Intrinsic to much academic research is a spirit of discovery, adventure, and hope. Yes, it can be demanding hard work, but that’s ameliorated by all the thrilling boundary-pushing possibilities that lie just around the knowledge corner.
Leah Bromfield’s research isn’t quite like that. To be sure, her work most certainly is not devoid of discovery and boundary-breaking accomplishment.
It is just that she and her colleagues research a very difficult, complex and harrowing place: child abuse and neglect.
But Bromfield and her team shine a light on this space, bringing hope to an area of enormous need and helping to establish positive systemic change that will bring increased safety, security and care for current and future generations.
Professor Leah Bromfield, one of Australia’s foremost child protection researchers and an internationally recognised expert in the field, is Co-Director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection at the University of South Australia.
Bromfield and her team work nationally and internationally with governments and non-government agencies to establish and implement child welfare reforms in policy and practice.
She also headed up the massive research effort of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which issued its final report in December last year.
That role came with a huge responsibility, what she calls “the burden of getting it right for survivors”.
“That responsibility was an honour and a privilege – and the hardest thing I have ever had to carry.”
‘The knowledge of children suffering predictable harm haunts me’
To give an idea of the context in which she operates, the statistics show that during 2015-16, there were 225,487 Australian children suspected of being harmed or at risk of harm from abuse and/or neglect.
“I want to see the incidence of child abuse and neglect decrease,” says Bromfield.
“And I genuinely believe that what can make that happen is good science. That’s the key way our centre is helping to make a real contribution to transforming the lives of abused children.”
Bromfield is exposed through her research to brutality, neglect, and its impacts. And she never gets used to it.
“I can still be devastated by what happens to children,” she says.
“There are some areas in particular I find very difficult. Where we uncover safety issues for children, but we haven’t yet found a solution or I’ve been unsuccessful in influencing change.
“The knowledge of children suffering predictable harm haunts me.”
Shaping new directions in child protection policy
Research is at the core of Bromfield’s and the Centre’s work. And it is research with real world impact – helping to shape new directions in child protection policy such as the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, informing national, state and territory inquiries, and assisting individuals and organisations responsible for formulating child safety strategies.
Bromfield herself has secured an international reputation for expertise in devising child protection systems, and in understanding the multiple complexities surrounding child abuse, chronic maltreatment and neglect.
These problems show no sign of going away. Many of Australia’s child protection services are in crisis, she says, and struggle to cope with the relentless demand resulting from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, neglect, and the exposure of children to domestic violence.
It is beyond the capacity of such agencies to solve these problems, she says, and what is needed is a fundamental rethink of society’s approach to protecting children.
Bromfield and her team are working on this – developing relevant and practical knowledge sources and devising new methodologies for engaging vulnerable and marginalised children, and their families, in child protection research.
The priority, says Bromfield, is to bring about a real and positive difference in the lives of vulnerable children.
In recognition of her work, Bromfield received the 2017 Telstra Business Women’s Public Sector and Academia Award.
“I was proud and honoured,” she says. “But you can’t win such an award as an individual, it’s the work of a team.”
The early years – school and university
Bromfield attended school in Ballarat, Victoria, and by Year 10 had designs on becoming a clinical psychologist.
“It was just the profession that made sense to me – you were helping people and I felt that’s what I wanted to do,” she says.
This desire to help wasn’t just something theoretical – from a young age she threw herself into volunteering and community work, which later included a stint as counselor for Lifeline and at a rape crisis centre.
She went on to study at Deakin University, graduating with a Bachelors of Applied Science with Honours and a double major in psychology and sociology.
Her next step was to embark on a PhD, during which time she became involved in a research project that included a focus on sick and dying children and the impact on their families.
“I realised I was interested in children and their outcomes, and in their responses where there was trauma,” she says.
A PhD scholarship to undertake research in the field of child protection was a serendipitous opportunity – “it combined my interest in trauma, children and their families, and I just fell in love with it”.
As her studies proceeded she found herself “shocked by how much was not known”.
“Child protection is an emerging field in terms of the science around it. There is more that we don’t know than what we do know.”
The PhD in the post box … and a touch of serendipity
On completing her doctorate – on the chronic maltreatment of children and repeat involvement in child protection – Bromfield, like almost every other graduate in the world, had to think about what to do next.
Bright-eyed and optimistic, she decided to post the tome to Victoria’s department of human services.
“It was all leather-bound and big and I put it in an express post satchel. I pulled down the handle of the letterbox and pushed it in – the letterbox was empty and it made this big boom as it hit the bottom.
“I did have a moment then when I thought maybe this wasn’t a good idea, but it was in the post and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Serendipity, however, was on her side. The person who opened her parcel just happened to be immersed in a child protection policy debate then taking place in the Victorian government.
Remarkably, Bromfield’s thesis was directly relevant to the issue and so ended up being used to inform work on drafting new child protection legislation and practice guidelines.
