Transcript: Reforming child protection insights from Australasia

Professor Marie Connolly, shares her experiences of child welfare reform efforts in Australia and New Zealand.

Podcast Episode: Reforming child protection insights from Australasia

Category: Child protection 


What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

MC - Professor Marie Connolly

MC (unclear) Greetings to you. Greetings to you and greetings to you all. Thank you for inviting me and thank you to Viv, the University of Edinburgh, for making this possible. I was chief social worker in New Zealand at a time when reform was very much in the mind of the New Zealand Government, and so I’m going to share with you today some of the insights from that period of time because we did quite an integrated set of reforms between 2005 and 2010, and then I moved into my current role at the University of Melbourne and since then I’ve been a part of a number of ministerial committees that are advancing reform processes in child welfare both in Melbourne and in New South Wales.

So, I’ll be talking a little bit about the Victorian reforms that are at the very beginning. I’m going to set the scene a little bit first because any reform process sits in a broader Government policy agenda. So, I’m going to share with you a little bit about the very complex nature of public service reforms that we’ve seen, give us a bit of a background because child welfare reform sits within that, and I’m going to talk a little bit firstly about insights into those 2005, 2010 reforms, and then I’m going to take us to new reform agendas both in New Zealand and in Victoria. So, we’ll capture a little bit of what’s happening absolutely right now. So, a bit of the context. It, as I said, sits within a change process I think, in Australasia, and what we’ve seen both in New Zealand and in Australia has been major changes to the public service and this has happened over the last three decades really, and what we’ve seen is a much more politicising of the public service and what Tingle talks about as issues management increasingly the Government systems have been responding to issues as they emerge, and it’s more a question of trying to manage down what a very public facing issues and criticisms that come through both media and other areas that the Government systems are having to grapple with. There’s been over those decades quite significant uncertainty in terms of employment uncertainty and what has been called more of a fawning culture, really because there’s been some significant changes from what the public service was maybe thirty years ago, towards something that is very much run from the minister’s office and the ministers advisers are often times political advisors rather than public service advisors. So, there’s been a shift, if you like, that has seen different advice moving into the minister’s office and the minister’s often being the front person these days to dealing with issues in the public.

So, some years ago, we would have seen positions like my role in the Government, when I was in the Government in 2005, when something difficult happened in the Government in child welfare, it was then my job to front the emm, do the newspaper interviews, the television interviews, all of those. Trying to manage that process, that would have been mine. Less so these days. You’re more likely I think to see ministers who are fronting those very difficult interviews. Often these days you see the Government as overseers of contracts rather than undertaking the work themselves, in Government, and that’s common across the public service in New Zealand and in Australia. So, whereby previously you would have seen an infrastructure of activities really, people doing the work of Government and managing processes within Government, now you would see much more often consultants coming in and doing the work that the Government then monitors, and that often has very little control over those processes … and what Tingle talks about as a loss of institutional memory, with the changes that have been very frequent then sometimes it’s the consultants really that end up having the institutional memory as opposed to the Government employees.

So, there’s been quite a significant change I think over the last number of decades that have shaped the experience of the public service, and child welfare sits within that and is influenced very much by it … and the context of child protection practice, I’m sure these will be familiar. Mounting concerns about child abuse and child neglect and particularly about issues relating to serious harm of children and child homicide. So, that very much is positioned within child protection as the thing that people most worry about. Certainly, in New Zealand and in Victoria, and I think across other states in Australia, increased notifications of children at risk and a very pressured child protection system environment as a consequence of that. If I were to show you some of the graphs you would see the number of notifications going from down here right up to down here. There’s something like one hundred and thirty thousand in New Zealand and rising. There doesn’t seem to be any end point. Far fewer in Victoria but nevertheless, that sharp trajectory upward that puts enormous pressure on the child protection system to cope. High profile media attention very much across Australia and New Zealand. It’s been a real feature of child protection services and when I first went into the Government in 2005, actually there had been such a terrible series of nasty child deaths and there were really very much a system experiencing acute pressure and regularly, the senior executive team would be on the front of newspapers and you would see, whenever that happened, you would see photographs of the deaths of children and how many since you know, the previous two decades and they would be featured in the news media, and what happened was the Government had lost, I think, confidence in child protection system and so they moved everybody out of the positions and a new executive team moved in. I think there maybe had been one person who stayed there through that transition. My moving into the chief social worker’s role was a part of that new executive team that started. But you can imagine what that would have been like, where they just brushed one executive team out of the way and put a new one in place. You can imagine what that does to the people coming in, you know, it starts to speak of uncertainty and a very, very strong interest in trying to make things work when, in fact, things were very pressured at that time.

