Better and more consistent involvement of families in child protection decision-making is a key goal of the research undertaken by Professor Karen Healy from UQ’s School of Social Work and Human Services.
With fellow researchers Dr Yvonne Darlington and Dr Gai Harrison, Professor Healy has undertaken two Australian Research Council Linkage projects on family participation in child protection decision-making.
The first project (2007–2011) concerned family group conferencing in child protection, and the second project focuses on formation of parent agreement in child protection decision-making.
The researchers are also collaborating with the Queensland Department of Communities (Child Safety Services), Micah Projects and Uniting Care Communities.
“Across Australia, governments have introduced legislation requiring family involvement in decision-making, but little is known about how this involvement occurs and its effectiveness for giving voice to families and children or for keeping children safe,” Professor Healy said.
The research is among the first internationally to observe what actually happens in family group meetings in child protection service contexts, and is made possible because of the collaborative relationships established with child safety, non-government support services and the university.
“Our research has shown considerable variation in how families are involved, and has provided evidence of what works in involving vulnerable families in child protection decision-making.
"We have found that, despite legislation mandating the participation of families in child protection decision-making, there is a concerning level of variation in how this happens in practice.
"This variation contributes to distrust by families and their advocates in child protection decision-making.”
She said child protection services can improve families’ trust and participation in child protection services by paying attention to several factors.
These factors include: ensuring that the mediator/facilitator builds a relationship with the parties, including children, prior to the decision-making conference; ensuring the fair and equal representation of all parties’ viewpoints; maintaining a focus on the child as the central concern of all parties; addressing the practical needs for families to attend and actively participate in decision-making processes; and providing genuine opportunities for families to find solutions themselves.
“Above all, the mediator must show themselves to be impartial and to have concern for the wellbeing of the child and their family, not stand in judgement of them,” she said.
Professor Healy said more research was needed on the strengths and limitations of family group conferences and other modes of participatory decision-making.
“A variety of models needs to be developed and tested as it is clear that one size cannot fit all the varied circumstances in which child protection decision-making occurs," she said.
“I am concerned with the need for more evidence-based knowledge in child protection decision-making processes and I worry about the increasing shift to a forensic approach in which care-givers, particularly parents, are seen as adversaries rather than partners in a change process.”
Professor Healy, who has a professional practice background in child protection and family support services, was inspired to undertake research in this area by her commitment to social justice.
“It is a basic human right for people to be involved in decisions that shape their lives. People respond best to decisions that are made with their involvement,” she said.
“Caregivers and children involved in the child protection system expect and deserve for their rights as decision-makers to be recognised and supported.
"Participatory decision-making is important to achieving good outcomes for children and for their caregivers.”
Media: Professor Karen Healy (School of Social Work and Human Services), email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 336 51847 or Helen Burdon (Marketing and Communications, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences), email email@example.com, phone 3346 9279.
September 17 to 21 is Research Week 2012 at UQ, one of Australia's premier learning and research institutions. For more information visit: www.uq.edu.au/research-week