The Palm Island Community Company

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Established in 2007, the Palm Island Community Company (PICC) is a not-for-profit organisation delivering human services, community capacity building and economic development programs on Palm Island. At the SNAICC (Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care) conference in 2017, Rachel Atkinson, the CEO of PICC, talked about the organisation and about some of the features that make it such a successful model for the provision of human services.

In the course of her presentation she discussed in particular the early childhood development agenda at PICC and the qualities that were crucial to its wellbeing. These included:

  • local employment as a cornerstone of the organisation’s policies;

  • the existence of a place-based mature organisation, in this case dedicated to Palm Island and the people of Palm Island only;

  • good governance, including the appointment of a skills-based Board of Directors with a majority of Palm Islanders;

  • accredited service;

  • a system of daily continuous improvement;

  • the establishment of the Palm Island Elders group to guide and inform service implementation and development;

  • a stable pool of staff with family and community natural support networks, and a deep knowledge of culture, customs, family groups, Island dynamics, resources and supports; and

  • strong, consistent high-quality training with practice support.

During Atkinson’s presentation she also highlighted the importance of PICC’s integrative model. This means that the early childhood development services are integrated within the provision of other services at PICC, including:

  • Safe House

  • Children and Family Centre

  • Community Justice Group

  • Diversionary Service

  • Women’s Shelter and Services

  • Safe Haven Program

  • Family Wellbeing Centre

  • Social Enterprises

  • Family Medical Practice

  • NDIS

  • Ready Together

  • Early Childhood Development, Parenting, Health and Wellbeing Program

In this way, no agenda works in isolation, but is complemented by other programs of support.These features enable PICC to provide a more fulsome, comprehensive and engaged service to their clients.

PICC and the Palm Island Children and Family Centre are examples of initiatives that are working extraordinarily effectively. Atkinson emphasised that ‘Torres Strait Islander children are rarely taken into care on Palm Island and this has been the case for a number of years. This is an outstanding and very encouraging situation given current over-representation issues across the nation’.

Concluding her presentation, she re-iterated the value of hiring local staff and the incredible benefit this has to child protection outcomes in remote communities. She said: ‘we know that a deep knowledge of family and community is advantageous and results in better assessment of strengths and needs’.

Visit the website of the Palm Island Community Company, of which the Palm Island Children and Family Centre is a part.

This blog post was substantially taken from a report in late 2017 on the website of Child Protection Peak in Queensland. See here for the full report.

Stigma-by-association: understanding its consequences for Australia’s dysfunctional child protection systems

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Sharynne Hamilton, Deb Cleland and Valerie Braithwaite explain how their research shows that courtesy stigma against community workers who work with child protection officials may be a significant barrier to effectively helping children and families.

We are most familiar with the term “stigma” when it is used to describe someone who is discriminated against, or socially excluded or treated in an unfair way. The idea is that some visible characteristic they have – be it a disability, an illness, ethnicity or gender – excludes them from consideration or opportunity to participate in social life like everyone else. The marginalised group we are interested in are those who are viewed and labelled as ‘bad parents’ because their children are involved in the child protection system.

Courtesy stigma or stigma by association is a variety of stigma that is not as widely recognised. This kind of stigma belittles and marginalises those who spend time with a stigmatised person, whether the relationship be one that is defined by kinship, friendship, or profession. In some situations, courtesy stigma may not be such a surprise. You may have heard how the families of prisoners are stigmatised, or of how families suffer when one member gains notoriety and public disapproval of their actions.

Courtesy stigma can also apply to professionals who have taken on the role of advocate for marginalised and vulnerable people. One group that fits this description are social support workers who help “bad parents.” We are not talking about defence lawyers here. We are talking about community workers who on a daily basis try to help families who are struggling with a range of problems, such as addiction, domestic and family violence, homelessness, imprisonment, poverty, illness and disability. World-wide, most families having contact with child protection authorities also have other social problems. The goal of community workers is to help these families overcome their difficulties and care for each other to the point where every member of the family is leading as safe, stable, fulfilling and meaningful a life as possible.