So, there’s many questions about how services are responding and the hegemony of risk and rescue, which is really very much what was on people’s minds. And this has been written by a Saturn V rocket scientist, and I thought he could have been working in child protection really, because you want a valve that doesn’t leak and you try everything possible to develop one, but the real world provides you with a leaky valve. You have to determine how much leaking you can tolerate, and for me, moving into that role at that time was one of trying to work out how much we were going to have to try and manage serious child deaths, sometimes too many notifications. Not enough staff to respond, and even though in perfect systems, you’re going to have a leaky valve. So we had many, many leaky valves across our system. You will undoubtedly be familiar with this, the child protection orientations, and here we have those that characterize some of the European countries where there’s emphasis on universal welfare, flexible voluntary services. Not without their problems by any means, but with a family support orientation and what has then identified as child protection orientations where you’ve got a residual and selective provision of welfare, more legalistic and forensic approaches to child protection.

I think in New Zealand probably, there were, it would sit between these two, or it would have sat between these two because in 1989, we introduced family group conferencing in New Zealand. Very much positioned child welfare and child protection within a family support orientation where you were engaging with families, involving families in decision making etcetera, which sort of puts you up in the family support orientation but then, New Zealand wasn’t immune to the push toward more forensic investigations. I think during the 1990’s, I call it the dark ages of child protection in New Zealand, it was hard to find articles in the professional literature about how you facilitate, support an engagement with families in child protection. What you would see in the professional literature was very much more to do with how you’re assessing, what are the assessment tools you can use within this, how do you, you know, what’s a good investigation? So, we started like many English-speaking jurisdictions, we started to investigate anything that moved really, and trying to really move successfully into this area with all of the challenges that that area provides. So, it was very much reflecting the similar kinds of concerns that many other English-speaking jurisdictions were experiencing, and so moving into a role that was responsible for child welfare reform, and particularly practice reform, I think this captures what we were trying to do. We were trying to become less vulnerable to local outbreaks of moral panic and to consequently jerk policy formulation, which serves to inflate both child protection bureaucracies and subject our operations to yo-yo practices, which had been very much a feature, I think, of the New Zealand experiences during those years.

So, what I’m going to talk about now are some of the reforms that we started in 2005, and take us through some of those because what we tried to do was develop an integrated set of reforms that would harness the systems, rather than plucking some areas and moving through reforms, we tried to build an integrated reform package because one of the things that happens I think, if you focus on an area, for example, if you focussed on children in care and that is your primary focus without looking at the other systems that surround it, then you have unintended consequences. So, we were trying to look at our system more broadly and then try and move through some positive reform processes. Now I’m going to talk about what I think are five elements that support successful child welfare reform. I hope they capture the essence of what is familiar to you around the challenges of reform. I’m going to talk about organisational vision - leadership, overcoming barriers, knowledge-based organisations, responsive services and a strong workforce. So, they’re the five that I’m going to focus on and give some examples of what that looked like in that reform package in 2005. I’d have to say, when I first started in that role, I’d moved from the University of Canterbury, my colleagues couldn’t believe that I was moving into Government. That was the first thing, because, they were not having very good press in New Zealand as I’ve said and so, the notion of moving from my quite lovely existence at the University of Canterbury into the front of this was just alarming to them. And it did seem to me that when I first went there, there were five thousand unallocated children sitting there, you know, the files of children that were not being responded to. There was any time that I picked anything up there were things crawling underneath it, and I thought “Oh god”, you know, after about eight weeks I thought I’d made a terrible mistake, you know, maybe three months. And somebody called me from Australia asking me if I would like, would I be interested in setting up a social (… unclear) in one of the, one of the Universities there and my excitement was, you know, palpable, and I thought “there’s an escape plan here, I might not have to stay”, and so I went home to my partner whom I’d just moved from Christchurch to Wellington because Wellington is the seat of Government, and I said you know “what do you think about going to Australia?” And after the initial shock he said “you know Marie, I really think you haven’t given this a chance”, and I realised of course I hadn’t, and when I reflect on that now it was the pace, the difference in just about everything, the challenging experience of having to defend things and select committees, having to front the media, having to be at the edge of things when things went wrong - and they were going wrong all the time - was a very different kind of experience.

