Thinking differently about families

Selina Claxton Blog, Child Protection, News and Media, Opinion Pieces and Public Commentary, Uncategorized

This piece by Maria Harries originally ran in the Hobart Mercury on September 14, 2018, as ‘Talking Point: Tassie prepared to think differently to help struggling families’. It is reproduced here with permission.

Tasmania is a state prepared to think and do things differently to advance the wellbeing of children. The Tasmanian government and people are to be congratulated for the ‘leading edge’ work underway to redesign the policies, practices and programs to keep children safe and support families and communities. My recent visit to Tasmania showed me that this state is well positioned to keep blazing the trail, if we can collectively keep challenging our judgements about how best to give struggling families the support they need.

Prior to the decision to re-design services, Tasmania, like all other states, was experiencing an avalanche of children being notified to child protective services. Those staffing these services were dedicated but weary. Ever rising costs were crisis driven and unrelated to evidence about what actually worked to help children and families or to address the needs of children and families experiencing troubles in all their forms. Most importantly, the voices of children, mothers, fathers and extended families caught up in the child protection system were not being heard.

A dominant worldwide attitude is that the reason children are reported to child protection services is due to the failure of parents who, as a consequence of their poor parenting, deserve to lose their children. There are at least three problems with this logic. The first is that the vast majority of parents reported to authorities are struggling rather than dangerous. Most of these families – like all of us at times – are struggling with problems that challenge our parenting skills. These challenges are particularly overwhelming to those with few supports. In Tasmania the struggles of many families are obvious and big. Poverty, unemployment and lack of housing are practical barriers to the wellbeing of families.

Secondly, most children who are struggling suffer further terrible and ongoing trauma at the loss of parents and family if they are removed and taken into out of home care. Thirdly,  children in out of home generally experience poor educational and psychological outcomes .  So the Tasmanian government’s focus on keeping children with their families is a positive step in acting in the best interests of the children. Anglicare Tasmania’s research, Breaking the Cycle and In Limbo, are examples of ground-breaking research. They are an example of Tasmania being at the ‘leading edge’ of informing policy and practice and their wise research wisdoms must be shared widely. Both examine the consequences for struggling families when children are removed. One focuses on how to break the cycle of repeat child removals, leading to babies being born into care. The second report focuses on how to address the system-induced poverty and homelessness experienced by families when their children are removed along with parenting payments. This can lead to family reunification being held in limbo by poverty rather than safety concerns.

The wisdom comes from the families themselves who worked alongside gutsy researchers; courageous families who spoke of their pain and loss and hopes. So importantly, this research brings into our awareness as fellow citizens, the reality of loss, grief and poverty of mothers, fathers, families and communities who are simplistically seen by many as people who have failed to parent adequately.

The stories and the evidence in this research provide grounds for hope. The stories are being told and we must listen to the pain in them. The evidence is that we need to understand the experiences of families and children, design our services to help them and work together to create new futures for children and families in Tasmania. In re-designing services to keep children safe and support families we can change government structures and particularly change the ways government departments relate to each other. However, first and foremost we must work together – all of us – to really understand the experiences of children and families who are struggling.

We need to invest in the wellbeing of families’ to support our children. I know that Tasmania can lead the way in doing this.

Professor Maria Harries AM is an expert in child welfare. She is Adjunct Professor at Curtin University and Senior Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia.