Giving Aboriginal Children a Voice – Part II

Bloopers captured in time on our crowdfunding campaign video

This blog goes out on the cusp of the release of my first children’s therapeutic picture book.  Nerves aside, it’s been an exciting but hectic week as Christine and I prepare for media interviews.  We’ve also been busy creating a crowdfunding campaign to get the community on board with our hopes for the book.  We are new to all this stuff, so of course there have been many laughs along the way (hence the blooper snapshot captured here while filming our campaign video).  If you really want to know what all the fuss is about, then maybe this Q&A might provide some answers.

What is the book about?

There are two characters in the book, a little boy called Jack and his friend Tree, who lives with his family (or other trees) in the bush.   I think the blurb on the back cover is a good summary of what happens in this story.

“Tree is living a peaceful life in the bush until a wild storm comes along and damages his environment.  His friend, Jack is worried that Tree won’t recover and be able to play with him again.  When Jack also lives through a wild storm in his home, he comes to realise just how strong they both really are.  Jack has strong cultural roots, just like Tree that brings hope and healing to his whole family.”

This story is really exploring the ‘storms of life’ that children go through and how this impacts on them.  It’s also a story of healing which comes through connection, culture and the support of family and community.

How did this story come to me?

The story was just slowing coming together in the back of my mind, mulling away there for a long time.  Then one day, I think I was in a day dream state and the idea just popped into my head.  I then went away and wrote it fairly quickly.  Often ideas come to me in my dreams day or night.

Book Cover

What are the aims of the book?  What are my intentions in writing it?

I think the book reflects what I am trying to do in my counselling work with children.  First, it’s about helping them find their voice and give words to the ‘problem story’ of their lives.  It’s also about making visible the ‘strong story’ of their lives – what is it that is keeping them going, stay safe and be happy.

I am hoping that the adults in children’s lives will use this book to give voice to the strong story of children’s lives and perhaps even document this.   This could include the skills, abilities, beliefs, values and knowledge the child has in coping and keeping themselves safe.

‘The Life of Tree’ is another resource that people can add to their tool box in their conversations with children.

Who is the book for?  Who would be interested in reading it?

This book is intended to be read by an adult to Aboriginal children who have been affected by trauma.

This book will appeal to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people care for, live or work with children who’ve experienced trauma such as domestic and family violence.  So this can include family members and foster carers as well as professionals such as counsellors, social workers, support workers or case workers.

 What inspired me to write the book?

 My biggest motivation is to help children tell their stories.  One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in my work with Aboriginal children, apart from the obvious cultural and gender barriers is gaining enough trust, for children to feel that it is OK to talk about the really tough stuff.  And that what they are feeling is normal.  Kids do feel sad and angry about violence in their families.  And it’s shame and fear that really hold them back from speaking up and healing from their experience.  So in order to gain trust we need to create a safe space for the conversation.

Another motivation is to provide a culturally safe tool for professionals.  ‘The Life of Tree’ uses images and themes that children can connect to because it reflects their own cultural traditions and beliefs.  Christine has done an amazing job bringing her artistic talents to this story.  I haven’t really found any other resources like this out there.

Of course, my favourite part is the use of metaphors because this has worked in other areas of my practice.  I’ve been practicing narrative therapy in my work with children for 8 years, with groups of children in remote communities as well as in individual counselling.  I have witnessed how the use of metaphors is effective in connecting with people and creating a safe space for conversation about difficulties in their lives.   Asking direct questions isn’t always going to work, but people seem to spontaneously want to share their own story, if they hear a story that is similar to theirs.

What initially got me interested in this topic?

10 years ago I arrived in the Northern Territory virtually green from university. The first 6 months working out bush as a drug and alcohol counsellor, I drank lots of tea and did a lot of listening.  I later moved into children’s counselling and I was hearing lots of stories from women Elders about their concerns for their children and grandchildren.  I guess, I’ve always been listening for ways I might be able to meet an expressed need – that’s what community development is all about.  If there is some way I can walk alongside communities to find solutions to the problems in their communities, then there is a place for me there.  Along the journey I’ve found myself more and more in the healing space, finding ways of bring healing to people’s lives.

