Australian child welfare system in crisis

ACU students start their degrees in teaching, social work, nursing and other social sciences with a passion to contribute to their fields in a meaningful way. Are they equipped to support child wellbeing and safety? How can ACU prepare them to respond to children at risk?

According to ACU Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Professor Meg Stuart, our university needs to prioritise helping our students to go into their fields armed with the best knowledge about how to respond to children at risk.

“Our graduates need to be equipped to carry our mission to uphold the dignity of the human person into their professional lives. Having adequate safeguarding knowledge and skill is an essential component of their professional repertoire.”

Unfortunately, the workforce for preventative and supportive services in the child protection system is poorly defined and resourced.

Demand has not influenced supply

In a national study, Trends and needs in the Australian child welfare workforce: An exploratory study, published by ACU’s Institute of Child Protection Studies, data shows that there has been an increase in the need for specialist services.

Sadly, those services are geared towards removal of children from their families. Too many children are taken into care, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, and too many do not receive the care they need.

Tertiary education needs to align with future workforce needs. The report found that in the past decade, the workforce numbers in frontline child welfare in statutory agencies increased from 10,000 staff to 18,000 staff.

Australian families have ongoing contact with education, social welfare, health and other services. Universal access to these services can better support children and their families without the stigma of having ‘failed’. More preventative, early intervention is needed to support children to remain safely with their families.

Demand for preventative support for children and families experiencing adversity continues to increase, yet the current workforce is unable to meet this demand. This increases the pressure on child protection systems and their workers who have to respond to complex situations often with inadequate training or skills and limited experience.

Improved public policy could work to address some of these issues. Proper planning for growth in the child welfare sector, increasing and upskilling the workforce to provide preventative support to families, and increasing diversity within the workforce would be a start

The study finds that a preventative approach would help professionals whose work brings them face-to-face with children to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to identify and respond to the risk factors. The most effective way to deal with child abuse and neglect, and promote child safety and wellbeing, is to offer families and children specialist support sooner rather than later, and to offer support that is culturally appropriate, and meaningful.

What can ACU do?

ACU is in an influential position to collaborate with child welfare sectors and work together to plan for the continuing demand and future needs in child welfare services.

Professor Stuart believes that ACU has the potential to be a national and international leader in this space, “It can be a significant point of difference between our graduates and others who do not share our mission, and a key feature of what ACU can offer to bring to key partnerships.”

ACU can embed a strong component of safeguarding practice into curriculum and pedagogy across faculty courses. Students could be offered robust child safeguarding content in their undergraduate or postgraduate courses. ACU could deliver short online courses that are micro-credentialed into a graduate certificate.

Such courses could be supported and promoted as key assets of the university, building on the significant role the university played in research for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse.

This wide range of measures that upskill workers in child welfare can address vulnerability early and help to reduce demand on child protection systems and support all children and their families.

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