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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
‘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 Speakingas 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.