When is the book being released?  How can people buy it?

The book was released on Wednesday 1st March 2017.  You can access further information and a Sneak Peak of pages from the book from my online Shop.  There you’ll also find a downloadable Order Form.

 What about people who can’t afford to buy the book?

We are officially launching a crowd-funding campaign on Tuesday to raise money to send free books to communities.  Christine and I would like to put donated books into all the women’s refuges in remote communities of the NT, WA and Queensland.  We are both aware that the support for children coming into remote safe houses is pretty limited.  ‘The Life of Tree’ is one way, that Aboriginal workers in those services could engage children and directly support them.

So if there is anyone out there who would like to sponsor a book, they can look up our campaign ‘Giving Aboriginal Kids a Voice’

Christine with ‘The Life Of Tree’

The Greatest Tragedy of All Happens in my Street

The easy access of my local 'bottlo' contributes to the tragedy unfolding in my neighbourhood.

The easy access of my local ‘bottlo’ contributes to the greatest tragedy of all unfolding in my neighbourhood.

Over the past few weeks as the wet season has taken hold in the Top End, an increasing number of homeless Aboriginal people (called long grassers) are on the move.  The bus shelter across the road from our house has become a shelter, a mere stumble from our local handy-store which freely sells alcohol.  This is the site where arguments break out just after 10am daily about who is paying for the grog or the taxi, women yell profanities at their men at the tops of their voices and beer bottles are smashed on the road.  Since the Country Liberal party decided to scrap the ‘Banned Drinking Register’ 3 years ago these scenes have become all too common again.  On the weekend, my husband had to stand at the end of our driveway to motion for cars to slow down, as a man lay on the middle of the road after going biffo with another intoxicated family member.

The greatest tragedy is not that the police showed up half an hour after I called, enough time for someone to lose their life.  Nor is it that there are people passed out on the footpath day after day and how sad it all seems to be living a life like that.  The greatest tragedy is that there is most often a small child in a pusher or clutching on to their mother watching all this.

Don’t get me wrong.  All of it is extremely disturbing and very upsetting to hear and see on a daily basis.  But I can’t help imagining that this child’s future is being laid down right this very minute in front of my very eyes.

Unfortunately I don’t see an end to the drinking and antisocial behaviour in the near future.  Despite the introduction of mandatory treatment of people who break the law while drinking, the trauma, the hurt, the pain remains and the drinking continues.  I despair thinking it is too late for this generation who have most likely grown up in violence or abuse themselves.

We can change the future for the children.

But the children.  That is a different matter.  Here we have an opportunity to make a real difference.  To change things for them.  To put a stop to the cycle.

This is where I have great faith in the work of the Healing Our Children project.  The power of the project lies in working with Aboriginal women who are caring for young children to understand the impact that witnessing violence has on the developing brain in pregnancy and infancy.  It is my hope that women will be in a more empowered position to make good choices on behalf of their children.  A conscious and fully-informed decision between staying and putting up with the abuse or leaving to find a safe place, could make all the difference to the life of an accompanying child.

As I sit and stare outside my window to that babe in arms, I feel paralysed knowing there’s nothing I can do at this very moment.  I am also full of determination and hope that we can prevent this tragedy affecting the next generation.

For more information about my work with the Healing Our Children project visit Relationships Australia.

Externalising the ‘Storms of Life’: Creating Movement Towards Healing

Top End storm over Fogg Dam. Image by I. Morris.

Top End storm over Fogg Dam.  Image by I. Morris.

What I love about using art in therapeutic groupwork with Aboriginal women is giving them an opportunity to do some gentle inner reflection during the creation process, without causing retraumatisation.  The idea from narrative therapy of being positioned on the riverbank to look at a problem, rather than feeling tossed around in the river, influenced the development of an activity we’ve called the ‘the storms of life’.  This exercise was developed with an Elder with the intention of allowing women who have experienced violence or other trauma, to observe their problem moving away from them and letting go of whatever may be holding them back.

