Large group of adults and children at sunset on the beach. Photo credit Tyler Nix

Research Centre for Children and Families

Contributing to policy and practice for children and families
We build evidence to inform policy and practice through research with children, young people and families, with a focus on societal factors that contribute to child and family vulnerability.

About us

The Research Centre for Children and Families aims to contribute policy and practice-relevant research to inform cross-government reforms currently underway across the human services sector in NSW and Australia.

Taking a rights-based approach, we seek to have an impact on practitioners, the judiciary, and policymakers to promote the best interests of children and their families.

The centre aims to foster research excellence through global and local affiliations. We foster multidisciplinary collaborations across disciplines such as social work, education, economics, sociology, law, public health, and psychology, with the goal of translating research findings to inform policy and practice.

Our team builds industry partnerships through undertaking research commissioned by government and non-government organisations and pursuing competitive research grants that have a direct impact on sector reforms.

The centre is leading efforts to generate an extensive national and international network that will provide the foundation for collaborative multidisciplinary research projects, and affiliation with academics with complementary areas of expertise. Central to these efforts is engagement with Aboriginal academics and community organisations.

Fostering cultural competence in research involving vulnerable families and communities and contributing to opportunities for Aboriginal community led research is a priority for our research agenda.

The Institute of Open Adoption Studies was established in 2016 with a grant from the NSW Government. In 2019, to enable a broader focus on research about vulnerable children and families, the University approved the creation of a new Research Centre for Children and Families. The Centre is led by Associate Professor Amy Conley Wright, and incorporates the Institute within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

The Research Centre for Children and Families aims to address the significant need for locally generated evidence on the impact of policy and service responses in addressing child and family vulnerabilities.

The ongoing redesign of the child protection and out-of-home care system within NSW and Australia is placing greater emphasis on children’s stability and security, with their families or other permanent carers. Major reforms are underway to deliver family and child services through a social investment model, with the aim of addressing markers of vulnerability through prevention and early intervention. While it is well known that a range of individual, familial and societal factors contribute to children's vulnerability, Australia has relied on international research based on very different legislative and service systems. There is a significant need for locally generated evidence to inform policy and practice.

  • Study factors that contribute to child and family vulnerability to create new knowledge that maximises social benefit to children, their families and society.
  • Utilise a multidisciplinary and social ecological perspective to understanding the factors that contribute to poor outcomes and determine the best practice responses for some of Australia's most vulnerable populations.
  • Influence policy and practice by providing evidence to support change which is based on empirical evidence and sound theory and relevant to the Australian cultural and political environment.
  • Facilitate the exchange of information between researchers, families, practitioners and the courts – keeping the views and lived experience of children, young people and families as central to our agenda and the way we operate.
  • Engage with Aboriginal academics and communities to promote culturally competent and community-led research.

Our people

The centre comprises a research team and governance board.


Professor Amy Conley Wright leads research on children's best interests in out-of-home care, family support and disability services, within Australia and internationally. Expertise in curricula development, including in social work, family studies and child and adolescent development. Experienced in consulting on service development and providing policy advice.

Associate Director

Associate Professor Susan Heward-Belle, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Sydney, has over 30 years' experience in the child protection and domestic violence fields as a practitioner, educator, advocate and researcher. 

She has served as Chief Investigator on a range of domestic and family violence focused projects for ANROWS, including The PATRICIA Project and Invisible Practices: Engaging men who use violence, as well two other large scale multi-state projects, Whole of Family approaches to working with families where there is domestic violence and the STACY Project (Safe and Together Addressing Complexity). She has a particular interest in advancing gender equitable and socially just approaches to practice that counter mother blaming.

