No single agency acting alone can ensure children are safe and can access the opportunities they need to reach their full potential. Child protection practitioners may need to work closely with a diverse range of practitioners, across a broad array of professional disciplines. These professionals deliver services to children and families within and across the following continuum:
- universal services, which are available to all families and provide the critical foundations for health and learning for all children
- secondary and specialist services that provide more intensive and targeted support
- tertiary/statutory services for children who are involved in youth justice or who are in need of protection.
Universal early childhood services
Universal early childhood services such as kindergartens, playgroups, maternal and child health services and childcare services provide a critical foundation for health and learning for all children.
Social inclusion and participation is particularly critical to promoting resilience and improving opportunities for vulnerable children. An important feature of a partnership approach to protecting children is that universal services and supports are accessible and responsive to vulnerable children and their families.
The partnership between child protection and universal early childhood services has a strong legislative and policy base. The Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005 provides a common set of guiding principles, emphasising that:
- all children should be given the opportunity to reach their full potential and participate in society, regardless of their family circumstances and background
- whilst parents are the primary nurturers of a child, society as a whole shares responsibility for children's wellbeing and safety
- planning and delivery of services should focus on sustaining and improving children's outcomes - the promotion and protection of a child's safety, health, development, learning and wellbeing.
These services also work to the same child outcomes framework as child protection, with its focus on how children are faring against indicators of child health and wellbeing, learning and development and safety.
Family services are secondary services that provide more intensive and targeted support to children and families. The primary targets for family services, under the CYFA, are vulnerable children and families who are:
- likely to experience greater challenges because the child or young person's development has been affected by the experience of risk factors or cumulative harm
- at risk of concerns escalating and becoming involved with child protection if problems are not addressed.
The target group for family services includes circumstances where concerns may have been raised about the safety, development and overall wellbeing of children, but where families are unwilling to acknowledge the need for, or to seek assistance. In these situations, family services will respond by seeking to actively engage families. If a family service considers that a child may be in need of protection, they will make a report to child protection.
The aim of family services is to provide services to the target group earlier, to protect children and young people and improve family function.
Family services operate under the CYFA and deliver services in accordance with the best interests and decision-making principles that apply to child protection. The best interests case practice model has been adapted for these services to provide common language and coherence between service responses for vulnerable children and families.
Child FIRST (Child and Family Information, Referral and Support Teams)
Child FIRST provides a visible and easily accessible point of entry into family services on a sub-divisional basis. See Family services including Child FIRST.
The primary purpose of Child FIRST is to ensure that vulnerable children and their families are linked effectively into relevant services. Anyone in the community may refer a family to Child FIRST if they have significant concerns for a child's wellbeing. Referrals will be acted on based on priority of need. Other key functions and features of Child FIRST include:
- a single telephone number
- provision of information and advice
- initial needs identification and assessment of underlying risks to the child or young person in consultation with child protection and other services
- identification of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status of children and families
- identification of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) status
- identification of differentiated service responses for families related to the assessment of needs and underlying risks
- active engagement with the child and their family
- determination of the priority of a response and allocation of families to family services, in consultation with family services and child protection (where required)
- timely responses through provision of, or oversight of, active holding responses involving short-term work with children and families before allocation of family services.
A statewide agreement between Child FIRST and child protection has been developed, detailing clear processes and procedures for referral and consultation, including the role of the community-based senior child protection practitioner. Place based arrangements (i.e. specific to a single division or catchment) will be agreed and documented on the basis of this statewide agreement. The agreement describes:
- referral pathways and protocols for child protection to refer matters to Child FIRST (statewide)
- referral pathways and protocols for Child FIRST to report matters to child protection (statewide)
- procedures for joint decision-making and joint visiting or contact with children and families (divisional and catchment)
- the role of community-based senior child protection practitioners. Functions include facilitating referrals between the two services, providing secondary consultation on complex cases and supporting family services in engaging families, as appropriate.
