Keeping children and young people in out of home care safe, strong and connected

The Community Services Directorate continues to progress a major program of reform through the ACT’s out of home care strategy, A Step Up for Our Kids as part of Children and Family Services Reform. This is being done in partnership with stakeholders to strengthen service delivery and improve outcomes for children, young people and their families.

Over the past 5 years, A Step Up for Our Kids has been transformational in reducing the number of children and young people entering care, and in lifting expectations for the outcomes experienced by children and young people who are unable to live safely with their biological family.

A Step Up for Our Kids is delivering real change for families. We will build on this as we take the next steps in this reform to develop the next iteration of A Step Up for Our Kids.

We are committed to improving outcomes for children and young people by:

  • providing earlier supports
  • supporting all families to flourish, while actively responding to families living in complex environments
  • reducing the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people in the child protection system
  • improving the experience of out of home care
  • improving pathways to exit out of home care through restoration.


A Step Up, Next Stage of Reform - December 2021 Update

The ACT Government’s 5-year strategy for out of home care, A Step Up for Our Kids 2015 – 2020, introduced significant reform and was a major departure from previous practices. The strategy focused on preventing children and young people from entering care, reunifying them with their birth parents as quickly as possible and, where children and young people could not go home safely, moving them into permanent alternative family settings as quickly as possible. Reform was delivered through a therapeutic trauma-informed service system across the domains of:

  • Strengthening high risk families
  • Creating a continuum of care
  • Strengthening accountability to ensure a high functioning care system.

The first stage of reform (A Step Up) has now concluded and the notable change in the ACT out of home care system is the increase in the number of children, young people and families receiving specialist family support services, and the decrease in the number of children and young people entering out of home care. However, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people entering and living in out of home care remains a concern. Similarly, gaps in educational and other life outcomes for children and young people living in and leaving out of home care persist.

Research, policy, and practice in child protection and out of home care has evolved significantly over the past 6 years. The evidence we’ve collected from the multiple reviews and reports as well as the findings from the engagement conducted over the last 7 months and over previous years indicates a need for whole of system reform. This whole of system reform will build on the reform efforts to date and maturity of the system.


Foundational Work

The COVID-19 public health emergency leading to 2 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, impacted A Step Up, particularly around stakeholder engagement and commissioning. Our focus to date has been on early commissioning work conducted as part of the Stage 1 and Stage 2 Stakeholder Engagement Programs as well as key foundational work required to assist us with preparing for the next stage of reform. This key foundational work has included:

  • A Post Strategy Evaluation to understand the extent to which the A Step Up for Our Kids Out of Home Care Strategy 2015 – 2020 achieved its objectives and informed decision-making with respect to service improvement, design, and delivery. The Stage 1 Report is now available.
  • Development of a sourcing strategy to inform the services for the next out of home care strategy.
  • Ensuring the voices of end users are heard;
  • Capturing individual and group experiences of the last 7 years of A Step Up.
  • Identifying the areas of A Step Up which worked, areas which require improvement and gaps.
  • The Stage One Listening Report has been published and captures what we heard from stakeholders on their experiences of child protection and out of home care in the ACT.
  • The Stage Two Listening Report has been published and captures what we heard from stakeholders with a focus on how diverse communities experience child protection and out of home care in the ACT.
  • The What We Know Overview has been published and provides a summary of current shifts and challenges and outlines priorities and commitments for the next stage of reform.
  • Out of Home Care data modelling using the ACT Child Protection National Minimum Data Set from 2012-13 to 2020-21, to provide projections and contextual data on child protection and intensive family support services demand.
  • Stage 1 and Stage 2 stakeholder engagement.


Early Commissioning and Stakeholder Engagement

The Stage 1 and 2 stakeholder engagement programs conducted over a 7-month period and involving over 700 stakeholders including end users, people with lived experience, the broader non-government sector, the workforce, academics and researchers and government incorporated early commissioning work, designed to explore community needs and aspirations through:

Feedback from the Stages 1 and 2 stakeholder engagement programs has been captured in a series of publications as listed above and provide a rich foundation for future deeper engagement, co-design, and co-production.


