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Protecting the child

by Rebecca Gill

CENTRE FOR CHILD PROTECTION: Back row (l-r): Kate Linton, Fiona Arney, Shelley Wright, Brigid Daniel; Middle row: Mary Salveron, Lynette Arnold, Marnie Best; Front row: Elizabeth Oram, Kerry Lewig, Dorothy Scott, Nombasa Williams, Liz ReimerAs it reaches its one year milestone, the Australian Centre for Child Protection at UniSA has undergone rapid development, emerging at the forefront of child protection research.

Now with a dozen staff and PhD students, some located interstate, the Centre has a strong agenda, says Director Professor Dorothy Scott.

“Through close collaboration with government and community organisations, our role is to help translate research and evaluation into successful policy and practice,” Prof Scott said.

“Child abuse and neglect in Australia is a complex problem that needs a holistic and comprehensive response. Among the key priorities are parental alcohol and drug dependency and how child welfare services and drug treatment services can work together effectively to reduce the risk of child abuse and neglect. Dr Fiona Arney, who heads up the Centre’s research, is leading the charge in relation to the needs of children and their families in refugee communities.”

Prof Scott says evaluation of some innovative grassroots pilot projects is a key research area for this year and critical for making good policy. These projects include the involvement of a mental health nurse in child protection services and a family home visit program by nurses, which is proving popular with Indigenous mothers in regional South Australia.

“There are some wonderful, cutting edge practice initiatives happening across Australia but they tend to be localised and hard to sustain and are rarely ‘scaled up’ and embedded at a whole of system level,” Prof Scott said.

“We are looking at how we can assist governments with the right research to roll out effective ways of working on a national scale.”

As part of its consultancy role, the Centre recently completed a review of the Northern Territory’s proposed child protection laws.

“We look at what works well. In essence, we study success, so that we can make informed recommendations.”

A large body of the Centre’s work focuses on the long-term improvement in children’s health and wellbeing through preventative measures and early intervention. It is a whole of government public health approach which Prof Scott says is already making an impact in the UK and needs to be strengthened in Australia.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child, but what does it take to rebuild the village? Increasingly, communities are fragmented and families are isolated. A public health model looks at how we can grapple with the broader social conditions that underpin problems such as child abuse and neglect.

“One of the Centre’s major initiatives is enhancing the quality of undergraduate and post-qualifying education for the broad range of professions involved with children. This is being led by Dr Lynette Arnold and aims to ensure professionals with these skills prevent and respond to child abuse or neglect,” Prof Scott said.

Prof Scott says that by strengthening the research that underpins policy and service delivery and enhancing professional education, the Centre will lead Australia in a knowledge-based approach to the complex issues of child protection.

“We consider carefully how everything we do may benefit the rest of the country. I believe that is what gives us a national focus,” Prof Scott said.