In 2012 Sharynne Hamilton and Valerie Braithwaite set out with a modest plan of assessing whether Canberra’s community organizations had the capacity to meet the needs of families that were experiencing such problems and were also involved in some way with the ACT government’s Child Protection Services.

An initial study found that families relied heavily on community organisations to assist them negotiate the child protection system. However, organisations struggled to provide advocacy and support to parents and family members with child protection involvement in addition to their own service provision. Their time and resources were clearly stretched to capacity. These findings prompted a follow up study with a broader group of community organisation staff.

In the course of interviews with senior staff at these community organizations, we consistently heard stories of how they and their staff were treated dismissively and discourteously by Child Protection Services. Community service staff were quick to point out that not all child protection workers treated them this way. However, the consistency with which community workers told us such stories was alarming. We questioned whether there were elements of courtesy stigma occurring, which could assist to explain the intractability addressing the problems which plague child protection practice in Australia.

Continuous government inquiries into services across the country points to the ongoing problems in the child-protection sector. Australia has had upward of 40 child protection government inquiries in the last decade. These inquiries always say the same thing – not good enough coordination, not good enough communication, not timely enough service delivery, not good enough responsiveness to problems occurring in the community. Additionally, child protection services have been found to be a highly stressed, overly stretched workforce, and because of high turnover, staff are young and inexperienced. We wondered how any of this could be improved if child protection authorities were consistently disrespectful and dismissive of front-line workers in community organizations that were trying to help families.

When we re-analysed our 15 interviews with leaders and coordinators  of community organizations in the ACT we drew the following conclusions:

  1. Child Protection Services stigmatised parents through communicating the belief that they would never change, discussing them disparagingly, and not providing them with reasons for their actions against them;

  2. Community organization staff felt stigmatised as not putting the interests of children first, and advocating for parents to the detriment of children;

  3. Community organization staff felt they were denigrated professionally, except when Child Protection Services needed their help for gaining information about or delivering a service to their client; and

  4. Community organization staff felt they were excluded in a deliberate way from meetings and important information about their clients.

These experiences are in accordance with descriptions of how a powerful institution will silence those people and groups in society who may be critical of its actions. This quote provides a stark example of how community workers can feel silenced and the immediate consequences for a client:

‘... as my client was breaking down, I wanted to jump in and say something but I didn’t, because previously to that I had jumped in at a moment and said something to offer her reassurance and information about something that she didn’t know, but the person who was in charge looked at me and sighed and said, ‘you’ll have time to do this out of the case conference’. And I just shut down, I felt shamed, I felt fearful to speak truthfully to the client ... I went into a very professional, pragmatic, authoritative mode.  It was my first case conference and I was the youngest person there. So probably already I was on the back foot. I didn’t respond the next time she broke down crying...’

Perhaps the most concerning factor currently present in the child protection sphere are the ACT government’s current plans to dispense with parental consent in long term decision making about their children by parents; particularly adoption. Parents should be supported to understand the complex processes they often confront together with advocates or community workers. Regardless of what parents may have or may have not done, they have a right to fair and equitable processes, aided by the services funded to provide to support them. This right is seriously compromised if government officers stigmatise both families and support workers.

Stigma by association becomes a useful tool for a powerful institution that wants to push back against those who demand accountability on behalf of families. Community workers know the families well, are trusted by the families and are in a position to make change happen, if they work cooperatively with child protection authorities. Building a bridge of respect and open communication between child protection staff and community organization staff may be the first step in reforming our broken child protection system.

Photo by raymond revaldi on Unsplash.

Research from the US on Family Separation

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The Science is Clear: Separating Families has Long-term Damaging Psychological and Health Consequences for Children, Families, and Communities

The Society for Research in Child Development is a US organisation representing and supporting research in child development. It releases publications, policy briefings and press releases on the issue of child development and developmental science, advocating the use of this science for the public good. In June 2018 it issued a statement in response to activities by the Department of Homeland Security. During April and May 2018, Immigration and Custom Enforcement separated approximately 2,000 children from their parents as they approached the U.S. border.