I’d worked in Government before, before I went into academia, but not at that kind of level of management of issues, that was the case for me then. Having thought about that now over those years that I was in that role, it was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career. So, once I’d kind of gotten into the swing of things, it was always challenging but it was extremely rewarding and professionally insightful. So, it gave me an awful lot that I would never have otherwise had. Firstly, developing the vision. This is really all about leadership, and it was developing an organisational culture and coherent vision around children. Now what was really quite obvious was that executive teams, it seemed to me, are challenged around their provision of what the right thing is for children. So, it’s identifying what are the right things to do for children that became part of the key reform. So rather than thinking about how the system might be broken or whatever, we started much more actively to talk about what was the right thing to do for children in this situation. Having meetings that focussed on the interests of children as opposed to the professional jargon around all kinds of other things to do with the system, was what we tried to move away from. So, we started to look at just a handful of things that we thought would make a difference to the lives of vulnerable children in New Zealand who were connected with the child protection system and we looked at them particularly around the things that we saw were challenging. So, we had, it was called leading for outcomes, and we produced a booklet that was brief and captured five key areas that would be used as a kind of mantra if you like, right across the child protection system in every office across the country. And we had about fifty offices across the North and the South Island, and the central office was in Wellington. There had been many processes of reform that had gone on in New Zealand. There’d been lots of glossy brochures and booklets and various things like that. Practitioners and managers of agencies across the country were in reform fatigue really, and many felt that if we just leave this be, something else will happen the following year, so we don’t need to invest in the reform. And so, we had to break through some of that because there was a lot of cynicism that in fact, central office could successfully encourage change at the local level. So, part of bringing people together, we brought people together from right around the country, and we brought people who were leaders, not just the managers of the offices, but also some of the thought leaders, the people who were smart, interested in doing things. We brought them together and we started the process of reinforcing the set of ideas that were from the front-end responsiveness through to the support of vulnerable children in care. So that was very much part of how we started to look at how we got local leadership.

One of the problems in child welfare systems, and it used to frighten everybody in the executive team, is that we are as strong as our weakest link. And when you think about that, so we’re as strong as our weakest office and that then means that we have to really understand what’s going on in those local offices and create a leadership opportunity in those offices, because what you have to have in a child protection system, I think, is self-regulating systems where people are doing the right thing at the, at the coal face if you like. So, unless we were generating that self-regulation, it wasn’t really a lot of point in trying to impose things that people should do. We could marry some things, we could provide opportunities of things that were useful for the field, but we needed to generate that self-regulating leadership. And we needed to shift public perception and connecting people to the passion of the work. Now this was quite an interesting thing that we needed to do at the very beginning, it wasn’t looked on very positively in Government. We set up a set of, a team, that would look at how our reform processes would operate. So, this was a, you know, a team of people who were PR people if you like, and this was looked on very, it was frowned upon really because why were we putting resources in at that level when we should be putting more resources across the country to the teams? Which we did a lot of, but we had a team of people whose job it was at the National office, was to turn this, which is what the newspapers looked like, into this. And so, what their job was, was to fill a National office wall with newspaper in local newspapers across the country, not just the major ones but anywhere that there can be some positive stories about children whose needs were being looked after. Then in three months they had covered one of the long walls in the central office and we said “Okay, take those down and we need that again over the next three months, over the next six months” and so it went on. Now, it wasn’t to try to sell a different idea but the rationale behind it was when a high-profile case hit the media, we hoped that communities would think “that’s terrible, but these things are complicated, these issues are, it’s hard to deal with child protection”. So, it would give people a bit more of a balanced view about what the work is like. So, a lot of my time was spent talking to media, talking to journalists, talking about the complexity. So, it was trying to inform the public about the complexity. All right, overcoming some barriers to service quality. This was about trying to shift the blame culture, changing the way we did child death reports from a “hunting the culprit”, as Eileen Munro calls it, through to looking at systemic ways of responding to those difficult reports. We also had very, very dense policy frameworks because when things go wrong, often times the policy machine goes into play and we had incomprehensible policies that no practitioners were looking at. They couldn’t really look at them.