Any kids of art materials can be used such as paint, pastels, pencils or collage bits and pieces.  The women are instructed to close or lower their eyes and imagine they are sitting on a beach, with water lapping at their feet and the sound of waves and a gentle breeze.  They are safe and comfortable in this place.  They do not have to leave this place of safety.  They are encouraged to picture a storm in the distance over the horizon, slowly moving away from them.  This storm holds memories of those things that have happened in the past, that still cause uncomfortable or painful feelings for them.  After a few minutes when the women have a clear picture in their mind, they are encouraged to draw what they see.  It is important the women stick with the metaphor and do not draw the bad things that have happened.  You may like to encourage the women to think about colour; if it is dark or light, loud or soft, heavy or light; and the presence, intensity and distance of clouds, lightning, rain or wind.

A drawing is burned on the campfire to rid bad feelings.

A drawing is burned on the campfire to rid bad feelings.

I usually give women a good 20 to 30 minutes to draw or create.  There is never any pressure for women to share their drawing however some choose to do so.  This has been a powerful affirmation with others in the group as witnesses, of women’s intentions to make one small change for themselves or their children.

The fire is a strong symbol of healing, as a gathering place for sorting out problems, sharing stories and offering support to each other.  Tiwi Elders have also used fire as a way of ridding bad spirits.  When we have run this activity on healing bush camps, the women have been keen to burn their drawings as a way of letting go of bad feelings.

It has been interesting to observe the sense of movement that is created on paper through the externalisation of ‘the storms of life’.  This movement has transferred to women as a collective following their traditional instincts of letting go of bad spirits, creating a profound sense of healing.

Lateral Violence: Exposed as an insidious killer in Australian Indigenous Communities

Lateral Violence is finally exposed

Lateral Violence is finally exposed

About five years ago, I was attending a conference in Alice Springs. Richard Frankland, an Aboriginal man, was presenting his research on Lateral Violence.  After hearing this term for the first time a light bulb lit up.  I now had a new lens to view the disturbing level of violence I was noticing in the communities I was working in.  Not the fighting in the streets – the family feuding and the kids brawling – that is very visual.  I’m also referring to the more sinister violence you don’t always see, but you feel and hear.

Later that year, I started getting emails about Lateral Violence from William Brian Butler.  Butler was born in Darwin in the Northern Territory, following his Mother’s forced removal from his Grandmother where they lived at the detention centre known as The Bungalow in Alice Springs.  Brian lived at the Bagot Reserve in Darwin with his Mother, up until the beginning of the II World War, which forced them to evacuate back to Alice Springs and be reunited with Family.  Butler had been doing research using Facebook.  His suspicions were confirmed.  Not a lot of people had heard of Lateral Violence, let alone what to do about it.

So what exactly are we talking about?  The legal definition says lateral violence “happens when people who are both victims of a situation of dominance, in fact turn on each other rather than confront the system that oppresses them both”.  Paul Memmott defines it as “unresolved grief that is associated with multiple layers of trauma spanning many generations”.

I’d had a good understanding of Australia’s colonialising history and not surprised by the level of physical violence I was seeing.  But lateral violence is even more subtle.

Internalised feelings such as anger and rage are manifested through behaviours such as gossip, jealousy, putdowns and blaming.  It can include nonverbal innuendo like raising eyebrows and making faces, bullying, snide remarks, abrupt responses and lack of openness, shaming, undermining, social exclusion and turning away, withholding information, sabotage, infighting, scapegoating, backstabbing, not respecting privacy, broken confidences and organisational conflict.

During my time out bush, I saw lateral violence lead to more explicit conflict which broke up relationships, families and communities.

In response to the phenomenon that is Lateral Violence which is shared by colonised peoples across the world, Butler has taken upon himself to respond by leading the Lateral Love and Spirit of Care for all Mankind campaign. Butler urges his own people to put down their arms and stand their ground using unconditional love in the quest for healing and justice.