Her career was about to take off. “It was just pure luck that the person at the other end was the right person at the right time, and the window was open for it to have an impact,” she says.
“It’s ironic because in seeking to increase evidence-based practice I have devoted so much of my career to the science of research translation.
“But sometimes you can do it textbook perfect and just not get the impact – maybe there’s been a change of minister or government, and even though you did everything right, you fail to achieve change.
“Then there are those serendipitous moments where you do exactly the wrong thing – like dropping your full thesis in the post – and luck is on your side.”
She adds: “I would say to my PhD students – don’t even dream that that’s going to happen.”
Leading the Royal Commission’s research program
After five gruelling years of evidence and inquiry, The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse delivered its final report in December last year.
During its term it held 57 formal public hearings and heard evidence about child sexual abuse within institutions from 1,200 witnesses over 400 days of hearings.
Bromfield, with a reputation for methodological rigour and a solid record of working closely with governments, was invited to be the Commission’s Professorial Fellow and to lead its extensive research program – amounting to more than 100 separate projects.
Much of the media coverage of the inquiry centred on the role of the Catholic Church, but evidence was also heard from individuals and organisations spanning orphanages, schools for children with disabilities, out-of-home care settings, and public and private schools.
“Essentially there was not an organisational type that had worked with children that didn’t come up within our work,” she says.
“We had to take a broad and multi-disciplinary perspective to frame our research agenda to inform the Commission’s understanding and its recommendations.”
It was a massive job, and speed was of the essence. “With a Royal Commission, one of the things that can’t be changed is the timeline – it can’t not be on time.”
She rapidly set up a research team, including qualitative and quantitative researchers, ant also contract managers.
“We had to work out how we could commission the best people and get them to sign contracts quickly.
“I had to get someone on board who understood Commonwealth Government procurement guidelines … You are dealing with public money and it has to expended properly.
“Your ethics on every decision had to be beyond reproach because, if they weren’t, it would call the Commission into disrepute – and that could undo everything it was trying to do for survivors.
“We had a six-monthly review cycle for the research program. It wasn’t just a test of my content or methodological expertise, it was also a test of my leadership skills.”
Impact of the Royal Commission research
Bromfield says the Royal Commission’s research focus created a new way of undertaking such inquiries.
“In the past, inquiries predominantly focused on bringing in lawyers to try to get a legal understanding of the problem, and lawyers are brilliant at that.
“But inquiries have then tended to make recommendations for change on the basis of logical deduction – if this failed in the past then the logical deduction is that we add this to it, or we do the opposite, then that will be the solution.
“So you tend to get not transformation but reform, where you add more monitoring or surveillance or training.
“An evidence-based approach brings a different way of developing policy, one that is transformative.”
The research program was cited in every volume of the Royal Commission report, “so it clearly had a significant impact on its understanding and the recommendations it made”.
The research, says Bromfield, was of a world-class standard and contributed to the international evidence base.
She argued that it should be published with creative commons, and that the researchers be given IP licences so their work could be in the public domain.
The Commissioners, she says, were “really forward thinking” and agreed with her that the research should be published as a “practical legacy.”
“I now see in some of those areas that the next research studies are coming out … I think the ripple impact of the research agenda will continue.”
‘It can be a tragic inter-generational cycle’
Any child in any economic status can experience abuse and neglect, says Bromfield.
What tends to be more predictive, she says, is not generally lack of money alone, but rather “those things that coincide with poverty”:
“Parents who were abused and neglected themselves, who have their own trauma histories and therefore weren’t able to engage in education, are unemployed, and are experiencing substance addiction, mental illness or are escaping domestic violence – these parents are also likely to be experiencing poverty, and it can be a tragic inter-generational cycle.”
She says there is a greater awareness in society today regarding extreme abuse and neglect of children, but less so when it comes to issues that are “more on the margins”.
“When we get to those greyer areas, such as the sexual exploitation of adolescents, there is still a way to go for our community in understanding what is abuse and neglect and its impact on children.”
‘I never say it’s not a distressing field to work in’
The Centre is “incredibly aware” of the potential impact on staff of their daily work.
“If it’s research that involves high emotional labour, we won’t let people work on it full time,” she says.
“It doesn’t matter what the contract says, or the imperatives about how fast it must be done – we may need additional staff or to renegotiate the contract if our team’s wellbeing is a concern.
“We will not immerse people in something that is vicariously traumatizing at a rate that is just not processable by the human brain.”
Steps are taken to ensure staff members understand the reasons for their work.
“Having a strong sense of purpose is very protective to reduce the impact of vicarious trauma,” she says. “But I never say it’s not a distressing field to work in. It is – these are children, it should be distressing.
“It is psychologically unhelpful for people in this field to think we have to tough it out. We are trying to encourage help seeking by families, so we need to model and practice what we preach.”