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Child welfare, witches and blood

Moral outrage accompanied by calls from the federal Opposition for a government inqury is yet another example of what is a depressingly familiar ritual to those of us who have worked in the field of children's services.

Below is an article from The Sydney Morning Herald of Monday 6th July 2009.

I think the second paragraph, "It goes like this … everything goes back to normal", is a very good description of what actually occurs.

I am not happy where the professor states, that Evidence Based Practice (EBP), is "…a movement yet to arrive in Australia". I think it has been operating in Australia for some time, at least where it has been able to, perhaps only by a small group of persons, and perhaps is not being recognised by the author.  Using best available evidence. Is that not what many, including those who went to the Family Court of old had as one of their biggest issues, that the evidence standards were too poor?

Seeking to have Judges in Family Law improve their evidence testing as far as I am aware is an issue that can have far reaching ramifications for all. I was under the impression that it was a failure by social workers to bring good evidence standards to all Courts and the many complaints made by the public against social workers, and general poor evidence standards, that led to -the dept of child safety Victoria, state child commissioners, changes in the Family Law Act, a rise in child standards and child awareness throughout the country since the early nineties, fairness especially in male parenting issues and the effects on the children, etc. I know I am correct.

Why should the social work industry get the credit for the work of others?

I recall a time when the Prime Minister of the days, years ago said to the mens groups that they would have to protest at parliament in large numbers before they can expect to be heard. I pointed out to the PM that the child support figures for that week would have to drop, as men leave their jobs to attend from all over the country, causing their income for the week to drop, causing the child support income to drop, and some poor kid may have to starve that week. He changed his mind and welcomed them in small numbers, so the story goes, saying, don't bring too many, no need. At the time, huge amounts of disatisfaction and injustice claims had been forwarded to the govt.

Basing child causes on the facts is not new.

Also see Legally Kidnapped

Child welfare, witches and blood

The Sydney Morning Herald
6 July 2009

Child welfare, witches and blood
By James Barber

Moral outrage accompanied by calls from the federal Opposition for a government inqury is yet another example of what is a depressingly familiar ritual to those of us who have worked in the field of children's services.

It goes like this: child found dead or horrifically abused; media reports it with a mixture of indignation and incredulity; opposition pollie seizes the opportunity to intensify the indignation and accuse relevant minister of incompetence and neglect; relevant minister responds with own indignation and calls government inquiry; inquiry hears evidence for months, finds systemic failure and incompetence, and makes numerous shallow recommendations; relevant minister pledges radical change and shouts at a few high-level bureaucrats; dust finally settles and everything goes back to normal.

The latest episode in the politics of child abuse was spawned by a young girl who was starved to death by her parents. My prediction is that the whole predictable cycle will be complete about this time next year. It will have achieved nothing - at least nothing that will be noticed by any of the children who are next in the queue for abuse or neglect.

This is because the fundamental problem with child protection in Australia is a philosophical one, and it cannot be resolved by government inquiries and moralistic exhortations to do better next time. The source of the problem is the erroneous assumption that because the protagonists in child abuse are people and, almost invariably, people on the margins of society, the solution lies with other more socially competent people who are employed to make judicious decisions about risk and provide wise advice on parenting. But this is fanciful thinking that has no foundation in fact.

If social psychology has taught us anything, it is that humans are very poor judges, susceptible to erroneous influences over which they have no control and to which they are oblivious.

For example, among some of the most robust findings of social psychology are that plain children are more likely to be punished than pretty ones, that even highly intelligent people are prone to the falsehood that luck is a personality trait rather than chance, that we trust people who are like us and distrust those who are not that even the most mild-mannered of us will torture others when the circumstances are right, and that most of us will deny what is right before our eyes if we are placed under sufficient social pressure.

Despite the mountain of evidence supporting these facts, social welfare departments around the world continue to entrust life-and-death decisions to human agents who are armed in most cases with little more than rudimentary counselling skills and an incantatory ideology that favours the marginalised over the mainstream. Little wonder that study after study has found that we would do just as well to leave the decision about whether or not to take a child into care to the toss of a coin as to the professional judgment of a social worker.

There is an alternative. It is the same strategy that propelled medicine from iron-age techniques such as witchcraft and bleeding into the modern-day miracles of pharmacology and surgery. Medicine made advances like this because it chose science over practice wisdom, falsificationism over folklore.

Recent research, almost all of which has been conducted in North America, proves conclusively that by using the hard data amassed over many years of child-abuse notifications, actuaries and mathematicians can make vastly better decisions about children at risk than social workers can. No one will ever be able to predict with 100 per cent accuracy such rare occurrences as a parent murdering a child, but we can and must do better than entrusting that prediction to subjective human judgment.

There may well be a role for social workers and counsellors in trying to influence the behaviour of potentially abusive parents, but most definitely not in identifying who those parents are. This is best left to the number-crunchers.

