“Every Child is Worth It” with Doug Dunlop

Today’s conversation on ‘Talk The Walk’ has many gems, but particularly for counsellors and social workers interested in developing an evidence based program that is also culturally safe.  Doug Dunlop is a senior counsellor with the ‘Holding Children Together’ program based in Alice Springs and working with surrounding town camps.  Doug is part of the team leading a rigorous evaluation process, developed and mentored by the Australian Childhood Foundation and a Cultural Advisory Group.  In episode 17 of Talk the Walk, we also get a glimpse into the man behind the work; his historical roots, his life experience, the values and principles he brings to his trauma-informed, culturally-safe practice framework.
There is nothing quite like ‘Holding Children Together’ elsewhere in Australia and other organisations are starting to take notice of the Care Team model adopted by this child and family counselling service.  The road to evidence-based practice is long, requires collective good-will and a large investment, but like Doug says “every child is worth it”.

In this episode, we explore:

  • Considerations for Doug arriving from New Zealand to work in Australia’s Central Desert communities
  • the stark differences working with Maori and Aboriginal children beginning with engagement in therapy
  • understanding trauma informed practice with Aboriginal children and their families
  • the Care Team model integral to ‘Holding Children Together’ (HCT)
  • a typical day in the life of a counsellor
  • how HCT is upholding cultural safety and working towards evidence based status
  • a sparking story that makes the work all the more worthwhile and why great outcomes cannot be tied down to one intervention
  • the challenges of working within a Care Team model
  • insights into the complexities of reunification with family when a lot of intervention has focused on establishing relationships with carers
  • what makes Doug so passionate about his work and the values he holds most precious
  • important considerations of cultural world views in cases of Aboriginal children in foster care which has implications for reunification
  • awareness of white privilege and seeing the world through the eyes of others
  • Moments from Doug’s early life that have influenced the values underpinning his practice
  • How Holding Children Together manage the exposure to trauma in counsellors
  • Hopes for the future of evidence-based counselling services and why it’s a good process to undertake

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Things to follow up after this episode

Contact Doug Dunlop at doug(at)ra-nt.org.au

Holding Children Together web page

Burnout and Vicarous Trauma:  An employee defect or a yearning for collective action for social justice?

If you work in the area of trauma counselling, chances are you have an organisation or colleagues keeping a watchful eye out for the first signs and symptoms of burnout or vicarious trauma.

In my workplace we have to complete two tests every year – the Compassion Fatigue Self Test for Practioners and the Trauma and Attachment Beliefs Scale.  We also have regular training so that employees can identify the symptoms in each other.

While it might be considered admirable for our organisations to have a Vicarious Trauma Policy and working proactively to promote the health and wellbeing of its employees, what is it that is really happening here?  And what effect is this having?

If someone returns high results to vicarious trauma testing, the onus is on the individual to address it.  They are encouraged to revisit their self care plan or self refer to the Employee Assistance Program.  This kind of response pathologises the problem and locates it within the individual, that the counsellor is somehow defective or not strong enough.   It follows then that the client is to blame for somehow causing an injury by sharing their story with us.   Vikki Reynolds says using self care as an antidote for burnout “does nothing about the social determinants of health for people….  The problem is not in our heads or our hearts, but in the social world where clients and workers struggle with structures of injustice.”  Vikki argues that assuming a position where clients are seen to be hurting us is not an act of accountability at all.

In Darwin where I practice, we are surrounded by some of the worst cases of injustice in Australia such as the mistreatment of youth in detention, the highest rates of removal of Aboriginal children from their families and concerning numbers of child abuse within the foster care system.  Not far from us, refugees on Manus Island continue to suffer.

Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to hear the sad and heartbreaking stories of abuse and violence and the impact this has had on our clients.  And yes, I see and hear the impacts of intergenerational trauma outside my house; it’s difficult to escape it sometimes.  However, I return a normal vicarious trauma result.  I also hear inspiring stories of skills, knowledge and strengths of survival; stories of people speaking out to the Royal Commission so that the same thing doesn’t happen to other people; stories of people taking action to reduce the isolation caused by their poverty and homelessness.  I admire the steps of resistance my clients make against systems of injustice.  Indeed, clients do not hurt us, but instead inspire us, teach us and critique us says Reynolds.

The biggest critique our clients could legitimately make is why we, as workers, are not ‘fostering collective sustainability’*, coming together in solidarity to challenge the institutions and systems which marginalise and victimise our clients.

Indeed the collective silence of social workers in Australia is more likely to lead to my potential burnout, due to my frustration with the profession.  Why are social workers not out on the streets marching together to get Manus Island refugees to Australia?  Why are we silent in our support of our Indigenous comrades in the fight for Recognition?  Why are we standing back and allowing removal of Aboriginal children from families to go up and up?  Isn’t that why we entered this profession in the first place, to make a real difference to the social structures of injustice?  I was once accused of getting too close to a community because I cared too much, and was threatened to be removed by my employer.  However I was proud of my role as an advocate for social justice for the community and its people.

Social justice activism is a protective factor against vicarious trauma.  It’s not our clients that are hurting us.  It is our silence and inaction.

Perhaps the care we can show our colleagues is not to watch out for signs or symptoms of vicarious trauma in the workplace, but to gather in solidarity around shared ethics of social justice and collective accountability.  Let’s get out on the streets and do what we signed up for.

*‘Fostering collective sustainability’ is one of the guiding intentions advocated by Vikki Reynold in Justice Doing in Community Work and Therapy.