November 1, 2019


By Karen Wilcox,  University of NSW (Centre for Social Impact/Social Policy Research Centre)

Karen is a Scientia doctoral student at UNSW in the Centre for Social Impact/Social Policy Research Centre. Her research is looking at  the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ of outcomes measurement in Australian Child Welfare non- profits. She will soon be conducting the first national survey looking at these issues, which Victorian organisations will be invited to participate in and will follow up with intensive interviews with sector organisations Karen has worked in the domestic violence and child welfare sectors for over twenty years in frontline, research, management and executive roles.

“I recently had the privilege to attend this year’s OPEN Symposium at the Melbourne Arts Centre, hosted by Victorian peak, the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare. It was my first time at an OPEN event, and I was excited to be able to attend as an ‘out-of-stater’, to find out first-hand what was happening in the Victorian Child and Family sector, as well as learn more about the awesome resource that is OPEN.

The theme for this year’s symposium was ‘The Voices that Matter’. Sub-themes and sessions brought together representatives from child and family services, government and research, to share practice knowledge and research findings and provide a forum for discussion of social policy. In keeping with the OPEN mission, it showcased evidence-informed practice and practice-led research. Each session provided participants with a chance to learn more about bringing in the voice of children and young people, collaborative practice, growing strong Aboriginal families and communities, as well as innovations from other sectors that might enhance children’s visibility and address their needs.

The day was chaired by Cathy Humphreys, who has a longstanding commitment to evidence and practice in this area. The morning keynote presentation was by Eileen Munro, Emeritus Professor at the London School of Economics. Eileen spoke about complexity, practice wisdom and evidence based practice.

I attended sessions on outcomes, evaluation and participation, and was excited to see so many sessions addressing the practice difficulties of working across DFV and child welfare, as this has been a longstanding area of work for me.

The  presentations showcased organisations working in the field, and showed how important it is to embed voices of the most powerless – children, in program innovation and outcomes assessment. I heard from Renee O’Donnell about the longitudinal mixed methods evaluation of the ‘Cradle to Kinder’ (C2K) home visiting scheme. C2K is an exciting program which synthesises approaches from early intervention, maternal child health and child protection, and early results are incredibly promising across domains of safety, child removal risk and child and mother wellbeing. The Keeping Safe Together evaluation of a DFV/child protection  integrated program was also excellent. The findings presented by Patrizia Favorito and Anneliese Spiteri identified the positive impact of engagement with fathers when the parental relationship is sustained, the importance of hearing children’s diverse voices and views and the workforce challenges of working across this intersection of practice.

Also on the DFV/CP intersection was an excellent presentation by Lucy Healey and Rosie Carr. Lucy has been a leading academic in this space for many years, and it was great to hear about further trials of the Safe and Together model, incorporating invaluable collaboration with the AOD sector, which was Rosie’s field. A panal of representatives from DV Vic and DVRCV, facilitated by Kate Mecham, along with Good Samaritan also presented a DV sector perspective on working with children in refuges.

The highlight for me was Wendy Bunston’s afternoon keynote. I have been a fangirl of Wendy’s work for years; since my days in the national DFV space. It was wonderful to hear her findings and  the approach she has developed after many years of senior practice leadership, complemented by doctoral research. Her presentation was both exciting and confronting (in a good way!). Wendy led us through the features of her ‘infant-led research’ methodology and how researchers and practitioners who are committed to ethical practice might now be challenged by this approach.

Other great things I learned at the Symposium were:

  • The Code of Ethical Practice in youth work
  • The complementary work of VACCA and Mallee District Aboriginal Services in developing evidence and evaluation frameworks in the Aboriginal child and family sector.
  • The innovative programming for women who use violence in families currently undertaken by Paula Anderson from Baptcare alongside Margaret Kertesz from Uni of Melbourne.It was also a highlight to be able to meet, chat to and re-connect with a diverse range of CF practitioners and managers, as well as new and senior researchers working in this field. And great to catch up with the DHHS funders of the excellent OPEN resource hub, including my ex-CSI colleague, Stephen Bennett!

Although Victoria-focussed, the policy developments, research and improvements to service provision which were showcased and discussed at the Symposium are issues of national relevance. As someone who is working in, and undertaking child welfare research, across Australian states and territories, it was fabulous to get a deep dive into the Victorian context, while keeping abreast of universally applicable evaluation findings, good practice and practice challenges. I look forward to ongoing connections with my Victorian colleagues and future OPEN activities.

Karen WilcoxUniversity of NSW (Centre for Social Impact/Social Policy Research Centre)