Child protection best interests case practice

This advice provides essential core information for child protection practitioners practicing in the context of the Best interests case practice model.

Introduction

The Best interests case practice model provides the foundation for case practice in child protection. The model includes interconnected stages of professional practice, which is child focussed and family sensitive.  The stages include:

  • information gathering
  • analysis and planning
  • action
  • reviewing outcomes.

This advice is divided into each of these stages and separates analysis and planning.

Information gathering

Identifying concerns, strengths and protective factors

Best interests case practice uses a strengths based approach, which acknowledges the positive aspects of the family by enquiring and remaining open to receiving information about family strengths. Assessments need to be balanced, and families respect the fairness shown through the practitioner's genuine interest in the positive aspects of their lives. This ensures that the information gathered does not lead to an unbalanced and poorly considered analysis.

To guard against over optimism and to ensure that the child's safety is not lost sight of within the needs and functioning of the family, it is vital that child protection practitioners remain forensically astute. Strengths of themselves do not ensure safety. Safety is ensured through appropriate change being demonstrated and sustained over time.

Types of information

Information received and sought by child protection practitioners generally falls into two categories: identifying and contextual information, and safety and development information. Both current and historical information will be relevant. Historical information will include family history and previous involvement with child protection services in Victoria and elsewhere, as well as the child's history.

Identity and context – Safety and development

Identifying and contextual information includes factual personal, family, social and community details such as age, culture, gender, address, relationships, social and economic situation, networks and so on.

Safety and development information relates to the risk to the child and their needs, and family functioning and potential. This type of information includes facts, direct observations and the opinions of others (noting that the practitioner's own opinions constitute analysis).

This following diagram summarises information gathering in child protection, on which analysis is based.

Diagram 1: Information gathering in child protection

 

Information gathering domains

Information is categorised into seven key domains:

  • child's safety
  • child's stability
  • child's development and wellbeing
  • parent or carer capability
  • current family composition, dynamics and family history
  • social and economic environment
  • community partnerships, resources and social networks.

Child's safety

Key considerations:

  • type of alleged or actual harm - abandonment, parents dead or incapacitated, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, significant harm to the child's development or health
  • level of care provided to the child, such as food, shelter, warmth
  • parent's understanding and prioritisation of the child needs before their own
  • sources of harm (what and who)
  • history of child protection involvement with the child and family members
  • impact of harm on the child; fear of harm, frequency and duration of harm
  • consistency of protection
  • level of primary carer's or mother's safety
  • opportunities for harm (does the alleged or actual perpetrator have current, prior or future access to the child?)
  • previous or current contact with other agencies or services.

Child's stability

Key considerations:

  • connection to primary caregiver
  • connection to family, siblings and extended family
  • connection to school, childcare, friends
  • connection to community
  • connection to culture
  • trans-generational patterns, impact on the child and family, of individual, family community and historical trauma
  • child's ability to make key connections.

Child's development and wellbeing

Key considerations:

  • child's wellbeing
  • health and physical development
  • family and social relationships
  • emotional and behavioural development
  • opportunities for play, learning and education
  • opportunities for leisure, recreation and rest
  • opportunities to practice chosen faith
  • opportunities to gain support from cultural community
  • identity, including Aboriginal or other cultural, spiritual and sexual identity
  • social presentation
  • self care skills (age appropriate)
  • gender.

Parent or carer capability

Key considerations:

  • parental or carer attitude to the child
  • parent or carer capability to meet the child's changing needs:
    • previous history of parenting
    • providing basic care
    • ensuring safety
    • emotional warmth and responsiveness
    • guidance and boundaries
    • consistency and reliability
    • stimulating learning, development and wellbeing
  • parental history of abuse or neglect
  • parental or carer attitude to the actual or alleged harm
  • patterns of family and community interaction
  • history of violence
  • intellectual or physical disability
  • psychiatric or psychological illness
  • substance abuse.

Current family composition, dynamics and family history

Key considerations:

  • who forms family for this child
  • who forms community for this child and family
  • family cultural connections
  • role of gender and power in family dynamics
  • role, contribution and influence of absent parent
  • potential role of extended family, as well as disengaged or absent members
  • transgenerational patterns
  • parents family of origin history.

Social and economic environment

Key considerations:

  • housing – stable, sufficient, suitable for children
  • employment patterns
  • income – financial pressure, impact on the provision of basic care
  • informal community networks; family's involvement in the local community
  • cultural connectedness – family's involvement with extended family and social networks.

Community partnerships, resources and social networks

Key considerations:

  • networks, including engagement with support services and family's social integration
  • available community resources, including sports
  • connection to universal services, for example maternal and child health services, child care, school or a library.

Areas of concern

The CYFA provides the basis for the areas in which child protection concerns may exist:

  • absence of carer through abandonment s. 162 (1)(a)
  • absence of carer through death or incapacity s. 162 (1)(b)
  • physical injury s. 162 (1)(c)
  • sexual abuse s. 162 (1)(d)
  • emotional or intellectual development s. 162 (1)(e)
  • physical development or health s. 162 (1)(f)
  • sexually abusive behaviour being exhibited s. 244

For each of these areas of concern the type of actual or likely harm to the child and the actions leading to that harm should be identified. For a list of types of harm and actions causing harm see the Areas of concern checklist.

Verifying information

Child protection involvement usually begins with the receipt of information alleging concern about a child. Through the course of child protection involvement, the child protection practitioner may either receive information containing additional allegations or have their own concerns for the child.

Assessment needs to be based on evidence. Taking information at face value can result in poorly informed analysis and in some instances may place a child at further risk of harm. The quality of information provided by reporters will vary, and parents and children will commonly minimise or deny abuse and neglect.

Child protection needs to ensure that critical information is verified or corroborated through seeking further information from other relevant sources. Establishing the validity of information also protects children and families from unfounded or malicious allegations.

As child protection involvement progresses the basis for alleged concerns needs to be tested and the veracity or otherwise of the concerns established so as to build a picture of the valid concerns for a child to guide analysis.

In the verification process information may be categorised as:

  • alleged
  • verified
  • confirmed
  • disproved
  • unable to verify.

Verification category definitions

Alleged – uncorroborated information.

Alleged information:

  • has been asserted or declared, but not tested or verified
  • may be a sufficient basis for investigation depending on the nature of the concern
  • may become known at intake or at any other phase of child protection involvement
  • may be raised by an external person or the child protection practitioner.

Verified – information corroborated or supported by another party, or from a highly trusted source; suggests that the concern may be valid.

Information may be verified:

  • on the basis of the quality of the information and its source - for example a mandatory reporter from a hospital may provide information with sufficient detail to be considered verified on its own merit
  • on the basis of additional information gathered through intake consultation provided for in s. 35, CYFA
  • during intake or any other phase of child protection involvement
  • following investigation, but this will not in itself be a sufficient basis for substantiation.

Confirmed – compelling evidence in the form of the practitioners own observations or known facts or from another professional that, on the balance of probabilities, the concern is valid or true.

Confirmed information:

  • is based on direct investigation (so not at intake)
  • is a basis for substantiation.

Disproved – compelling evidence in the form of the practitioners own observations or known facts or from another professional that an allegation is invalid, or not true. The view that an allegation is disproved should be formed with caution.

Disproved information

  • is based on direct investigation (so not at intake)
  • is a basis for not substantiating a concern
  • reflects the current assessment at the time
  • should not be used to discount any new allegation or report (which should be assessed on its merits).