Out-of-home care and placement support services
Out-of-home care services provide care for children who cannot live safely at home. Models of care include kinship care, foster care and residential care. Support services help children who have experienced abuse or neglect to cope with their experiences and assist their families to deal with the issues that led to the placement of their child.
Placement services operate under the CYFA and deliver services in accordance with the best interests and decision-making principles that apply to child protection. The best interests case practice model has also been adapted for out-of-home care services to provide common language and coherency between service responses for vulnerable children and families.
Looking After Children (LAC) provides a framework for effective collaboration and communication between all of those who share parenting responsibility for children in out-of-home care, in order to ensure that the system identifies children's needs; develops plans to meet these needs; and allocates responsibilities for actioning the plans. Under the LAC framework, a care team is formed to together take on this shared parenting role. The care team typically includes the child's carer, placement agency worker, protective worker, birth parents and, where appropriate, other adults of significance to the child. The care team is jointly responsible for the provision of good care in the best interests of the child. Much of the day to day parenting of the child is undertaken by the carer supported by the placement agency. See Looking After Children.
The child protection role includes but is not limited to participation in the care team. Child protection practitioners, along with other care team members, will often be called upon to facilitate the actions necessary to meet the best interests of the child in care.
The care team role does not include the processes for assessing and making statutory decisions which relate to whether or not the child is placed in out-of-home care (a decision made by the Court), returns home, moves to a different placement or will be placed in long term care. Decisions within the case planning responsibility of the Secretary remain with child protection. However, a care team will contribute to and inform decisions made by child protection.
Aboriginal cooperatives and children's services deliver a range of child and family services. These organisations are critical partners in ensuring that service responses to Aboriginal children and families are culturally competent.
Specific protocols guide collaboration with Aboriginal services whenever child protection receives a report about an Aboriginal child, and to guide collaboration between Child FIRST and local Aboriginal services.
See Vulnerable babies, children and young people at risk of harm, which contains the best practice framework for acute health services, describing their roles and responsibilities in identifying and responding to children at risk of harm from abuse and neglect. The framework includes:
- tools to assist in identifying vulnerable children
- the development of enhanced Victorian Forensic Paediatric Medical Services
- education and training for acute health staff
- increased liaison with child protection and family services, supported by standard reporting proformas.
Under the framework acute health services are required to establish:
- internal protocols and processes to identify child protection as a core responsibility of all health staff and ensure a coordinated and consistent response to vulnerable children and families
- clear agreed and documented referral and communication protocols and processes that support interagency collaboration
- consistent policies within and outside the hospital to provide psychosocial support for vulnerable children and families
- mechanisms to ensure ready access to information and referral to Child FIRST
- staff education, training and support and readily available resources for health professionals
- regular audits to monitor knowledge of, and compliance with, policies and protocols.
Under the framework child protection is required to:
- provide acute health staff with priority call status when they make a report
- provide feedback, in writing, about the outcomes of the intake assessment of the report.
Other service partners
Many families involved with child protection experience complex and multiple problems that affect their ability to prioritise and meet their children's needs. Contributing factors include one or more of the following:
- lack of extended family or social support
- family violence
- parental drug and alcohol misuse
- parental mental health issues where effective treatment and care is absent
- parental learning difficulties or intellectual disability.
Audits of children in out-of-home care have highlighted the prevalence of children requiring mental health and allied health treatment and support for drug or alcohol abuse. Inclusion in school, vocational education and training and other social and recreational activities is critical to promoting resilience amongst children who have experienced significant trauma associated with abuse and neglect.
Achieving positive outcomes for children and families requires child protection to partner with a broad range of health, education, justice and community services. These include:
- universal services: schools and vocational education and training services, police, general practitioners and community health services
- secondary services: mental health, disability, drug and alcohol, family violence, sexual assault, housing services
- tertiary services: youth justice, involuntary mental health and homelessness services.
Each of these services make a critical contribution to child and family outcomes. They share responsibility with child protection for:
- Identifying children who may be at risk of abuse or neglect. Police, school teachers and school principals and medical practitioners including psychiatrists and nurses are legally required to make a report to child protection if they form the belief a child has or is likely to suffer significant harm as a result of a physical injury or sexually abuse and a child's parents have not or are unlikely to protect the child from that harm. More generally, professionals are encouraged to contact child protection if they are concerned a child may be in need of protection.
