How ParentsNext is Harming Survivors of Trauma

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Punitive policies presume there is nothing stopping people from changing their behaviour other than recalcitrance. Research indicates, however, that many people who are subject to compliance welfare have multiple and complex barriers to aligning with government-identified outcomes. Today’s analysis by Katherine Curchin (@KatieCurchin) from the Australian National University explains how the ParentsNext program aggravates trauma, causing more damage than good for women who are trying to rebuild their lives.

Dr Curchin will be sharing her insights at the upcoming Power to Persuade Symposium, contributing to a panel on “The use of evidence through a gender lens.” Register now for 10 October 2019 at the beautiful Melbourne Museum.

Understanding the logic behind ParentsNext

ParentsNext is a national program designed to help parents of kids under 6 years get ready for work and move off social security payments. About 27% of people on parenting payment have been drawn into this program. For many of these parents the thought of getting back into the workforce is daunting. The idea behind ParentsNext is to provide parents with professional guidance about their education and employment goals and the regular things they can be doing now, while their children are young, to put themselves on the right path.

Participants in this program are required to sign a personal Participation Plan and can have their Parenting Payment withheld if they don’t do the activities that are compulsory under their plan. These activities can include training or education or things designed to reduce their social isolation such as attending playgroup.

Mothers make up 95% of the participants in the program. The majority of the people selected for this program face much bigger barriers to employment than most other Australians. It’s on the basis of these barriers – lack of work experience or access to transport, illiteracy or lack of fluency in English, for example – that they were chosen to be enrolled. It has been targeted at Aboriginal women because the government believes ParentsNext has the potential to help close the employment gap.

Disruptive experiences of trauma are common in ParentsNext cohorts

We know that trauma, violence and abuse are real issues affecting the lives of many Australian mothers. Domestic abuse affects Australian women from all walks of life – the most educated women in Australia’s wealthiest suburbs are not immune. But we also know that the economically isolated parents targeted for ParentsNext are disproportionately likely to be struggling with the legacy of violence and abuse in their lives. Lone mothers receiving income support are much more likely than other Australian mothers to have experienced physical and sexual violence and have much higher rates of mental illness. Indigenous mothers experience disproportionately high rates of PTSD symptoms.

According to the NESA, the peak body that represents employment services, some organisations contracted by the government to deliver ParentsNext are finding that up to 80% of ParentsNext participants are affected by domestic abuse.

How ready are these services to meet the needs of people who have been traumatised by the violence they’ve experienced?

For women who have experienced trauma, ParentsNext is completely inappropriate, likely to exacerbate the complex and multiple effects of trauma.  Photo credit: Pexels .

For women who have experienced trauma, ParentsNext is completely inappropriate, likely to exacerbate the complex and multiple effects of trauma. Photo credit: Pexels.

It is now recognised that psychological trauma has many effects on the brain and body and that these effects can last years or even decades. There is evidence that people who had more exposure to trauma have more difficulties sustaining employment and more likely to rely on income support over their lifetime. Psychological trauma can manifest in feelings of shame, panic attacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, irritability, outbursts of rage and aggression, numbness, and lack of interest in everyday activities. The good news is that people experiencing trauma symptoms can recover, especially if they have a supportive social environment. Unfortunately poorly designed social services have the potential to make their problems worse.

According to experts on trauma there are steps that organisations delivering human services can take to reduce the risk of retraumatizing clients. These steps are not necessarily easy, but organisations in the United States, and increasingly in other parts of the world including Australia, are inspired to learn about trauma and make changes to their way of working. Homelessness services, health services, drug and alcohol services, schools, and children’s services are among those taking up this challenge. They are seeking to ensure that their practices and procedures are informed by insights from neurobiology about how trauma affects the brain and body, and by insights from people with lived experience. Various toolkits and training courses for organisations seeking to implement trauma-informed care have been developed as the trauma-informed movement spreads.

At the heart of trauma-informed care is the idea that psychological trauma has a profound impact on people's sense of safety, and the first step in recovering from trauma is regaining a sense of safety. Trauma-informed services are designed to ensure clients’ safety, both physical and emotional. They also recognise that hypervigilant clients are acutely aware of disrespect, including disrespect which might be caused by unconscious bias towards them on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class background and so on. So trauma-informed services make special effort to embrace diversity and demonstrate respect for and win the trust of clients from oppressed social groups.