Unable to verify – investigated but neither confirmed nor disproved

Information that cannot be verified

  • is based on direct investigation (so not at intake)
  • allows for unsubstantiated allegations to remain live in the current assessment
  • indicates a lack of compelling evidence that would serve to either confirm or refute the concern
  • is a basis for not substantiating a concern
  • may be resolved in future with the receipt of new information which serves to verify, confirm or disprove the concerns.

Sources of information

It is critical to gather information from multiple sources and to develop a rich description of the life of the child and family from multiple perspectives.

The child

Observe and interact with the child in a manner consistent with the child's age and stage of development in order to assess the child's presentation. Always try to engage with and speak to the child. If the child is pre-verbal, detailed information can be gained from observing the child, including their behaviour patterns and responses, or lack of response, with each parent or caregiver, siblings and significant others.

Family and extended family

Seeking and sharing information with a family assists the practitioner to develop a clear picture of the child's lived experience. A detailed family history identifies patterns of behaviour and abuse, relationships, significant events and a deeper understanding of how the family functions. Practitioners should also observe the interactions in the family and be aware that the strengths and types of relationships between family members can sometimes affect the validity and accuracy of the information provided.

It is essential for practitioners to seek out accurate information about the values and child rearing practices of the cultural group to which the child belongs. Practitioners need to actively ask about cultural norms.

Contact with non-custodial parents should be made unless their whereabouts are unknown, with the aim of engaging them in the child protection involvement with their child and gathering and validating information provided by the custodial parent and others.

Child protection practitioners should be proactive in locating a non-custodial parent even when the custodial parent may deny knowledge of their whereabouts or involvement in the child's life. If the child protection practitioner, in consultation with their supervisor, decides not to make contact with the non-custodial parent, the reasons for this decision should be clearly articulated and recorded on the client information system.

Where there is evidence that the relationship between the parents was violent or abusive, consultation with a supervisor is required to identify possible risks to the family, and to determine how the contact will occur to ensure the safety of all parties.

Specialists

Consider seeking the opinion of an external expert where specialist information is required.

Agencies and significant others

Contacting and maintaining contact with agencies such as schools, childcare centres, family services and health services assists with gathering information on specific incidents and the cumulative impact of ongoing harm, clarifying their current role with the child and family, and identifying progress or continuing issues that affect the child's safety, development and wellbeing.

Practitioners should discuss any issues with professionals at the point of receiving or using the information.

When a child is placed in out-of-home care, the parenting responsibilities are usually shared by the care team, which is made up of a number of different people, including child protection practitioners. It is essential that members of a care team use and disclose information about a child in a way that ensures that good quality care is provided to the child and at the same time, the privacy of the child and family is protected. The Looking After Children practice framework for children in residential and home-based care (excluding kinship care and permanent care) facilitates the sharing of essential information amongst the child's care team.

When working with a family, it is preferable to gain the consent of the parents and of the child, when seeking information from a third party. However, information can be gathered from classes of people authorised under the CYFA in specific circumstances without consent from the child or family, including intake assessments and during an investigation. See 3061 Information sharing.

ACSASS

Child protection must consult with the Aboriginal Child Specialist Advice and Support Service (ACSASS) in respect of all reports, investigations and subsequent significant decisions across all phases of child protection practice where Aboriginal children are reported or subject to child protection intervention. Contact with a local Aboriginal community controlled organisation or other programs within VACCA does not replace the requirement to consult with ACSASS.

Ways to collect information

Information may be elicited through a range of procedures or forums such as phone calls and visits to the family or case conferences, however the quality of that information can be maximised by the way practitioners present to and engage with children and families, and others, showing interest, curiosity and respect, and acknowledging existing strengths.

Oral information

In the initial contact with the child and family, it is good practice to start slowly, actively listen and build rapport, whilst remaining forensically astute and carefully observing interactions and noting any inconsistencies in the information and explanations that are provided.

Practitioners need to 'start where the child is at' and be mindful that parents and carers may also be traumatised or fearful of child protection involvement when providing or responding to information. This will often be expressed in anger and the information may have to be repeated at a later date as the family is initially often in crisis and can experience a state of shock.

Arrange for an interpreter if required

Clarity about the child and family's language preferences is essential to gathering high quality information. Every effort should be made to enhance their participation. English may not be the best language for a child or family members to process complex information, or memories and feelings associated with traumatic events.

Cultural consultants and supports should be invited into the process if the family prefers this assistance.

Written information

Read existing records

Client files, both the electronic and paper, contain a rich history of the child and family as well as of child protection involvement. Reading files will inform practitioners on pattern and history, past and present relationships, services involved in the family and previous types of interventions and outcomes. It will also reduce the likelihood of repeating ineffective interventions and will identify previous actions that lead to successful outcomes for the child and family.

When it has been identified that someone else in the family (such as a sibling or parent) has a child protection history it is important for practitioners to obtain and read these related records or files to assist in the development of a comprehensive understanding of pattern and history.

It is expected that child protection practitioners will have a thorough knowledge of their allocated cases. This will include a detailed knowledge of the child's and family's electronic and paper files. It is the shared professional responsibility of the child protection practitioner and their supervisor to ensure that decisions are informed by the known history of the case as documented on the files.

Written reports

Written reports from other professionals can assist the child protection practitioner to clarify verbal information and can provide more detailed information, especially in relation to specialist assessments. Practitioners need to ensure that information contained within written reports is recorded in the client information system.

If written records are provided to the child or family, practitioners should consider whether support is required to assist with their understanding of, and reactions to, the information contained within the report.

Observation

Practitioners need to observe children and families within the home environment to find out about behaviour patterns and to carefully observe and record parent or carer-child interactions. These interactions should be observed over a period of time, if possible, to ensure accuracy and reliability of the information, whilst being mindful of the setting and circumstances.

Contact with the child and family can occur on a formal and informal basis, from supervised access visits to assisting the family with attending a medical appointment. Activities enhance engagement and can provide good opportunities to gather information in a more relaxed and non threatening environment for the child and family.

Case conferencing – including FLDMs and other family meetings

Formal and informal case conferences and family meetings can provide an opportunity for the child, family, and significant others to provide and be provided with critical information as an integral part of the information gathering process.

Joint visits with the police

There are a number of circumstances in which child protection and police may undertake joint visits with children and families. These circumstances include joint investigations, to ensure safety, or for the execution of a children's court search warrant.

Presenting and recording information

Genograms and eco maps

Genograms and eco maps identify family members and connected supports and services, and also the strength and quality of relationships between family members and of connections between the family and the community. They are visual reminders to think and act systemically.

Eco maps are a pictorial representation of the child's social relationships within their family and social environment at a particular point in time. An eco map demonstrates the connections of the child and family to other people and systems and describes the strength, impact and quality of each connection. The map enables a consistent and structured process for gathering information and supports the engagement of the family and rapport building. It describes relationships, interests and activities of all the family members and assists with identifying supports and gaps in support. See Genograms - advice.

Chronologies

Chronologies can be used by child protection practitioners for different purposes such as court reports and case reviews. Helpful chronologies include:

  • development of the child
  • educational history
  • court appearances
  • child protection history – periods of involvement; key decisions
  • contact with service and support systems
  • medical history
  • placement history
  • history of contact (access)

Practitioners are required to record the information gathered about a child on the client information system in a manner that will:

  • reduce the likelihood of duplication or inconsistency of the information recorded; and
  • enhance accessibility by ensuring that information intended to be entered in a field in CRIS is not hidden within a document.

