Transformative approaches for better child protection: a cross-country perspective

A fortnight ago, I participated in a conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, that focused on ways to improve family and child wellbeing. Hosted by Save the Children, the ‘Families First Learning Event’ was attended by over 150 people, including many Indonesian social workers and policymakers.

Addressing the conference, I reflected on similarities and differences between Australia and Indonesia. A clear commonality was that both countries were facing significant challenges in terms of advancing child safety. I argued that a central issue for both countries seems to be that the task is simply too complex and large to tackle by continuing to deploy ‘business-as-usual’ approaches.

Heifetz and Linsky at Harvard University have argued that we try to tackle many problems by so-called ‘technical’ fixes, that is, by tinkering with established systems and ways of doing things. They say that the big transformations needed to solve really complex problems are risky because they require people to move from their comfort zone, to risk hostility and loss of previous positions even if those positions were untenable in the long term.

I believe that lasting social change occurs by adopting both technical improvement and paradigm-shifting approaches. In other words, while we might want our decision-makers and societies to suddenly place children at the centre of our thinking and actions, we need to keep improving our existing program practices by challenging ourselves about the value and impact of what we do on the ground every day.

But, we should also simultaneously undertake deeper transformation and paradigm-shifting work. To that end, I suggested three ways forward. First, invest in understanding. If we devote resources to understanding the most likely moments to achieve change, the chances of influencing events should be improved. Such deeper understandings provide opportunities to strategise about, navigate around, and maybe overcome obstacles. Second, support innovation. If we do not take risks and attempt new things, all we can hope for is that we do better at old ways of working to solve old problems. Third, build collaboration across traditional boundaries. Harking back to work by Heifetz and Linsky, it is important to create a ‘holding’ environment in which all players are supported as they undergo the difficult process of change. It is also about creating and sustaining partnerships for change.

Looking at the international arena in the past few years, I see a growing number of references to building multi-sectoral, integrated approaches for collective action. The Stanford Social Innovation Review has argued that multi-stakeholder approaches are essential to solving large-scale social problems. They suggest five necessary conditions for effective collective impact: namely, agreement around a common change agenda; shared measurements systems; continuous communication amongst key leaders and workers; a strong logistical support system; and, working in an external environment that ‘enables’ or supports change.

On the eve of my speech in Jakarta came revelations about the abuse of young people in detention in the Northern Territory. In the days that followed came the announcement by Prime Minister Turnbull of a Royal Commission to investigate these practices. In doing so, he reportedly stated: “As a nation we have a fundamental responsibility to protect our children…failure to do so diminishes all of us.”

And, in the past few days, Royal Commissioner Margaret Nyland delivered her report with 260 recommendations for far-reaching reform of South Australia’s child protection system. She wrote: “Many children in the care of the state have been abused and neglected, not only by their families but by the system that was supposed to protect them. It is time for that to change. It is time for all of us to work together to give all our children the life they deserve.”

It seems abundantly clear that child protection systems in Australia are not delivering what they should for children and families. Major transformation is required. Stronger political attention is required, along with far greater allocation of resources particularly for programs that prioritise early prevention efforts.

The full text of my address is here.

Dr Brian Babington
10 August 2016