Taking the next important step: a child and family wellbeing policy framework for Australia

With the forthcoming Federal election in mind, Families Australia proposes the establishment of a long-term national child and family wellbeing policy framework to guide actions that improve the lives of Australia’s families and children, particularly those experiencing the greatest disadvantage and marginalisation. It would represent the logical next step in national social policy development by responding to problems in a more coordinated way.

Over the past decade we have seen strengthened political resolve to take concerted national approaches through initiatives such as the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 and the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020.

Despite these important steps much more remains to be done to achieve real progress. In the area of protecting children, for example, official figures still tell us that child abuse and neglect and its consequences continue to increase in aggregate national terms. The Productivity Commission reports that, between FY10-FY17, the number of children in out-of-home care rose by 32% from 35,895 to 47,915 and child abuse substantiations rose by 58% from 31,295 to 49,315.

A new policy framework should be driven by strong overarching principles, especially about the importance of adopting preventive approaches that help families and individuals to address problems before these become major, even chronic.

A new policy framework should be driven by strong overarching principles, especially about the importance of adopting preventive approaches that help families and individuals to address problems before these become major, even chronic.

An ongoing Commonwealth leadership role is vitally important in such a bold national agenda, but all levels of government share responsibility. Innovative funding ideas need to be carefully considered, such as the establishment of a multi-billion dollar Future Fund for families and children to boost the pool of resources needed to achieve significant improvements.

Greater clarity is needed about the appropriate roles and responsibilities of Commonwealth, State and Territory governments in order to reduce confusion and overlap in program funding – and, ideally, to reduce the extent to which different electoral cycles complicate coherent planning and resourcing decisions. A new agenda should deepen collaboration and coordination between and across Commonwealth, State and Territory governments, the non-government and research sectors and, most importantly, the community itself.

It is especially important to revamp place-based models to assist families and children living in areas of greatest relative disadvantage. Joint governmental, non-government and community investment boards could be a way to bring about greater coordination and effectiveness in service planning and delivery to meet local needs.

A national summit led by the Council of Australian Governments could help to focus attention on the issues and chart ways ahead.

A new national approach should prioritise the measurement of outcomes and deliver closer links between and within allied disciplines and sectors such as community services, health, education and justice. It should reap better on-ground outcomes by more closely integrating program activities under existing national agendas.

Top priorities for a future national child and family wellbeing policy must include a significant focus on lifting the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, children and communities, especially to reduce the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care.

The time is now ripe to bring together the policy strands put in place over the past decade in a truly well resourced, integrated, national agenda for children and families.

 

Dr Brian Babington

January 2019