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Service integration for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander early childhood development

The research aimed to resolve a gap in existing evidence around best practice service delivery approaches for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families experiencing vulnerability, with a specific focus on integrated models of early childhood service delivery that are led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled organisations. This was a collaborative research project involving two Aboriginal Child and Family Centres, both committed to the provision of holistic, comprehensive (or ‘wrap around’) care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families living in or visiting the catchment in which they operate.

The organisations are distinct, reflecting the diversity of their communities and geographies and therefore offer different perspectives and insights into understanding the extent to which services are integrated to meet the needs of children and families in different places, organisations and communities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child wellbeing includes a range of inter-related domains – safety, health, culture and connections, mental health and emotional wellbeing, home and environment, learning and skills, empowerment and economic wellbeing.

Integrated programming approaches focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander early years recognises

  1. background research on early childhood development which demonstrates that quality services which are initiated in pregnancy and continue throughout the first years of life can improve child and wellbeing outcomes and shift developmental delays and
  2. the need to focus efforts on a number of wellbeing domains i.e. working across sectors and disciplines and not focusing on just one domain to the exclusion of others.

Service integration has enabled the two partner organisations to meet a broad range of needs for Aboriginal children and families and to provide holistic and coordinated care. Furthermore, successful partnerships with a range of service providers have enabled access to a broader range of services for Aboriginal children and families, holistic and coordinated care, and increased cultural capacity among mainstream providers.

In addition, positive impact on learning, social and emotional wellbeing is a major benefit of the two centres as they clearly support the development of social support networks and social connection for children and families. This is considered crucial considering the evidence relating to the importance of belonging, connectedness and identity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The data collected during the research shows that the processes of moving towards an integrated service system are highly relational. Community inclusion, participation and empowerment were seen as fundamental to successful integrated service systems. The review of two case studies suggests that reorienting service systems to respond to the needs of children and families can support community empowerment, leadership and self-determination (control) provided the programs are well resourced (with resources going to the right places, longer term funding aligned to an organisational strategy, and where Aboriginal staff are engaged for longer-term contracts and are supported to transition into leadership), and where the leadership and governance structures allows/prioritises community accountabilities. The insights generated during this research reflect the diversity of communities, people, histories.

This research focused in-depth exploration in only two sites therefore caution is advised when extrapolating meaning in the broader context and for distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The results contribute key insights on the implementation of integrated services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families and highlights significant gaps in the evidence on implementation and the need for greater investment in evaluation, implementation research and review.

Related resources:
Project leader

Mr John Burton, SNAICC

Administering institution:

The University of Melbourne

Completion date:

Expected June 2019