need to enter out of home care (OOHC).

As the Chief Executive Officer of OzChild, part of our strategic plan is to ensure everything we do is informed by evidence so that we can make a conscious and measurable impact.

Let’s face it, treating mental health issues is complex.

We need to take a more holistic approach and provide context specific services that address this complexity to deliver gold-standard services and break the cycle of disadvantage and improve outcomes.

For families who are at risk of their children being removed from their care, evidence based programs from leading international organisations such as The New York Foundling demonstrate context-specific and tailored services provide families with the best hope for family preservation or restoration.

In fact, the 2011 New York City Independent Budget Office Fiscal Brief showed that evidence based interventions saw a 50 per cent reduction in the number of children in foster care over a 10-year period.

Enter Multisystemic Therapy for Child Abuse and Neglect (MST-CAN) and Functional Family Therapy – Child Welfare (FFT-CW). These are two models which have proven to be successful internationally and locally in targeting the causes of harm, including mental health issues that put children at risk of entering the OOHC system.

Both FFT-CW and MST-CAN models have built solid research over time, across different countries. The results from culturally diverse populations widely support the models’ efficacy in working with children and families with multiple and complex needs, including family violence, mental health, and parental drug and alcohol abuse.

The NSW Government has committed $90 million over four years, to July 2020, as part of Their Futures Matter, to implement these new family preservation and restoration models that aim to reduce children entering and increase exits from OOHC.

Each year, up to 900 vulnerable children and their families will receive the service, with half of the places dedicated to Aboriginal children and their families.

OzChild is thrilled to partner with the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) and our sector partners to deliver evidence-based models and be part of this commitment for real change.

Last November, we introduced the FFT-CW model in Victoria and have observed significant benefits for families, their children, our staff and the sector in general.

The model’s strength lies in its ability to address current issues within a family and understand underlying contextual issues.

FFT-CW operates on the basis that the onus is on the practitioners to engage with the family rather than on the family to engage with services.  This means practitioners work relentlessly to engage families and provide tailored support that meets their specific needs.  This is critical for when there are underlying mental health issues as a ‘one size fits all’ model would not adequately meet the complex needs associated with mental health. In addition, strengthened engagement and strong clinical oversight has seen practitioners core skills flourish.

Families with underlying mental health issues are more likely to have a higher degree of self-blame, shame and the presence of negativity. FFT-CW and MST-CAN work to reduce these issues, recognise individual strengths and build a relational understanding of the issues impacting upon families through targeted behavioural plans tailored to cater to the individual family.

This shift in perspective has resulted in families being empowered to action positive change in their lives so that their children can remain in their care.

The NSW Government’s rollout of FFT-CW and MST-CAN models will provide the tools for practitioners to address the underlying issues faced by families helping ensure family units like the Coopers remain intact.

Rethinking our approach to practice is brave but critical if we are to exit this state of inertia. By employing services that are proven through research and based on evidence, we can all make a conscious impact and reduce the number of children and young people entering out-of-home care, and keep children with family.

Lisa J. Griffiths is the Chief Executive Officer of OzChild.

A version of this article first appeared in the Social Work Focus Magazine.

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