Strengthening family violence responses to children in their own right

The vital importance of increasing support for children and young people who are victims and survivors of family, domestic and sexual violence was the key message Families Australia recently gave to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Over the past several months, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs has been receiving submissions and conducting hearings to help inform the development of the next National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children (the National Plan).

Based on Families Australia’s experiences over the past 15 years with the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020 (the National Framework), and feedback from members around Australia, we stressed two key points in our submission and appearance at hearings.

First, adopting long-term national policy approaches to tackle domestic violence and child abuse in the form of the National Plan and National Framework remains vitally important in terms of strategically strengthening intergovernmental and NGO commitment and common understandings, in elevating public attention, and providing overarching principles to guide on-ground action.

All our community consultations show strong commitment across the NGO and research sectors to national approaches that aim to tackle causal factors and prioritise actions using a public health model under which greater relative emphasis is placed on universal or preventative interventions to reduce the overall need for statutory interventions over time.

Second, we have come to more clearly recognise with the National Framework the great complexity of the task in terms of addressing factors that underpin child abuse and neglect, particularly, family and domestic violence, substance misuse and mental ill-health. A key learning relevant to future policy on family and domestic violence is that far more effort is required to join up different sectors, levels of government and allied plans and initiatives for greater collective impact.

In the case of child abuse, for example, we now more strongly recognise the importance of better integrating the work being done by players in sectors including family violence, education, health and mental health, justice, business, child protection, and the broader family support services, given the majority of children and young people exposed to family, domestic and sexual violence will not be in child protection systems.

By putting the child and family at the centre of the programmatic response and wrapping services around them there are greater prospects of successful outcomes. At the national level, we recommend greater integration of efforts under the National Plan and the National Framework – they are, or should be, companion pieces of national policy and need to work more closely hand-in-hand.

We now have a golden opportunity to more closely align the national policy architecture since the successor to the National Framework is due to commence in mid-2021 and planning is underway for the next National Plan. In addition, a National Youth Policy Framework is being developed and new Closing the Gap Refresh targets have been set around children.

By better linking allied national policy agendas we can better recognise and respond to the interconnectedness and complexity of issues experienced by women, and children and young people who are victims and survivors of family, domestic and sexual violence and better meet their needs.

This integration work can be advanced in several ways. It would be beneficial, for example, to endorse two, three or four major national ‘signature’ initiatives which are given priority attention and threaded through all allied national initiatives, including the National Plan.

To illustrate, young people transitioning from out-of-home care who are at increased risk of family, domestic and sexual violence could be prioritised for action under multiple national plans, including the national mental health strategy, the national disability strategy, the national homelessness strategy as well as the National Framework and National Plan so all these policy initiatives are driving toward common goals.

Also, existing Commonwealth funding could be re-examined to drive outcomes under goals set by the National Framework and National Plan. For example, we might look again at the extent to which the $230 million per annum DSS Family and Children Activity prioritises objectives set under these plans to better support public health approaches.

Finally, the next National Plan offers an opportunity to give greater emphasis to children and young people in the context of family and domestic violence. The current National Plan talks about children in its title, but there has been rather little programmatic reflection of the needs of children in their own right in the various Action Plans.

We must strengthen this aspect because children and young people experiencing domestic violence require particular types of therapeutic responses tailored to their stages of development. Nationally, therapeutic services and ongoing support for children and young people to address the impacts of trauma associated with family, domestic and sexual violence are extremely limited. This is adversely affecting outcomes, often into adulthood and fails to disrupt intergenerational outcomes that include family and domestic violence.

A positive relationship with the non-offending parent (usually their mother) is well-recognised as helping to protect against negative outcomes for children and young people and this has quite rightly been a focus. For some children and young people experiencing family violence, their individual needs may extend beyond those that can be met by better supporting parents. Considering their needs as victims and survivors in their own right, and elevating their voices in policy, program and service delivery will enable a more holistic and timely assessment of need and service response.

Families Australia’s submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry is here.

Dr Brian Babington

Chief Executive Officer