Assessing Parental Capacity and Working With Parents Forum: A Wrap-Up

ACWA’s Best Practice Unit (BPU) hosted a two-day forum examining best practice for working with families and issues involved in the assessment of parental capacity in April.

Held at the Office of the Advocate for Children and Young People (ACYP) premises in Sydney, the event attracted around 70 managers and team leaders from out-of-home care organisations around the state.

Kate Alexander from the Office of the Senior Practitioner, FACS, opened Day One with an overview of the new NSW Practice Framework that underpins the work of FACS with children and families. Key aspects of the framework include respectful relationships with families and clear, respectful communication.

Next up was Belinda Kendall from Curijo, who reminded participants about the need to listen to Aboriginal children, young people and families; to take time to build trust and connection; and to respect families’ abilities to know their strengths; and to come up with solutions to keep children safe and connected to culture.

SSI’s Kathy Karatasas further emphasised the importance of culture, as well as the impact of different experiences, especially in families from a refugee background, on parenting capacity.

Janette Buckingham and Seini Afeaki then outlined the process involved in assessing parental capacity through the Children’s Court Clinic. They then went on to highlight their work with Aboriginal services to ensure that assessors are culturally aware of the differences in parenting in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, and how this is taken into consideration in their assessments. They also spoke about the difficulty of recruiting Aboriginal assessors.

Associate Professor Amy Conley Wright and Dr Susan Collings from the University of Sydney’s Institute of Open Adoption Studies shifted the focus towards the topic of what helps birth parents and permanent carers to build positive relationships. They emphasised that the early meeting of parents and carers, facilitated in a less formal setting with caseworker support, is a key factor for supporting better relationships between birth parents and permanent carers.

In a powerful finish to Day One, participants got the chance to hear the voices of parents who had experienced the removal children into care via Jessica Cocks, Teegan Bain and Felicity Kime from the Family Inclusion Strategies in the Hunter (FISH) community group. Jessica, who works with Life Without Barriers, then went on to provide an overview of her Churchill Fellowship study into family inclusive practice where peer work and parent leadership are key.

Day Two commenced with a research presentation by University of NSW Professor Elizabeth Fernandez looking at pathways to permanency. She outlined findings relating to the timing and patterns of reunification and measuring predictors to successful reunification, as well as what studies have revealed regarding the timing and patterns of re-entry to out-of-home care following reunification.

Associate Professor Stephanie Taplin from the Australian Catholic University’s Institute of Child Protection Studies then went on to explore the topic of child protection and parental substance abuse, revealing there has been an increase in the number of newborns entering out-of-home care in NSW and Australia as a whole, as well as in the UK and the USA. She revealed that while prenatal reporting allows women to receive support prior to birth, this can in turn present a barrier to women accessing services for fear of being reported. Young, disadvantaged women are particularly vulnerable, including  those who are homeless or who have been in care, and Aboriginal women.

The Day Two program also featured Liz Sanders from SAL Consulting, who outlined the usefulness of the Attachment Style Interview (ASI) tool in undertaking complex parenting capacity assessments, while Child Mental Health Workforce Consultant Ruby Awram spoke about the Emerging Minds National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health and its efforts to build worker capacity in this area. Ruby also presented a series of interesting statistics including:

  • 13% of 4-11 year olds in Australia have experienced a diagnosable mental health condition in the past 12 months
  • 30% of 7-18 year olds in Australia report a lack of sleep, high levels of stress and depressive symptoms
  • 16-18% of children internationally aged 0-5 years suffer from a mental health condition (this could include ADD/ADHD).

Emerging Minds has established a web hub for workers to access free online training, practice tools, webinars, events and the latest news about infant and child mental health.

Parents with Intellectual Disabilities solicitor Kenn Clift provided a valuable presentation on communicating effectively with parents with an intellectual or learning disability, outlining supports that workers can use to encourage better communication with their clients. These include presenting only one idea at a time, asking the client to relay in their own words what they have understood, meeting in a place with few distractions and using clear language. The Intellectual Disability Rights Service website provides helpful information for workers and parents. The Healthy Start website also has helpful resources for parenting, and Parenting in Pictures resources can help parents to better understand and remember routines.

A team from the UTS Clinical Psychology Graduate School of Health, led by Dr John McAloon, was also on hand to share details of the Holding Hands Project, which is a research program being conducted to help build parent capacity where the child and/or a carer has experienced attachment difficulties. The premise is that traditional parenting programs work best with families where there is functional attachment and builds on existing parenting skills and attachment to reinforce desired behaviour. These strategies, however, may have no impact where there is no/damaged/disrupted attachment.

In the final presentation of the two-day forum, Richard Bishop and his team from Ozchild discussed the use of Family Functional Therapy-Child Welfare (FFT-CW) and Multisystemic Therapy for Child Abuse and Neglect (MST-CAN) in their work with families. Engagement in these home-based support services is voluntary and referrals come through FACS. The benefits are an in-home intervention that works with everyone in the family, including carers and children, to increase safety and improve relationships in the home.

Presentations from this forum will be available on ACWA’s website in due course. In the meantime, ACWA extends our deep thanks to all our presenters for giving so freely of their time and expertise, as well as the ACYP for the use of its venue, and our participants for their input and feedback.