Any significant information relating to the child and family should be identified as such and analysed in relation to how the information impacts on the current assessment, permanency objective and other elements of the case plan.

Maintaining information

Revision of information should be undertaken periodically to ensure accuracy and to identify any gaps. Practitioners need to be open to changing their initial views rather then interpreting new information in a way that supports a pre existing opinion of a child or family. Supervision is a key activity for revision and critical reflection.

Analysis and planning

For child protection, analysis occurs in different situations and settings, from intake, throughout child protection involvement, to closure. During the early stages of involvement with the family it is good to consider multiple ways of understanding the issues. This means developing various hypotheses to understand what is happening in this particular family, and then exploring each with relevant family members and other involved professionals. Later, although implementation of a clear case plan may be underway, maintaining an open mind and regularly analysing progress and new information will allow for adapting to changing circumstances.

Child protection will repeatedly analyse the information available to it as new information is collected about a child and family. Practitioners need to be alert to new information and consider advice that may inform or change their understanding of how to intervene and influence family dynamics. Specialist professional consultation may assist to verify or extend the practitioner's understanding of the meaning of significant information.

Professional judgement

The process of forming a professional judgement uses both analytical reasoning and intuitive understanding.

Reasoning is logical and evidence based and grounds the intuitive, to inform a clear rationale for any decision or action.

Intuition is helpful but not sufficient. It has value in child protection practice when it arises from the unconscious perception of cues based on prior learning. It may for example enable quick decisions to protect a child in a volatile situation, or prompt further exploration of issues that have not been overtly stated.

Intuitive analysis will be engaged when you are sensing the emotional state of the child and family members, picking up on the non-verbal behaviour and closely attending to what is not being said, how things are being said, and the reactions of others to what is happening.

Forming a view about the meaning of information can be a subjective process and needs to be supported by evidence. Professional judgement is influenced by one's culture, life experience and education. Practitioners need to remain mindful of these influences, and be open to reflection in supervision.

Engaging others in the development of a shared analysis

The process of engaging others in analysis will assist child protection practitioners in making balanced and well considered judgements. Asking family members about their understanding of the situation, and what they see as the best way forward, is respectful and usually leads to better outcomes. Shared analysis is more than sharing information. It is involving people in the process of interpreting the information and exploring the meaning of events for the child and the service system.

Engaging specialists and other professionals in the analysis process results in a greater shared understanding of the safety, development and wellbeing of the child and the planning and actions required to resolve the protective issues for the child and the family. Shared analysis can occur in both formal and informal processes and settings, such as care team meetings or in the course of day to day contact, through purposeful conversations and written reports.

Legislative context

Section 10 of CYFA articulates the three core needs of the child which must always be considered:

  • protection of the child from harm
  • protection of the child's rights
  • promotion of the child's development.

In this context, harm and development are the key issues for focus in assessment. Protection of the child's rights is also to be considered in every aspect of case practice. The other best interests principles must be considered where relevant.

Throughout the CYFA there are numerous points at which child protection is required to make decisions in relation to a child. Each decision should be based on a current assessment resulting from good analysis.

Aboriginal children and families

Where children are identified as Aboriginal, child protection practice must take into account Aboriginal culture, family relationships and parenting arrangements, as required by legislation and policy.

Consultation with ACSASS is required in relation to all key decisions for Aboriginal children throughout child protection involvement.

Key concepts

Threshold

In child protection practice there are a number of thresholds, or levels of concern for a child, which serve to inform decision making. Analysis and assessment provide the basis for identifying when a threshold has been reached, and a recorded current assessment will often need to include a view on the question of threshold. For example, where a child is removed from a parent's care, the evidence must at a minimum support a view of 'unacceptable risk of harm to the child' (s. 10(3)(g), CYFA).

That is, the rationale for threshold decisions must be clear – both to the decision maker, and in the record of child protection involvement with the child.

Evidence and balance of probabilities

The investigation of the subject matter of a protective intervention report involves seeking out factual information on which to base an analysis of the impact of risk and harm on a child's safety and development.

Evidence includes factual information drawn from the practitioner's own observations, credible information from other parties, and expert opinion from other professionals. Evidence may either corroborate or refute allegations or potential protective concerns.

The standard of proof of evidence of any fact in an application before the family division of the children’s court is the balance of probabilities (s. 215A, CYFA).  In practice the weight of evidence required to prove a fact on the balance of probabilities needs to be clear and convincing.

The additional subsection (3) of section 162 of the CYFA clarifies that the court, while required to determine facts on the balance of probabilities, is not required to apply that standard to the determination of whether a future state of affairs is ‘likely’ or ‘unlikely’.

Significant harm

Significant harm is not defined in the CYFA, however Justice O'Bryan in the Supreme Court decision of Director-General of Community Services Victoria v Buckley (1992) (unreported) defined 'significant' as:

  • 'more than trivial or insignificant but need not be as high as serious';
  • ' “important”, or “of consequence”, to the child's … development'; and
  • '[i]t is irrelevant that the evidence may not prove some lasting permanent effect or that the condition could be treated'.

The significance must be demonstrated in a way that is specific to the case. For example, the same level of bruising that may be accepted as evidence that a three month old baby has suffered significant harm but not be accepted as evidence of significant harm if found on a 14 year old child.

For harm to be regarded as significant it must be 'of consequence' or be of 'considerable amount, or effect, or importance'.

Likelihood

Likelihood of significant harm is a central consideration in the development of the current assessment throughout child protection involvement. It is a primary driver for continued child protection intervention after substantiation, or for making a protection application to court.

Where the likelihood of significant harm is assessed as posing an 'unacceptable risk of harm to the child' (s. 10(3)(g), CYFA) the threshold for removing a child from their parents care has been reached.

Reid et al (1990) undertook an examination of file records and other data relating to over 1500 children and identified three important organising principles consistently associated with occurrences or recurrences of child abuse or neglect for children. These authors regard risk as residing in characteristics of the caregiver:

  • The first and most important dimension is their prior pattern with respect to the treatment of children. The number of maltreatment events they have initiated, their severity and recency are the most basic of guides to future behaviour. In the absence of effective intervention these behaviour patterns would be expected to continue into the future.
  • Secondly, if an individual believes that they are correct in their opinions about children, they will attempt to continue their behaviour so long as they are not prevented from doing so.
  • The third dimension concerns the presence of contributing factors, most significantly, substance abuse, mental illness, violent behaviour, and social isolation. The relevance of contributing factors is the extent to which they, individually or in combination, diminish the capacity to provide sufficient care and protection to the child.

In summary, a view on likelihood requires consideration of:

  • pattern and history of caregiver behaviour – frequency, severity, duration, type of harm caused
  • parental beliefs, values and motives in relation to the child and other children
  • contributing factors - substance abuse, mental illness, violent behaviour, social isolation, disability, and their impact on parental capacity
  • needs of child – developmental, medical or other special needs
  • child's behaviour – including risk taking, harm to self and others.

Analysis framework – the 5Cs

The 5Cs framework encourages a systemic and balanced analysis:

  • Context – the circumstances surrounding the current concerns and the historical context.
  • Circularity – the patterns surrounding the concerns currently and historically.

