Conscious or Unconscious Barriers to Success

Linda Savage speaks about the work of the Valuing Children Initiative which was established by two large West Australian NFP organisations, Centrecare (Inc.) and Parkerville Children and Youth Care (Inc.)

Thank you for joining me this afternoon. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

My name is Linda Savage and I am the Convenor of the Valuing Children Initiative. Today I will be talking about the work of the Valuing Children Initiative which was established this year by two large West Australian NFP organisations, Centrecare (Inc.) and Parkerville Children and Youth Care (Inc.)

Both these organisations provide a wide range of services for children, families and communities, and have done so for decades. Their evidenced-based services are underpinned by a commitment to measuring success and have resulted in many positive outcomes. But despite this, they, like many other organisations, face the reality that the complexity, and level of demand for services, continue to grow unabated. The reality is that successes at the individual level, have not been matched by success at the societal level.

For children this is borne out by the data that shows far too many are not faring as well as they should be in affluent, modern 21st Century Australia, as this slide shows.

Across Australia efforts to improve outcomes for children are ongoing on many fronts.

Measuring and evaluating success is very much part of that. So too is data collection, linking and mapping: research and accelerating its translation into policy and practice: refining service delivery and using models such as collective impact, finding ways to overcome fragmentation, as well as better coordination of state and federal responsibilities. We have the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, SNAICCs Family Matters campaign, Royal Commissions, and Commissioners for Children and Young People. There are hundreds of articles and reports. There are hundreds of organisations, thousands of individuals, parents, carers and all levels of government working to ensure the wellbeing of children – all part of what I think can be described as an unprecedented focus on children.

There is also indisputable evidence about what children need to flourish and to be able to maximise their potential. For years there has been compelling evidence, that the experience in the womb, and the quality of care and relationships in the early years – and in particular the first 1000 days  – not only has a major impact on brain development but also on physical, cognitive and emotional health and wellbeing.  We know early childhood plays a crucial role in a person’s future – determining whether the foundations of a person’s life are fragile or robust. These years are built into us – and it is well established that disadvantage, and the failure to provide adequate support in this phase of a person’s life, is often where inequality begins. This evidence compliments traditional wisdom and learnt experience over centuries.

So given all we know and all that is being done, it begs the question why aren’t we making more progress to ensure the health, safety, and wellbeing of all children? What else is there that we are not seeing, what are we missing or not giving adequate attention to get better outcomes for children?

Some of you I am sure are familiar with the work of Professors Ron Heifetz and Martin Linksy. They counsel organisations grappling with tough problems like this, to ‘get on the balcony’, to get a clearer perspective. Very broadly getting on the balcony means recognising when it is time to look for new ways of achieving goals, and often involves challenging deeply held beliefs.

And in effect, this is what Tony Pietropiccolo the Director of Centrecare, and Basil Hanna, the CEO of Parkerville Children and Youth Care did at the beginning of this year, by allocating precious resources to establish the VCI and employing me and Emma King to develop the Valuing Children Initiative.

For the VCI, ‘getting on the balcony’ has meant considering deeper issues of causality.

In particular, it has meant asking what it is about our culture and our attitudes, whether conscious or unconscious, that allows us to tolerate a life for some children, that we would never tolerate for our own.  It has meant questioning how we value children in Australia today, the very worth we assign to the youngest citizens of our country.

We know that children themselves identify being valued as one of the most important aspects of wellbeing.  And in countries such as Sweden, that perform well on child wellbeing indicators, a strong culture of valuing children has been identified as an important factor.

As this slide by ARACY shows, how we value children individually and as a section of society, directly impacts on how we treat them, the priority we give their needs and rights,  and this in turn impacts on policy, programs and resources.

This why the VCI has focused on asking how we value children because although sometimes forgotten, it plays a pivotal role in children’s wellbeing.

Societal attitudes are underpinned by what we value and societal attitudes are powerful – even more powerful at times than our laws and our justice system.

Nothing has provided a starker example of this than the shocking revelations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The truth is that children who spoke up about their abuse, the adults who spoke out on their behalf, and even the laws that made sexual abuse of children a crime, were no match for the prevailing culture and attitudes of those in positions of power, who chose not to believe children and put the protection of institutions and adults first. The result was that for decades, both institutions, and perpetrators, were able to avoid scrutiny.