Research Team

  • Professor Judy Cashmore AO, Professorial Fellow, Sydney School of Education and Social Work, is founding researcher of the Pathways of Care Longitudinal Study, renowned for her research on children's involvement in civil and criminal proceedings and the implications for social policy. Made an Officer in the Order of Australia in 2010 for distinguished service to the protection of children, as a research psychologist and advocate for the rights of children.
  • Dr Susan Collings, Research Fellow and Program Lead, Child Protection and Disability, undertakes interdisciplinary research to build evidence about vulnerable children and families including those impacted by child protection and out-of-home-care and also living with disability. Susan works in partnership with families, communities and professionals to co-design creative solutions and ensure insights from lived experience and practice are used to drive lasting system change. She is leading research to develop relationship-building practices to support children to maintain connections with family and culture; to understand intersecting risk factors for child protection involvement and to evaluate a family-led decision-making model. Susan is internationally recognised for her contribution to the field of parenting with disability research and is an affiliate with the Centre for Disability Research and Policy.
  • Dr Betty Luu, Research Fellow, has a background in developmental psychology and mixed-methods approaches. Her focus is on the analysis of child welfare administrative data to provide insights that drive change in practice and policy through. She is experienced in program evaluations, survey design, and case file reviews.
  • Sarah Ciftci, Research Associate has research and evaluation experience in the fields of child wellbeing, indigenous justice and positive social change.

Program Manager

Suzanne Pope has extensive program and policy experience at a senior level spanning research administration in the government and non-government sectors including child protection and mental health.

Current Research Students and Research Assistants

  • Megan Mitchell, PhD scholar (Thesis topic: Fostering cultural connections for children in permanent care)
  • Amy Gill, PhD scholar (Thesis topic: Early parenthood and out-of-home care: placements, services, and supports)
  • Pei Kong, PhD scholar (Thesis topic: The role of expert evidence in facilitating the child's voice in care and adoption proceedings    
  • Meredith McClaine, PhD scholar (Thesis topic: Judicial interpretation and application of the 'realistic possibility of restoration' test in care and protection proceedings in the Children's Court of New South Wales)
  • Susan Carrasco, Doctoral scholar in social sciences (Thesis topic: How can Statutory Welfare agencies better support Aboriginal Child protection caseworkers)
  • Natalie Morton PhD scholar (Thesis topic: Parents’ experience after statutory removal of their child)     
  • Irene Wardle, Masters scholar (Thesis topic: Aboriginal families’ experiences of Family Group Conferencing in NSW)
  • Laura Metcalfe, Research Assistant
  • David Wilkinson, Research Assistant

The work of the centre is overseen by a Governance Board that provides strategic advice and direction for the centre’s research, policy and industry collaborations. The Governance Board comprises multidisciplinary subject experts from across the University and key peak bodies in areas relevant to vulnerable children, young people, and families. The Governance Board provides strategic oversight for consideration of opportunities to build a collaborative and innovation program of research relevant to the Australian cultural and political environment.

Scholars associated with the Research Centre for Children and Families perform essential roles as partners on our research projects and expert panel members to review research findings.

University of Sydney members

  • Associate Professor John Gilroy, Lecturer and researcher, Indigenous Health
  • Associate Professor Loyola McLean, Brain and Mind Research Institute
  • Associate Professor Lynette Riley, Senior Lecturer, Sydney School of Education and Social Work
  • Dr Margaret Spencer, Lecturer, Sydney School of Education and Social Work
  • Professor Stefanie Schurer, School of Economics
  • Associate Professor Sonja van Wichelen, Sociology and Social Policy

Other members

  • Dr Sheelagh Daniels-Mayes, Lecturer in Indigenous Studies, Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

International members

  • Professor Yu-Wen Chen, Professor of Social Work, National Taiwan University
  • Professor Harold Grotevant, University of Massachusetts Amherst
  • Dr Ching-Hsuan Lin, Assistant Professor, Social Work, National Taiwan University
  • Dr Mandi Macdonald, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work, Queen's University Belfast
  • Professor Beth Neil, University of East Anglia
  • Professor Peter Pecora, University of Washington


Featured News