Next Steps for Our Kids

The data and evidence from multiple reviews and reports including the Post-Strategy Evaluation, the feedback we heard from the Child and Family Reform Forum in March 2021 along with the outcomes from stakeholder engagement during the last 7 months has been brought together to inform the next stage of reform and our collective way forward. This next stage of reform is known as Next Steps for Our Kids Strategy 2022-2030. The Next Steps Strategy is expected to be released in early 2022 following Government consideration and approval. However, the early development work, which is subject to further consideration and decision, incorporates the following broad directions.

Continuing with the remit to strengthen accountability, the vision is to create an integrated and responsive service system capable of delivering contemporary, evidence-based, wraparound supports so our children and young people are safe, strong, connected, and able to live their best life. At the centre of this reform, children, young people, families, and carers are supported through an established and coordinated place-based universal and secondary service system. This vision will be realised through the key policy directions of:

  • Earlier support and engagement to connect families with appropriate services and supports, which meet their needs, before circumstances escalate to crisis point.
  • Expanded focus and increased emphasis on family preservation and restoration.
  • Self-determination for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander families.
  • Stable, secure, trauma-informed therapeutic care and support for carers.
  • Post care support to 21 years.

The scope of Next Steps has also broadened from A Step Up for Our Kids and centres on ACT children, young people and families who are:

  • at risk of entering the statutory child protection system
  • involved with the statutory child protection and/or out of home care systems
  • transitioning from or within out of home care.

Next Steps has been broadened to support families on the edge of statutory child protection involvement as there is clear evidence the needs of families are best met earlier in the life of a problem and are more sustained if they are able use a family’s natural resources such as their extended family or community networks. Similarly, some children and young people may also be at risk of engagement with, or are engaged with the youth justice system, and Next Steps will support an integrated service response for all children, young people, and their families.

Next Steps organises reform against four domains, which have evolved from A Step Up for Our Kids. Proposed new domains are:

  • Strengthening families
  • Building a continuum of support
  • Ensuring a high functioning and accountable care system
  • Restorative, therapeutic and trauma-informed system.

These domains are supported by a series of priority areas which are in response to feedback from people who have experienced with the child protection and out of home care system. It’s proposed the priority areas will be supported by two co-designed Action Plans with the first to be developed in 2022.


Phased Reform Implementation

The Next Steps reform journey will be a multi-faceted one, as it sits in the context of a range of Government commitments and wider reform efforts in the children and family services sector. Reform will affect us all – government and non-government and end users and this will take time to implement. We will need to balance our efforts between the long-term goals and short-term opportunities so we can achieve the greatest results.

Working closely and partnering with stakeholders, the implementation of reform will be delivered over 3 broad overlapping phases:

  • Transitioning Phase for Years 1 and 2
  • Reform Rollout Phase for Years 2 to 5
  • Consolidation Phase for Years 5+.

As part of the Transitioning Phase, we are proposing to do two key programs of work:

  • Recommissioning services through extending existing Service Funding Agreements
  • Commissioning and procuring new Therapeutic Residential Care services.

In parallel to these programs of work, we will also work with stakeholders on the detail of the new service system to develop the operational framework and plan how to move from the current to future state. This will include a shift from a Contract Service / Provider model to Strategic Partnerships with joint accountability and service delivery.

Update: May 2022

ACT Government is seeking proposals for a new specialised therapeutic residential care service package as part of the Next Steps for our Kids Strategy 2022-2033. Find out more about this request for proposal here: https://www.communityservices.act.gov.au/ocyfs/children/child-and-youth-protection-services/a-step-up-for-our-kids/out-of-home-care-strategy-2015-2020