Family Relationship Services Australia (FRSA) Submission to Indigenous Reference

Family Relationship Services Australia (FRSA) Submission to Indigenous Reference

Submission to the Family Law Council:

The Delivery of Family and Relationship Services to families from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and their communities

June 2011

About Us

Family Relationship Services Australia (FRSA) is a national peak body. Our purpose is to provide national leadership and representation for services that work to strengthen the wellbeing, safety and resilience of families, children and communities. FRSA member organisations deliver services in more than 650 locations across Australia and work with over 300,000 people each year. They consist primarily of non-profit organisations embedded in local communities.

FRSA provides support to members and draws on their expertise to understand the changing needs of families accessing services and to inform public policy. FRSA also works collaboratively with the Australian Government and its agencies. FRSA receives funding through the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) to provide sector representation and support to services funded under the Family Support Program which has three core streams:

  • Community and Family Partnerships: providing intensive and coordinated support targeted to disadvantaged communities and families, especially where children are at risk.
  • Family and Parenting Services: providing early intervention and prevention services to families to build and strengthen relationships, develop skills and support parents and children.
  • Family Law Services (Attorney-General’s Department responsibility): assisting families to manage the process and impacts of separation in the best interests of children.

Many of FRSA members deliver a mix of other Australian Government and State/Territory Government funded programs, such as:

  • Family violence and sexual assault services
  • Child protection services
  • Family support
  • Community legal services
  • Crisis accommodation and support
  • Community/neighbourhood centres
  • Disability and carer support services
  • Mental health services
  • Children’s services

FRSA works collaboratively with related service networks, peak bodies and advocacy groups to promote effective support for families across these and many other program areas.

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Table of Contents


2.Patterns of Services Use

3.Barriers to Access

4.Frameworks for Access Strategies

5.Developing Cultural Competence

6.Workforce Development

7.Supporting Good Practice


9.References and Resources

10.Attachment 1: Practice Examples

11.Attachment 2: Indigenous Families are Different

12.Attachment 3: Related Initiatives

13.Attachment 4: Cultural Competency Training Flier

Table of Figures

Figure 1: Registered Clients Reported in National FRSP Online Data

Figure 2: Examples of Service Access in Areas of High Indigenous Population

Figure 3: Model of Practice, Relationships Australia NT

Figure 4: Principles Identified by NADRAC

Figure 5: FRSP Approval Requirements

Figure 6: Example of a whole-of-agency approach to improving access

Figure 7: Cultural Fitness Package, Relationships Australia Indigenous Network

Figure 8: Working and Walking Together, SNAICC 2010

Figure 9: Training Scholarships

Figure 10: The Health Family Circle Program, Mudgin-Gal and RA NSW


The Reference

The Attorney-General has given the Family law Council a reference, seeking advice in relation to access to the Family Law System for families from Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background. Specifically:

  • Ways in which the family law system (courts, legal assistance and family relationship services) meet client needs;
  • Whether there are ways that the family law system can better meet client needs, including ways on engaging these clients in the family law system;
  • What considerations are taken into account when applying the Family Law Act to clients of these communities?

The Family Law Council should have regard to the National Indigenous Law and Justice Framework developed by the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General and should consult with representatives of Indigenous communities.

FRSA has prepared this response on behalf of its member organisations. FRSA will also assist the Council with further information gathering and/or consultation activities.

Submission Overview

Despite steady improvement in recent years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families remain under-represented in the national client population of family relationship services funded through the Federal Government’s Family Support Program[1] - including those within the ‘Family Law’ service stream[2]. There are many contributing factors to this and not all of them are negative.

There are some communities where Aboriginal culture is strong; elders resolve disagreements between community members and traditional kinship ties are preserved. These communities may not require or want formal services designed to resolve family disputes or manage post separation parenting arrangements – many of the service types delivered through the family law stream of the FSP are simply not relevant. However, there may be other priorities for family or community support in these communities and it is important that those needs are not overlooked.

In other communities, post separation dispute resolution and support may be as much in demand amongst Aboriginal families as any other group but services may be inaccessible for a variety of reasons - poorly located, too expensive, associated with past practices of child removal or simply not seen to be culturally appropriate are just some of the potential barriers.

