Child protection is often labelled a 'wicked' public policy issue, resistant to change and innovation.
The warning is stark. If Victoria's current reporting rates continue unchecked, one in four Victorian children born in 2011 will be reported to child protection by their 18th birthday.
This dire forecast is one of many insights drawn from the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry (the Cummins Inquiry). Led by a distinguished panel and given broad terms of reference, the Cummins Inquiry tabled its report in the Victorian Parliament in February 2012.
The scale of change recommended by the Cummins Inquiry constitutes a major challenge to Victoria's public policymaking community.
Child protection is often labelled a 'wicked' public policy issue, resistant to change and innovation. Comprehending the interconnection of issues at hand, developing the frameworks and tools needed to drive and measure change, presenting the evidence, and challenging assumed ways of thinking are central to addressing such complex social policy issues.
The Cummins Inquiry follows a long tradition of review of the child protection system. What distinguishes the Cummins Inquiry is its comprehensive documenting of the nature and incidence of child vulnerability within the community. Key findings on the unpredictable nature of child vulnerability, include:
These findings align with our own conclusions from a recent project evaluating service delivery systems for disadvantaged clients. This work demonstrated the prevalence of risk factors amongst vulnerable members of the community and how the coexistence of these factors compounds the likelihood of poorer outcomes.
Having presented the case for change, the Cummins Inquiry outlines 90 recommendations aligned to 10 major system reforms.
The report's recommendations are directed in two separate though interconnected streams:
New governance and accountability mechanisms
The major features of new governance and accountability mechanisms recommended in the report include:
A child centred service system
The Cummins Inquiry outlines an evolutionary transformation of current services into an efficient and child centred service system, characterised by:
At ACG, our view is that the recommendations are ambitious, and if implemented, will transform the service system.
Recently we undertook a project examining child protection workforce issues. A key finding of our work demonstrated the potential of quality data. Data - collected and analysed with a view to program improvement rather than compliance - can be used to improve system wide knowledge, enable practice innovation and improvement at the local level, and ultimately deliver better outcomes for at risk children.
A common theme running through the Cummins Inquiry is the paucity of evidence demonstrating the impact of alternative initiatives. A lack of clear data and program evaluation has been a characteristic common to human service industries.
For the Victorian Government to have confidence that scarce public monies are spent well, and for the community to have confidence that vulnerable children are getting the support they need, program evaluation needs to move from an afterthought in the policymaking process to a core consideration.
The foundations for a reformed and truly child centred system are laid out in legislation and captured in the best interest principles that underpin the Children Youth Families Act 2005. However, since its implementation in 2007 the voice of the child has been increasingly crowded out and lost. The Cummins Inquiry provides the opportunity to put it back at the centre of decision-making, where it belongs.
In our experience, organisational and cultural change in a complex human service environment is difficult but it is achievable, particularly if government agencies are willing to seek input from across the community to help reorient the system to a child centred service delivery model.
A preparedness to leverage particular expertise from both within and outside government will be the first step in ensuring the Cummins Inquiry proves a watershed in Victorian social policy, shaping how the state engages with and protects vulnerable children into the future.
By David Griffith