- Providing expert knowledge and skills to inform planning and decision-making and co-ordinate service responses for children.
- Strengthening families and building sustainable networks of support to assist parents to prioritise and meet their children's needs.
Child protection has protocols with a range of these services with whom they work frequently, which clearly identify the responsibilities and tasks of each party, and dispute resolution mechanisms. See Protocols.
Working together effectively
Collaboration with other professionals and services is encouraged.
Achieving positive outcomes for vulnerable children and families requires the broader system around the family to flexibly and creatively engage the family, in a solution-focused process that is timely, respectful, and culturally appropriate.
Case reviews tell us complex cases require close and effective communication between services and organisations involved with the family and differences of judgment need to be transparent and worked through. Professionals involved in the life of a parent or a child will view the experience of that child and family through the lens of their own training, practice wisdom, theories in use and their organisation's culture, tradition, practice frameworks, supervisory and management structures, funding models and constraints.
Judgements about a child's experience or family context are grounded in time and place. Different professionals will enter the life of the child and family at different points in time of the family life cycle, and therefore experience varying emotional and physical environments.
Not all agencies give consideration to the impact of parental circumstances on a child's development and wellbeing. Some agencies work within a family focus, directly engaging both adults and children, some adult focused services will see a parent but will not see the child, while some child focused services rarely engage the significant adults in the child's life.
In order to provide a more integrated service for children and families, child protection services need to invest energy and resources to strengthen or form dynamic partnerships between professionals. This includes partnerships with the continuum of child and family services (early childhood services, family services and placement services). Key to building trust and relationships is a commitment to managing differences and resolving any conflict that arises.
Sharing of information
The CYFA enables professionals in each of the above services to disclose information to child protection in order to report that a child may be in need of protection and in working collaboratively with child protection to protect a child from harm and ensure their developmental needs are met. Specific information sharing provisions enable family services to consult with child protection about families they are working with and facilitating the referral of families between the two services. See Information sharing.
Research has shown that more common than a failure to share information is the failure to assess the shared information accurately. 'Communication involves a complex interplay between information processing, interpersonal relating and interagency collaboration. The need to communicate purposefully and with meaning to relevant others must be borne by all practitioners at all times'. (Reder and Duncan 2003)
Collaboration and partnership
In order for the service system to work effectively to ensure a child's safety, development and wellbeing, a sense of collaboration, partnership and respect for the professional knowledge of others in the system is important.
As a basis for interagency collaboration, it is expected that practitioners and agencies will share the following:
- an understanding of the aims of intervention and of what is good practice
- an appreciation of and respect for different roles and different contributions of professionals
- commitment to partnership between different sectors to achieve good practice responses
- clear division of responsibilities in each case
- an understanding of the context in which agencies and professionals work and acknowledgment of their constraints
- preference for coordinated effort rather than unilateral action by a single organisation or uncoordinated action by a number of organisations
- a willingness to learn from each other
- belief in accountability to clients (the whole family), to each other, and to the community.
Strategies which contribute to effective partnerships include:
- clarifying the correct process and requirements for contact with other agencies and adhere to it
- dealing with issues and differences of opinions between agencies in good faith by the workers concerned, with the aim of resolution in the client's best interests. If not resolved at this level, issues should be referred to supervisors and a case meeting considered
- planning ahead to alert or notify others affected by changes in plans or decisions.
Robust debate, constructive critique and discussion about the best practice to achieve positive outcomes for a child are levers for innovation and growth. A commitment to review and attend process issues and to provide positive opportunities for practitioners to learn from one another through interagency professional contact is critical to sharing responsibility and better co-ordinating services and supports for families.
Traditional procedures and ways of working will need to focus on the specific needs of children at any point in time, which may require a creative combining of resources and information and a crossing of traditional boundaries.