We had many, many contradictory things, for example, somebody came, one of the caregivers at the time had abused one of their foster children and so the push was had that person been approved? I asked if I could see the policy relating to the approval of foster carers and the team came back to me and we found it in about thirty different places, very contradictory things being said and workers not really knowing. So, we needed to develop a succinct set of policies, we dumped the hard copies, we put the thing online, and we wrote them into fourteen brief policies that covered care and protection in the youth justice. So, it was trying to create a manageable accessible information system for practitioners. Moving practitioners from their computers to the field, we had at that time about sixty percent of the time people were sitting in front of computers rather than working with families, and so the demands of an administrative system were great. And we needed to create more space for stuff to think about practice and they couldn’t do that when they had so many unallocated cases sitting in their offices. These were not children who were necessarily at risk, but they were over and above what the system could respond to. So, we had every, we had people from the National office going out to sites and working on those unallocated cases so that we could get them down and they were not sitting there as a pressure for workers.

Developing knowledge-based organisations. We looked at, how do we build a knowledge framework for practitioners? This is to do with synthesising research and best practice literature into accessible frameworks for practice. Most practitioners don’t really have the time after a busy day to start reading research reports on how they, you know, how that practice might be informed differently. So, it’s the job I think of child protection systems to synthesise that information and to provide it in accessible frameworks that will enable workers to have the most critical knowledge at their fingertips. So, we built care and protection framework, we built a youth justice framework and we’ve built a residential practice framework. But it was to create within the organisation, a sense that knowledge was important to practice. It wasn’t all about just managing the fray and trying to do your best. It was also putting something behind that. I think when I first went around with the first framework to the sites across the country people said “yes, we do, that’s the kind of practice we came into the organisation to do but somehow the system prevents us from doing that”. So, part of our job I think, in a senior management team, is to say “we appreciate that that’s the experience. Don’t lose hope. We’re going to put a number of other reforms in that are going to enable us to focus more strongly on these.” Supporting responsive services. Now this is very complicated. The way we did it in New Zealand was to introduce a differential response system because the way it was in 2005 was that all notifications went into child protection. Anybody that had a concern for a child’s care and safety would report to child protection, and that included all of the domestic violence reports that came through the police system. So, it was necessary to have a pathway system that would allow the right kind of services to be provided at the right time. So, that was really all the differential response system was in New Zealand. We had to do it with no money because these were all reforms that were done under the radar as we were moving. They were part of, you know, the senior executive teams’ interest in moving through a set of reforms rather than being in response to a particular child death where there were recommendations around reform and so on.

So, moving into a differential response system meant that we had to engage much more strongly with the sector and so, we were relying on the sector to play this part in responding to the needs of vulnerable families. Prior to this, most of the notifications would be investigated and then they would be no further actioned because they didn’t meet the threshold of child protection system, and so they would just not be responded to at all and until it came back time and time again, and then it would reach the threshold, and then the child protection system would kick in. So, it was finding ways in which you could move safely, families to other parts of the broader system. And the last one, strong work force. Very much neglected I think, in most child welfare reform processes, and I’ll talk a little bit about that at the minute when we look at the current ones. It involves training, but it’s not just training. What we know nowadays I think, about what the research would say about training, is that it doesn’t really change behaviour. You’ve got to have other things that are happening and so you’ve got to have things like having, coaching or observed practice in the field, where people are reflecting on practice, being observed, looking at how practice can shift and change and just provide some support and protection for practitioners, because as long as practitioners are nervous about their position or they don’t want to see themselves on the front of a newspaper, the less likely they are to manage risk, they’ve become more conservative in their responses to risk and so, providing assurances that they wouldn’t be left high and dry by the child protection system was part of that. And mostly practitioners did feel, they’d lost confidence in the state systems protection on them. And so, it was very much part of our job to try and build some of that.