According to the statement, the policy of separating children from their parents has ‘raised significant concerns among researchers, child welfare advocates, policy makers, and the public, given the overwhelming scientific evidence that separation between children and parents, except in cases where there is evidence of maltreatment, is harmful to the development of children, families, and communities.’ The statement goes on to set out some of the science behind separation, enumerating its many harmful and long-standing effects on a child’s development and later adult life as supported by studies that have been conducted recently, and during the twentieth century.

The ten authors emphasise:

  • the evidence that family separation is harmful dates back to studies on the effects of such separations on children’s well-being during World War II. Separation has far reaching effects into adulthood, including increased risk for mental health problems, poor social functioning, insecure attachment, disrupted stress reactivity, and mortality (Pesonen & Räikkönen, 2012; Rusby & Tasker, 2009; Mitrani, Santisteban, & Muir, 2004);

  • harmful effects have been observed in other child populations including in Romanian orphanages (Zeanah, Nelson, Fox, et al., 2003), children in foster care (Flannery, Beauchamp, & Fisher, 2017), and children of incarcerated parents (Geller, Garfinkel, Cooper & Mincy, 2009; Miller, 2006);

  • more recent work has documented the increased mental health risk faced by parents and children when they are separated in the immigration process (Suarez-Orozco, Bang, & Kim., 2011; Rusch & Reyes, 2013). Separation has long-term effects on child well-being even if there is subsequent unification;

  • parental separation is considered a toxic stressor, an experience that engages strong and prolonged activation of the body’s stress-management system (Bridgman, 2014). The physiological and psychological toll of early life stress changes how the body responds to stress in the long term, disrupting higher-order cognitive and affective processes as well as negatively altering brain structures and functioning (Lupien, McEwen, Gunnar, & Heim, 2009; Pechtel & Pizzagalli, 2011; Kumar et al., 2014);

  • child-separation from parents impacts children at all ages;

  • there is evidence that family separations harm U.S. children whose family members experience border detention or deportation. Parental separation increases the risk for these U.S. children’s mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, behaviour problems, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (Allen, Cisneros, & Tellez, 2015; Rojas-Flores, Clements, Hwang Koo, & London, 2017; Zayas, Aguilar-Gaxiola, Yoon, & Rey, 2015); and

  • countries with supportive immigration policies are more likely to have child populations with better overall health and mental health indicators than those with less supportive approaches (Marks, McKenna, & Garcia Coll, 2018).

In April and May 2018, at the border, children and parents were placed in separate facilities as they were being processed and were not told when or how they would be reunited. The statement by the Society for Research in Child Development provides clear evidence that policies that separate immigrant families upon entry to the U.S. have devastating and long-term developmental consequences for children and their families.

In the Australian context, we can apply these findings to historic policies on forced separation, and policies which remove children from their families without appropriate consultation, care, information provision, time, and oversight.

Read the original statement here.

The web page of the Society for Research in Child Development is available here.

Photo by Francisco Galarza on Unsplash.

An Empathetic Approach

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Inspector Corey Allen is head of one of Australia’s largest police stations, in Brisbane. In his inspiring talk for a TEDxSouthBank event, he talks about how he was able to radically change the culture of his station by employing a policy of empathy, and disseminating this approach among his officers on duty.

When Inspector Allen first took up the role of managing the police station, he was expected to report to his superiors about crime statistics (such as the number of break-ins, the number of car thefts, the number of arrests). This way of thinking about policing was at odds with what his officers were reporting from the streets. They expressed frustration at not having anything to offer homeless and vulnerable people, apart from imprisonment overnight. There were other difficulties in the neighbourhood, including recently-built project housing that was crime-rife and turning into an urban slum.

In response, Inspector Allen developed an approach to policing that is centred on respect and helping vulnerable people. Police became more personal – they got to know people in the neighbourhood and in the project housing buildings. Rather than being confrontational towards vulnerable people, his officers began to ask them if there was anything they could do to help.

