A Social Work Practice Framework: The Right Mix for me

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Like the bush damper, my social work practice framework is a recipe I’ve learnt from wiser people around me.

I was recently asked by the Australian Childhood Foundation to answer some questions which would be used to contribute to the development of a team practice framework.  I have no doubt my answers will be very different to other members of the team.  It represents what is the best mix for me at this point in time.  It is an emerging and ever-evolving recipe for working with Indigenous communities.  Like any recipe, there is always room for improvement.  Here are just some of the ingredients.

How would you describe the 5 most important principles that underpin your approach to working with children and families?

  1. Awareness of Aboriginal history, colonisation, cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma. This is a big topic to get your head around but it is necessary.  One cannot be working with Indigenous folk without appreciating and accepting how ‘white privilege’ impacts on our work.  It is an ongoing learning project for me.  This is closely linked with the social work values of human rights and social justice which are the core values that drive my passion for this work.
  2. Mutual respect.  This cannot be achieved without a relationship.  If you give respect, you can expect respect in return.  Establishing a relationship of trust is the most important part of the work, given Indigenous people can be suspicious of whitefellas (with very good reason – there is a history of people coming into their communities, doing their work and leaving without engaging in authentic consultation or setting up any sustainable change processes).  It was important to me to stick around, to show that I wasn’t going to be another ‘white toyota’.  In my first 6 months working remote, all I did was had cups of tea with people and listened.  This was so important in being able to establish a relationship of mutual respect.
  3. Doing ‘with’ not ‘for’. It is walking alongside our clients, not in front and not behind.  This is probably the hardest principle to stay connected with.  It is very tempting to take over and do things for people when they have become so disempowered.  I have to constantly remind myself ‘how can I be?” rather than ‘what can I do?’  There is also a risk of overdoing it, thinking you can save the world and then dropping behind from burnout.   I am reminded of the words from Lila Watson

    “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

  4. Genuine collaboration and accountability to the community. This is not something that should happen as an aside in the work.  This should be first, foremost and ongoing.  It follows on from my previous point about ‘doing with not for’, and my next point about not being the expert.  I have written a bit about collaboration from a cultural perspective elsewhere.
  5. Coming from a stance of curiosity and non-expert.  I don’t have the answers.  I will never know what it is like to walk in the shoes of an Aboriginal person.  But I do have skills in being able to listen to the problems of people’s lives and reconnect them with their skills, knowledge, values, hopes and visions that may have temporarily become lost.  I believe everyone has the capacity to find their own solutions if they are prepared to explore the ‘real me’.  Discovering the person that has got lost, sometimes means working through some really hard issues that have got in the way of their preferred self.  My approach is therefore one of curiosity.

What theories or knowledge do you draw on to inform your approach?

  1. Community development theories. Of all my formal social work education, the theoretical understandings of community development have had the most impression on me.  Community is also an important part of my personal life too.  I take an active role in volunteering, participating in community life and being a change agent in the community development process.
  2. Systems theory.  One cannot work with children alone.  For real change to occur we must engage at the family, community and society level.  After all, it takes a village to raise a child.
  3. Two way learning

    Two way learning

    Two way learning model.  This implies I have just as much to learn from the people I work with as they do from me.  We are exploring the questions and finding the answers together.  When I started working in NE Arnhemland I took the time to document the emerging practice framework between myself and our Yolngu worker to demonstrate how Yolngu and Western worldviews were working together to bring healing to the lives of children, their mothers and families affected by domestic and family violence.  I hoped it might give some insight into how other workers might marry Western approaches to counselling with Yolngu methods of healing.  This reflection speaks extensively about the knowledge, values, beliefs and skills underpinning this cultural practice framework.  I also enjoy documenting and sharing the skills, knowledge and abilities of Indigenous folk who are staying strong in the face of hardship.  Many of these stories can be found here.

  4. In recent years I have been drawn to the trauma-informed approach in children’s counselling to address concerns around behaviour, learning, health and various aspects of wellbeing.  But how does this scientific knowledge inform our work with groups and communities who have experienced intergenerational trauma, where the effects of violence are normalised?  What affects has the impact of trauma from colonisation, dispossession and assimilation had and continue to have on Aboriginal people, families and communities from a neuroscience perspective?  These are big questions I wonder about.

