Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Opening Address to 2009 National Symposium: Resilient Families need Resilient Workers

Location: 2009 National Symposium: Resilient Families need Resilient Workers, Melbourne

It’s a great pleasure to be here with you to open your national symposium and to talk to you about the first National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children.

In the last week, issues of child abuse have again been prominent in the national media.

Brought to the community’s attention through widespread coverage of cases which are specific and individual but also disturbingly familiar.

The names change, the circumstances vary but the destructive consequences don’t.

As the number of notifications and investigations of child abuse and neglect increases, state and territory child protection staff and services are under enormous pressure.

My state and territory ministerial colleagues, recognising the complexity and scale of the problem, are reforming their statutory child protection systems.

And the Australian Government has taken national leadership.

The terrible levels of child abuse and neglect demand urgent, concerted and collaborative action.

The plight of these children requires a national response.

We must redouble our efforts at all levels of government.

We must work in partnership with those of you who every day see the disastrous toll that abuse and neglect is taking on children.

Who, every day, try to rebuild broken lives.

Our determination to lead a national effort to tackle abuse and neglect reflects our unswerving commitment to putting the best interests of children at the heart of all we do.

It recognises that when we build resilience in families we are making the best investment we can in the wellbeing of our children.

And it understands that some families struggle with their essential responsibilities – of caring for, supporting and protecting their children.
Supporting Australian families and children is not a new role for the Commonwealth.

Providing the basic supports that families need to provide secure and stable environments for their children, goes back a long time.

It’s most apparent through direct financial support.

But also through laws and structures that are fundamental to nurture and protect children.

Back in 1912, a maternity allowance was introduced to counter child poverty.

In the post-Depression years, the Commonwealth introduced the first ongoing payment to support children – Child Endowment.

The Commonwealth has had, and continues to have the most basic of aims – making sure mothers and children get enough to cover the essentials of life – like food and shelter. This provision of financial support remains critical.

It was the Commonwealth’s reforms to family law in the 1970s that ensured that after marriage breakdowns, decisions were made in the best interests of children. And there is now an important investigation underway to make sure that some of the most recent reforms to family law on shared care, are again in the best interests of children.

In the 1980s, a statutory Child Support scheme was introduced to make sure separated parents take financial responsibility for their children.

And now, so babies get that all important time to bond with their parents – Australia will have its first comprehensive, statutory paid parental leave scheme.

Because all the evidence shows that healthy brain development and long-term mental and physical health are better if babies are able to bond with their primary carer – usually the mother – during those early months.

For me, paid parental leave is fundamentally about what is best for babies.

The significance of these fundamental underpinnings – designed to support families and children – can sometimes be overlooked.

They are an essential foundation for families and children.

The Commonwealth has also become more involved in services to address what we know are the key risk factors for child abuse and neglect.

Factors including substance abuse, mental health problems, family violence, disability and homelessness. For the homeless, for example, providing services that recognise that homelessness affects children as well as adults.

We are driving reform in these areas.

The National Child Protection Framework’s underlying assumption is straightforward.

Its premise is that, if we provide the right supports and services early to vulnerable families, at least some child abuse and neglect can be prevented.

And the effects of trauma and harm can be reduced.

Obviously we are not so na”ive as to think that all cases of child abuse and neglect can be prevented or avoided. They can’t.

But by identifying problems and acting before they escalate – we can work to protect many children from lifelong damage.

For those children who suffer abuse and neglect, we must be there with all the care and support they need to heal and recover.

This is especially critical when they are placed in out of home care.

That’s why we fought so hard to get national standards for out of home care on the national agenda.

Because all children deserve safe, stable and loving environments.

Under the Framework, all jurisdictions have agreed to develop and implement national standards for out of home care.

This is a significant commitment.

Standards will be developed over the coming year, with the close involvement of all governments and NGOs.

They will be based on the best practice across the country.

Young people must be supported to leave out of home care stronger, rather than more damaged.

The National Framework has the potential to drive improvements across all systems and jurisdictions.

Through its momentum important national projects including data collection, research, information sharing and workforce development can be achieved.

And critically, the Framework will be the mechanism for reaching out to the non-government sector and the community to work together in the best interests of Australian children.

Today I’d like to thank all of you who have worked so hard to make the Framework happen.

The enormous effort and contribution of the Coalition of Organisations Committed to the Safety and Wellbeing of Australia’s Children, of which the Centre and the Child and Family Welfare Association of Australia are both members, deserves special mention.

Another practical and targeted measure under the Framework, is the establishment of up to eight integrated service delivery sites in communities of high disadvantage.

These sites, Communities for Children Plus, will build on the existing Communities for Children model.

They’ll bring together Commonwealth, state and local governments and the non-government sector to plan and deliver targeted services according to local needs.

Communities for Children Plus will provide more intensive early intervention services for children at risk and their families.

There will also be a stronger focus on building links with state government child protection services – as well as adult services – to tackle known parental risk factors.

Including mental health, family violence, housing and substance abuse.

When it comes to connecting with hard to reach groups, we know that these localised, place-based initiatives can be far more effective.

This is reinforced by the findings of the national evaluation of the Communities for Children (CfC) program which is being released today.

In line with our evidence based approach to policy, we have subjected Communities for Children to rigorous, independent assessment.

The national evaluation was undertaken by the Social Policy Research Centre and the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Just to give you an idea of the scope of the evaluation, it was conducted over four years.

It included a three-wave, longitudinal study comparing 10 Communities for Children sites with five other comparison sites.

Parents in the Communities for Children sites had significantly less hostile and harsh parenting practices than in the other sites.

They also reported feeling more confident in their parenting role; and they were more involved in community service activities.

The evaluation also found stronger development in children’s vocabulary and talking abilities – particularly in children from low education and low income households.

And after three years of Communities for Children, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous families were more positive about their neighbourhood as a place to bring up their children.

The evaluation concluded, and I quote: “Communities for Children with its place-based and collaborative model is vastly superior for reaching and engaging hard to reach groups’.

So what is it about the model that makes it successful?

Looking at the evaluation results it’s clear much of Communities for Children’s success flows from significant improvements in coordination and collaboration between agencies – and the positive impact this has on service delivery.

Agencies reported working much more closely together.

They were more likely to refer clients to one another and undertake inter-agency staff training.

Networks expanded and grew stronger.

So did the trust and respect between service providers.

All this adds up to more responsive, more effective delivery of services to the people who need them – families and children.

In many ways the Communities for Children model has all the characteristics and strengths of the National Framework – it’s just on a smaller, community scale.

In the same way that we have evaluated Communities for Children, we will also be closely evaluating the progress we make towards the Framework’s target.

A substantial and sustained reduction in child abuse and neglect over time.

We will be measuring progress according to positive change in hospital admissions for neglect and injury, substantiated child protection cases; the number of children in out of home care and key national indicators of children’s health, development and wellbeing.

Work is already underway.

Ministers will be signing off on implementation plans in the coming months, in consultation with the community sector.

Just last week, an expert taskforce convened by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth and the Government met for the first time to work on a common approach to assessment and referral.

This taskforce has the very practical job of developing a common assessment tool than can be used across services and professionals involved in secondary prevention.

To make sure that children at risk are identified early and can be referred easily and quickly for appropriate support.

The development and implementation of the National Framework reflects the Australian Government’s commitment to child-centred policy.

The alarming trends in substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect demand national responsibility and national action – from all of us.

Through the Framework we have the opportunity to act collaboratively, decisively and effectively – in the best interests of children.

I look forward to continuing to work with you to achieve this.