The lack of value assigned to these children and their lives is glaringly apparent.

Of course it always so much easier to see this in retrospect and wonder how people could have possibly believed what they did or behaved in the way that they did. It is easy to be incredulous in hindsight. A far greater and more confronting challenge is to identify it in ourselves and in our own time.

There has been a recent example that has caused many to ask how we value children in Australia today, and that has been the revelations of the treatment of children at the Don Dale Juvenile Justice Centre. It prompted the PM to speak about the need to look at the culture and prevailing attitudes, to try and explain what happened. And not just in regard to the actual treatment of those children, but the lack of any urgent, or more effective response despite previous reports, media coverage, and the many who knew what was occurring.

So the first challenge then for the Valuing Children Initiative, has been to make the case that societies attitudes to children, how we value them,  is critical to understanding children’s place in our society and what they experience. On the table, you will find copies of the Foundation Paper that provides the rationale for the initiative. It has been the basis for discussion and engagement with a wide range of stakeholders. It is also available on the website.

Now it is true that attitudes to children, what could be described as how we value them – have changed enormously over the years, and so correspondingly our care and treatment of children.

Until the 19th Century children, like women, were the property of husbands and fathers, and not even recognised as a separate legal person. Slowly, over the next century, there was a growing acceptance of the need for the state to protect children from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. By the mid-20th century laws to protect them were becoming commonplace. In the last 50 years the role of the state in protecting children, providing services, and acting in their best interests, has been embedded in legislation and policy. Today, not even a parent has the right to beat or abuse a child. And international conventions, most recently the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, have changed the way children are viewed, leading to the growing acceptance of children as citizens from birth, with individual rights of their own, including the right to be heard, listened to, and have what they want, acted upon.

So what drives changes in attitudes?  What drives what we value as a society?

These are important questions for the VCI.

We know that attitudinal change can rarely be attributed to one course of action, individual or group. Influencing attitudes are usually the work of many people, and often over the decades. Today’s focus on domestic and family violence for example has taken decades to become part of mainstream discourse, beginning with the refuge movement in the 1960s. Changing attitudes to smoking took many years too, and at times had to wait for a Minister, or government, either prepared to stand up to powerful opposition or respond definitively to the evidence. It is invariably a complex mix of inputs, the work of many over decades, unexpected opportunities, and even a crisis that can seem to suddenly add up and be the impetus for change.

It is complex, but in the area of organisational change and leadership, there appears to be agreement that the quest for broad systemic change most often ignores one crucial variable, and that is cultural change. In particular beliefs, values, and attitudes. This is the territory of shared assumptions, unwritten rules, and beliefs.

So what do we know about Australians attitudes to all children? With surprisingly little data available, the VCI commissioned a benchmark survey earlier this year.

The survey results have been revealing. In designing the survey questions, we learned that standard nationwide polls, do not usually list children as separate to the family unit. That has meant that when Australians are asked to rank issues by importance like taxation, climate change, or the health system, children have not been included as an option. Needless to say, we did include children. So it was encouraging then, that 86% said looking after the interests of children was important to them.

Despite that, they still placed the interests of children only ninth out of a list of ten. By comparison, looking after the interests of older people ranked 6th. More than 50% said that jobs and the economy were more important to them than looking after the interests of children.

The survey also asked respondents to choose from 20 words to describe children today. Respondents could choose as many words as they liked from a list that was equally weighted with both positive and negative descriptors. The four most commonly chosen were spoilt, fortunate, lazy, and selfish. The word vulnerable came fifth.

This rather harsh characterisation of children, I think lends weight to the need to do more to portray children in a positive light. It is also very much at odds with the fact, that more than 17% of all children live below the poverty line, despite Australia being ranked as the seventh wealthiest nation in the world on a GDP per capita basis. It suggests at least, that many Australians simply do not know the circumstances of a significant number of children in Australia today.

Despite the harsh description of children, only 48% of those surveyed believe that children in Australia today all have a fair and equal opportunity to flourish and maximise their potential. And 80% were concerned about the health and happiness of future generations.

The survey asked too, whether a child’s word is less likely to be believed than that of an adult. It is concerning that even today, 63% still believe that a child’s word is less likely to be believed. And also of real concern was that 70% agreed that children ‘belong’ to their parents, until the age of 18.