Barbara Wingard, an Aboriginal practitioner and teacher with the Dulwich Centre has drawn on the traditional of storytelling to educate Aboriginal people about the nature of Lateral Violence. Following the narrative concept of collective externalising conversations, one person interviews another who is role-playing the persona of Lateral Violence.  Learn in such an engaging and interactive way makes it safe to explore what can otherwise be tricky territory.  Here’s an exerpt….

What makes you powerful, Lateral Violence?

“I reckon I’m doing my best work when I get families to fight against one another … It’s fantastic when everybody wants to take sides. This creates a bigger divide. I can also stop Aboriginal people from working with white people. I do that pretty well and I confuse white people about Aboriginal culture too. I try to convince white people to think bad things about Aboriginal culture… In some Aboriginal communities I try to get people of Aboriginal heritage to be suspicious and judge each other by asking ‘who is Aboriginal and who is not really Aboriginal?… I start to manipulate who is and who is not (Wingard 2010).”

I have witnessed some great acts of Lateral Love now being taken by Aboriginal communities to counteract the devastation of Lateral violence. While working on the Tiwi Islands, a few years ago cyberbullying and sexting got out of control. The old people were becoming increasingly concerned about how young people were using mobile phones to send anonymous messages via social media that were mostly degrading, harassing or untrue. The result was conflict between young people, family infighting and even in some cases self harm and attempted suicide.

The community responded by organising several community meetings and the issue was taken very seriously. In what was a rather quick response, popular band B2M with the assistance of Skinnyfish came on board with a media campaign that would appeal to young people to raise awareness of the dangers of misuse of social media. Here is what they came up with:


Here we have a community recognising the problem, and rallying together to arm themselves with the skills and knowledge needed to take appropriate action.  A Lateral Love Action!

For those of you who have never met Lateral Violence, I dare you to sit down and have a chat. You might be surprised to hear about the sneaky tricks of this insidious killer, friend of the coloniser who arrived by boat in 1788 and has been quietly working away in the shadows ever since.

References

Wingard, B. 2010, ‘A conversation with Lateral Violence’ in The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work, No. 1

Memmott, P. 2001, ‘Community Based Strategies for Combating Indigenous Violence’

Butler, B. 2012, ‘Zero Tolerance to lateral violence to improve the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Islander Peoples in Australia’ available at http://lateralloveaustralia.com/social-determinants-of-indigenous-health-lateral-violence-paper-2012/

 

If you Believe Hard Enough, Dreams Really Do Come True

IMG_8367

Healing Our Children will engage with women and their children at risk of trauma

Show me the money!   Yes, you may have heard that my last ditch attempt to secure funding for the Healing Our Children program was successful.  This has been a program in the making with community Elders and strong Aboriginal women since 2010.  After submitting nine grant applications last year, I’d resigned myself to the fact that in the current political and economic climate, no government was interested in investing in an early intervention and trauma prevention program.  Especially one that does not have a tested and trialled evidence base yet.  I assumed that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet would be the least likely to fund this initiative.  And wouldn’t you know it – boom!   For me the announcement was bittersweet – what followed in the media was outrage expressed by Aboriginal organisations including essential domestic violence and legal services, about the amount of funding lost causing closures and job losses across Australia.  Fair enough.  Initially, this was also hard for me to come to terms with.  But I have since justified the decision to fund my program for the following reasons:

  • I have a unique opportunity to demonstrate that bottom-up, community led programs DO work (rather than the usual top down government programs)
  • It IS possible for non-government organisations to work together with Aboriginal communities in a mutually respectful way to meet the expressed needs of communities and still achieve outcomes
  • There are no Aboriginal organisations that I am aware of that are proposing to do the same work. But this is something we can aspire to in the future.
  • I am in the UNIQUE position of working together within established relationships of trust with Elders and Strong women to share the latest findings from brain science about the impact of trauma on children.  Many vulnerable women in the Western world don’t have this knowledge, let alone Aboriginal women and children who are most vulnerable to harm. Research has started to show that this information is a powerful motivator for women leaving a domestic violence relationship.
  • I REALLY believe this program is the first step in stopping the cycle of intergenerational trauma beginning with the Aboriginal children being conceived and born right now.
Nami with children in Yirrkala (playgroup)