In time, Inspector Allen set up other practices. He organised for his police to work with people who weren’t police – including youth workers – and talk to young people about issues like culture and community of origin. He gave police free travel vouchers so if they came across a person who was likely to cause trouble later in the night, they could give that person free and safe travel out of town. Inspector Allen also asked local street kids to make a piece of art that represented to them what the relationship with police should look like. The resulting artwork, which showed a police and a teenager respecting each other in graffiti, was hung up in the police station.

The police under Inspector Allen’s watch became healthier and happier. Sick leave dropped, and the station became the number one preference for police in their first year. Moreover, the number of arrests in the area plummeted, even though Allen never instructed any of his officers to stop arresting people. There was a reduction in crime across a spectrum of offences, including property crime (-59%), robberies (-41%) and assaults (-34%). There was a 50% reduction in complaints against the police for use of force and excessive use of force in the first few years of Allen’s tenure alone. The number of police assaults have reduced from 135 a year in the first year of Allen’s tenure, to 35 in 2015 (Allen’s speech was filmed in 2016).

Inspector Allen says that ‘it’s very hard to argue with the inner connected nature of human contact’. He poses the question to the audience: if his police station can make empathy one of the most effective tools in fighting crime, what else can we solve with empathy?

Empathy is key to our understanding of how child protection practices could take place in Australia. Inspector Allen’s approach could also be helpful when thinking about the relationship between police and young people - in particular, how to reduce the number of youth in juvenile justice facilities.

Watch Inspector Corey Allen’s full speech, below.

Community Leaders criticise Amendments to Child Protection Legislation in Australia

In a recent blog post for The Power to Persuade, Sharynne Hamilton criticised changes made late in 2018 by the NSW government to the Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Act and the Adoption Act.

The relevant changes expand the powers of family and community services to permanently remove children from their families. This legislation fast-tracks the adoption process, mandating that a judgement about the permanent placement of a child has to be made within two years[1], and allowing the children’s court to dismiss applications by parents to the court to stall the adoption process.[2] This is a one-size-fits-all approach that puts pressure on authorities to make irreversible decisions quickly. It does not take into account that individual family and child situations differ widely.

To many commentators, Sharynne included, the new legislation contains echoes of Stolen Generation policies, and forcible removal. The suffering caused by the break-up of Aboriginal families is still being felt, as set out in the Bringing them Home report. Aside from the rupturing of kinship structures, language, culture and community that took place during that time, Sharynne warns that, ‘if governments continue to remove children from their networks of love and care […] fostering healing and reconciling past harms is not possible.’

In an opinion article on the same new laws, Tim Ireland, the CEO of AbSec (Aboriginal Child, Family and Community Care State Secretariat) argues the new policy will disproportionately affect Aboriginal children.[3] He says: ‘The statutory system removes Aboriginal children and young people from their families at about 10 times the rate of non-Aboriginal children. About 38% of all children removed into statutory care are Aboriginal.’

Tim also emphasises ‘[w]e know that the support of family and kin is vital in keeping Aboriginal kids safely at home and connected with their community and culture. These connections are critical to the safety and lifelong wellbeing of Aboriginal children. Not only do permanent orders like adoption fail the best interests of Aboriginal children, but may also put them at risk.’

In Sharynne’s opinion, legislation creating a permanent solution for children for the sake of permanency is wrong. She attributes the NSW government’s desire for permanency to the difficulties they have faced in creating stable foster care services. According to Sharynne, ‘it is manifestly unreasonable to punish families for the failures of government to provide stability to the children it removes from their families.’

The legislation was legalised in late November 2018, in the face of fierce criticism from Aboriginal leaders and community members.

Sharynne’s initial blog post is available on The Power to Persuade.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/23/new-adoption-laws-threaten-to-sever-another-generation-of-aboriginal-children-from-their-families

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/nov/23/adoption-without-parental-consent-legalised-in-nsw

[3] See above, footnote 1.

The Poetry of Solli Raphael

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Solli Raphael is a 14-year-old Australian poet and budding humanitarian. He uses poetry to explore themes important to him, focusing in particular on the environment, inequality, and how we can be better agents for change within our communities.