What are the patterns that repeat around the problems? Who does what, when and to whom? What is the outcome? What is the potential for cumulative harm? Include the whole family in describing the interactional patterns - even absent members.

  • Constraints – the barriers that are preventing good outcomes.

What is getting in the way?

  • Connectedness – the positive emotional bonds of affection and regard that hold meaning for the child, young person and family.
  • Curiosity – the attuned practitioner who does not make assumptions and seeks to learn from the family and other professionals. Remain open and curious about new information and the potential need to alter the professional judgements you may previously have made.

Diagram 2: Analysis framework for child protection

 

Weighting information

The weighting of information helps to avoid overly optimistic or overly negative assessment. It assists with prioritising issues and concerns, and with addressing the needs of the child and family in a safe and reasonable sequence.

When considering weight, practitioners should focus at all times on the lived experience of the child in their unique situation.

Risk to the child – safety

Best interests case practice requires appropriate consideration of all available information and in light of the 5Cs, weighting the information in the four key areas of:

  • Pattern and severity of harm to the child – what are the consequences of harm? What has happened or is likely to happen to the child? What is the immediate and longer term impact on the child's safety, stability and development? What is the frequency, type, severity, source and duration of the harm? It is necessary to think broadly about the child's development and cumulative harm, as well as understanding in detail particular instances. Remember to consider acts of omission and acts of commission.
  • Vulnerability of the child considering the child's age, stage of life, culture and gender, how do these factors increase or decrease the child's vulnerability to future harm? Does the child's particular temperament or personality impact on their vulnerability to further harm? Does the child have a physical or intellectual disability that increases their vulnerability to further harm? Are there socio-economic factors that make the child more or less vulnerable to further harm? Do family patterns indicate increased vulnerability to further harm?
  • Strengths and protective factors what offsets the harm consequences? What is the capacity for change? Strengths can include parental attitudes and capabilities, support from extended family and significant others, access to and engagement with formal services and informal networks of support and cultural support. Where present, protective factors can be regarded as strengths and can significantly contribute to demonstrated safety for the child. Where protective capacities are absent or insufficient this can represent a need that may be able to be addressed through appropriate planning and action. Can these strengths and protective factors be sustained over time? Are they sufficient to ensure safety? It is important to note that while protective factors may be regarded as strengths, not all strengths can be regarded as protective factors. That is, safety is ensured when the sufficient protective factors are sustained over time.
  • Likelihood of future harm what is the likelihood of harm occurring in the future if there is no intervention, based on current circumstances and pattern and history? What has been the experience of other siblings in the family? (refer to the explanation of likelihood above).

The following diagram may assist with considering level of risk. Risk is shown as the relationship between the consequences of harm and the likelihood of harm occurring. A high likelihood of serious to extreme consequence of harm indicates high risk. It is important to remember that analysis is a complex process and that this diagram is a simple representation of a way of thinking about level of risk, which is one component of the analysis framework.

Diagram 3: Level of risk

 

Note: Level of harm, consequence of harm and severity of harm are terms that are used interchangeably in child protection practice and training.

Cumulative harm

To ensure a comprehensive analysis, child protection practitioners need to consider the frequency and chronicity of harm in addition to severity. A single event might have a moderate consequence of harm, but when considered in the context of past abuse, the consequence of harm for the child is increased, as is the likelihood of future harm. It is vital that analysis includes a thorough consideration of pattern and history.

It is also important for child protection practitioners to be aware that cumulative harm includes multiple forms of abuse and neglect, not just multiple incidences of the same type of abuse or neglect.

Sustainability of protective factors

A balanced analysis requires consideration of the potential for further harm by identifying and determining the sustainability of safety factors that decrease the risk of harm and promote stability and development. Sustainable protective factors are demonstrated actions and behaviour occurring in a range of contexts, over a significant period of time.

It is important not to confuse safety with strengths. Strengths should be worked with and built upon, but in and of themselves do not make the child safe.

Diagram 4: Influences on level of risk

 

This diagram describes the offsetting of harm and risk by demonstrated and maintained signs of safety. The green arrow indicates that the presence of demonstrated and maintained signs of safety, tends to reduce the likelihood of future harm and the consequences of harm. The presence of a history of harm and of current risk factors tends to increase the level of risk for the child as does the absence of or minimal demonstrated and maintained signs of safety.

Needs of the child

As well as weighting the information in terms of harm to the child, considering the needs of the child is an important step in identifying the key areas for planning and action. Deliberation is required regarding the needs of the child now and in the future to protect them and promote their rights and development, and provide for their present and future care and wellbeing, taking into account their age, stage of life, gender and culture.

When considering needs, practitioners should think about the individual child's specific needs, rather than just the general needs of a child that age, in order to form a meaningful assessment.

Rights of the child

The CYFA requires that child protection practitioners consider the need to protect the rights of the child when determining whether a decision or action is in the best interests of the child. Although the CYFA does not describe what the rights are, child protection practitioners are obligated to act compatibly with the relevant rights under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act (the Charter). Section 17 of the Charter recognises the right of a child to such protection as is in the child's best interests and is needed by reason of being a child, and also the right of families to be protected as the fundamental group unit of society.

Assessment – the outcome of analysis

Current assessment

Current assessment is the term used in the model to describe the assessment of the child's circumstances at any particular point in time.

In the context of the best interests principles (s. 10, CYFA), the current assessment in child protection will address protection from harm and promotion of development, with the emphasis shifting depending on where in the course of child protection involvement the assessment is made.

The assessment needs to take into account the child's gender, age, and stage of development, so a grounding in both child development and child safety and risk is required.

Other considerations articulated in the best interests principles such as stability and cultural identity will also need to be addressed in the current assessment where relevant.

A focus on child safety within a developmental assessment

While assessment needs to address development, in order to meet the child's need for protection from harm it is essential that any assessment has a focus on child safety.

Safety is defined as 'protection from harm' and this mirrors the legislative obligation to protect the child from harm.

In accordance with s. 162 CYFA, 'harm' relates to physical injury, sexual abuse, damage to emotional or psychological development, physical development or health. It may result from a single act, omission or circumstance or may be cumulative.

The balance in focus between safety and development will vary, depending on the extent of child protection involvement. At intake the primary focus will be on whether there is concern that the child may be in need of protection, being mindful that harm can result from neglect. Where a child is subject to a reunification, care by Secretary or long-term care order, assessment will need to provide a deeper understanding of the child's development so that the state fulfils its responsibilities, noting that s. 174(b) of the CYFA requires that the Secretary '… must make provision for the physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development of the child in the same way as a good parent would…', when placing a child for whom the Secretary has parental responsibility.

Developing the current assessment

When articulating a current assessment the following questions should be considered:

  • Given all the information gathered, how do you make sense of it? What does it mean in relation to the vulnerability of each child in the family?
  • In your professional judgement, what is the likelihood of future harm occurring if nothing changes?
  • From the point of view of each child and family member, what needs to change to enable safety, healthy development and permanency for the child?
  • If circumstances were improved within the family, what would you notice was different? What would there be more of? What would there be less of? Who would notice?

Remaining open to new information

When any critical information comes to light it is imperative that it is incorporated into a current assessment. Child protection practitioners and managers should review previous assessments and decisions, critically evaluate them and update them in light of the new information.