Engaging young children and their caregivers in the Early Years is so important

I have just returned from the Child Inclusive Practice Forum in Brisbane where Nathan Mikaere Wallis, a Maori ‘pracademic’ and educator presented the latest findings from neuroscience.  The results are well and truly in.  Whilst we have known over the last two decades of the importance of ‘the first three years of life’ in determining your life chances, the literature has refined this to ‘the first 1000 days’.  This takes into account the beginning of life when the brain is starting to form within two weeks of conception.  And while we have had many arguments over those years about whether nature or nurture is more important in determining one’s health and wellbeing in adulthood, brain science is now showing, it is “how nature interacts with nurture” that is paramount.  Unlike animals who do not have a frontal cortex – the thinking and decision-making part of our brain – humans are designed to be moulded by the environment they encounter in the first 1000 days. It is in this stage of life when the brain is gathering all the data it needs to determine whether you go to university, earn a high income and have a successful marriage OR misuse drugs and alcohol, go to jail or abuse your children. The key determining factor of life experience is attunement, determined by the quality of the dyadic relationship between the baby and the primary caregiver.   So if the Early Years are so important, why is it that we invest the least amount of money in this age group and the most at the high school and university end of the spectrum?

I am very excited about the opportunity I’ve been given.  This really is a unique opportunity to break the mould of traditional government investment to achieve a ‘better bang for our buck’ and ensure Aboriginal kids get the best possible start in life.  This seems like a much better economic proposition than finding more foster carers for the next stolen generation, sending adolescents to boot camp and building more jails, don’t you think?

Trying, testing and tinkering with Narrative practice with First Nations people: 5 skills to add to your culturally-fit therapeutic toolbox

My first exposure to Narrative Therapy was in 2008 at the Dulwich Centre’s ‘Towards Collective and Community Practices: Narrative Ways of Working with Groups and Communities’. Collective and group practices really resonated as a respectful and organic way of engaging with Aboriginal communities. I have gone on to do other intensive workshops and taken my learnings back with me to try, test and tinker with the skills, blending them with my culturally-sensitive empowerment approach to practice alongside Aboriginal support workers.

Here are 5 narrative practices that have been influential in my experience of counselling, group and community work with First Nations people.

Double-listening

The problems that affect the lives of Aboriginal people can often be presented in a way that is disabling or weighing them down heavily. For example, domestic violence that has gone on for many years or issues associated with poverty that affect people’s stress levels. This negative story can come to dominate people’s lives so that it is the only one they come to believe about themselves and other people tell about them. We all know the “angry man” and the “naughty boy” right? However, people have many story lines running through their lives. Perhaps they have simply lost touch with the things that are important to them and they give meaning to? In a process of ‘double listening’, we are continually looking for doors into the alternative story, as the problem-dominant story is one that Aboriginal people often fall back into again and again.

Externalising

An externalised problem in play doh.

An externalised problem in play doh.

The person labelled as ‘angry’ or ‘naughty’ by others has internalised this view about themselves. The process of externalising helps us “separate the problem from the person”. I have spent a lot of time externalising the feelings of children who have been labelled by their communities or families as angry, naughty, bad, lost, lonely, no-hoper, mad and stupid. Through exploring the “strong story” using things like drawing, painting, clay, puppets and story writing children come to see that the problems they are experiencing do not come from inside their body, but their external situation, usually someone else’s problem behaviour. Children have such amazing imaginations when it comes to naming the problem and can articulate the ‘monster’, ‘devil’ or ‘alien’ as no longer having hold over their lives.

