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If you Believe Hard Enough, Dreams Really Do Come True

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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?

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Let the Tears and the Stories Flow:  Responding to Suicide in Aboriginal Communities

26052010(015)It is the phone call that every counsellor dreads to get.  Remember that girl you were working with a few years ago?  Well she committed suicide.  This is what happened to me this week.  It was like a punch in the stomach.  I was winded.  How could that possibly happen to such a beautiful soul who had bravely let me into her life, to confront the demons of her past? Unfortunately, this is a common scenario for remote Aboriginal communities.  Having to find a way to pick up the pieces and carry on, with so many unanswered questions and tears for their loved ones.  For Aboriginal people, the decision to end the hurt and pain is often made hastily, perhaps after an argument and in the heat of the moment.  It happens too quickly.  There are no plans made days in advance.  So if there is no one around in that split second, the chances of intervention are slim.

Aboriginal communities in Australia lose their young people to suicide at higher rates than every other country in the world, apart from Greenland.  So what can we do about this terrible statistic which leaves threatens to continue the legacy of intergerational trauma?

Well, I believe we have to start with the mothers who are pregnant right now.  If we can ensure little babies reach their third birthday without experiencing trauma (namely abuse or neglect, which includes witnessing domestic and family violence abuse) then their chances of growing up strong and healthy, physically, emotionally and spiritually are very high.  90% of a child’s brain has developed by then.  Every baby has the right to experience a caring, responsive and safe environment or “a social womb”.  Unfortunately, for the girl who left us this week, this wasn’t the case.  I clearly remember the one hope that she had for her future and her family.  To be safe.  For babies growing up in unsafe homes, they may not have any tangible memories as older children, but their brain and their body never forget.  The brain and body continue to work together in a state of constant alertness to danger, making it impossible for the child to relax, let alone conform to the expectations of society.

The latest neuroscience research supports the proposition that early childhood trauma is a risk factor for mental health issues later in life including self harm and suicide.  It is this research that has informed the work we’ve been doing over the last four years, developing trauma prevention tools for use with pregnant women and women with toddlers.  This program still remains unfunded.

In the meantime, a community is left grieving, yet again and I am left with feelings of helplessness.  Then I am reminded of the work of the Dulwich Centre when a spate of suicides in NE Arnhemland led to a project which documented the strengths and skills of Aboriginal communities in surviving hard times.  Some beautiful stories of ways communities support each other and honour their loves ones was documented.  It is in the power of community responses that this dreaded problem might once again be addressed.  For me, this is where the hope lies.  And women play a large role in it.

I decided to send a copy of the document “These Stories Are Like a Healing“ to the community in mourning this week.  I hope that it gives them strength to get through the next weeks, months and years ahead.  I hope that it reminds them of the incredible strengths, skills and knowledge that they have to respond in times like this.  Perhaps they have lost touch with these skills?  And a gentle reminder might empower them to find a way forward to prevent such a thing happening again.

I finish by sharing one of the stories that touched me from “These Stories Are Like A Healing”.  It helps to alleviate some of the helplessness and sadness I feel when I hear about the loss of an Aboriginal child or young person to suicide.

Dreams  

“Sometimes our loved ones visit us in our dreams. They tell us that they are all right now and they offer us comfort through their words and their touch. We don’t get frightened by this. We know they are caring for us. In this way, they still offer us comfort even though they are no longer here on earth.

Sometimes, if they regret things that they did, or how they died, they may even come back in a dream to apologise to their mother or father about what took place. These dreams can be very comforting. We also feel their presence during our waking hours. We feel them when we least expect it. Certain smells or sounds evoke them. Our loved ones remain with us. They walk with us in life.”

Beautiful huh?

References:  Dulwich Centre Foundation. (2006). These stories are like a healing, like a medicine. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Foundation.
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Metaphorical Drawing as a Tool to Build Relationships of Attachment between Foster and Kinship Carers and Children in their Care.

