In Queensland, Australia, in 2004, the state government set out to reform its child protection system through the implementation of 110 recommendations arising from an Inquiry conducted by the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) into allegations of abuse of children in foster care. The Inquiry had been established in response to media reports that children in state foster care had been sexually abused. In the two reports respectively detailing the Inquiry process, findings and recommendations, and the government‘s plans to implement the Inquiry‘s recommendations, repeated reference was made to the child protection system‘. Repeated statements were also made that the problems that the reform effort sought to redress were systemic‘ in nature, requiring systemic solutions‘ and transformational change‘. The reform effort involved the formation of a new government department - the Department of Child Safety - which had a primarily investigative and risk assessment function; family support functions were from that time to be met by agencies outside the child protection department. At the time of commencing this thesis, this undertaking constituted the most recent reform effort in the child protection sector in Queensland, and one of the most large scale reform efforts in this sector in Australia. Five years post this reform effort, however, significant organisational problems continue to exist in the Queensland child protection system. It is also notable that in mid-2009 some of theintended transformational‘ changes made in 2004 are being reversed, with a return to a model of child protection in Queensland that more closely resembles the pre-CMC Inquiry model. While it seems that solutions to the problems that have beset the Queensland child protection system remain evasive, it is argued in this thesis that recent reform efforts were epistemologically flawed and therefore likely to fail. This thesis offers an extensive discussion of ten properties shared by all purposeful systems, and derives from this discussion a list of maxims that, it is argued, should inform all efforts to understand and to change systems. These maxims of systems analysis and systems change are in turn used as codes in a detailed content analysis of the CMC‘s Protecting Children Report‘ and the Queensland Government‘s Blueprint for implementing the CMC‘s recommendations for reform in order to evaluate evidence of systemic consistency contained in these reports. By the conclusion of the thesis, the array of theoretical ideas explored is distilled, and the following fundamental principles of systems change are argued for: (a) the imperative of clearly understanding the purpose/s of the identified system that is to be subject to the change effort, and (b) the need to pay attention to hierarchies of control in the structure of the system so as to enable the system to function purposefully. In the context of child protection reform, adherence to the first of these principles involves deciding how harm to children resulting from abuse and/or neglect can best be prevented, which includes decision making regarding the relative importance of a family support function. In all cases of systems change, adherence to the second idea involves paying attention to subsidiary rules, including: (1) the need to ensure a correct balance between autonomy and constraint at each level of the system, and (2) the need to ensure that management‘ (control) functions at all levels within the system manifest what Ashby (1956) referred to as requisite variety‘, whilst not possessing greater complexity than will maximally allow for effective and efficient purposeful functioning of the system. In the child protection context, these ideas have important ramifications for recruitment, training and support of frontline staff, as well as for management structures, including the ratio of frontline to non-frontline staff. Ways in which transgression of these principles can lead to confusion‘ and pathology‘ in systems are also explored, and the political context in which reforms are undertaken is identified as a key factor inhibiting the effectiveness of child protection reform. Throughout the thesis, examples from a number of social and non-social domains are referred to in order to demonstrate the application of the ideas presented.
The systems science ideas discussed in the thesis are relevant to any effort to alter the functioningof any purposeful system. The thesis therefore has significance for systems science generally, and for the specific context/s of child protection practice and child protection reform explored here. The significance for systems science lies in the fact that this thesis constitutes the first effort to apply systemic thinking to the challenges of organisational reform in the context of child protection, which, by its nature, differs significantly from most other organisational contexts. These differences are discussed in the thesis. The significance for child protection practice and reform lies in the potential for the ideas in this thesis to make possible improved approaches to reforming troubled child protection systems in Queensland and elsewhere.