Trauma often involves a terrible betrayal of trust. Trauma-informed services therefore aim to be trustworthy to support their clients rebuild their capacity to trust other people again. For example, they are transparent about the way they operate and why they operate that way.

Traumatic experiences typically involve feeling profoundly helpless and disempowered, so recovery from trauma involves regaining a sense of self-efficacy. Trauma-informed services aim to give their clients choices and to collaborate with clients – to do things with their clients rather than to them.

Because trauma is hugely damaging to people's sense of self-worth, recovering from it involves rebuilding self-esteem. Trauma-informed services help clients recognise and develop their strengths. They avoid stigmatising clients and they encourage clients to be part of designing and evaluating their services.

ParentsNext is failing to meet the needs of trauma survivors because it embeds participants in a new system of coercive control

The government made the tragic decision to integrate the Targeted Compliance Framework (TCF) into ParentsNext when ParentsNext was rolled out nationally in July 2018. The TCF is a coercive system, originally designed for punishing job seekers ‘who are deliberately and persistently non-compliant’ with their mutual obligation requirements. TCF employs a ‘punish first, ask questions later approach’ whereby income support payments are automatically suspended by the IT system in response to cues of noncompliance, such as failing to report attendance at playgroup. Parenting payments can be reinstated if it can be established that the parent had a valid excuse. ParentsNext providers are the arbiters of whether the parent’s excuse is valid.

The TCF gives providers the power to stop participants’ income support payments and many participants have said that their provider had abused this power to force them to do things which were not in their best interest.

Some ParentsNext providers work hard to build a rapport with participants and some reluctant ParentsNext participants have over time come to trust their provider and value their assistance. However, other participants perceived their providers as unworthy of trust, suspecting that commercial employment services are prioritising their own profits over the best interests of participants.

The publicly available submissions to the Senate Inquiry into ParentsNext, which reported in March 2019, shed light on what it feels like to be a ParentsNext participant. The results from a survey of ParentsNext participants conducted by the National Council of Single Mothers and Their Children are similarly illuminating. In theory ParentsNext empowers participants to make choices. But many participants have stated that in practice they had very little choice over the goals and activities that went into the Participation Plan that they were forced to sign.

Although the government claims the program is tailored to the needs of individual participants, many participants report that this was not their experience. Indigenous organisations report that the program is not perceived by Indigenous participants as culturally safe. Clients are treated paternalistically rather than as partners with expertise in their own lives. The Senate Inquiry heard evidence from some participants that they had been treated with disrespect and didn’t feel listened to. Many participants reported that the possibility of having their payment suspended made them reluctant to speak their mind with their provider.

The Department of Jobs and Small Business justified the coercive nature of ParentsNext on the grounds that people in a cycle of disadvantage are not inclined to seek help voluntarily. In evidence to the Senate Inquiry a spokesperson for the Department explained ‘It's difficult to assist people through a program if people don't come through the door ... a lot of those people, especially people who are socially isolated, are the least likely to voluntarily seek assistance.’

This observation accords with a central premise of trauma-informed care: that trauma leads people to distrust and avoid potential sources of care and assistance. The idea that this problem has to be addressed through coercion speaks to a lack of imagination on the part of the Department that designed this program, and a lack of understanding of the needs of trauma survivors.

The point was made many times to the Senate Inquiry into ParentsNext that there is a parallel between the abusive and controlling way many ParentsNext participants have been treated in their domestic relationships and the abusive and controlling way they are treated in ParentsNext. A number of participants described the treatment they received from providers as ‘bullying’.

This dynamic is exactly what trauma-informed care seeks to avoid. Maxine Harris and Roger Fallot observe: ‘Regrettably, a relationship with a powerful authority figure who controls all of the resources and whose opinions and wishes take priority over one’s own is tragically reminiscent of the abuse dynamic in which the trauma survivor was forced to accept an unequal relationship in order to avoid even worse treatment’.

The current design of ParentsNext is clearly in tension with the principles of trauma-informed care. The possibility of loss of income means that for ParentsNext participants the safety net provided by the income support system is no longer secure. This understandably leads them to feel anxious and it can lead women who’ve fled domestic abuse to go back to an unsafe environment.

Social reformers such as Lawrence Mead have convinced policymakers that income support recipients can benefit from paternalistic programs which blend help with hassle. But coercive control branded as ‘tough love’ mirrors the dynamic in abusive relationships. ParentsNext is trying to reach people whose life experiences have made them wary of potential sources of assistance. A punitive mutual obligation program is precisely what parents who have survived trauma don’t need.

 This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.