10626585_759069220821973_6528970359671927082_nThe Northern Territory is over-represented when it comes to Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.  And despite the Aboriginal Placement Principle being adopted, many Aboriginal children still find themselves placed with non-Aboriginal foster carers because they continue to be removed from their families and there are not enough Aboriginal carers.  Not surprisingly, after all the trauma these little tikes have been through, it can be a battle for the Department and the Carers to make the placement work.  Often these children haven’t been able to build a trusted relationship of attachment to their primary carer because of traumatic events in the family, let alone the strange adult they now live with.

Last week I was invited to participate in the Foster & Kinship Care Expo hosted by Foster Carers Association of the NT.  I decided to engage the children in a fun drawing activity which foster and kinship carers could later take home and use to explore their relationship together.  It goes something like this.

10511123_759069540821941_8587260440108007074_nChildren are asked to think about if they were an animal, what kind would they be? If they get stuck, I discuss with them the different characteristics of animals. Some are shy and quiet, others are happy and excited, while some are wild and angry. You get the picture! They are invited to then draw the animal that most closely resembles them, using their choice of drawing materials. I had crayons, pastels and textas available. I encourage them to fill in the whole page, drawing the habitat that the animal finds itself in on a daily basis. At the expo, some children chose to do several animals describing the different parts of themselves. Others, chose to include family members or friends represented by different animals in their picture.

The kids had lots of fun, but the real work happens later. Foster carers were invited to use my Take Home Sheet which offered ways of interviewing the child about their picture. You can learn a lot about what is going on for your child by talking to them through the animal eyes, so to speak.   It is much easier for Aboriginal children to speak in third person through telling a story, than talking directly about their own experience and feelings.

At home, foster carers are also invited to draw an animal picture. This can be used to explore the relationships between the two animals, how well they get on, and what needs to happen for the animals to trust each other. Having this one-on-one time with the child, is a purposeful and meaningful way for the child to build a connection, using the safety and playfulness of their imagination. These kids deserve our full attention so avoid any chance of distractions like turning off your mobile.

If you’d like to read more about the questions to use when talking to children, download my Take Home Sheet here Build Relationships and Connection for Foster Carers and their children.

In my counselling work, I’ve written fictional stories with children about different animals and other characters, that is based on their own experiences. It’s a beautiful way to be able to help them communicate what they haven’t been able to express before. And help them make sense of what happened along the journey!

Never underestimate the power of play as a tool to share difficult experiences, communicate feelings and strengthen relationships!10599157_759069590821936_5640702642905705167_n

 

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Chasing the Dream

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Travelling remote every week takes its toll

So this is my first post and probably my most important.  Some of my closest friends and colleagues are probably wondering what I’ve been doing in the last month?  To understand how I’ve come to be doing what I am today, it’s best to begin this story in November last year.   Unexpectedly, I had a positive thyroid antibodies blood test returned from my doctor.  The comment “Positive for auto-immune disease” struck me at my core.  Hashimoto’s disease as it is affectionately known was causing my immune system to attack my thyroid and affect my metabolism.  That would explain why I was struggling to get through a week without feeling drained.  Travelling every week to remote communities was tiring enough without having this disease to fight against, so I told my boss I couldn’t keep doing my job as a Children’s Counsellor and Community Worker in the Tiwi Islands in 2014.  This was the most difficult decision I have had to make professionally but I had to deal with my health.  Thankfully it seemed I had caught it early and there was hope of treating it naturally before having to resort to taking synthetic hormones.
I desperately didn’t want to leave Relationships Australia NT as I loved community work and I had established a great team of Aboriginal colleagues.  So I put a proposal to them.  Keep me employed for a three month term to find the funding to establish a new program we had been developing called ‘Healing Our Children’.  This would allow me to keep working with the Tiwi communities but without the heavy demanding schedule of travelling every week.  It would also allow me to move into an area of work I’ve become very passionate about – PREVENTION OF TRAUMA.

Now I want to take you back four and a half years.   Since 2009, I’ve been providing counselling and follow up support for many Indigenous women and children who’ve been affected by family and domestic violence.  Indeed, some of the children we were counselling were going straight back home to an unsafe environment!  I picked up strong messages from Elders and women on the Tiwi Islands and in NE Arnhemland that they were worried about their grandchildren.  Much of their concerns related to children’s responses to witnessing domestic and family violence, alcohol and substance misuse in their families, intergenerational and personal grief and loss issues, child abuse or neglect and other traumatic events.  I started talking with a couple of Elders about how we could have conversations with women we knew were living with violence, but would feel shamed and blamed if we talked directly with them about their experience.

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Women’s group – Family Healing Bush Camp 2012

Around this time a number of other things were happening.  We were co-ordinating family healing bush camps, taking our clients out bush and co-facilitating narrative group activities such as the Tree of Life.  It was very obvious to me that being on their country improves the holistic health of the whole family – physically, mentally, socially, spiritually.  Their relationship with the land provided entry points to engage in difficult conversations!   There was also a growing interest towards neurobiological perspectives of trauma which we brought to our counselling work, and I began to teach our Aboriginal support workers some of these stories about what happens to the brain when young children are exposed to violence.  Out of this, grew a desire to collaborate and produce a resource, which would invite women into safe conversations to explore the effects of trauma on children’s development at four stages of the life cycle.  Elders felt that women must hear the ‘brain story’ to give them a proper explanation of why their primary school aged child might be “going off the rails” or their teenager harming themselves!  This was an opportunity for understanding, integration and healing.  The conversations would also provide food for thought about what women might do differently if they were pregnant or had a young baby.  An opportunity for prevention!  And so after an extensive period of consultation, trialling and development with communities in Tiwi and NE Arnhemland, the “It Takes A Forest to Raise a Tree talking tool was finally launched in August 2013.

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‘It Takes a Forest’ talking tool

Relationships Australia did keep me around until April 2014 to try to find funding to launch ‘Healing Our Children’, but despite my best efforts, funding for this new program was not found.  This program would employ, train and empower local people to run educational support groups using the resources we’d developed.  However, without the funds to keep me any longer, my employment ended.  So here I am, on the road to recovery from my own health challenges and chasing the dream.  I decided to set up …Metaphorically Speaking as a launching pad to make ‘Healing Our Children’ a reality.  I’m just not willing to give up just yet.

It’s time we started looking at preventing the long-term impact that exposure to violence has on the generation being born right now.  I know that I can’t stop the cycle of violence.  But I do believe I can make a great difference in stopping the cycle of trauma, through culturally sensitive education and support of Aboriginal women with children (especially unborn babies and toddlers) who are at risk of exposure to violence.   By stopping the trauma in the first three years of life, I believe we will start to see a decline in behavioural issues in older children, mental health issues including suicide in our youth, aggression and rage, and even criminal behaviour and incarceration, as these children instead grow up to be strong, healthy, functioning and proud Aboriginal men and women.

Relationships Australia NT has demonstrated their ongoing commitment to  ‘Healing Our Children’.  I also have the written support of a number of child and family services on the Tiwi Islands, ready to host this program.  All we need is a funding partner who wants to make a real difference in the lives of children in remote Aboriginal communities.  A small commitment for a pilot project would allow us in partnership to implement a 12 month trial and evaluation.  I am really excited about the potential of this work in other communities across the NT.  If you know someone who shares our passion to stop the trauma, just send them this five minute video clip.  Click here for further information about ‘Healing Our Children’.

And for those who are wondering, I’ll be sharing more about my own journey of healing from subclinical autoimmune thyroid disease in further posts.  I’ve made some amazing discoveries that may be of benefit to others questioning if there are alternatives to taking synthetic thyroid hormones for the rest of your life.