Identifying where improvements are needed to increase service accessibility and what improvements are likely to be effective is a complex task that many service providers have been grappling with for some time.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities are not a homogenous population. Needs and preferences vary considerably across urban, rural and remote areas and from one community to the next. While many individuals proudly identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander publicly, some choose not to do so. Similarly, while some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a strong preference for accessing services that are specifically tailored for their cultural group and/or run by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community controlled organisations; others prefer to access mainstream services and do not want to be identified as needing anything different to the general population. Between these two ends of a spectrum are people who would like culturally competent services provided by a mix of specialist and mainstream services. At the local level, every service system needs capacity to respond to this diversity in order to provide ‘equal’ or fair access.

In family and relationship services, better meeting the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families has been an identified priority of the Family Relationship Services Program, now known as the Family Support Program, since at least 2004[3], if not earlier. This is reflected in the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families have been identified as a specific ‘target group’ for family and relationship services for the past 7-8 years. Data has been collected on the proportion of clients accessing services as well as strategies to improve service accessibility over this period of time.

It is important that future strategies are informed by what has and has not worked in the past. Throughout this paper FRSA has includedsome case studies which demonstrate different approaches. We note, however, that while one service may be running an effective program or access strategy in one area, this may not be appropriate in other areas. Strategies to enhance service delivery to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families need to be developed in response to and in collaboration with local community groups.

2.Patterns of Services Use

FRSP National Data

Family and Relationship Services (FRS) funded by the Federal Government under the Family Support Program are required to collect and report client information through a national data collection system called FRSP Online (formerly FaCSLINK). A national report is produced by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) each year, the most recent report available is for the 2008-09 period.

Over the past 4 years of national reports the proportion of registered clients who indicated Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) status across all Family and Relationship Services has increased from 2% to 3.37%, as indicated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Registered Clients Reported in National FRSP Online Data

Aboriginal / Torres Strait Islander / Both
2005 - 06 / - / - / - / 2%
2006 - 07 / 1.7 / 0.1 / 0.1 / 1.9%
2007 - 08 / 2.7 / 0.1 / 0.1 / 2.9%
2008 - 09 / 3.09 / 0.13 / 0.15 / 3.37%

It is likely that the proportion of clients who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander is under reported because up to 30% of FRS clients are ‘unregistered’ clients who do not give permission for their information to be reported in the FRSP Online system. Anecdotally, organisations report that Indigenous clients are more likely than non-Indigenous clients to choose to be unregistered. There are a number of reasons for this, including (but not limited to):

  • Difficulties with literacy and completing forms;
  • Distrust and wariness of government and non-government family services due to past mistreatment;
  • Differences in understanding the concept of ‘consent’ and what authority this does or doesn’t give the support agency to share information with others;
  • Different patterns of access across the types of services available – some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may be more likely to access a community or group programs rather than individual support programs, data is collected differently across these service types.

Changes to the FRSP Online data system to simplify the registration and consent processes are expected to improve the accuracy of the data but these changes are yet to be fully implemented.

Variation across Service Types & Geographic Areas

Levels of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement vary considerably from one location to another. In a regional town like Dubbo in New South Wales, for example, Aboriginal people make up around 10.3 per cent of the population whereas in Upper Murray, Victoria the Indigenous people make up just 1.6 per cent of the population. In areas with significant populations of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander families some services may have developed targeted programs or have Indigenous community liaison workers to facilitate the development of culturally appropriate service delivery. In other areas, this may not be feasible.

Figure 2: Examples of Service Access in Areas of High Indigenous Population

1 in 4 clients of the Family Relationship Centre in Darwin, operated by Relationships Australia NT are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander; the FRC employs both Aboriginal practitioners and community liaison workers.
In Alice Springs Centacare NT employs an outreach worker to deliver men and family programs in several remote Aboriginal communities across Central Australia.
The Men’s Outreach Service in Broome (WA) is delivering counselling for men on personal and relationship issues, anger management, and drug and alcohol abuse, 85-90% of clients are Aboriginal.
In Lismore on the NSW North Coast, Interrelate Family Centres established ‘Indigerelate’, a dedicated service for Indigenous families.

Drawing on FRSP Online data the Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms (AIFS, 2009) reported that the proportion of clients identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander varied across difference service types[4]. Service types that had a relatively high proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients included:

  • Specialist Family Violence 7.7%
  • Men and Family Relationships 8.0%

Services with more modest rates of access included:

  • Children’s Contact Centres 3.9%
  • Family Relationship Centres 3.0%
  • Education & Skills Training 3.0%
  • Family Counselling 2.6%
  • Parenting Orders Program 2.0%
  • Family Dispute Resolution 1.8%

The AIFS (2009) Evaluation also looked at changes in the proportion of clients identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander over the past 3 years, finding that over the period investigated, the number of Indigenous people using FRSP services increased by 3,047, from 2,259 in 2006–07 to 5,306 in 2008–09.

