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'The solutions are in the hearts and minds of the kids themselves'

30/09/19 2.14am
Three children sitting with a dog

The Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare is Victoria’s peak body for child and family services.

The Centres work includes developing, influencing and advocating for public policies that advance the rights and wellbeing of children, young people and it collaborates across the family violence sector through the Information Sharing and the Multi-Agency Risk Assessment and Management (MARAM).

We spoke to CEO Deb Tsorbaris about the challenges facing children, young people and families and how the voices of children and young people are finding a way to be heard.

What are the challenges when it comes to engaging, supporting and giving voice to children and young people?

Seeing things through the eyes of children isn’t easy, it’s hard to see through that lens.

The systems and processes and people really struggle because they are not child friendly and we think about things from our perspective, and it’s a very adult orientated world.

When kids do have a voice it’s hard for us to listen because it’s so confronting. Kids also compartmentalise and it takes a young person a long time for them to be able to talk about things in a way that adults can understand, so we have to be patient.

For the most part families are a private space, and kids are a product of a family and their parents, so reaching a young child who is struggling is hard. Whether its sexual abuse, neglect, family violence, talking about these things can be really hard for a child. And the forms of abuse don’t normally come on their own, so children and young people don’t only talk about violence, but they talk about the range of things going on in their family home or people known to them. All of that is really difficult because some of this conversation risks kids being removed from their families. It’s very complex.

In what ways have attitudes and practices changed as a result of the Royal Commission into Family Violence?

We realise now that for some of these issues the solutions are in the hearts and minds of the kids themselves.

That in fact, the adults don’t have all the answers and kids give us solutions we otherwise wouldn’t have and a sense of what’s possible. Often when we listen to kids, we realise the solution is not actually that hard.

Services often think the way to address challenges is with more money and resources. And one day a young person turned around and said to me 'it’s got nothing to do with money or resources, it’s all about stigma, it’s about who people think we are and how they treat us.' If kids feel less than or different or judged, we underestimate that in terms of their future outcomes and them being able to reach their full potential. Poverty is a huge issue. For kids who experience family violence, poverty can be at play in those homes and for some families and their kids they don’t feel like they are as good as the next kid or family. For these families and children, they feel the stigma of both family violence and poverty.

What are you optimistic about?

I think the game changer in Victoria is also the cultural change piece.

The Behaviour Change advertising campaign, Respectful Relationships, community conversations around calling out family violence and bad behaviour. That big cultural conversation is really important for children in Victoria and we forget how important those things are. We are the best in the world, there’s not the focus on it in other parts of the world that there is here, and we should be proud of that because generationally it will make a difference.

You would be hard pressed to find a student in school now that wouldn’t be talking about respectful relationships, diversity, family violence, abuse and neglect, inclusivity and gender. They are more aware and more confident than any generation before them. And I feel optimistic. It’s not all schools and not all postcodes but in general kids are carrying the flag and helping drive the change and the kids that are really struggling are safer for it.

We are seeing the government and organisations taking the voice of the child more seriously. There is a huge amount of energy behind it.

What else can be done?

We need to make sure the kids who don’t have a voice, have one.

Older kids in general are confident and vocal. I am eternally surprised about how kids who have been in care are so vocal and articulate they are starting to expect more which I think is really great.

But it’s a small group of kids that we worry about, kids that are disenfranchised and it’s the little voices that do get lost. The adolescents and young people have got a voice and are confident even with difficult subject matter but the under-tens and certainly the under-fives if somebody doesn’t speak up for them, they can get lost. 

What is the role of evidence and data in this work?

If you introduce strong evidence and work with families in a more intuitive way with them then we see less kids coming into care and we see those parent’s ability to parent is much stronger.

There is more opportunity to  learn across sectors and from other disciplines and more opportunity to build evidence. Our research and practice hub known as OPEN (Outcomes Practice Evidence Network) was launched in May 2019 and has over 1000 workers already using it. Of the sector it looks at how we use evidence, how we make sure the way we are working with families is working, what new evidence is telling us. It’s been really effective.

There are quite a high number of children that are getting incredible outcomes and in our sector these models are starting to emerge as ground-breaking. Even a child facing the most challenging issues for example they are using ice, they frequent custodial services, are being sexually exploiters, and running away from home, I’ve seen these evidence-based models effectively turn that around. Years ago we wouldn’t even had attempted to turn these kids around, we would have said it was too hard.

Anything else you want to highlight?

We are living in such exciting times. Children and young people aren’t afraid to find their own platform.

Young people are taking ethical models and turning them on its head. Take the recent climate change school strike for example. This began with one girl and one sign, a year later it’s a global movement.

The opportunities to capture and share children’s voices has traditionally been limited because of ethics. But young people are saying 'it’s your ethics that got us here, your ethics caused these problems in the first place, you’re punitive, or controlling or limiting our voices or silencing us, saying we can’t speak for ourselves.'

Once that flips the old structures become redundant, then you need something to replace those structures and that’s when there is opportunity for big culture change and reform.

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Reviewed 23 June 2021

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