Final Evaluation of Independent Family Advocacy and Support (IFAS) pilot
This report presents the findings from RMIT University’s evaluation of the Independent Family Advocacy and Support (IFAS) pilot run by Victoria Legal Aid (VLA).
IFAS is a pilot service that provides non-legal advocacy and support to parents and primary carers who are involved in the investigation stage of the child protection system. The three main priority groups for IFAS are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, families where one or both parents have an intellectual disability, and since late 2020, culturally and linguistically diverse families. IFAS aims to divert families away from the child protection system and to increase access to legal services. The three IFAS pilot areas are Greater Bendigo, Ballarat and Darebin/Moreland, although Ballarat is not in scope for this evaluation as IFAS did not commence operations there until late 2020.
During the evaluation period, from 02/01/2019 to 06/05/2021, IFAS provided advocacy and support to 282 parents and caregivers. This includes 68 Aboriginal parents or parents of Aboriginal children, 56 parents with intellectual disability and 57 parents from culturally and linguistically diverse families. IFAS also provided an additional 762 instances of referrals and advice.
Approach to evaluation
The evaluation was conducted in two parts, a midterm review and a final evaluation. Qualitative data was collected using interviews and focus groups with people who have used IFAS, IFAS staff, DFFH staff and other professional stakeholders. Quantitative data were provided by IFAS, VLA, DFFH and sourced from other publicly available data.
The overall findings from the evaluation are very positive. IFAS is highly valued by clients, who found it vital support through very distressing experiences. The IFAS approach works both in supporting parents and primary carers during the investigation phase of the child protection system and in diverting them away from the court system. The evaluation team recommend that IFAS is made available to all parents and primary caregivers who require support or assistance to reach decisions or take actions in response to child protection investigations.
Views of parents and primary caregivers
Parents and primary caregivers trust IFAS to help them navigate the child protection system. Parents told the evaluation team that IFAS builds the capacity of parents to self-advocate, helps calm their reactions and increases accountability of child protection practitioners. The only negative feedback from IFAS clients related to limitations of the pilot, mainly that advocacy was no longer available if they progressed to the court system.
Views of child protection practitioners
Child protection practitioners had more varied feedback, with those who better understood the model highly valuing IFAS. For these practitioners, IFAS enabled communication through mediation, allowing them to work effectively with families. Some practitioners found engaging with IFAS counterproductive, confusing or frustrating. This appeared to have occurred largely where there was either a lack of understanding of the IFAS model, or a perception that the representational advocacy approach was not helpful. It appears that many negative experiences could have been avoided if the model were better understood.
The evaluation team undertook a cost-benefit analysis, which estimates IFAS diverts 20% of referred clients away from court, resulting in an estimated saving of $3.52 to the Victorian government for every dollar invested in IFAS.
Areas for development
The evaluation also identified some specific areas for further development, including improving understanding of IFAS by stakeholders and ongoing support for lived experience perspectives. The data prompted considerations for expansion of the scope of IFAS, both geographically and in the child protection system. Finally, the evaluation considered the experience of children whose parents had used IFAS, finding no direct impact, but significant indirect impact where IFAS had supported families to address protective concerns identified by DFFH.
Evaluation limitationsThe evaluation was limited by barriers to linking datasets and the impact of Victorian government COVID-19 restrictions, principally changes to the Children’s Court processes.