Challenges in Measurement

Mainstream service models are not always appropriate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and their communities. Service models often need to be adopted or designed specifically to meet different cultural and community needs. Changing the way that services are delivered can be quite significant and will often mean changes to:

  • Service inputs such as increased staff time, use of alternative premises, adapting or translating forms and guidance material etc;
  • Service outputs such as the number of sessions, number of people involved, breadth of issues addressed, length of time over which the service is working with the family and other members of the community; and
  • Client outcomes and measures of success – group rather than individual outcomes, dispute resolution is less likely to result in a written agreement etc.

This poses challenges for data collection because systems developed to capture consistent performance measures can lack the flexibility to capture these differences in the way that services are delivered and the outcomes achieved. For example, a major review of the FRSP conducted in 2004 found that:

“There is also a lack of flexibility in performance measurement systems that can make it difficult to spend time developing relationships with communities and identifying alternative service delivery approaches such as discussion groups, drop in services and working with schools [5].”

Ambitious annual ‘targets’ and relatively low service cost formula’s (e.g. $500 per family assisted) can make it difficult to serve hard to reach families or those with more complex needs. This is particularly difficult in the context of high unmet need and strong demand.

There are also limitations in the data collection system that mean it is difficult to capture and report additional work undertaken with extended family members, staff travel, time spent working with other organisations etc. For example, if a family dispute resolution practitioner works with a family accessing the local Aboriginal health service, in collaboration with the social worker attached to the health service, the case may involve multiple meetings at the health service with various extended family members prior to mediation and then much longer mediation sessions with more people involved. Little of the complexity of the case, the number of people involved, the additional resources invested will be captured in FRSP Online as it is currently configured. This is not just an issue with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families – more broadly resources invested in complex cases involving multiple parties is substantially higher than an average case, yet the measurement of outputs and/or outcomes will not reflect this.

The need for more sophisticated performance measures for dispute resolution with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families was well articulated by NADRAC (2006): “disputes involving Indigenous people will tend to be more complex, involve a larger number of people, comprise a series of overlapping issues and evolve over a longer period of time when compared to non-Indigenous groups. Remoteness and educational and economic disadvantage create problems in service delivery. Dispute resolution and conflict management practices will need to be highly flexible and take into account different notions of time and use a range of venues....The methods by which the effectiveness of Indigenous dispute resolution and conflict management services are measured needs to take these factors into account. The Productivity Commission has noted that Indigenous perspectives on measures of outcome differ from non-Indigenous perspectives, that indicators affect each other and that much of the currently available data is deficient as it measures met rather than unmet needs.[i]”

NADRAC (2006) also summarises many of the problems with collecting data from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families including literacy issues, complexities arising from the number of people involved and a lack of experience in providing both quantitative and qualitative feedback data. Concluding with the assessment:

“Policy makers and service providers should not be reliant on conventional evaluation and data collection methods and may need to develop new indicators and evaluation methods.” NADRAC suggest that individual case studies may provide more useful information and indicate that the Federal Court of Australia, in collaboration with NADRAC and AIATSIS were carrying out a scoping study to determine how case study research could be used to identify examples of best practice in Indigenous dispute resolution and conflict management.

Summary Points:

1. The most recent FRSP Online data available suggests that the proportion of the family and relationship services client population that identifies as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander is 3.37% but this is likely to be an underestimate.

2. The proportion of clients who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander varies significantly across geographic areas and program types.

3. Enhancing access for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families has been a national priority in family and relationship services for some time, during this period there have been areas of achievement and long standing difficulties.

4. More work needs to be done to better measure the inputs, outputs and outcomes of the services provided to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities.

3.Barriers to Access

Service Provider Reporting of Achievements and Difficulties

The FRSP National Data Reports include achievements and difficulties experienced by family and relationship services over several years. Consistent across the years 2006-07, 2007-08 and 2008-09 has been a priority on improving service access for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. Key achievements reported by service providers include:

  • Enhanced capability to respond to the needs of Indigenous clients;
  • Enhancing access to services by key target groups through:
  • Implementing programs specifically targeting CALD/Indigenous clients
  • Working collaboratively with CALD & Indigenous services/communities
  • Increased contact with and support of Indigenous clients.

Difficulties reported by providers include: