Parents Need Better Support
We read often about the rising numbers of children in foster care and of the shortages of appropriate carers for these children. But, what would happen if more of the parents who come into contact with the child protection system could be better supported to improve their parenting and thereby retain the care of their children? After all, despite what some people might think, the majority of these parents love their children and they are pretty motivated to do what they need to do. And, people can change unless they have a personality disorder or they are too drug addicted. Often, they just need to know what to do, instead.
The various Australian and New Zealand child protection acts focus on much the same things: a child’s best interests are paramount. Every effort must be made to rehabilitate the parent/s, before more serious steps are taken such as removing a child from a parent’s care. The thinking goes that a child is better off, in the longer-term, to remain with their parents providing that parent’s capacity is ‘good enough’.
It’s important to note that once children are removed from their parents’ care only a minority end up being returned to their parents*. So, it is imperative that the system gets its initial decision right if it is to place children into out of home care.
People can change unless they have a personality disorder or they are too drug addicted. Often, they just need to know what to do, instead.
However, it’s been my experience that the criteria by which they are deemed to have fallen below these standards can be inconsistent across child protection offices. I say this in my capacity as a psychologist in the child protection area where I have written hundreds of reports used in the family and children’s courts. The reports help the court decide whether to restore children to their parents’ care or to make a longer-term fostering arrangement. When I have read the court files relating to these cases, I have at times been surprised at the variable quality of assessments undertaken at the beginning of the process, but which have nonetheless resulted in the initial removal of children from a parents’ care.
By the time these same parents attend interviews with someone like me, quite late in the process and just prior to a court case, it is not unusual for parents to tell me that they didn’t fully understand why their children were removed or they say that ‘the goalposts were shifted’ while they were attempting to address what they thought they had to do to see their children restored to them. Sometimes their views appeared credible, because when I have reviewed the file, it was not clear to me what they were meant to do – and why they were being asked to undertake certain steps.
Two Main Issues
In making these comments, I am not taking aim at individual child protection case workers as I know that they are often dealing with high numbers of cases and these cases are typically complicated. However, I am concerned about systems that are not always reliable and may not ensure that each family is given consistent and fair support. As a result, some children may be unnecessarily removed into out of home care and this type of inconsistency can undermine trust in the system.
So, there are at least two issues here. First, someone has to decide, on the basis of a threshold of evidence, whether or not to remove a child. And, the people who do the ‘removing’ have to get it largely right, because the restoration rate is so low. This assessment has to be thorough enough to identify parenting capacity strengths and deficits.
Second, in an ideal world, rehabilitation targets need to be set. These objectives then have to be communicated to parents so that they are understandable and, importantly, measurable. In other words, rehabilitation targets need to be clarified up-front so that at some future point in time, when a further follow-up assessment is done, someone can determine whether things have improved to a ‘good enough’ standard. And, let’s be honest here, this is not a level playing field; someone is making a judgement call.
Corporate SMART goals might assist with better outcomes
We let students in high school know what the marking schedule will be when we tell them, before doing an assignment, what they will need to do in order to ‘pass’. So, surely, parents need to be told explicitly what the current baseline is, and what they need to do (in measurable terms) in order to have their children restored to their care.
I think one of the problems in the Australian and New Zealand child protection systems is that specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely (SMART) goal-setting is done infrequently, if at all. This type of goal setting does not happen routinely in child protection, but it should.
The corporate world has used SMART goals for professional development and for organisational change for decades. Using smart goal setting with parents in the child protection system would provide more clarity for parents. In fact, it would make the child protection case worker’s job easier, because it would allow them to re-assess parenting capacity improvements against some clear markers. Lack of clarity has often led to confusion and poor decision-making. Parents need to know exactly what they need to do and to be given clear reasons ‘why’ they need to take the steps outlined by authorities. Total transparency is needed so that procedural justice is followed. Setting smart goals holds both sides accountable.
Michael Hawton is a psychologist with 30 years’ experience. He has written books on parenting; his most recent book is Engaging Adolescents. He is an expert witness in both The NSW Children’s Court and in The Family Court of Australia.
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*The rate of restoration varies from state to state, however, less than one third of children, once removed, are restored. See Budd, K. Evaluation of Parenting Capacity in Child Protection (2007).