There are many, many other theories and pieces of knowledge somewhere deep inside my brain.  But these are the ones that come to mind at this present moment.

How do you describe the goals or aims of your work?

I am really passionate about early intervention and prevention.  These terms get thrown around a lot so they have lots of different meanings for different people.  My passion is about the prevention of trauma through culturally safe therapeutic support.  My current work is all about the prevention of trauma in young children under 3.  I believe this is where we can make the most difference in breaking the cycle of violence and trauma.  If we can get a child through the first 1000 days of their life with a secure attachment and no ongoing exposure to harmful trauma then they have a much better chance of growing up strong and healthy.  Unfortunately, many Aboriginal children have an early childhood developmental history of exposure to domestic or family violence, child abuse or drug and alcohol abuse.  In 5-10 years time, my hope is that this number is reduced significantly because there is more investment being made in the early years to ensure children’s safety, security and emotional needs are being met.  It seems wrong to me that we spend all the money on children when they reach school.  The damage has already been done by them and it is harder to heal.

What are the 5 most important techniques that you use in your work?

  1. Narrative therapy. I have shared some of the ways of I incorporate narrative practice into my work with Indigenous folk here.
  2. Puppets are great for externalising conversations with kids.

    Puppets are great for externalising conversations with kids.

    Expressive therapies. Communicating using drawing, painting, craft, clay, storytelling in the sandtray or with puppets.  These are the mediums where many great things can happen from externalising problems to integrating trauma.  I have had fun writing about and developing my own art therapy techniques, testing, reflecting on and reshaping them to ensure they are culturally safe.

  3. Indirect questioning. It is better to invite an Aboriginal person to tell their story than to ask a whole lot of direct questions.  Sometimes it takes a lot longer to get a picture of what is going on, maybe many months.  This requires patience.  But at least you won’t be causing more shame or bad feelings for that person through interrogation.
  4. Attentive listening. Double listening.  Listening for what is said as well as what is not said.  Watching out for the signs of resistence.  Listening for the ways people are standing up to the effects of problems and systems on their lives.  Looking for the sunlight peering through a small crack that opens the door to people’s preferred ways of living their lives.
  5. Self care. I cannot approach my work with care and empathy if I am not giving this to myself.  I have learnt the hard way.  In 2013, I developed early stage thyroid disease which can be exacerbated by stress and shortly after, herniated a disc in my lower back.  Both of these physical impediments are closely linked to psychological health.  Remote work can be taxing even when you are healthy and have a strong mind like I do.  I had to give up my work for a while to begin a process of healing and recovery.  This has been a long hard process.  I have learnt how to listen to my body and meditation has now become a daily practice (something I struggled with for many years).
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Helping people to help themselves and employing local people.

What are the 3 outcomes that you believe you achieve in your work?

  1. Trust.  And with that comes engagement.  Once you have engagement, then you can work together on the practical issues.  This goes for counselling – resulting in the client feeling listened to, finding the conversation helpful, wanting to come back and moving forward in their lives.  It goes for community work too, with Elders and leaders of the community wanting to stay connected to what you are doing.
  2. Awareness raising. While I would like to say that I have been able to stop violence in a family or community, it’s probably not the case most of the time.  The best I can hope for is to make women and children aware of the impact of trauma on themselves, their children and their community.  It is up to them in the end, whether they stand up to it or take action to protect themselves and those around them.  My latest project is getting ‘the brain story’ out to women in communities, so that they can make a more trauma-informed choice about their protective behaviours towards children.
  3. Helping communities to help themselves. I am committed to employing and mentoring local people to work alongside me.

What kind of supports do you believe are important for you to experience that will enable you to improve the effectiveness and quality of your work?

Supervision from an Aboriginal social work practitioner.  This is difficult to access when working under funding arrangements which don’t necessarily value this.

What books or journal articles have inspired you?

Trauma Trails: Recreating Song Lines: The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma In Indigenous Australia by Judy Atkinson

Collective narrative Practice: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma by David Denborough.  His latest book Retelling the Stories of Our Lives is such an accessible, easy read.   It is designed for anyone to be able to do their own healing using the gentle principles of the narrative approach.

