Why optimism reigns for leading child protection researcher

Professor Leah Bromfield received the Telstra Business Women’s Award in the public sector and academia category. Photo courtesy Telstra. INSIDE UNISA
Professor Leah Bromfield received the Telstra Business Women’s Award in the public sector and academia category. Photo courtesy Telstra.

As one of Australia’s leading researchers into child protection, Professor Leah Bromfield is transforming attitudes – and lives – in a demanding field.

What inspires Professor Leah Bromfield to work in child protection?

Tucked away behind an unassuming façade on Adelaide’s North Terrace, the Australian Centre for Child Protection (ACCP) hums with positive energy, a bright and lively space that belies the challenging issues that engage it.

Spend a few minutes with the centre’s co-director, Professor Leah Bromfield, and it’s clear where a large part of that optimism springs from.

“Every staff meeting, our first agenda, right off, is to celebrate success,” Prof Bromfield says.

“When the work you do is this hard, you have to recognise the small achievements along the way, to maintain hope and morale.”

That Prof Bromfield has found so much success over the past few years is testament to that approach. A national winner at the prestigious Telstra Business Women's Awards in November, she has been integral in establishing a research-driven, evidence-based approach to child protection in Australia that is transforming the sector, and, more importantly, transforming the lives of vulnerable kids.

“This is not a field that has a strong evidence-based tradition and it’s very young, so it needs people with strong research skills to bring that rigour,” Prof Bromfield says. “I’ve always felt so privileged to be in this field because there are so many questions that need to be answered, and finding those answers means we can help children at such a large scale.”

Current system ‘not fit for purpose’

Chief among those questions is how to redesign Australia’s struggling child abuse prevention and protection systems. Currently, the sector’s limited resources are monopolised by emergency intervention, and while that is a crucial activity, Prof Bromfield believes that a lack of shrewd investment and continued failure to engage in prevention is undermining the existing system.

“Currently the child protection system is not fit for purpose,” she says. “This is why we see so many tragedies and a problem that’s getting bigger, not smaller. Our legislation is incident-based, our assessment is incident-based, but we really need a multi-pronged approach. We need an effective system for dealing with the kids who are unsafe today, but, simultaneously, we have got to do something that stops the problem growing. We've got to understand how you target prevention.”

Prof Bromfield’s work is directly aimed at developing that understanding, and nowhere is that approach more evident than in her recent role with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Between September 2013 and June 2017, Prof Bromfield headed a research team engaging more than 70 international research groups to deliver more than 100 research projects directly informing the commission’s work.

“I’m really proud of the program I led for the Royal Commission,” she says. “We were able to address research questions that we would never have been able to answer without the powers of a Royal Commission, like how much child sexual abuse was happening in different orders of the Catholic Church. And we were able to inform a focus on prevention opportunities, such as research to underpin the Royal Commission’s work on child safe organisations.”

While Prof Bromfield credits the royal commissioners for the support they gave to her research role, she also acknowledges that the decision by UniSA to release her from her regular academic duties enabled her contribution. Prof Bromfield sees the impact of her work with the Royal Commission as powerful validation of the University’s commitment to engaging with policymakers in a tangible fashion, and says the same priorities drive the ACCP.

“It’s about working with industry to solve real social challenges and real-world problems,” she says. “It’s about being creative and enterprising and taking a business mindset to achieving those goals, and I think that the centre epitomises what it is to be an enterprising research centre.”

That enterprising character is evident in the strategic thinking that has shaped the centre since 2013, when its ten-year Commonwealth establishment grant was nearing an end. At that time, the ACCP underwent an extensive business redesign to ensure continued financial viability, adopting a very successful research model that emphasises the demands of policymakers and practitioners.

“In government and business, you have to value yourself and the knowledge that you bring in order to get the attention of the people that matter,” Prof Bromfield says. “And so, we offer high value research and advice. It is money saving advice, so we know we're worth every penny. However, while we recognise the need to be financially sustainable, it isn’t the money that drives us. If we can't see clearly that a project will contribute to transforming the lives of vulnerable children, we won’t do it.”

For Prof Bromfield, having such a clear mission is essential in maintaining both the morale and the morality in her profession. There’s no question that child protection is a daunting, difficult field, but by prioritising opportunities to deliver genuine change for children, Prof Bromfield ensures it is also very rewarding work.

“When I’m inducting new staff into the centre,” she says, “one of the things I tell them is that there are some things that still affect me, and if I came to a point where some things didn’t affect me, then I shouldn’t be doing this work anymore.

“The ability to emotionally connect and see the child in this is really, really important. But, at the same time, the vision and genuine prospect of making life better for kids through our work makes this an incredibly rewarding field of research.”