James Cook University researchers are calling for child protection workers to give more attention to the effects of poverty on dangerous family situations and ensure staff are not making things worse for families.
Ros Thorpe is an adjunct Professor at JCU and member of the Family Inclusion Network (FIN) in Townsville – a self-funded support and advocacy charity for parents. She led a study that interviewed clients of FIN whose children had been removed by child protection services.
“Members of FIN noticed child protection workers often judged parents who have difficulty with meeting children’s needs as being neglectful, without due consideration being given to causal factors like poverty,” said Professor Thorpe.
She said the case studies and analysis illustrated how poverty is almost always the backdrop to risk factors before and during child protection intervention.
“It’s common for families experiencing material poverty to become trapped in damaging cycles of debt, powerlessness, shame, desperation, depression and, for stress relief, easily accessible substance use.
“Then an accident or crisis occurs, like homelessness, family violence or children acting out, and child protection services are alerted,” said Professor Thorpe.
She said in FIN Townsville’s experience, most parents who come into contact with child protection find that their financial situation worsens when their children are removed as they lose benefits related to child care and household size.
“It seems there is little effort by agencies to help families prepare for reunification. Without broader contextual knowledge and understanding the family’s poverty and experiences of violence remain unaddressed. It’s apparent to us that deficits in parenting might well decrease if relief from poverty was prioritised,” she said.
Professor Thorpe said other studies had shown that when child protection workers spent more time with families face to face, including outside of the office, their practices changed, sometimes radically.
“Lack of worker insight into how their often rule-bound decision making compounds poverty can make things worse. Becoming more aware of the impacts of poverty and talking with parents about the day-to-day realities of poverty can provide both workers and families with real opportunities to make changes for the better.”