Voices from the field: how do child protection practitioners in the Northern Territory operationalise child neglect?

2017-05-19T02:30:24Z (GMT) by Flaherty, Annette Clare
This study set out to understand how child protection practitioners in the Northern Territory operationalise child neglect. It did so firstly because child neglect is a major reason such concerns are referred to the child protection service in the Northern Territory. Child neglect cases comprise 28 per cent of all substantiated child maltreatment cases in Australia, and 50 per cent in the Northern Territory (AIHW 2011). Secondly, as outlined in the Literature Review, child neglect remains an ambiguous concept in both theory and practice and child protection practitioners find it difficult to know how to respond effectively to the complexity of child neglect cases. Thirdly, child neglect is given less prominence in the child protection research discourse and negligible attention has been given to Australian child protection practice with cases of child neglect. The study used a mixed methods approach to answer the research question. The study employed in‐depth interviews and the Critical Incident Technique (Flanagan 1954) to explore the emic understanding of child neglect. Qualitative data were supplemented by quantitative data gathered using a postal questionnaire. Quantitative data were collected to inform and complement the qualitative findings, so as to improve the utility of and expand the breadth of, the study. The study found that the way child neglect is operationalised in the Northern Territory is only marginally referenced to policy and procedural documents which guide practice; formal definitions of child neglect do not reflect the world of practice as encountered by child protection practitioners. Similar to workers elsewhere, child protection practitioners found cases of child neglect particularly challenging, and the work engendered feelings of hopelessness and ambivalence about the value of the work. Further, the findings indicate practice in this area is constantly troubled by anxiety related to job related taint and practice occurring in a hostile professional service network; fear of being of being swamped by demand; concern lest child protection practitioners’ practice be judged as continuing the legacy of the Stolen Generations; and distress arising from the gulf between practitioner understandings of what personal values suggested an appropriate practice response should be and professional judgement dictated was possible. Thus the highly charged political context of practice resulted in key threats to professional wellbeing. Firstly, the low status of child protection workers especially in their work with cases of child neglect threatened their sense of being a caring professional. Secondly, child neglect referrals threatened to overwhelm the child protection service. In addition the ideological position of cultural relativism was understood by participants as key to culturally sensitive practice, particularly with Indigenous people. The study found that practitioners developed their own practice wisdom to guide practice in cases of child neglect with Indigenous families. This was called by practitioners ‘the community standard’ and enabled them to process child neglect cases more efficiently, and, in their view, with cultural sensitivity. However, this occurred at the expense of individualised assessment of the care of children referred for cases of child neglect.