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Vulnerable children and communities benefit from holistic support from integrated services

VCOSS recently published its 2016-17 State Budget Submission: Putting people back in the picture It puts forward a proposal to provide children and families with holistic support from integrated services.

Vulnerable children and families often experience difficulty finding out about and accessing health and community services. This may be because they lack the skills to negotiate the service system, the confidence to seek help, have cultural or language barriers, lack networks to put them in touch with relevant services[1] or feel labelled as incapable if they use a service targeted for people experiencing disadvantage. As a result, many vulnerable children and young people do not receive the help they need and risk ‘falling through the cracks’, or only getting support once a problem has escalated.

Integrated service models offer a valuable strategy for achieving improved outcomes for children and families. These models provide vulnerable families, as well as the broader community, with better access to a range of blended services and activities. Integrated models generally combine a range of universal education and health services, such as Maternal and Child Health services, kindergarten and school, with specialised community and health services, such as parenting services, mental health services, housing assistance and financial counselling. They may also include other community services such as libraries, childcare, sporting facilities, gardens and community spaces. Because integrated service models offer universal services which don’t carry a stigma and provide them in welcoming and accessible community spaces, they are an effective way to reach vulnerable families.

While each model will vary based on the unique characteristics, strengths and needs of the community it is serving, some common elements for success include:

  • Embedding targeted or specialist services into mainstream services to help reach vulnerable children and families who may otherwise not engage with these services
  • Facilitating local level partnerships that ensure integrated models meet local needs
  • Appropriate governance, resources and funding to develop sustainable partnerships.[2]

There are several innovative and effective models of integrated service delivery being developed across the state and in other jurisdictions, such as Doveton College, Meadows Primary School and Early Learning Centre-Community Hub[3] and Tasmania’s Child and Family Centres. The Victorian government can learn from these examples and invest in integrated service models across the state, so that all children, young people and families can access holistic support.

While some centres may need to be purpose built, integrated services models don’t necessarily require new infrastructure and could be located within existing services such as schools, kindergartens and childcare centres. These models can also begin with small initiatives, such as integrating early education, childcare services or playgroups with a school, and then develop into a more fully integrated service system that involves a wider range of services.

Tasmania’s Child and Family Centres[4]

Tasmania’s Child and Family Centres use a place-based approach to help improve the health and wellbeing, education and care of young children, in 12 communities experiencing significant and persistent socioeconomic disadvantage. The centres provide integrated early childhood services and supports, combining universal, targeted, and specialist early years services, from pregnancy through to children aged five. The initiatives were driven by the community to ensure services and supports were modified and responsive to local needs.

The co-location of services helped overcome some of the physical barriers to accessing services, such as transport, cost and time. It also facilitated greater participation in more targeted and specialist services by vulnerable families, through providing an accessible, flexible, non-judgemental and supportive environment that linked families in with additional services when needed.

The centres have succeeded in building parenting skills, knowledge and confidence, and have helped parents prepare their children for school. They have also improved social support, strengthened family relationships, and helped parents engage in further education and training.

Importantly the centres fund two workers in each centre, a Centre leader and a Community Inclusion Worker. Funding was also provided to develop and deliver a Learning and Development Strategy, to identify changes required to improve outcomes for children and families. An action research approach incorporated focus groups, surveys and systematic data collection in all of the centres, to understand the outcomes from the centres and identify service gaps.

In addition to providing children and families with holistic support from integrated services, the VCOSS 2016 -17 State Budget Submission outlines a number of ways the Victorian government can deliver an equitable education system and help every child reach their potential:

  • Help children succeed with more involvement in early learning
  • Help children get the most out of early learning by strengthening quality
  • Help children transition successfully to secondary school with ‘middle years’ plans
  • Help young people stay in education by expanding flexible learning models
  • Better support students with additional needs through the Program for Students with Disability

[1] T Moore and A Skinner, An integrated approach to early childhood development: Background Paper, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health, Melbourne, 2010, p.6.

T Moore and A Skinner, Op. Cit.

[3] Community hubs: Meadows Primary School, http://www.communityhubs.org.au/hub-directory/meadows-primary-hub

[4] C.T Taylor, K Jose, D Christensen and W.I Van de Lageweg, Engaging, supporting and working with children and families in Tasmania’s Child and Family Centres: Report on the impact of Centres on parents’ use and experiences of services and supports in the Early Years, Perth, WA. Telethon Kids Institute.