Non-legal child protection support should be expanded statewide – evaluation

Non-legal child protection support should be expanded statewide – evaluation

Monday, 20 September 2021

An innovative service offering early access to information and support in the child protection system creates cost-savings and helps Victorian families to avoid going to court.

Independent Family Advocacy and Support (IFAS) provides non-legal advocacy for parents in the early stages of child protection involvement. A three-year evaluation from RMIT shows IFAS helps parents to navigate the system and has diverted one fifth of families it works with from the courts.

‘Parents who used IFAS told us the child protection system is complex and that going through it feels disempowering,’ said lead evaluator Dr Chris Maylea. ‘IFAS acts as a bridge to build understanding and improve awareness about the legal and support options available, as well as how they can address concerns that the department might have’, he said.

‘Without IFAS I don’t know if my daughter would be home with me now’, said Melbourne woman Sarah (not her real name), who is one of 323 clients IFAS has provided support to, since it began in 2018.

Sarah has an intellectual disability, a history of childhood trauma and grew up in residential care. Three of Sarah’s older children were removed from her custody at different times in the past, due to concerns about her mental health, drug use, and a violent relationship. ‘At that time there was no advocates, no support, it was nothing like what it is now. Solicitors let you know what's going on, but court hearings are so quick and they're making such life and death decisions as far as parents go,’ said Sarah.

‘It was lonely, it was isolating, and it was confusing. Dealing with the system can be really intimidating when you’ve got no one to support you,’ she said.

Two years ago, Sarah became pregnant unexpectedly. When asked by doctors if she wanted to keep her pregnancy, Sarah was adamant that this time, things would be different. ‘I said I’m not losing another child and I want my little girl to have the best life possible'.

After child protection was notified about her pregnancy, Sarah was put in touch with IFAS, who assisted her to address the underlying issues in her life.

‘IFAS advocates work in a non-judgmental way, to explain the child protection process and how the concerns of the department can best be addressed. We’re driven by the parents’ wishes, with the aim of achieving better outcomes for children and families,’ said IFAS Manager Helen Makregiorgos.

‘We prioritise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and parents living with an intellectual disability. By working with parents, IFAS supports a principle of Victoria's child protection law that parents should be assisted to take actions to promote their children's wellbeing, said Helen.

Sarah says IFAS helped her communicate more effectively with child protection. ‘My advocate would say “This is what they mean, are you sure you understand?”. She came to every appointment with child protection which really helped me because they have a lot of legal power. They can feel like police.’

‘IFAS helps you say things in a way that people listen’, Sarah said.

Sarah overcame her drug dependence and completed parenting and counselling courses during her pregnancy and in her daughter’s first months. With the early support from IFAS, at six months old, without the need for a court case, her baby was placed in her full-time care.

‘The midwife at the hospital told me “It's been a highlight of my career watching you change your life”. IFAS really helped, along with other workers they referred me to, to feel confident to build my self-esteem and achieve my goals’.

Bringing her baby home was magical for Sarah. ‘It was beautiful, it was a magnificent time and we built the most magnificent bond. It was like doing it all again properly. It still is magnificent. She's a beautiful little girl, she's happy, she's smiling. She's just a pleasure to be around.’

‘I love being a parent – the things that happened to me won't happen to her, because I'll teach her how to look after herself,’ said Sarah.

Dr Maylea said many parents interviewed by evaluators shared Sarah’s trust in IFAS.

‘Sarah’s experience shows how IFAS is helping parents and the reassurance that parents get from non-legal advocacy’, said Chris. ‘We estimate IFAS is stopping one fifth of families it works with from going into expensive, difficult court proceedings. That’s why we’ve recommended it is expanded from its current sites, to cover all eligible families in Victoria’, he said.

IFAS currently operates in Bendigo, Ballarat and in Melbourne’s north. ‘The Victorian Government recently recognised the value of IFAS by funding us to continue for another three years. But we receive calls from parents around the state who request our help and at the moment, we aren’t resourced to meet those needs,’ said Helen.

Sarah joined IFAS’ lived experience reference group, Shared Experience and Support (SEaS). She says she hopes IFAS will be expanded, to give more people opportunities to be there for their kids.

'I didn’t grow up with family around me. I got dealt a different hand of cards, so you have to teach yourself everything. But when you’ve got someone supporting you it makes it a lot easier than doing it on your own’.

For media

IFAS client Sarah, and another member of our lived experience reference group SeaS, Katherine (not her real name), Dr Chris Maylea and Helen Makregiorgos are available for interview.

Contact Senior Communications Adviser Alma Mistry on 0418 381 327 or email alma.mistry@vla.vic.gov.au.

More information

Download the Final evaluation of Independent Family Advocacy and Support (pdf, 1.71 MB) by RMIT’s Social and Global Studies centre, or the accessible Word version (2.54 MB).

Read a shorter IFAS final evaluation summary (pdf, 2.28 MB), or the accessible Word version (556.38 KB).

Read about IFAS.

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