When to record a current assessment

Although critical reflection and analysis of information is a continual process occurring throughout child protection involvement with children and families, it is expected that a record of the current assessment will be made at significant points, such as:

  • in light of new information, such as when:
    • significant new information is received
    • after consultation with an expert or specialist
  • when circumstances change, such as when there is a change:
    • of child protection practitioner or other service provision arrangements
    • to family or household composition – birth of an infant, parent released from prison, new partner or step-parent and so on
  • when making key decisions to record the rationale for the decision including:
    • movement from one phase to the next
    • preparation of case plan
    • review of case plan
    • response to critical incident.

Articulating analysis

In a properly articulated current assessment, the link between what is known (information) and why a particular recommendation (planning, action) is made, should be clearly drawn.

For example, it is not enough to say that because a parent has returned positive drug screen results, their child has been or is likely to be harmed.

In this example, the practitioner needs to consider and be able to answer the question 'How does the parent’s drug-use impact on the child?'

The practitioner then needs to consider the evidence (medical reports about the children’s health and development, information from schools, childcare, maternal and child health, and case notes that reflect parental statements about the harm and its impact on their child) and draw the link, using professional judgement, between this evidence and what it tells us about harm and likelihood of harm to the child’s safety and development.

For instance, the assessment may be that ‘the parent’s drug addiction means they often sleep in and the child is absent from or late for school x days a week. In addition, the child is not being adequately fed as evidenced by the child being hungry on arrival at school and usually having no lunch. The school’s view is that this is directly and negatively impacting on the child’s educational development’.

Recording of analysis promotes shared understanding, transparency of the decision-making processes and reflective practice. The articulation of analysis is critical for effective planning. A common criticism of child protection recording is the lack of analysis of information.

Practitioners are required to articulate their analysis to a variety of audiences including: peers, line managers, children, families and at times the Court. It is important for practitioners to explain their analysis to the family, so that the family is aware of and understands the reasons for child protection’s involvement, focussing on the risks to and needs of, the child. Having an understanding of the family’s own analysis of the concerns will not only assist in engaging them in the process, but will also provide significant information relating to future harm.

The child protection practitioner needs to articulate how the harm or likelihood of harm has or may impact on the child. This not only ensures that the child remains the focus of the assessment but it also demonstrates the link between the behaviour or action and the outcome the behaviour or action has had or may have for the child. A description of the action or behaviour is not sufficient in considering current risk factors and likelihood of future harm. It is also necessary to consider the impact that the behaviour has or may have on the child.

For example, ‘the child’s medical needs have been inconsistently met due to the violence and substance abuse in the family. The parent is often overwhelmed and despite good intentions, x appointments have been missed. The paediatrician has expressed concern that the child’s medication for epilepsy is inadequately monitored. This can have serious consequences for the child, such as…’

Court

Practitioners need to be able to present evidence to the Children’s Court that shows the effects of harm on children and future risks to children’s safety and development. The court will also want to know the rationale for professional judgements and decision making, what assistance has been provided to the family and the outcomes of previous interventions, all supported by evidence. The child protection practitioner’s opinions need to be backed up by a fact or supported by research and vice versa.

Child protection practitioners need to clearly show the Court the process of their decision making based on the facts and supported by their knowledge and research. Practitioners need to be able to stand by their decisions or recommendations and convey this in instructions to their legal representative, through negotiation processes, and to the Court through reports and as a witness.

More on engaging others in shared analysis

Eileen Munro describes the process of analysis in child protection as being like ‘making up a jigsaw puzzle, piecing together the various items of knowledge held by a number of different people: social workers, family, neighbours and other professionals’ (Munro 1998). Shared analysis does not necessarily equate to agreement, rather it is listening to and the understanding of other people’s opinions and views. If there are serious differences and disputes as to different parties’ views of what is known, these need to be worked through.

When conducting a case conference, allow structured time to develop an analysis of the information that has been shared. Often the time is all used to share information rather than to analyse and plan. Appoint a ‘devil’s advocate’ to ensure the meeting does not develop a ‘group think’ and screen out relevant parts of the history.

Reflective Practice

A key consideration in reflective practice is the ability to be able to change view, or hypothesis about a particular situation in light of new information. This may sound simple; however active commitment and supervision is required to ensure good practice.

There is a large body of professional knowledge that asserts that people's beliefs '…are remarkably resilient in the face of empirical challenges that seem logically devastating…' (Kahneman etal.,1990)

Munro (1996) who reviewed multiple inquiries into adverse events in child protection in the UK demonstrates that inquiry reports frequently show ‘…how resistant social workers are to changing their minds and how powerful an influence this has on the conduct of a case. This reluctance to abandon beliefs should not be seen as a particular fault of social workers but as a general weakness of intuitive reasoning…’

Reflective practice places a strong focus on critical analysis as a central way of thinking about practice.

In the everyday operation of child protection practice a synthesis of intuitive understanding and reasoning based on critical analysis is required to work effectively for the best interests of the child.

Planning

In the Best Interests Case Practice Model, planning is defined as:

‘Making decisions about what actions to take regarding the child’s risks of harm and their needs in relation to the family’s strengths and capabilities.’

Analysis is defined as:

‘The process of thinking critically about the information gathered, in order to make sense of what is now known about the child or young person’s situation’

Analysis and planning are directly linked in the model in order to highlight that good analysis is critical to forming a current assessment of the child’s circumstances, level of risk, family’s strengths and needs, which feeds directly into the planning process. Good decision making is a product of sound assessment – the outcome of analysis is assessment, which forms the basis of any decision making and planning about any further action.

While analysis and planning are combined as one stage of practice in the model,they are articulated separately for child protection given the legislated responsibility to prepare a case plan. Planning that is overtly derived from a current assessment resulting from detailed analysis is essential to fulfilling child protection’s legislative obligations. See Case planning for detailed description of the case planning process following substantiation.

All parts of the model work together in a seamless and integrated manner.

All decisions subject to review

All significant decisions made during child protection involvement with a child and their family are subject to scrutiny through internal and external review procedures.

Significant decisions include but not limited to:

  • classification of report type at intake
  • decisions made in pre-birth planning at intake
  • decision made in intake case conference processes
  • substantiation
  • permanency objective (where not determined by the Court)
  • decisions regarding contact between child and family
  • return of a child to parents care
  • placement including:
    • type of placement
    • change of placement
    • secure welfare service entry and exit
  • cultural support needs
  • change to education arrangements
  • health care arrangements
  • decisions regarding the involvement of other agencies and services
  • financial decisions made on behalf of the child
  • significant health and other consents on behalf of the child.

It is critical that where possible decision making is conducted in a transparent manner, involving the child and the parents (where appropriate) and other significant parties, and that the parties are informed of their rights in relation to the review of decisions. See procedure Internal review of decision for tasks that must be undertaken.

Recording significant decisions

All significant decisions in relation to a child need to be recorded in a manner that is readily accessible. Significant decisions concerning the child following substantiation are recorded in the case plan. Decisions not recorded in the case plan, or are made at other times,  including who endorsed the decision, are to be recorded elsewhere as appropriate in CRIS. Decisions recorded as case notes should have as their subject: ‘Decision re…….’ and the key decision tick box associated with the case note should be used.

Planning in the child protection context

Planning is an essential component of the Best interests case practice summary guide (pdf, 1.18 MB) and is crucial for effective child protection intervention.

