Child abuse is a serious issue affecting significant numbers of Australian children every year. In 2000-2001, 27,367 cases of child abuse or neglect were substantiated by statutory child-protection authorities nationally. Since the "modern discovery" of child abuse, a range of services has been developed to combat this problem.
For child-abuse prevention services to be effective, it is imperative to discover whether they are proving to be accessible for those families and children most in need of them.
There is currently little documented information available about how families locate, gain access to and use, child-abuse prevention services. In order to start to redress this knowledge gap, the Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services requested the National Child Protection Clearinghouse at the Australian Institute of Family Studies to undertake a small exploratory research project.
The aim of the research was to investigate issues impacting on accessibility of services designed to prevent maltreatment, and how families with a child at risk of being maltreated avail themselves of such services. For the purposes of this study, those "most in need" are defined as families where the parents have not abused or neglected their children, but are most at risk of doing so.
The accessibility of child-abuse prevention services is determined by various factors, including the availability of child-abuse prevention services, and whether such services were adequately publicised, catered to those most in need of a child abuse prevention service, and were successful in preventing child abuse and neglect.
In order to obtain detailed information about access to child-abuse prevention services, in late 2002 perspectives were obtained from 32 providers currently involved in the operation of either group-based parent education (13) or home-visiting services (19). Most services (20) were being run by non-government agencies, with the remaining 12 services being run by government agencies. Services were located in New South Wales and Victoria (both rural and urban localities). Information about services and accessibility were obtained through a short mailed questionnaire and a 20 minute semi-structured telephone interview.
Need for and availability of services
Child-abuse prevention services in this study were located in areas rated by service providers as having significant levels of child abuse and domestic violence, and characterised by a range of other demographic factors often identified as "risk factors", including single-parent families, high levels of drug abuse (by children and other family members), high levels of criminal activity and antisocial behaviour by children, youth homelessness, unemployment, and a large numbers of families with multiple problems.
While service providers reported that people in the service catchment areas experienced considerable disadvantage, they also reported that there was a low level of welfare services, activities and infrastructure available for children and families in these areas. With regard to child-abuse prevention services specifically, the majority of respondents (88 per cent) stated that there were few services of this type in their areas. Demand on existing services was rated "high" in almost all areas (94 per cent). A further finding was that many areas have a higher level of abuse than available services.
Where services were available, respondents rated the standard in one-third of the areas as "very low" to "low", and another one-third of the areas as "average". Reasons for this were not sought, but may relate to inadequate resourcing since the quality tended to be lower where the demand was higher.
Public awareness of service availability
In order to access a service, those who are most in need of a prevention service need to be aware of its existence. Some providers (six) commented that they did not actively recruit or advertise their service because demand was already very high and they did not wish to be swamped. One respondent stated:
Sporadically we did advertise but we really had more clients than we could deal with and so we only occasionally send fliers to agencies.
However, over half (54 per cent) of the respondents mentioned a lack of community awareness about their program as an issue negatively affecting accessibility. Thus, although demand on services was already high, providers believed that demand could have potentially been higher, as there were still families in the catchment area who were unaware of the existence of the service.
Based on a report by Janet Stanley and Katie Kovacs entitled "An exploration of issues of accessibility and child abuse prevention programs" (in press 2003), this article is a condensed and edited version of a paper presented at the Eighth Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference, held in Melbourne on 12-14 February 2003. Full text of that paper can be downloaded here (pdf, 18 kb).
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