Telling Our Stories in Ways that Make us Stronger by Barbara Wingard and Jane Lester

Our Voices: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Work eds. B Bennett, S. Green, S. Gilbert, D. Besserab

The Art Therapy Sourcebook or anything by Cathy Malchiodi

Anything by Dan Seigal including his many U-tube clips and TED talks.

A reflection on Western and Aboriginal World Views in Counselling and Social Work Practice

Nami and Lucy

Caught in a wet season storm at Yirrkala Women’s Centre.

I have the most beautiful memories of my work out at NE Arnhemland. I was amazed by how much I achieved in such a short time, given that I did not have relationships in the communities of Nhulunbuy or Yirrkala. The most special part was finding Nami White who I ended up employing to work with me in the Children’s Counselling program. In 2010 she invited me to go to her outstation at Buymarr for three days. I used the time out bush to document how Nami and I were operating in the space where two worldviews meet and I recently stumbled upon my writings. At the time I really appreciated being able to reflect on my social work practice in this way.   I hope it inspires you to do the same.

A MODEL OF PRACTICE: WORKING TOGETHER FOR HEALING

This document brings together ideas from Nami White and Lucy Van Sambeek who work under the SAAP Children’s Project for Relationships Australia. It aims to show how Yolngu and Western worldviews are working together to bring healing to the lives of children, their mothers and families affected by domestic and family violence.

This document was created from a conversation which occurred while camping at Buymarr, an outstation where Nami often visits and stays with family when she needs some time away from her community of Yirrkala. On this trip, Nami brought her grandson to provide him with an opportunity for counselling and traditional healing to address some of the difficulties he is experiencing in his life.

This process has given us new insight into each other’s world view and an appreciation for what we each bring to the work, what we are doing and how we are doing it. Perhaps these ideas might be of use one day to other workers who are trying to marry Western approaches to counselling with Yolngu methods of healing.

Knowledge

Together we bring a wide variety of knowledge to the work, derived from formal education, life experience, observation and history. We have a shared understanding about the nature of domestic and family violence. Lucy says that:

  • Men are more likely to be perpetrators of violence than women
  • Children are the silent sufferers
  • Drugs and alcohol affect people’s behaviour but is not a cause of violence. We know this because not all drunks are violent
  • Children are affected by being a witnesses to violence
  • Sometimes it is difficult to see the effects of violence in children. The quiet child is not necessarily seen as a child of concern.
  • Parents may not recognise the effects violence has on their children
  • Trauma from domestic violence can have life long effects
Nami connects with children in the community through art and storytelling.

Nami connects with children in the community through art and storytelling.

Nami brings knowledge about domestic violence and family violence watching children and parents in her own community and family. She worked for many years in the voluntary-based women’s night patrol, walking on foot around the community looking out for children. Nami can recognise those children that are quiet and frightened, “don’t want to mix with other children”, and “can’t be who they want to be”. Some children want to be with others but are prevented from doing so by adults who act protectively to keep them away from other children, for fear of getting into a fight. Children take a long time to talk up about their situation with someone they trust – this could be out of fear or shame. They may not want to get into trouble.

Children can take sides with their mother or father depending on what they have been led to believe by the perpetrator. When violence is happening children react different ways, some may try to protect their mother, try to stop the fight and disarm weapons while others may run or hide.

Shame can prevent women from speaking up about domestic violence. Shame can stop men from admitting fault or taking responsibility for their behaviour.   Women are likely to stay in a relationship which is violent as leaving the relationship could bring shame to her and the family. However, if the fear is strong enough women have been known to leave their partners, children and community as they feel they have no choice. They are often seen as the ones to blame.

The Western world would say that formal theories shape our understanding of observations such as these. This includes knowledge about family systems, social learning, behaviour, a holistic view of health, the cycle of violence and trauma responses. Nami also brings knowledge gained from her experiencing of living with a violent and jealous husband. She also knows what it is like to live in a gentle and loving relationship. Living with violence has given her insight into what causes violence, what it feels like to live with violence and what signs to look out for in other women. Nami has seen men become physically sick from perpetrating violence, as a result of the bottling up of guilt and shame. Serious sickness can become a precursor for a change of behaviour in the perpetrator.