Planning involves making decisions about what actions to take regarding the risk of harm to a child and their needs, considering the family’s strengths and capabilities, to achieve sufficient protection from harm and to promote the child’s rights and development.

Planning is the process of making significant decisions in relation to a child during child protection involvement, from intake to closure. Planning stems from effective information gathering and analysis of the available information. It is directly informed by the current assessment of the child’s situation and lived experience, and directly informs any actions that need to be taken. Reviewing the plans and decisions in light of fresh information or significant changes for the child and a renewed current assessment is an essential part of the planning process.

Planning processes

Planning happens in many ways, through casework with families, children and carers, supervision between practitioners and managers and in meetings with the family, where other professionals or advocates may also be present.

Planning discussions may be undertaken over the phone or face-to-face. A record of the planning process and decisions needs to be made in the client file in a way that is readily accessible, to facilitate actions and review.

It is good practice to plan in a collaborative manner, including all members of the child and family’s network who are significant to the planning and decision-making process. All planning processes should encourage the parents and extended family to take responsibility for generating and implementing solutions for the protection and care of the child.  Planning should seek to draw on the capacities of the family and their community in the context of their culture to generate solutions to the identified problems and needs.

Through the planning process, and especially in developing the case plan, there may be disagreement between the family and child protection as to the key issues of concern and the way forward. Where this is the case, engaging with families to understand and focus on the child’s needs, can be effective in promoting consensus and collaboration. It may be necessary to establish minimum expectations or adopt more assertive intervention techniques. The practitioner should discuss approaches to engaging families in addressing protective concerns in supervision and with the case planner.

A child centred family focussed approach

Working in partnership with families to enhance family strengths and potential to care for their child(ren) is central to child centred, family focused practice. Research clearly shows that the single most important factor influencing positive outcomes for child protection casework is the quality of the relationship between the child protection practitioner and the child and their family. Research also points to the importance of parental involvement in child protection processes. (Dartington Social Research Unit 1998)

It may not be common for an easy partnership to be established in the early stages of child protection involvement, particularly where statutory power has been used to a significant degree, such as removing a child. However, it is vital to try to lay the groundwork for the casework to follow. Try to:

  • listen carefully (value what parents/carers say, express empathy, reflect, clarify, understand the parent/carer’s perspective)
  • learn what the parent/carer wants and build around their goals as much as possible
  • offer choices, even in coercive situations - look for instances where parents/carers can  make or contribute actively to decisions, engage parents/carers in decisions about the direct care of their child(ren) wherever possible. Even if you may not be able to agree about the overall direction of the caseyou may be able to agree about what the child(ren) need, and how best to practically address those needs, and offer choices about the details as well as the big picture
  • show that you care. ‘…Conveyance of compassion, commitment and concern, along with respect, is regarded by parents as being indicators of whether or not a worker can be trusted… .’ (McCallum 1995)
  • encourage support from the kinship network - see if there is anyone who can provide support or offer a shoulder to cry on
  • enlist parents/carers in coming up with plans - ask if they can think of ways to show that the child(ren) will be safe.

Investigation planning

See procedure Investigation plan for tasks that must be undertaken

A family-led decision making approach to planning

Consideration should be given where practicable to incorporating the family-led decision making model of planning as the default position for all case planning processes. In all cases where protective concerns have been substantiated in relation to an Aboriginal child, AFLDM is to be offered.

Family-led decision making is a logical extension of the partnership and is consistent with the decision making principles in the CYFA.

Planning to protect the child from harm

Child protection aims to create sufficient safety for children and young people. Where child protection intervenes, creating sufficient safety requires clear, concrete goals. Those goals need to be expressed in terms that can be understood by the family so they know what is expected of them.

The business of setting goals is not a one-sided affair. In order to work in partnership with families, it is important to find out what family members think about what would help create sufficient safety.

Developing a current assessment with families naturally leads to questions about what is required to provide sufficient safety for the child. Encourage the family to come up with their own ideas – these ‘family safety goals’ are more likely to be acceptable, and therefore implemented, than goals developed by the child protection practitioner.

Permanency planning

Permanency encompasses all decisions made about a child’s ongoing living and care arrangement including the child being in parental care. 

This concept strengthens the platform to focus child protection’s attention on the actions required to achieve this in a more timely manner with greater emphasis on what is in the best interests of the child.

For further details on permanency planning and identifying an appropriate permanency objective for a child see advice Identifying and achieving the permanency objective.

Planning to protect the child’s rights

Consideration needs to be given to the rights of the child, the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Australia is a signatory. See advice Human rights and child protection for further information.

Planning to promote the child’s development

Along with the obligation to protect the child from harm and protect the child’s rights, sits the obligation to promote the child’s development. Promotion of the child’s development is a core focus of the planning process and of any case plan that is developed. The child may need therapeutic intervention to address the impact of abuse or neglect on their development.

In practice, planning for the promotion of the child’s development should be informed directly by rigorous assessment. It is recognised that any developmental deficits that may be identified though assessment may also constitute protective concerns for the child, which should be addressed through planning, targeted action and subsequent review.

Planning for children in out-of-home care

For children in out-of-home care, within legislated timelines, strong emphasis will be given to strengthening families and maximising opportunities for reunification. Where this cannot be achieved, the focus will be on providing the most suitable permanent or long-term out-of-home care arrangement for the child. In focusing on promoting permanency, attention must be given to preserving and promoting children’s relationships with primary carers, parents, siblings, friends and other significant adults in their lives (for example from pre school or school).

The child’s case plan will incorporate all planning requirements under the CYFA, as relevant, including cultural support for Aboriginal children.

Kinship care

Where a child is in kinship care, planning will include the kinship carer’s need for support as well as the needs of the child and parents, and child protection’s responsibility for monitoring the placement. In appropriate circumstances, consideration may be given to contracting case management to a CSO.

Day-to-day needs in placements provided by an out-of-home care service

Child protection and CSOs are jointly responsible for the care that children receive from an out-of-home care service. A care and placement plan is completed by the CSO case worker, in consultation with the care team.

The care and placement plan can be attached to the child’s case plan and will document:

  • the child’s needs in the seven LAC domains (health, emotional, behavioural development, education, family and social relationships, identity, social presentation, self-care skills)
  • planned outcomes
  • roles and responsibilities of members of the care team and other professionals
  • role of parents.

Cultural support – maintaining Aboriginal children’s cultural connection

See advice Cultural plans.

Planning for leaving care

See procedure Leaving care for tasks that must be undertaken.

Action

In making a decision or taking an action in relation to a child, consideration must be given to the decision-making principles set out in s. 11 of the CYFA, and where the child is Aboriginal to the additional principles in ss. 12 – 14.

Through the actions stage, as in each stage of practice, child protection practitioners and managers need to attend to the core processes represented in the model that underpin and enable good case practice:

  • relationship building
  • engaging
  • partnering
  • empowering.

Purposefully directed toward change

All actions should be purposefully directed toward engaging the child and family in a change process. Child protection practitioners are required to diligently implement or manage the implementation of the tasks determined through planning to be necessary to produce sufficient change to ensure the safety, development and wellbeing of the child. In the course of working with families the child protection practitioner will need to flexibly take on various roles such as investigator, advocate, counsellor, catalyst for change, practical helper, and so on.

