Last updated March 1, 2018 at 10:04 am
With Indigenous leaders calling for greater intervention to save at-risk families in the wake of the rape of a toddler, a leading criminologist is scathing of our attempts to improve the health and life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but says he has a plan to fix it using tried and tested prevention methods.
Australia won’t succeed in “closing the gap” for Indigenous communities until it adds sound science to good intentions and understandable emotion, according to a leading authority on social disadvantage.
A data-driven, evidence-based, public health methodology can succeed where “the current meteor shower approach” is clearly failing, Griffith University’s Professor Ross Homel believes.
And that methodology does not need to be unique to Indigenous communities, just appropriate to them.
“We are spending billions of dollars achieving very little, and that is a national scandal,” he told Australia’s Science Channel.
Homel and his colleagues have won many awards for research on the prevention of crime, violence and injuries and the promotion of positive development and wellbeing for children and young people in socially disadvantaged communities.
He is scathing about our current attempt to close the gap, which he says allows as many as 130 different organisations to fly in and out of some troubled communities without co-ordinating their aims and agenda let alone developing a genuine relationship with the community.
It also flies in the face of evidence from the US and Australia that success is most likely to flow from having a clear focus and clarifying what your priority risk factors are for collective action.
“The experience in the US is that you can’t shift the dial on these problems if you are trying to do too much at one time,” Homel said. “No community can tackle more than three or four priority goals at the same time.
“But if you do that thoroughly and effectively, because everything is interrelated you’ll get movement on other things you haven’t specifically focused on – if you are reducing family violence through supporting women you’ll also get improvements in child behaviour and fewer school suspensions and so on.
“The challenge now facing Australia is to build prevention science methods and insights into large scale, sustainable, economically efficient, early prevention delivery systems.”
Homel and colleagues have developed one such approach and have support to implement and further develop it in nine communities in NSW and Queensland. After presenting at a number of recent conferences, he also has been asked to talk with key people in Canberra.
Griffith’s Prevention Translation and Support System (PTSS) comprises electronic resources – including outcome measurement tools with dashboards to facilitate their independent use in planning, decision making and service delivery – supported by on-site specialist Collective Impact Facilitators provided by partner NGOs.
One of its unique aspects is that local primary schools as well community agencies are invited to participate and those that do are asked to share data on child outcomes. In addition, it includes support services for vulnerable families that are part of state government child protection strategies.
“Our whole emphasis is on data-driven decision making at every stage of the cycle and that everything you do in terms of working with the community is founded on core principles.
Creating Pathways to Prevention
“None of these ideas is new but we’ve never trained or equipped the sector to do it so this is an enormous cultural change. This is the first real attempt in this country to do this full cycle, focused not just on health outcomes specifically.”
PTSS is designed to help people put into practice the five core principles of the University’s Creating Pathways to Prevention initiative, which are known by the acronym CREATE: Collaboration, Relationships, getting in Early in the Pathway, Accountability through commitment to shared, measurable goals, Training or empowerment of the workforce, and Evidence-based approaches.
“It sounds awfully idealistic but it has been hammered out over a period of years based on our own experience and the international literature,” Homel said.
The nine communities involved all have significant indigenous populations but are not solely indigenous. They are among the 52 disadvantaged communities that comprise Communities for Children, a national program that operates through local coalitions of NGO service providers, funded by the Department of Social Services.
“Our whole philosophy is about strengthening existing delivery systems; we’re not trying to invent something new,” Homel said.
“I think what we are doing is what people want to see done. You could get different resources using a somewhat different methodology and that would still be valid; it’s the principles we are following that are critical.”
Homel is a realist, acknowledging that there will be failures along the way and that some communities present exceptional challenges. He also is only too aware of potential political stumbling blocks.
However he is confident that if a prevention science approach is “wholeheartedly” adopted, Australia can “actually start closing the gap” over the next five years.
“We’ve got to get organised as a country to follow a well-resourced, public health approach that is genuinely systemic, genuinely inter-agency and based on a vision that has social justice not punishment as its aim.”
Giffith University has established RealWell as a not-for-profit body that will make the PTSS tools and methodology available nationally and internationally under licence.
A four-minute video on CREATE can be viewed at http://www.creatingpathways.org.au/