Nami has also had two fathers as positive role models who have taught her to be on the look-out for warning signs. Her fathers used to tell Nami stories about times they intervened in family disputes often putting themselves in the face of danger. Their message to her was to practice the same ways, stand up strong to help Yolngu people and live by the lore. With the support of her father, Nami once confronted a hostile man saying “I’m not afraid if you hit me or hurt me”. He taught Nami how to love the enemy. This old man was a respected Elder who knew how to operate in the world of Balanda and Yolngu.

As a girl, Nami also learned about how to live a good life and how to treat other people through women’s ceremonies. We also bring knowledge about recent histories events in Nhulunbuy and surrounding Aboriginal communities, and how these have impacted on the spirit and behaviour of Yolngu people. Nami says the introduction of alcohol has had devastating effects, creating divisions within families, and between the generations, through the perpetration of violence. Elders are sick and tired of the violence caused by alcohol in their communities.

With the introduction of mining in the area, came a system of royalties paid to traditional owners of the land and their families. However, Nami sees that the system is not equal and fair, with the most powerful and greedy landowners, handing out the money as they see fit. The impact of this, filters down to families where disputes over royalty handouts not paid, erupt into bouts of drinking and violence. Traditional values about caring for the land have been replaced with concerns about power and money.

Values and Beliefs

Social justice and human rights are foundational social work values that underpin our work with children and families. Lucy says this is pertinent when working with Aboriginal communities, who continue to suffer from the effects of discriminatory policies and practices from governments. Finding ways of working which reclaim the dignity, respect and self-determination of individuals, families and communities is of utmost importance.

Together we believe:

  • All people including children have a right to feel safe
  • All people have a right to be treated fairly and with respect
  • All people should have an opportunity to make decisions that affect their own lives
  • Violence against any person, particularly woman and children is unacceptable
  • That there is always hope and therefore change is possible.

Nami believes that role modelling her values and beliefs through her behaviour can show people alternative ways of living and being to violence. For Nami this means being gentle, kind and caring, sharing with others; treating others how she wants to be treated; showing respect, and following lore and cultural beliefs. These values have developed over a lifetime but were significantly shaped at the death of her son during alcohol-fuelled violence.   Rather than take revenge against the other family, Nami chose to act with forgiveness and found a non-violent path through prayer. Her commitment to Christian values, gives Nami the strength to “love the enemy”. Nami’s father was also a significant role model who had “love for everyone”. Although her heart has been broken many times, Nami knows that she is a stronger woman today for surviving difficult times in her life. Her drive to help her own people by living out her values is significantly shaped by her life experience.

Skills

Nami reads a book about fighting to the children during a group session on the beach.

Nami reads a book about fighting to the children during a group session on the beach.

It may seem like a basic counselling skill, but attentive listening is so important in this work. Aboriginal people have been ignored for so long, that it would be unjust and disrespectful to continue to impose Western solutions to Aboriginal problems without listening to their own expressed needs, hopes and dreams for change. Lucy’s strengths are also in asking the right questions in ways which are appropriate for Aboriginal communication styles, developing trust and rapport by focusing on building relationships, finding creative and safe ways for people to tell their stories, identifying people’s strengths and supports, linking people in to other services or workers, and having genuine positive regard for people with an open mind and non-judgemental attitude.

Nami feels that she is often at the forefront of family and community disputes as a mediator. Her skills are in using her “voice” in “strong hard ways” so that people get the message that violence won’t be tolerated. She reminds people fighting of their kinship ties and the responsibility this brings. She also knows when it’s the right time to walk away, in order to prevent getting caught up in violence acts herself.

In our counselling work, Nami is instrumental in gaining the trust of children and putting adults at ease, by communicating in her first language about our roles and the work we do. She is a translator and cultural guide for Lucy. Nami knows when it is the right time to talk about difficult issues with children and when it would be inappropriate, by reading intuit body language that looks quite unremarkable to Lucy. Nami’s intuition tells her when a child could become upset, angry or re-traumatised.  Such information is vital for the counsellor.