So, they’re the five that I wanted to talk about and I thought I’d just go quickly through the new reform processes through that lens of those five, both in New Zealand and in Victoria. I’ve left the, there’s been a major report in New Zealand that came out at the end of last year. There was a panel that was introduced by the minister to look at all aspects of the child protection system and to start providing some recommendations for the system moving forward, and that’s an interesting report. It tackles child protection reform in a slightly different way, and I’ll explain how they do that. Certainly, the notion of the vision and leadership, that is very much around what they call an investment approach. So, a lifetime view of wellbeing of children. So, they’ve done, in the report there’s quite a lot about how much it costs to support a vulnerable child that enters a child protection system, and that the focus needs to be on how do we invest early into preventing those children from moving into the system? Engaging all New Zealanders, raising awareness, shifting attitudes. Some of the very similar kind of things that we were talking about in the earlier reform. And then a child-centred system where the funding follows the child. So, there’s this notion, it’s got a slightly business focus to it, which is not surprising when you see the people who were on the panel, who were from business and various places other than child protection. So, this cross-sectoral investment system that they talk about, the key barrier that they saw to providing good services was in this reactive response. Short term reactive responses that the child protection system had found itself in. And so, it was looking at how can we look at medium and longer term outcomes for children? Addressing the lack of evidence that they saw as a particularly difficult issue and maximising some of those early opportunities to do something different. They talked a lot about shifting to a child-centred approach, which I think has some interesting associations I think. I think child-centred approach is fine, but it’s only fine in my view if it’s within a family-focused orientation, otherwise it can become very authoritarian and based on a very narrow-rights lens, and that’s around children. So, I think there needs to be some, I’ll be interested to see what happens with this reform because I think that they could follow what I think is a much stronger authoritarian approach that England has, for example, to children. And I think that that won’t serve them well.

An evidence-based learning system and they talk about this along with the full investment approach within an actuarial model. They’re going to be investing hugely in building an actuarial model across the public service that’s focussed on outcomes. It’s not clear yet how they’re going to do that, but they’re setting up an entity within Government that will look at how you measure outcomes and then funding will go follow that. So, I think what will happen is that unless you can demonstrate that you’re having positive outcomes, you won’t be funded. It’ll be hard, a hard line around that. And they’re going to look at trauma-informed frameworks. Recognising that the children that come through to the child protection system have particularly complex needs. When I was in New Zealand three weeks ago, they were advertising a new CEO position for this new child entity, so they are building, they’re moving away from child, youth and family - that will no longer exist - into a new child entity, and that’s what they’ve called it. They haven’t got a name for it yet. I don’t think they’ll call it, the CEO position is for this new child entity. It’ll have significantly expanded mandate, so at the moment, the review identified services in silos, so housing is separate from child protection which is separate from education and separate from health, and they are not responding to the needs of vulnerable children. So, the idea of the corporate parent is not in existence in New Zealand and so, the idea behind this is that this new child entity will be the central point at which services will be provided across the sector. And they’re developing a new leadership to change that culture. And Peter Hughes, who was the CEO of the Ministry of Social Development, has gone now into the State Services Commission. He’s the top public servant in New Zealand and his job will be to manage the CEO’s of the other Government departments and to make that work as a whole system. So, his KPI’s will be to do with that. They will probably do it too. I won’t go into that, but this is the future department that’s proposed and it’s not something that is a typical, you’ll see that in other departments, other jurisdictions, and they recognise that it’s going to require an awful lot of resourcing in terms of the workforce, but it’s very weak on how that will happen. Okay, so the Victorian reforms are similar in their focus, relating to how do we change from a one-service complex system to something that can be across sectors? It has got a lot of similar kinds of elements to it I think. Similar weaknesses.

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