For family inclusion to be a characteristic of the Australian child welfare system, we need parent and family voice and inclusion at the individual level, in the child welfare sector and in broader society. We need both parents and agencies to lead change, although we particularly need parent led change to continue to emerge and strengthen. I have explored possibilities for change in three areas – peer work, carer and parent relationships and in parent leadership.
Integration of peer work into child welfare agencies, courts and through parent organisations
The integration of peer work, in the ways described in this report, into child welfare teams and agencies is realistic in Australia. It is suggested that peer work expertise be developed by parent led organisations in partnership with child welfare agencies.
- That specialist and existing parent led family inclusion organisations be funded to build expertise and capacity in peer work including capacity to recruit, train, supervise and support peer workers. These organisations can then make peer support available to parents interacting with statutory child welfare agencies and provide consultancy services to other parts of the sector.
- That child welfare NGOs and children’s courts build peer work into their frontline practice teams, using existing funding, in partnership with parent led organisations.
- That peer work be built into the delivery of evidence based programs in child welfare including out of home care, placement prevention and restoration, using existing funding.
- That supportive and educative parent group work processes be integrated into peer programs.
- That legal services commissions, including and especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, trial the delivery of family defence legal services following the model in New York City, in partnership with parent led organisations whenever possible.
Carer and parent relationships
There is compelling evidence from this project and in the literature that carers and parents working together contributes positively to restoration and relational permanence generally. More research in Australia is urgently needed into all aspects of child welfare especially family preservation, restoration and family inclusion.
- That activities and processes that build relationships between carers ad parents over time, including early face to face meetings whenever possible, be implemented in Australia whenever children are placed in care or move placement arrangements.
- That carers be recruited, trained and supported to build ongoing relationships with parents, siblings and other family members and to support not supervise family relationships for children in care.
- That Australia develop, and implement in policy and practice, an understanding of permanence that is relational, rather than focused on particular legal outcomes.
- That the Institute for Open Adoption Studies broaden its focus to researching relational permanence for all children in care, including restoration related research, and it change its name to reflect this.
Parent leadership in Australia is emerging and there is little or no funding to support it. This project has found that parent leadership is vital for family inclusion to take hold and for positive outcomes in child welfare. Initiatives that sit within agency structures are also important and should invite involvement from parent led organisations to assist them to build family inclusion including assessing and changing agency culture. Workforce development and training organisations need to prioritise the involvement of parents.
- That parent led, family inclusion organisations in Australia strategically invite greater involvement and partnerships from likeminded organisations to drive change at a policy and legislative level. This includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, research centres and universities.
- That parent led, family inclusion organisations direct their limited time and resources to obtaining more funding to enable them to continue to grow, to advocate and to lead.
- That family inclusion organisations develop constitutions and governance structures that are reliant on parent leadership and involvement.
- That child welfare agencies, including statutory child welfare agencies and NGOs develop and implement parent advisory groups made up of parents with experience of child removal and placement. Subject to governance rules, parents should be paid for their time and expertise.
- That training organisations, universities and child welfare organisations educating and inducting current or future child welfare staff, recruit, train and integrate parent and family trainers into their programs. The Family Agency Collaborative Training Team (FACTT) provides a useful starting point for development.
- That peak bodies, larger NGOs and state and federal governments work together and singly to develop prestigious awards that recognise parent and family leadership. These awards can be integrated into award processes already in place, such as awards for foster carers, whenever these are present.
Family inclusion heralds an approach to child welfare that is fundamentally different including integrating an ethical lens. If families are included and get more power, this means that other stakeholders may experience less power – usually NGOs and statutory child welfare agencies. Parents and their allies working to build family inclusion must be prepared to withstand this and will need support, resources and strong leadership to do so. It is vital that as many people and organisations as possible offer partnership, encouragement and support to parent leaders and organisations and are steadfast in this support. These “allies” need to take a learning approach and ensure their role is primarily one of learning about and supporting parent leadership, not of leadership itself.
- That researchers, educators, leaders, politicians, carers and practitioners actively invite, encourage, promote and support parent leadership, in as many ways as possible, in the Australian child welfare system.
- That parents with children in care or who are interacting with child welfare systems, connect with family inclusion organisations wherever they are available and with other parents who are facing similar circumstances
- That child welfare organisations integrate an ethical lens into their practice. This will include training in ethical frameworks and the development of strategies for staff and carers to use, every day, to reflect on their practice from an ethical perspective.
- That child welfare organisations formally integrate family inclusion as an underlying principle of their practice and partner with parent led organisations to train staff and carers, in the interests of children.
Keywords: Child protection, child welfare, family inclusion, family engagement, foster care, out of home care, parent leadership, parent partners, parent peer workers, parent allies, child and family social work