Best interests case practice in child protection involves doing things for and with the family. Actions in child protection include a significant focus on working directly with the child and family. The child protection practitioner is expected to provide a primary direct casework service to the child and family, unless this function is contracted to another service provider.

In addition, child protection may seek out, or support the family to seek out, specialist services from other service providers to address particular goals or needs. Where other services are involved, the management and coordination roles also require attention.

Demonstrating cultural competence

The lens of culture, along with age and stage, and gender, assists child protection practitioners and managers to understand how to appropriately address the range of safety, stability and development issues for each child. It also helps to see the child and their relationships from the perspective of their own community and not just from one's own cultural bias. In practice, for child protection practitioners this means the integration of attitudes, values, knowledge, understanding and skills that enable effective interventions with people from a culture different from their own.

From the perspectives both of rights and effectiveness, and in the context of the principles of Aboriginal self-determination embraced in the CYFA, this is of particular importance with Aboriginal children and families. Cultural competence includes an understanding that a different approach is necessary in working with Aboriginal children and families.

Appropriately supervised and administered

The child protection practitioner is expected to receive and actively engage in regular supervision on case direction, the delivery of direct case work and other responsibilities.

The practitioner is also expected to:

  • meet any procedural requirements associated with a particular issue or task (refer to topical practice advice as relevant)
  • maintain an accurate chronology of events
  • maintain records.

The following diagram provides a visual representation of the various aspects of actions in best interests case practice in the child protection context.

 

Diagram 5: Child protection actions in best interest case practice

 

Direct casework with the child and their family

The primary method for implementing planned actions in child protection practice is casework with children, young people and their families.

Child protection involvement may be highly intimidating and in some cases terrifying for families, and the anxiety that this can provoke should not be underestimated. To truly involve the family in child protection processes, care must be taken to facilitate engagement. It may help to ask the family what they will need to be able to meet with child protection, and then find creative ways to get around barriers. This may be as simple as holding a meeting in a different location such as a local service with which the parent is already engaged. Such things as being mindful of literacy issues when providing written material, and being aware of intellectual or physical disability when interacting with clients are other ways through which to demonstrate that consideration is being given to the family's needs and perspective, rather than simply expecting compliance despite their situation.

Regular and purposeful contact with the child and family

Face-to-face contact provides the richest type of communication, with access to facial expressions, body language, eye contact, behaviour, actions and environment in addition to oral communication. For the child protection practitioner it provides a much wider range of information than phone contact. Visiting families in their home is also a valuable way to more effectively engage and work with families in addressing the concerns that brought them to the attention of child protection.

Phone contact is a more limited form of communication. It is a valuable adjunct to face-to-face contact but is not sufficient beyond the intake phase in child protection practice.

Written communication has very limited value as a mechanism for monitoring safety or implementing planned goals in child protection and should not be relied upon in the absence of other forms of contact. The following matters should be considered:

  • Text messaging can be a helpful method of contact with a high risk young person who is willing to engage through this mechanism, but again, is not sufficient as a stand-alone strategy.
  • Email contact should be used with considerable care given the potential for this type of communication to be misinterpreted or redirected – the same care should be taken regarding the content of an emailed message to a child or family as would be taken with a formal letter.
  • Case plan documents and court reports can be extremely confronting and often distressing for families to receive. Wherever possible families should be involved in their preparation, so that the content has been openly discussed prior to completion. Even so, seeing the final document may be upsetting, and further discussion and processing may be needed. This form of written communication should be handled with great care.

Regular face-to-face contact with the child

It is expected that the child protection practitioner will routinely have direct contact with each child for whom they are responsible, whether the child is living at home or is placed out of home. Generally, for an allocated case, fortnightly contact would be a reasonable minimum, and more, or less, frequent contact will occur where appropriate to the child's best interests.

The child protection practitioner will have direct contact with each child for whom they are responsible at a level consistent with the current client contact statement.

It is preferable that contact occurs in the child's environment or at least in a child-friendly space, rather than at an office. Where the child is living would generally be the first preference. However in some situations another venue may be more appropriate to facilitate engagement or to support the work to be done.

Where case management has been contracted to a community service organisation (CSO), the frequency, mode and purpose of the direct contact with the child should form part of the contracting negotiation as appropriate to the child's care setting and case plan. Minimum contact levels should be clear and endorsed by child protection.

Frequency and type of contact with the family

The appropriate frequency and type of contact with other family members will vary depending on the needs of the child and their circumstances. Where the child is in the parent's care, or reunification is the goal it is likely that regular contact in person with key family members will form part of the actions to implement tasks required to achieve the goals identified through planning.

Purposeful contact directed towards change

Each contact with the child and family, as with all actions, should be purposefully directed toward the current identified goals and tasks for the case. Careful planning and review should occur in relation to contacts; this will often appropriately be addressed in supervision. Contact time may be used to build relationships and gather information, to engage the child and family in the process of analysing needs and planning for change, to work in partnership towards the changes required or to reflect with them on their progress, empowering them to towards resilience and effectiveness in their lives.

Other aspects of direct casework

Other aspects of direct casework include:

  • supporting kinship carers
  • advocating on behalf of the child and family to address underlying environmental contributors to abuse and neglect (addressing poverty, housing, child care and so on)
  • promoting, arranging and supervising contact between children and families where children are in out-of-home care
  • working with children and families to prepare for reunification
  • working with children and families to prepare for leaving care.

Working in partnership with other professionals

'Working in partnership with families, the community and other services in the best interests of the child or young person requires a multi-systemic approach, a high degree of coordination between services and ongoing clarification of roles and communication processes'. See Best interests case practice summary guide (p.11).

Practitioners working as a team can often sustain a coordinated, goal orientated direction where a sole worker might be overwhelmed by the magnitude and recurrence of problems.

It will be helpful to:

  • reach an agreed understanding and a shared responsibility for the protection of the child or young person
  • establish clear roles and responsibilities for each involved professional
  • demonstrate a genuine commitment to working in partnership
  • commit to resolving difficult issues or disputes and dealing with process issues as they arise.

The child protection practitioner's role with other specialist service providers includes:

  • ensuring that the service provider understands the purpose of the provision of identified services in the context of implementing the case plan as set out in the actions table
  • facilitating engagement of the child or family with the service
  • monitoring service delivery in order to track progress against the case plan.

Successful child protection practice requires skilled management, coordination and communication as well as the ability to facilitate referrals and evaluate the outcome of various interventions. Child protection practitioners should cultivate a good knowledge of local and specialist resources, and positive working relationships with other service providers.

There can be a tendency for child protection to seek specialist direct services for all aspects of a case. This is inconsistent with the particular responsibilities of child protection as certain legislated responsibilities cannot be delegated beyond child protection such as investigating allegations, taking matters to court and making significant decisions in the context of case planning following substantiation. While it may be appropriate to identify the professional with the strongest relationship through which to effect change, plans need to include strategies to fulfil child protection's responsibilities. Therefore it is important that direct casework functions not be overtaken by coordinating case management functions, and that a balance appropriate to the case be achieved.

Using authority wisely

The wise use of authority is a core part of the child protection role. It is important that child protection practitioners and managers have a clear understanding of the child protection mandate and the purpose of child protection involvement, and that this is explained clearly at appropriate points and to various parties, as often as is helpful.

Proper and necessary exercise of legal authority in child protection practice is an important element in the achievement of positive outcomes for children and families.

