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Keeping children and families together

06 September 2021, Impact of Our Work

How everyday stressors can be a pathway into child protection

As the repercussions of COVID-19 echo across the country, more and more families are falling behind economically. Even before the pandemic, around 1 in 6 Australian children were living in poverty[1]. That number is growing. And family stress caused by poverty, isolation and fatigue are key risk indicators for child wellbeing and safety concerns, says Save the Children’s Executive Director, Australian Services, Matt Gardiner. It could be the start of a pathway for children into the child protection system, but importantly, it doesn’t need to be.
"Poverty is a strong risk indicator for a whole host of issues including cognitive development and chronic health conditions,” he says. “And we need to address this as a root cause of child abuse and neglect. We simply cannot remove children from their families for being poor and under stress. But in Australia, children are involved in the child protection system every day because their families are trapped in poverty without the assistance they need to enable their children to thrive."

Children have a right to grow up in a nourishing and safe family environment. Governments have an obligation to do everything in their power – which is significant – to support families to provide this. This must include addressing underlying barriers – including financial pressures.

Matt Gardiner - Save the Children’s Executive Director, Australian Services.

Many of Save the Children’s programs work on a prevention framework – so that families are equipped and supported to deal with complex problems and meet the emotional, developmental, cultural and physical needs of their children.

Keeping kids with their families and out of care

In Katherine in the Northern Territory, Angela Nish has been working with families for years. She’s seen first-hand how families can be kept together, with the right support.
“I remember having a conversation with a mum who had two children who were already in child protection. I had to tell her ‘my biggest worry right now is that if you don't start making some changes that welfare will remove your three younger ones’.”
It’s an uncomfortable but necessary truth, she explains. Building trusting, open relationships with parents and caregivers is central to supporting families who are at risk of losing their kids.

Once you've been able to prove yourself to families, it gives us an opportunity to go a little bit deeper, to be able to say, this is a safe place between us. Trust and safety are a must for vulnerable families.

Angela Nish - Katherine in the Northern Territory.

“Our role is to be in your corner to encourage you and help you recognise your strengths. Because while you're going through a lot of things, sometimes it's not so easy to recognise. If you've got people with depression, celebrate that you're actually getting out of bed and you're getting your children off to school.”
Socio-economic factors are a huge concern, adds Angela. Managing money can be stressful in kinship communities, and overwhelm families. “A lot of people don’t want to talk about money,” she explains. “That puts a lot of people under pressure, when you haven’t got enough power for the house, or enough food.”
Support with allocating grocery budgets and food stocks, or accessing financial counselling are some of the services Angela and her team can provide to help alleviate some stress.
With the resilience of Territorian families in mind, Angela explains last year there were no children removed from their families in the Katherine region. “That's huge. And so I absolutely believe in family support. Sometimes there's just hard places that people get to, and it's just about having somebody walking beside you.”

Moe families sticking together

On the other side of the country, Kim Murfett faces many of the same challenges with her families in Moe, Victoria. As a Family Support worker for the last five years, she’s seen how economic advantage can play a huge role in unburdening families from stress, allowing more healthy coping mechanisms, and building more positive family relationships.
“Our families are good at managing money. But what can be stressful is what we call ‘systems’ stress. It’s the hassle of working with phone and energy companies, with government agencies like Centrelink or Medicare, and with banks to optimise what they do have.”
“Many of our refugee families don't have the language skills or the confidence to work through those systems. Then nothing gets sorted and they're missing out on payments. And their kids miss out on what they need. This can be something that is noticed by other services, which is how they end up being flagged by child protection.”
Support from services like Save the Children in enabling parents to access further support can mean a great deal.“One of my great delights recently has been supporting a Sudanese mum to get her first job,” says Kim. “I can just see how excited she is to get work. She already wants a second job. She wants her children to have more opportunities than she did.” 

The impacts of the pandemic

COVID-19 has made life immeasurably more difficult. The latest Victorian lockdown has brought many families in Moe to the point of nervous collapse. “I'm noticing now that it just feels like a renewed distress,” says Kim. “The remote learning is difficult and not being able to get out to parks and things. Some people have been quite resilient and creative. I think it's shown a lot of people how resourceful they are. But I've noticed this time that it's a tougher thing for them.”
Without governments and society recognising how socio-economic stressors impact families and working to dismantle these barriers, many of these families will remain stuck. Stuck in poverty, stuck in anxiety, and with children potentially stuck in a child protection system that has not adequately acknowledged the disadvantage that has brought them there.

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