Solli has performed in many places around Australia, including for TEDx and in collaboration with Greenpeace Australia. He regularly visits schools and has appeared on national media including The Project (Channel 10) and radio national. In 2017 he was the youngest winner of the National Australian Slam Poetry Finals at the Sydney Opera House, aged 12. Limelight, his first book, was published by Penguin Random House in Australia last year.

Solli is an inspiring example of how children can engender hope and change the conversation about important issues facing society. He shows that age is no barrier to activism, to poetic expression and to speaking about global community issues.

Solli recites his poem ‘We Can Be More’ in the video below.

Trust and Governance: 5 Insights from Psychology

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The idea of trust in relationships is a key theme in our work on reimagining child protection, and a central part of many ideas put forward here about how child protection could be conducted differently.

Trust is important insofar as it exists within communities, between communities and the workers supporting them, in the interactions between individuals and networks, in interactions with institutions and organisations, and between those organisations themselves.

In a recent post for the social policy blog The Power to Persuade, Valerie Braithwaite set out five insights that the field of psychology can teach us about trust and governance. They are helpful in trying to understand the relationship between citizens and institutions, a dynamic that comes up often in the child protection context. Valerie says:

  1. People differ in their capacity to trust. Trust is socially adaptive, and we develop it from an early age. We learn trust through knowing our carers will look after us. This is reflected in good parenting, which means being consistent in providing care and being responsive to a baby’s needs.

  2. All trust ripples out from trust in family. Trust in family leads to trust in friends, then to workplaces, neighbourhoods, local authorities, and more distant government institutions (see the work of Jenny Job and Monika Reinhart at ANU). For this reason, every government should be concerned about the coherence and effectiveness of its family policy.

  3. Trust can be blocked and meet resistance. There can be push back by organisations or institutions through organisations’ breach of trust norms. Trust norms are clustered around two themes: firstly, being reliable and responsible, that is, doing what you say you will do; secondly, having empathy for others, sharing the concerns of others, and showing generosity of spirit. This is the same between individuals, or between individuals and organisations.

  4. Organisations and institutions can breach trust norms like individuals. As a result they attract distrust—at least for a time.

  5. Breaches of trust do not cause systems to collapse. But persistently ignoring the signs that trust has been breached does. There are different types of defiance of trust norms.

These insights are a helpful way to think about how organisations behave. They shed light on how trust operates in our relationship with those institutions, as well as in associated community life.

Read the more detailed post on The Power to Persuade.

Parents and Family Members Matter: A Charter of Rights and Responsibilities

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In 2014, Sharynne Hamilton and Valerie Braithwaite authored a charter for parents and family members with children in the care of child protection services in Australia. This is a guiding document that sets out the rights and responsibilities of parents and family members for when they are dealing with child protection services.

Charters of rights and responsibilities exist within many other areas where livelihoods are regulated by public administration, including health, tax, and transport. Here, a charter is a useful way of thinking about how parents and family members can have relationships with child protection services which are fair and balanced, and which consider the rights of everyone involved in the process.

This charter was developed in response to research of how child protection interventions are carried out in Australia. In some situations, parents are exposed to unfair, non-transparent and unsupported processes where they are given inadequate information, not treated respectfully, not empowered but marginalised and stigmatised. This creates harm in communities and erodes trust in the child protection system. Interviews conducted by Sharynne and Valerie show the unhelpfulness of child protection interventions that traumatise families and use threatening tactics, particularly when family members are already likely to face stress and pressure in other areas of life.

The charter clearly sets out the rights of parents and family members going through the child protection process, but also their responsibilities. It is premised on developing relationships of mutual respect, open and honest communication, and making sure that there is clear information being transferred at all stages of the process. Parents and family members need to know their rights, and what support is available to them.

Find out more about the charter in the ‘publications’ section of this site.

Access the charter here.

You can also read a blog post on the charter by co-author Sharynne Hamilton on The Power to Persuade blog.