Interpreting negative reactions

The exercise of authority is not always well received. Violence of any sort is unacceptable, however hostility, resentment and anger can be quite understandable reactions to outside 'interference' in otherwise private family matters. Rather than seeing anger, hostility or resistance as symptomatic of conflict, the wise use of authority entails acknowledging these emotions and working with the client through their reactions towards an understanding of the rights, responsibilities and needs of various parties.

Practitioners need to be mindful of superficial compliance and the potential risks this may have for children. Some adults who control their anger and hostility when in contact with child protection may express their anger later towards weaker family members including children. This is a particular concern where family violence is present. Perpetrators of family violence can feel exposed and threatened by child protection involvement, taking this out on a childor non-offending parent in an attempt to regain and maintain control and power. See Working with families where an adult is violent (pdf, 1.17 MB) - specialist practice resource for advice on practice skills and strategies when working with perpetrators of family violence.

The actions stage and legal intervention

Where a matter is before the Court

Where the Court is yet to decide the outcome of a protection application and the matter is adjourned, child protection’s case planning responsibilities continue. The parent’s responses to the child’s case plan should be documented and included in an addendum report to Court where relevant. Changes to the case plan may be made where the child’s circumstances change during the adjournment period. The latest version of the case plan is provided to the Court with the addendum report where necessary.

Supervising Children's Court orders

When a Children's Court order is in place, tasks include:

  • monitoring compliance with the order and any associated conditions, and administering the order
  • implementing strategies aimed at achieving the permanency objective of the case plan
  • working in partnership with the family and other professionals toward achieving the permanency objective to ensure the safety, development and wellbeing of the child or young person
  • supervising and monitoring the implementation of the child’s case plan as it relates to the order made by the Children's Court.

Contracting case management

Consideration may be given to contracting out either overall management of a case or specific casework functions or tasks, such as the provision of counselling services.

Even where a case is contracted, child protection does not relinquish its statutory responsibility for planning and reviewing outcomes of the case plan or administering the order.

Dealing with difficult interactions

Managing conflict

In child protection practice, conflict is to be expected. It can arise with children and families, and also between those professionals working with the family, as people often hold widely differing views regarding the way matters could best be handled. To reduce or contain conflict, it is important to act in a professional manner and ensure practice is based on child-centred, family-focused principles, respecting strengths and fostering engagement, partnership and empowerment.

When these principles are demonstrated through the way that interactions occur, conflict will usually be contained to a manageable level.

Appropriate strategies include:

  • remaining calm and open-minded
  • showing empathy and respect
  • using active listening
  • using body language that shows attentiveness
  • staying focused on matters relating to the safety and wellbeing of the child or young person
  • identifying what the issues are and explain your understanding of them
  • clarifying your position and responsibilities
  • being clear about what you can and cannot control, authorise or avoid
  • explaining processes for resolving issues outside your control
  • agreeing on a strategy with the other person to address or resolve the conflict.

Aggression and violence

There are likely to be times when you have to deal with verbally aggressive people, either directly or on the phone.

With the stress of their personal situation or experience of trauma, or the stress related to child protection involvement in their lives, children and families can react in aggressive or hostile ways. You may become the personal target of frustrations, failures, anger and impatience. When this happens, it is important to discuss the situation with your supervisor.

Dealing with hostility, aggression and violence can be one of the more difficult challenges in child protection practice. Dealing with aggression can be draining, and personal safety issues are of utmost importance. It is critical that regular supervision occurs and that the impact of the work on the practitioner is attended to in this context.

Dealing with violence

The Department of Health and Human Services does not accept or tolerate any form of violence to staff.

Dealing with verbal aggression

For any difficult contact remember:

  • stay on track by engaging with the content, not the aggression
  • acknowledge the emotion behind the aggression without condoning the aggressive behaviour
  • re-state the problem as you understand it and seek confirmation or clarification
  • ask the person with whom the conflict is occurring, what solution they are wanting
  • learn as much as you can about the person’s situation and acknowledge this
  • be very clear about what you can and cannot do.

Where the contact becomes abusive:

  • tell the person that if the abuse continues you will end the contact
  • provide one verbal warning. If abuse continues, end the contact and let your supervisor know what happened.

Reflective practice in the actions stage

Consider whether:

  • actions are resulting in the protection of the child from harm
  • the child's rights are being protected
  • the child's development is being promoted
  • the child's need for permanency is being promoted
  • the way things are happening is consistent with the best interests principles
  • doing things differently could achieve a better outcome
  • decisions are being made in a way that is consistent with the decision-making principles
  • it would be appropriate to involve someone else to assist with making a decision
  • the child will benefit from a decision
  • the child is being given the opportunity to be heard
  • the family is being given the opportunity to be heard
  • the child and family is being kept up to date
  • there is a need to change direction through review, and so on.

Reviewing outcomes

The practice of reviewing the impact that actions have had for the child and family is vital to effectively protecting children. Reviewing outcomes may highlight the need to progress on through the best interests case practice cycle and engage in different actions, or to celebrate good outcomes with the family and others involved.

Child protection practitioners are expected to maintain an open mind about the direction of a case, and be prepared to consider changing that direction if new circumstances arise.

This assists in guarding against pitfalls such as:

  • the possibility that practitioners may start to view cases as being of a particular type and to predict outcomes without taking a curious and analytical approach to individual cases
  • the risk that the current view of a family's potential for change may be unduly influenced by an earlier point-in-time view.

Preparedness to try new strategies or explore different theories about the family is vital, always keeping in mind that the child’s best interests are the paramount consideration.

The child, their family and other relevant services should be included in reviewing outcomes as far as is possible to ensure that information is shared, and that differing perspectives can be voiced, in an arena that is focussed on the needs of the child. Multiple perspectives guard against dangerously optimistic or unfair and pathologising judgements about the family.

Child safety and wellbeing – promoting best interests

Attention is first given to protection of the child from harm. In addition, protecting the child’s rights and promoting their development must also always be considered in relation to any action or decision.

In the context of the best interests principles, the effectiveness of child protection involvement will need to be considered in relation to:

  • harm
  • rights
  • development
  • engagement
  • sustainability of change
  • ongoing support needs
  • cultural connection
  • other best interests principles, where they are relevant.

The evaluation of implementation of the goals and tasks specified in the actions table should be recorded in the table in CRIS.

Review of the case plan

Reviewing a case plan can occur at anytime appropriate to the circumstances of the child and must occur by the review date in the case plan.

See procedure Case plan preparation and review for tasks that must be undertaken

See Case planning - advice for further information on legal and practice requirements.

Review of child protection decisions

See Internal review of decisions for procedures regarding formal internal review of child protection decisions, and advice VCAT review for external review.

Reflective practice in the reviewing outcomes stage

Consider whether:

  • the child is safer now than prior to child protection’s intervention
  • the child's developmental needs are being addressed
  • the permanency objective has been achieved or progress is being made or the objective should be changed
  • the child and family's perception of the concerns and their situation has shifted
  • the child and family have received the necessary treatment and support
  • engagement has occurred between the child and family, and service providers
  • the resilience of the child and family has improved
  • the agreed indicators of change are evident
  • other change has occurred and what indicates this
  • change has been sustained;
  • and where change has been insufficient to date, whether:
    • lack of resources contributed
    • a different type of service is required
    • further attention to underlying practice processes – relationship building, engagement, partnership or empowerment – would be helpful.

 

 

Additional information

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