The survey also asked about the role of government and decision-makers. Nearly half were of the opinion that Governments give too little consideration to children. This is consistent with the findings of the  Australian Child Health Poll, also conducted this year, that reported over half of those surveyed believed that federal politicians should take more action on issues relating to the wellbeing of Australian children and teenagers.

With a Federal election being held earlier this year the VCI took the opportunity to write to all MPs, calling for specific action and institutional change to make children a greater priority. It included:

Calling for the creation of a Ministerial portfolio for Children and Future Generations. The VCI believes this would be a tangible sign that children are valued at the highest level, as well as ensuring they have a place at the Cabinet table. Ideally, this position would drive the creation of a National Plan for ALL Children, and so counter the short-termism and crisis-driven responses of modern politics that is particularly damaging to children. It would promote high-level engagement in futures thinking and planning.

It is interesting to note that of the 42 Ministers and parliamentary Secretaries of the federal government, not one portfolio includes the word child or children. Of course, I know some will point to portfolios that provide services for children and say this is adequate. But I would argue that two current Royal Commissions and an increase in substantiated cases of abuse and neglect, says otherwise, as does the incidence of childhood mental health issues, and diabetes.

Language is important. There are portfolios for Women, Sport, Aged Care, Defence Personnel even Sport to indicate and ensure there is sustained and particular focus.

The VCI has also called for the instigation of a rigorous, and transparent process by state and federal governments, to ensure that legislative and decision-making processes, actively consider the impact on children and future generations. Something comparable to an environmental impact statement. This would ensure that children, who cannot vote, and so are excluded from influencing the political process, have their interests explicitly considered. This process should include the views of children whenever possible; risk analysis for particularly vulnerable children, and be evaluated and reported on. Consideration of the impact on children and future generations is integral to sound decision making and would help translate some of the rhetoric, virtue signaling and motherhood statements into more tangible and accountable action.

The work of the VCI is best described as advocacy and rights-based work, because of its focus on deeper issues of causality by questioning societal attitudes to children. From the start, we have grappled with how we would measure our impact and success. This is because the VCI’s ambitious vision and objectives defy easy or conventional measurements.

For the VCI, success means cultural change. We believe children are simply not valued enough. As I said earlier, attitudes are complex and shaped by many factors, many of which we do not understand. Nor can we easily identify and understand the forces that come together to precipitate, and lead to changes in attitudes.

Social impact models of measurement such as Social Return on Investment, Most Significant Change, and inputs/activities/outputs models, are not readily applicable.

The most relevant type of evaluation for the VCI is probably ‘impact evaluation’, which attempts to provide an objective test, to the extent possible, of what change has occurred, and the extent to which that can be attributed to a specific intervention. To have validity impact evaluation requires a counterfactual – that is what those outcomes would have been in the absence of the intervention, for example, the work of the VCI.

So, if for example, the federal government adopted the very specific changes recommended by the VCI it could be taken as some measure of success or impact.

Similarly, if the calls we have made for community awareness-raising, and education campaigns as part of encouraging debate about how we value children, were instituted, and their impact was shown to benefit children on certain indicators, we might be able to claim we played some part, however small and difficult to quantify.

To date though, as with much measuring for success, we have focused on measuring activity.

So for example the numbers of meetings held to discuss and promote the VCI, including contacts with elected and public officials with authority to influence policy. Meetings with not for profits and members of the judiciary, community groups, publications of articles, media releases, and opportunities to speak to the media. Distribution and requests for copies of the Foundation Paper. Speaking engagements to promote the VCI, website traffic, and number of contacts and collaboration with other organisations.

The ambitious vision of the VCI is to inspire Australians to value all children, understand that a child’s wellbeing is the shared responsibility of the entire community and to ensure children are at the forefront of our considerations.

I think it is important to remind ourselves that all children must navigate a world they had no part in creating. The world they find themselves in, and experience will always depend on the attitudes of adults and what they value.

In closing let me say we have been encouraged by the support and positive feedback we have received, particularly as work of this kind, work that cannot easily be measured, risks being seen as less important.

For that reason, we were especially pleased to have Professor Fiona Stanley’s support for the VCI. I am sure Fiona Stanley is well known to you all. She has tirelessly championed the need to put children at the centre of our society and for cultural change to ensure all children have the childhoods they deserve and have a right to experience. So I will end with a short video, available also on the VCI website that she made for the launch of the VCI.

Thank you.

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