Intensive family support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families

Written by Professor Clare Tilbury, Griffith University

The Moving to Prevention project recently investigated intensive family support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and found that practitioners and family members valued culturally competent and Aboriginal community-controlled services as vital to improving outcomes.

The need for family support services

Supporting families is an essential component of child protection. Research1 shows that there is a critical need to deal more effectively with large numbers of reported child abuse and neglect cases, to engage more productively with families, and the limitations of relying on out-of-home care. 

Many families coming to the attention of child protection services have multiple and chronic needs, relating to domestic and family violence, mental health problems, family homelessness and precarious housing, and parental drug and alcohol problems.2 This has led many jurisdictions to develop targeted responses to help parents and caregivers to improve their family’s functioning to ensure the care, safety and wellbeing of their children.

Moving to Prevention project

The Moving to Prevention project provided an opportunity to explore how intensive family support was being operationalised in an Australian context. The professionals and families we spoke to felt that the most important aspects of service delivery included:

  • comprehensive and non-judgmental assessments to match services with child and family needs;
  • inclusive and respectful intervention processes that incorporated the perspectives of family members;
  • specific and well communicated goals that instilled positivity and commitment in parents;
  • purposeful case management to develop, implement and monitor goals, and coordinate services; and
  • a mix of practical, educational, therapeutic and advocacy supports.

Families appreciated the obvious efforts of staff to make a difference in their family. For many, this was different to their previous contacts with the child protection system.

Organisations supported their skilled and experienced staff through good supervision and management.  Low caseloads enabled frequent contact with the family and provision of hands-on, direct casework services.

Culturally competent and respectful services

Providing services in culturally competent and respectful ways was seen as intrinsic to the services. That the services were known to be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community owned was vital to engagement and take-up.

Key characteristics common to all the services, and which were noted by workers and families as vital, were:

  • recognising family members as experts in their own lives;
  • sticking with the family and encouraging self-sufficiency; and
  • taking direction from the family by fitting in with existing routines

Providing a time-limited and intensive service, with access to follow-up or booster sessions, or transition to less intensive services showed commitment and was seen as productive. Yet the services were limited in what could be achieved to resolve persistent hardships experienced by families. Short bursts of intensive support are commonly inadequate to address entrenched disadvantage and the ongoing impacts of inter-generational trauma that underpin family issues for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The research demonstrates the vital role community-controlled services can play in responding to the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families in Australia’s child protection system - both in assisting families who face many challenges, and in increasing community ownership of child protection issues.

A paper on the Moving to Prevention project was presented at the 2015 SNAICC Conference. This article was published in collaboration with SNAICC as part of the Conference.


1 Faver, C.A., Crawford, S.L. & Combs-Orme, T. (1999) Services for child maltreatment: challenges for research and practice. Children and Youth Services Review, 21, 2, 89-109.

2  Tilbury, C. (2015) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families in Australia: Poverty and child welfare involvement. In Fernandez, E., Zeira, A., Vecchiato, T., and Canali, C. (Eds.) Theoretical and Empirical Insights on Child and Family Poverty - Cross National Perspectives, Springer Publishing Company, New York.

Further reading and resources