Resisting

Eunice and Elaine share their ‘strong story’ of going to school.

Eunice and Elaine share their ‘strong story’ of going to school.

Aboriginal people who have experienced trauma are often overwhelmed by feelings of shame, thinking somehow they are to blame and perhaps they deserve it. However, no‐one is a passive recipient to trauma.  Even in the most difficult of circumstances when it is not possible to avoid the trauma, people still take positive steps to stand up against it, resist it or protect themselves from its effects (Yuen 2009).  However small these steps might be, they indicate people are responding because they don’t like it. What is it they hold precious in their life that they would respond in this way? What is it they strongly believe in, that has been threatened? By exploring and thickening the beliefs, values, strengths, skills and abilities that help them through difficult times, Aboriginal people reclaim strong stories of hope and resilience and move towards healing. I have assisted many children to document stories about ways they have resisted or protected themselves and others from the actions of a violent father. The narrative approach gives Aboriginal people a safer place to stand to explore their experience without having to re-tell the trauma event.

Collective narrative documentation

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

The Tiwi developed their own Ripples of Life story.

Narrative practice is interested in linking the individual experience to the collective; our individual problems are instead viewed as social issues. When listening to Aboriginal people’s experience of trauma, we are not only listening for individual accounts of how people responded to hard times and developing a rich narrative together, but looking for opportunities to link their life to some sort of collective experience. In this way, people speak through us, not just to us (Denborough 2008). Some of the children I worked with wanted to share their stories of living with violence or bullying with children from other communities. I became the deliverer of special messages between children who willingly offered up their stories if it meant it would help someone else. They often reflected “I am not alone in this” or “My experience is helping someone else”. When people have an opportunity to anonymously share their stories with a broader audience, like another community, they gain a sense of contribution to the lives of another who may also be experiencing hard times. In my work with Tiwi at Family Healing Bush Camps, community members were invited to share what skills, knowledge and abilities they used to get through difficult issues such as family and domestic violence, substance misuse in the family and having their children taken by welfare. A written collective document was given back to the participants to share with other communities. Such documents can be powerful methods of generating a social movement towards change, healing whole communities of people who share stories with each other.

Tree of Life

Tree of Life.

Tree of Life.

Collective methodologies such as the Tree of Life and Team of Life have shown to be extremely effective at allowing children and young people who have experienced trauma or significant loss to speak about their skills and knowledge in the comfort and security of peers. These metaphors offer Aboriginal people safe ways of exploring the difficult events of life like “the storm which hit our family forest” or “having to defend oneself from attack by the enemy”. Family members and Elders who act as outsider witnesses to children’s experience are valuable players in validating these stories. The artwork generated from this group-work can also be shared as a collective document of children’s resilience, knowledge, hopes and dreams with other groups around the world.

What narrative ideas have you adopted into your counselling or social work practice with Aboriginal people?

References:

Denborough 2008, Collective Narrative Therapy: Responding to individuals, groups and communities who have experienced trauma.

Yuen, A. 2009, Less pain, more gain: Explorations of responses versus effects when working with the consequences of trauma.

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.

Peeling back the onion layers: How do you ‘do’ trauma-informed work?

utopia1There appears to be a large number of health and allied health professionals who have not even heard of ‘trauma-informed practice’, let alone enact it.   To me, it’s a no-brainer. If you work in the Northern Territory, this beats ‘cultural awareness’ training hands-down.

Last week, I went to hear Larrakia man Ash Dargan’s presentation on Trauma-Informed Workplaces, an activity of Reconciliation week for Larrakia Nation. Ash studied under the guidance and mentoring of Professor Judy Atkinson, author of Trauma Trails: Recreating Song Lines: The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma in Indigenous Australia. Perhaps Ash best sums up trauma-informed practice as “looking through a trauma informed lens…where our perspective shifts from ‘something is wrong with this person’ to ‘something has happened to this person’”. It requires a large step away from the Western dominant medical model which has oppressed Aboriginal people for so long. Rather than ‘doing’ to, we can start to think about ‘being with’.