Our best hope in the prevention of child abuse lies in a movement that is yet to arrive in Australia known as evidence based practice. Paradoxically, EBP requires suspending the role of human judgment in judgments about humans. It is about the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of the best available evidence in making decisions about the care of individual clients.

If government ministers really want to improve the standard of child welfare, they will embrace EBP and employ workers trained in this way of working. This will not happen without a fight because there are entrenched interests at stake, and until there is a fundamental change in the philosophy of child welfare our approach to the protection of children will remain the functional equivalent of witchcraft and bleeding.

Professor James Barber is deputy vice-chancellor (academic) at RMIT University. He is a former winner of the Pro Humanitate Medal, which is North America's highest award for child-welfare research.


The Sydney Morning Herald
7 July 2009

There's no guarantee of safety in numbers

James Barber says evidence based practice is yet to arrive in Australia, but it has been a focal point of numerous conferences and workshops I have attended in recent years ("Child welfare, witches and blood", July 6).

Professor Barber has a touching faith in the actuarial approach to child protection, but no knowledge about its impact in Australia. Actuarial tools have been implemented in South Australia and Queensland, and are being considered in NSW following the Wood report. Local Australian versions are also being developed.

Most of the research demonstrating the effectiveness of actuarial approaches has been undertaken by the US Children's Research Centre, which has developed and marketed the tools. Is it the tools themselves, or the training and extra management attention that leads to improvement?

When using actuarial approaches we must still rely on fallible practitioners to gather reliable information from families and to use the tools consistently. Professor Barber may see our current system as akin to witchcraft, but I doubt that actuarial tools alone will offer a magic wand.

Bronwen Elliott Ashfield

It is disappointing to read an opinion piece on child welfare that fails to address the complexity and difficulty of making decisions about children and young people. The decision to remove a child is not taken lightly by any of the many people who are charged with this duty of care. Nor can it be taken simply. The best interests of the child involve many factors, including the strengths and capacity of extended family, the input of the child or children, and the support and specialist attention that many families need. These issues relate to individuals, not to application of so-called "hard data".

Jane Woodruff chief executive, UnitingCare Burnside, North Parramatta

As a social worker it was perplexing to read James Barber's opinions on the process of responses to failures in child welfare. What appeared to open as a reflection on the role of politics and the media turned into a lambasting of those working in the field. Perhaps we can expect "number crunchers" to review what has worked and what hasn't. But given they are rarely, if ever, the ones to put these lessons into practice, who does Professor Barber expect to protect children?

James Walker Berala

"The decision to remove a child is not taken lightly by any of the many people who are charged with this duty of care. Nor can it be taken simply."

But that's only part of the problem, the other part that needs to be recognised is that there is also a decision taken to not remove a child and I'd say that this is perhaps the more pertinent one in that it can be done so very lightly, sometimes even based purely on the fact that the information is coming from a specific gender/role.
I found the letters in response on the SMH website-ta.   I do not believe that any of the three letter writers, neither Ashfield, Woodruff, nor  Berala, have an understanding of what the professor was writing about. I think the professor is foreshadowing forced changes in his profession due to unpopularity and low quality outcomes. The professor, although an academic in admin, holds a masters in social work, according to his biography at RMIT,VIC.
I comment in relation to this web site Lukes Army brought to our attention but considerd unsuitable for the site here due to s121 provisions. However the material he presents is compelling reading and supports further investigation, particularly if you read the detailed material published to the Coroner.
Lukes Army said… My son was taken from me three times. The second and third time no reason was given, on all occasions no paperwork was offered. My son died after being put with a 74 year old woman who already had three children in her care.

Please look into the matter for me as I wish to not only see justice served, I would like my son to be responsible for saving the lives of others, not a waiste of a beautiful young life, and the loss of everything I lived for.

I think if we are going to discuss this topic, it is better to keep it real. Something needs to be done and quickly. I have never come across a bunch of more uninformed, rude arrogant and obnoxious work group in my life
The Department of Child Safety failed miserably in this case to understand the tremendous effort the father had gone to in respect to getting his act sorted out. He was completely successful in overcoming the adversity surrounding drug and alcohol addiction and his long list of supporters and referees were outstanding. Queensland Opposition Child Safety Spokeswoman Mrs Stuckey has made the Government opposition view point clear. What tests and controls are there in placement of children?.

What is so tragic is that Michael has lost his best mate. No retribution will ever get that back. It reminded me of the DCD in WA. All tarred with the same brush when it comes to keeping kids away from parents who can take care of them. The problem is when you return them to parents who cannot take care of them it is a double edged sword, a loose loose for the department. Wayward and delinquent parents rights are protected.

There are no winners in any of this tragic debacle   :(

Last edit: by Secretary SPCA

Executive Secretary - Shared Parenting Council of Australia
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