Social policy responses to complex childhood trauma in South Australia: a post-structural analysis

Author: Robert Martin

Martin, Robert, 2020 Social policy responses to complex childhood trauma in South Australia: a post-structural analysis, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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This research asked: How effectively does social policy, specifically child protection policy, respond to the issue of the complex trauma experiences of children in state care in South Australia?

This thesis is therefore the product of research that sought to explore and describe the current and emerging provisions in South Australian child protection policy for responding to the complex trauma that many children in the child protection system have experienced.

The lifelong consequences of complex trauma are often severe and far-reaching for children who have experienced it. Extreme disruptions in normative cognitive and emotional development as well as in the development of personal identity are often seen in children who have experienced complex trauma, and who, as a result of abuse or neglect have subsequently been taken into child protection systems.

The social and public health costs of complex trauma are serious enough to warrant research into the efficacy of social policy responses to the complex trauma experience of children and young people in state care.

The overarching focus of the research project that led to this thesis was to explore and describe the efficacy with which complex childhood trauma was addressed for those children in the South Australian child protection system. Further, this research examined the extent to which the South Australian government had responded to such trauma. Policy developments and amendments brought about by the Nyland Royal Commission of Inquiry were therefore crucial to such an examination, as was the degree to which these policies translated in to practice outcomes with children and young people in statutory out of home care.

In the wake of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Child Protection Systems in South Australia led by Commissioner Margaret Nyland and which was completed in 2016, this research project coincided with a particularly pivotal time in the South Australian political and policy cycle. Both sides of government demonstrated bilateral support for the vast majority of recommendations made by Commissioner Nyland.

This thesis has been predicated on an implicit understanding that government child protection policy, as a sub-set of broader social policy positions of government, requires specific mechanisms by which to be operationalised and translated in to particular practice outcomes.

The social policy problem of complex trauma for children in care should ideally be articulated and captured in high level policy in such a way as to appropriately guide and instruct practice in the field of complex trauma responses for children in state care.

This thesis reports two major findings of the research. One was that high-level policy and legislation that have as their remit to guide child protection responses in South Australia and to create strong policy outcomes around complex childhood trauma experiences for children in care, was critically lacking. Secondly, the language and conceptualisation of complex trauma in child protection policy is significantly under-developed at this time, a finding that was corroborated and reinforced by the interview participants.

There were limited examples in policy where children’s complex trauma was acknowledged, and prescriptive measures for addressing this trauma in the context of child protection responses were attempted. This analysis found that the policy discourse around complex trauma is still in its infancy, and that a dominant discourse of complex childhood trauma is yet to infiltrate the texts of high-level policy and legislation which underpins the South Australian child protection system.

This project was guided by a post-structural methodology that was informed by both critical discourse analysis as well as thematic analysis of both policy texts and interview responses, and which sought to discover the extent to which key South Australian policy documents that guide child protection responses were able to articulate and express the issue of complex childhood trauma for children in child protection.

The project also sought to analyse responses from interview participants on their views of policy efficacy in responses to complex trauma.

Drawing from discourse analyses of key policy documents as well as interviews with key policy makers and policy advocates, this project was able to illuminate the very marginal degree to which complex trauma has been embedded in South Australian child protection policy and legislation. Through an examination and analysis of key policy documents, the research project was able to identify significant gaps in child protection policy which conceivably leaves limited those critical practices at the front line with children in the child protection system who have experienced and live with the effects of complex trauma.

Four key sources of South Australian policy were subjected to critical discourse analysis which highlighted which social issues were framed most strongly and to what extent complex trauma featured in the policy texts, and whether prescribed policy responses to such trauma were present. The policy documents that were subjected to analysis were the outcome report of the Royal Commission in to South Australia’s child protection system entitled The Life they Deserve, the government’s response and blueprint for child protection system reform entitled A fresh start, the South Australian prevention and early intervention strategy entitled Getting it Right Early, and the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017.

Subsequent to the analysis of these policy documents, 23 research participants were interviewed utilising a six question, semi-structured interview which attempted to investigate participants’ understanding of the existing policy provisions in the area of complex childhood trauma, with a focus on the child protection system in South Australia.

Their responses were subjected to a synthesis of critical discourse and thematic analysis, supported by NVivo coding, with key themes and sub-themes coded from the interview data. Analysis of interview data was guided by attention to how gaps in policy were understood and articulated by the research participants and to what extent they understood new policy positions of government as a result of the Nyland reform process that is currently underway.

Keywords: child protection

Subject: Social Work thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2020
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Dr Priscilla Dunk-West