So before we can ‘do’ trauma-informed work, we need a thorough understanding of what trauma is, the complex layers of trauma Aboriginal people have been exposed to since Colonisation and how it plays out in people’s lives today. The ‘babushkas’ diagram which came out of the Healing For Stolen Generations Discussion Paper offers a diagrammatic way to appreciate this complexity that affects individuals, families and communities. Most of us are familiar with the layers of historical trauma – massacres, removal from country, child removal, suppression of culture and language, social control and disease.

utopia-john-pilgerFor a different and somewhat controversial perspective, you could watch “Utopia” like I did on Saturday night. I think this was John Pilger’s latest attempt to try to educate the unsympathetic on the impact of the invasion on Australia’s First Nation peoples. It was an attempt to shock the white population using guilt and shame as leverage for social action, however I don’t believe this approach is helpful. Guilt is not my motivation for participating in the Reconciliation Movement nor working with Indigenous people. Social justice and human rights – yes, guilt – no. Ironically, Utopia also appeared to retraumatise some Aboriginal community members from the tone of messages and sadness expressed on Facebook after the show. Anyway, that’s another story.

Alternatively, Ash offers another way of appreciating the snow-balling effect of First Contact in the ‘generational mapping of trauma’. In the first generation, males were killed and imprisoned and females were sexually abused. The next generation of men turned to alcohol and drugs (freely given by white people) as their cultural and spiritual identity was stripped away and their self worth eroded. The third generation saw men turned on their spouses and society. In the fourth generation, spousal assault turned into child abuse. And in the fifth generation, the cycle starts all over again. Trauma plays out today in unbelievably high rates of imprisonment, substance abuse, racism, child removal, poverty, family violence, lateral violence, and higher rates of suicide, poor health outcomes and lower life expectancy compared to non-Aboriginal Australians.

Ash views First Contact between black and white Australians like a raging bushfire that blazed through the country, out of control, blackening everything in its path. But the smoke is still hanging around. I think that as long as there is no justice or recognition or learning from past mistakes, Aboriginal people won’t be able to see through the smoke. And whitefellas will continue to retraumatise, like the unacceptably high rates of child removal that are still occurring as reported by the ABC on May 26th.

So how does an understanding of historical and contemporary trauma help us ‘do’ trauma informed work? Ash asks us to view Aboriginal people like an onion. We have no idea of the many layers of trauma that they may have experienced throughout their lifetime, and maybe we will only ever peel off one or two. But with an understanding there is more, we are more likely to peel gently and respectfully.

I can’t help but be bought back to the notion of ‘Dadirri’, the inner deep listening and quiet still awareness that Miriam Rose Ungenmerr-Bauman  says is in each one of us.  She also said “Our people are used to the struggle and the long waiting. We still wait for the white people to understand us better. We ourselves have spent many years learning about the white man’s ways; we have learnt to speak the white man’s language; we have listened to what he had to say. This learning and listening should go both ways. We would like people to take time and listen to us.” The skill of Dadirri has taught me how to sit quiet and listen to Aboriginal people as they tell me their story of abuse or pain or hurt or trauma. But Dadirri invites us to look inside our own hearts. I was reminded of this, in break-time during Ash’s presentation when I bumped into an Aboriginal healer I hadn’t seen for a while. I had hardly said a word, when it felt like he was staring into my heart to see what was troubling me. He simply said the answer is inside me, and to find it I block out all the noise in the room and listen for the silence. Even over the top of loud chatter, I could hear white noise. It was calm and peaceful.

This is what healing is all about. Healing from trauma is not something one can ‘do’ to another. Others can show us the way, but it is something we need to do for ourselves.   We have to listen to what is inside our heart.   Perhaps trauma-informed work then, is not so much about ‘doing’, but ‘being’.

“We know we cannot live in the past, but the past lives in us” – Charles Perkins

If you’d like to read more on trauma-informed practice, check out my Resource section.