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This article summarises the key findings of the national evaluation of the Communities for Children (CfC) initiative. The evaluation of the CfC was undertaken as part of an evaluation of several area-based interventions known as the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy (SFCS). The study was undertaken by the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC), University of New South Wales (UNSW), and the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) for the Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. More detailed information on the evaluation is provided in the original reports (Edwards et al., 2009; Muir et al., 2009).
Concerns about the impact of the geographic concentration of disadvantage on the wellbeing of children and their future life chances has led to the implementation of place-based or area-based initiatives in a number of countries (e.g., the Sure Start Local Programs in the United Kingdom; see Belsky et al., 2006).
A major Australian area-based intervention is the Communities for Children initiative. CfC is designed to enhance the development of children in 45 disadvantaged community sites around Australia. The initiative aims to improve coordination of services for children 0-5 years old and their families, identify and provide services to address unmet needs, build community capacity to engage in service delivery and improve the community context in which children grow up.
Under the initiative, non-government organisations are being funded as Facilitating Partners to develop and implement a strategic and sustainable whole-of-community approach to early childhood development in consultation with local stakeholders. In implementing their local initiatives, Facilitating Partners establish CfC committees with broad representation from stakeholders in their communities. The Facilitating Partners oversee the development of community strategic plans and annual service delivery plans with the CfC committees and manage the overall funding allocations for the communities. Most of the funding is allocated to local service providers, known as Community Partners, who deliver the activities specified in their community strategic plans and service delivery plans.
The logic of the CfC model is that service effectiveness is dependent not only on the nature and number of services, but also on coordinated service delivery (see Figure 1). This lead agency approach, where a non-government organisation acts as a broker in engaging the community in the establishment and implementation of CfC, differs from traditional funding models in which governments directly contract service providers. The explicit focus on funded service coordination and cooperation in communities is a unique and important aspect of the initiative.
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The types of services delivered are decided by local committees and based on community needs. Some of the services delivered include home visiting, programs on early learning and literacy, parenting and family support, child nutrition and community events. By improving the coordination of services within geographic areas, the intervention is intended to benefit all children and families in the area, not only those who actually use CfC-funded services.
Initially, funding for the CfC initiative was over $100 million for 45 sites over four financial years (2004-05 to 2007-08). The majority of this investment was spent on service delivery, with Community Partners receiving 60% of the funding, Facilitating Partners receiving 7% of the funding and local evaluation receiving 3%. The remaining 30% was for community resource funding (development, implementation, project management and community development).
It is estimated that $840 was spent on each 0-5 year old child living in the CfC communities between 2004-05 and 2007-08 (based on the number of 0-5 year olds in each CfC site in 2006). This works out to be $210 per child per year. (1)
In 2009, the focus of the CfC initiative was extended to families with children up to 12 years of age, and funding for the 45 CfC sites was extended until 30 June 2012.
This article provides an overview of the results of the recent evaluation of the CfC initiative. The evaluation outcomes are based on short-run impacts for families and children (12 months after the full implementation of the program) and qualitative and quantitative data collected from service providers over a two-year period. This article describes the impact of CfC on services, children and families. It then discusses elements of the CfC model that contributed to its success and/or presented challenges.
The evaluation of the CfC initiative involved the collection of data from a number of sources using a range of methodologies. This section provides an overview of the key features of the evaluation methodology. A detailed description of the evaluation methodology is provided in the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy: National Evaluation Framework (SPRC & AIFS, 2005) and in the full evaluation reports (Edwards et al., 2009; Muir et al., 2009).
The key challenge in evaluating the impact of area-based initiatives such as the CfC is estimating what the outcomes would have been for children and their families in the absence of the intervention (that is, the counterfactual). There are a number of different approaches that can be used to construct the counterfactual. The approach used to evaluate the impact of CfC is to compare the outcomes, and how they change, for children and their families living in geographic areas in which the CfC has been implemented (CfC sites) with those for children and their families in areas that are similar to the CfC areas but in which CfC has not been implemented (contrast or control sites). Using the Stronger Families in Australia (SFIA) evaluation study (see Box 1), information was collected from the same group of families prior to the implementation of CfC (baseline data) and around 12 months after implementation in both CfC and non-CfC sites.
The logic of the design assumed that the outcomes in CfC and contrast sites would have been the same had CfC not been implemented. Therefore, any differences between the CfC sites and the contrast sites that occurred after the intervention could be attributed to CfC.
The evaluation also collected data on the number of services (all services, not just CfC services) being …