Fostering Lifelong Connections for Children in Permanent Care

The Research Centre for Children and Families at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work has commenced a study to explore how the out-of-home care sector can encourage positive interactions between children’s birth and permanent care families.

Fostering Lifelong Connections will develop, test, embed, and disseminate practices for children in permanent care to develop and sustain positive connections with birth relatives by:

  • Identifying relationship-building practices and co-designing resources
  • Conducting action research to trial, implement and evaluate practice changes
  • Implementing new relationship-building practices at four NSW sites
  • Disseminating the outcomes, including practice resources and training, to the out-of-home care sector

Fostering Lifelong Connections is underpinned by three principles:

  1. Trauma-informed practice

Trauma results from ‘an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being’ (SAMHSA, 2014, p. 7). Exposure to trauma in childhood is particularly damaging as it interferes with critical developmental processes and causes profound and enduring effects over the life course (Szilagyi, 2018). These include impaired cognition, memory, arousal and attention which have flow on effects on social skills, identity formation and relationships (Tucci & Mitchell, 2015).

Trauma is a core experience for children in out-of-home-care so it is essential that trauma-informed practice is central to the way professionals and organisations interact with children and families. Trauma-informed practices are holistic approaches that seek to rebuild psychological and physical safety, control and empowerment in the lives of individual survivors, their helpers and community (Blignault et al., 2014). Trauma can be carried through successive generations when unacknowledged or untreated. Atkinson (2002) explains that unresolved trauma leads survivors to “adapt their behaviours and beliefs to compensate for their traumatisation” (p 86). For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, the chronic effects of colonisation, discrimination and institutionalised racism on family safety result in intergenerational trauma. An ecological framework that views children within their family and community context and takes account of environmental factors rather than individual behaviours alone is necessary to address intergenerational trauma (Atkinson, 2013). Services and interventions that are not trauma-sensitive can unintentionally retraumatise children and adults (Wall, Higgins & Hunter, 2016)

2. Cultural respect and safety

People need to feel safe in order to heal from trauma and Aboriginal peoples need to feel culturally safe to heal from intergenerational trauma. Cultural safety is “the identification a person makes with factors that are derived from the culture, belief systems or worldviews that allow them to feel safe while being with those whom they have gone to for help” (Atkinson, 2002, p 193). Child protection and out-of-home-care agencies cannot create safe environments without seeking to put right past wrongs and demonstrating respect for the wisdom of Aboriginal ways of knowing and being. Aboriginal customary practices offer a template for preserving strong family bonds and a sense of belonging for all children who have been separated from family by statutory child removal. Australian Aboriginal nations have sustained the longest enduring culture on earth through a sophisticated system of kinship structures and obligations which are passed down through story, ritual and lore (Riley, Howard-Wagner, & Mooney, 2015). This project presents an opportunity for intentional and authentic dialogue between out-of-home-care agencies and the holders of Aboriginal kinship knowledge based on openness and respect for the cultural wisdom of traditional custodians of the land.

3. Reflective practice

Practices are defined as discreet, concrete, observable techniques and strategies that a worker can implement with the parent or carer with the intention of achieving a specific goal. Praxis describes the integration of theory and practice and is used in human services to explain actions that are informed by critical reflection (Freire, 1970). Caseworkers are expected to have the skills to reflect on their actions, and the values and theories that underpin them, as part of continuous learning. This is particularly important in child protection and out-of-home-care, where caseworkers are confronted with the manifest consequences of their own and others’ decisions on children and families. They work with society’s most complex and vulnerable families and the stakes – children’s wellbeing and safety – could not be higher.

This context, however, creates inevitable tensions, such as how to balance the urgency of a child’s immediate needs for safety and stability with the need to resolve challenging interpersonal dynamics between family members and with carers, and to comply with regulatory and procedural demands. This project combines sound theory and reliable evidence with knowledge gained through reciprocal exchange to test small-scale changes. Critical reflection throughout the project facilitates behaviour change among participants and creates the conditions for these to scale up to a broader community of practice across NSW.

Research sites
  • Dubbo, Central West region
  • Maitland, Hunter region
  • Central metro, Sydney region
  • Wollongong, Illawarra region
Breakthrough Series Collaborative