‘After working in child protection for many years, I realised that neglect as a form of maltreatment was itself being neglected by family service agencies.
Neglect is one form of maltreatment that a child may experience. It comes from a child being deprived of things that they need to grow into healthy adults such as good food, emotional support and mental stimulation.
I chose this PhD topic because I wanted to go out into the agencies in charge of looking after neglected children and see how they did their job compared to what the literature on the subject recommended. I wanted to discover if there was anything preventing these agencies from doing the best job they could do.
I expected to find a lack of funding and no long-term commitment to fixing the behaviours which cause a parent or carer to neglect their child, to be the biggest issues stopping agencies from working.
I discovered that these were indeed problems but, surprisingly, they weren’t always the largest cause of gaps in behaviour and information.
‘Often “the rule of optimism” would cause the child service worker to overidentify with the parents of a neglected child and assume that because they had a loving parent or parents that they would be fine.
Often in these cases there is no doubt about love, but rather the abilities of a parent to provide for a child. There was also a misunderstanding about what caused neglect, often linking it exclusively with poverty.
I remember a case I attended where the family environment and resources were lavish but the youngest child was severely physically and emotionally neglected. The reason for this was the mental ill-health of the mother and a father who was often away working.
Many people in children’s services have been in the job for a very long time and it can be very hard to change the way you work. Because it is a job that takes up lot of time, it can be really hard finding time to fit in any training courses.
‘Often “the rule of optimism” would cause the child service worker to overidentify with the parents of a neglected child and assume that because they had a loving parent or parents that they would be fine.’
I found many workers felt they weren’t supported and after years in the job they had become quite weary and disheartened.
In my experience I found the most problematic and stressful cases came from attempting to assist families who had complex and longstanding issues in a system that is both overstretched in terms of demand yet underfunded.
The lack of understanding of the impact of neglect on child development, wellbeing and safety means that workers in the field are under supported by the community and subject to the political will of the government at the time.
Also, many families who needed support were missing out simply because their lives were so busy. They often couldn’t attend workshops so all that preparation would be wasted and the problems wouldn’t be addressed.
There was also an overall lack of acceptance that certain families will always require a lot of help. I found that “family centres” are common in other countries, such as in Scandinavia, and were an ideal solution to helping those that need ongoing support.
I discovered a very large amount of good practice out there as well, with many agencies right on top of the latest developments in research. It was humbling to see so many people who are so utterly committed to the work they do.
‘There was also a misunderstanding about what caused neglect, often linking it exclusively with poverty.’
Most commonly, it was those who showed an untiring commitment to the client families, optimism that parents’ functioning could improve and a determination to keep in contact with a family as long as needed that defined the best practice I encountered.
Since completing my PhD I have become the program manager of Vulnerable Children and Aboriginal Health at the Royal Children’s Hospital here in Melbourne.
This allows me to use what I have learned through my studies to train those who deal with some of the state’s most at risk children.
The seven years it took to complete my PhD were very hard but incredibly rewarding, and through my PhD I have been able to become an advocate for neglected children, which has been very empowering.
Ultimately, it has given me the utmost respect for those who selflessly work towards helping children who suffer from neglect.’
Ronda Johns’ thesis is titled: “Conceptualising Child Neglect to Inform Practice in Family Services Agencies.”
* My PhD is an irregular series in which The Citizen speaks with recent Melbourne University PhD graduates.