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Research improving outcomes for vulnerable and marginalised children

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Published
7 March 2023

The voices of children and young people, including those who are most vulnerable and marginalised, are not often reflected in the ‘evidence’ that drives policy debates and programs intended to improve their lives. These Southern Cross University researchers are on a mission to change that.

When Lynne McPherson hung up her hat as a social worker and returned to study at university, she had a thirst for knowledge and decades of experience in child protection and family services. She's now leading one of the largest social work research grants awarded to a regional university in the last 20 years.

It’s a large project, but the problem is enormous. Around 46,000 Australian children are in some form of residential (out-of-home) care. They face major challenges in forming positive relationships. Many have negative views of adults, seeing them as a threat rather than a source of safety. Turning those negatives into positives can, quite literally, change a life.

“There are very substantial social benefits of an improved life trajectory for young people, many of whom may otherwise ‘graduate’ from residential care into the criminal justice or mental health systems and a life dominated by homelessness, unemployment and substance addiction. We’ve seen that in our previous research, now we are looking at how we change that,” Associate Professor McPherson said.

The project is just one of 12 underway at the Centre for Children and Young People (CCYP) at Southern Cross University, which involve not only NGO project partners like the Australian Childhood Foundation, but also government departments, statutory bodies and many Australian and overseas universities.

Embracing the value everyone brings to research

Collaboration is not unusual at a university. What is more unusual is the level of collegiality among CCYP academics and the distinctive way they approach research, their research participants and the practical application of their research into outputs that can be used to help improve children’s lives.

It’s an ethos that has been tirelessly nurtured by CCYP founder Professor Anne Graham AO. She has championed ground-breaking work in children’s rights and childhood studies, most significantly perhaps the privileging of children and young people’s voices in research, including as co-researchers. She is also a leader who looks beyond individual recognition to help grow and sustain collaborative, ethical research into the future.

“Anne has been an amazing mentor. Our strength as a research team is that we are building on decades of her collaborative research. We are looking to upend that traditional individualism in universities and seeing what we can achieve by putting the egos to one side and embracing the value everyone brings to research, not least of all children and young people,” said Associate Professor McPherson.

The team has racked up some big wins, producing websites, practice guides, professional learning and training packages for teachers, social workers and the research community, alongside policy-relevant evidence to drive fundamental changes in how children are viewed and treated in residential care, schools and other contexts where children spend most of their childhoods.  

Research with high social impact

Professor Graham has authored several award-winning programs to help children better navigate change, uncertainty, loss and grief. These have been used extensively to support communities following recent natural disasters. One new field of research is looking at how to prevent the high burnout rate among social workers and the management of vicarious, or secondary trauma, that so often leads to an early exit from the profession.

The team Professor Graham has built looks sure to continue on these foundations for years to come. The CCYP is a mix of established, early and mid-career researchers working on projects with high social impact.

These include scholars like Kenyan-Australian Dr Kathomi Gatwiri, who has become a well-known advocate for African-Australian children, social anthropologist Dr Antonia Canosa, Dr Meaghan Vosz and Associate Professor Menka Tsantefski with their focus on mothers and children in residential care, Dr Tess Boyle and Dr Catharine Simmons whose participatory research with schools is changing practice, Dr Kate Neale with interests in therapeutic horticulture, and Indigenous scholar Dr Kylie Day, who shares a focus on the rights of children, particularly those from marginalised groups whose voices are not often heard. Importantly, their work has had very practical outcomes that are being embraced by frontline carers, education professionals and others working with children and young people.

Diversity in academia a force for positive change

Southern Cross University Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) Professor Mary Spongberg said the CCYP team was an inspiring example of how diversity in academia had been a force for positive change and world-class quality in research.

“Diversity of experience and points of view makes this an exceptional team. The funding they have attracted demonstrates their excellence as researchers and the international significance of their work. These are such important projects supporting some of the most vulnerable members of our community. Their future is all of our futures,” Professor Spongberg said.

Learn more about research at the CCYP.

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