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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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Social Work in Aboriginal communities: Get real and collaborate!

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Alberta Puruntatameri, Lucy and Elaine Tiparui at Pirlangimpi Family Healing Bush Camp

I’ve been lucky enough since moving to the Northern Territory to find myself doing therapeutic work in collaboration with Aboriginal people. I mean real collaboration not consultation. To me, collaboration is a genuine partnership where both parties have an active role in achieving a shared outcome with mutual respect for the skills and knowledge of the other. In practical terms, this has meant being able to employ Aboriginal women to be in the counselling room with me.  My Aboriginal colleagues haven’t necessarily had formal education or training, but to me the most important thing is a passion for helping women and children.
The advantages of providing therapy together are too numerous to mention.  You can communicate with your client in their own traditional language; you can find out what the client’s body language means because they will always pick up things you don’t; you have immediate access to first hand information about community issues that could be impacting on a client; and you can explore traditional methods of healing that can be incorporated into the work.  The other part of the ’two way’ learning equation, is the opportunity to impart knowledge and skills about mainstream counselling and group work methodologies, practices and even theories.  In my experience, Aboriginal women are keen to learn and take an active role in the health and wellbeing of their own families and communities.  Often they will be there working, way after you have packed up and gone, into the night seven days a week. So why shouldn’t they take up position alongside me in the counselling room?  Unfortunately for the majority of Counsellors working in Aboriginal communities, this situation is the exception rather than the rule!  But to me this is what anti oppressive social work practice looks like; I am being held accountable at every step on the journey.  It’s definitely not easy work by any means, but any perceived obstacles to this practice can always be worked through. Yes things go at a lot slower pace. And what appears to be risky or outside the box, may actually result in some amazing transformative outcomes for everyone involved.

Patricia (right) at the Cairns SNAICC conference with the remote Therapeutic Team (Michelle and Elaine) and colleague (Therese)

Patricia (right) at the Cairns SNAICC conference with the remote Therapeutic Team (Michelle and Elaine) and colleague (Therese)

One of my most memorable moments would have to be working with Patricia Munkara, who by complete accident happened to fall into the job (but that’s another story!)  Patricia came with no experience at all but with an enormous amount of respect in the community with Elders and children and everyone in between despite her ‘young’ age.  She also understood the importance of confidentiality for people that would come to us for support and was able to work with these challenges whilst fulfilling her family, community and cultural responsibilities. I saw Patricia develop from a shy, softly spoken woman into an outspoken advocate for children in her community!  She even stood up and presented alongside me at a conference after just nine months into the job.  Awesome!

It was an obvious choice for me to adopt this same model when starting my own business earlier this year.  Many people are saying our service offers something unique in the Northern Territory.  Tonight I launched our first crowd funding campaign, aimed at assisting my colleague Christine Burarrwanga to participate in ASIST (suicide intervention) training.  This is another step towards our goal of offering a real collaborative culturally safe counselling and support service!
So check it out.  Our small video will give you some more insight into what is important to us in our work.

 

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Culturally Fit Social Workers – we need more of you!

The journey to cultural fitness is life long....

The journey to cultural fitness is life long….

The last organisation I worked for adopted the practice of “cultural fitness” rather than cultural awareness.  It’s a great metaphor.  Just like going to the gym every day to keep up your fitness, I believe as social workers we also have to keep educating ourselves, challenging our White privilege and emersing ourselves in the other’s world view, to stay fit.  It is not something you do once, like cultural awareness training!
I am a huge advocate for supporting new graduates to make cultural fitness a life long goal in their social work practice. Sometimes, the best way to start is dive in the deep end, emerse yourself in the culture and let the Elders teach you. Whenever I have the opportunity, I offer to supervise 4th year social work students so that they can safely navigate the terrain to walk, teach and learn in ‘two worlds’.  My hope is that they will come to love working in the NT, despite its complexities and challenges.  I believe the high rate of staff turnover here is damaging to both the social work profession and our Indigenous brothers and sisters who are trying to get their lives on track and deal with complex trauma. We have to find ways of working that are respectful of Aboriginal culture, traditions and healing practices which may mean rethinking some of what you were taught at university!

It gives me great pleasure to share with you a story written by the last student I supervised, giving some insight (and a few laughs too!) into what it is like to dive in and start this journey.  I hope that it inspires other social work graduates to consider specialising in this area of practice.

My journey in becoming a Social Worker in the Northern Territory by Lissy Suthers

Firstly I would like to begin by acknowledging and thanking the women and children of the Tiwi Island communities for all their gifts and wisdom they have bestowed upon me. I would like to acknowledge the Aboriginal Traditional Owners of the lands throughout the Northern Territory on whose country I have the privilege to live and work. I pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.

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Nervous, unsure and a little naïve, and scared would best summarise my state of mind when it had been confirmed I would be participating in my final practicum for Social Work on the Tiwi Islands, Northern Territory.  I knew that I wanted to challenge myself in many aspects of the broad and complex work that we do as Social Workers. A challenge is definitely what I got.

Stepping out of your comfort zone and being the minority within a community is a strange and somewhat scary experience. Working in a community and an environment that is hot and unfamiliar is also a strange and uncomfortable experience.  There were many challenges to be faced with choosing to do a final practicum on the Tiwi Islands 1000’s kilometres from home.

My first few weeks were challenging, not only are you balancing your practicum duties and attempting to develop connections and a social life, you also have to overcome some mental hurdles, ‘Did I make the right choice?’ ‘Am I mentally, intellectually and physically capable of this?’ ‘I miss my home.’  But with time, confidence grows and you begin to discover things about yourself you may have thought you were not capable of.  Things like; building lasting relationships with the women and elders of the Tiwi Island communities, organising two entire (permission, travel to and from, therapeutic activities for camp) bush camps that last for 3 days – no electricity and no water, facilitating therapeutic activities whilst on camp and helping in the development of a resource designed and produced by my student supervisor and mentor Lucy.

There were also minor challenges and setbacks like; the food not arriving on time for camp; not being able to shower for 3 to 4 days; someone taking your thongs on camp and not returning them, therefore you must fly home to Darwin barefoot; backing a Troopy onto a small barge and then having to drive off the barge without snagging and bogging yourself in the sand; running around communities chasing families who are attending camp; nearly witnessing a group of children being eaten by a 5 metre crocodile.  You know… those minor kinds of challenges where if you don’t laugh, you cry, and you tell yourself that ‘it builds character’ to cope and reframe your situation.

Despite the challenges, the rewards and learning I took away from this experience are far greater than the stress and tears.  Through the patience, wisdoms and support from my student supervisor and mentor Lucy, and the support of Mark and the team at UQ, I was able to overcome my insecurities and be open to my experience.  Through reflection of practice and a safe space to make mistakes, I was able to develop my skills in; co-ordinating and facilitating large groups; become effective in working with cultural difference; continued to build upon knowledge of aboriginal cultural, language and traditions; I was able to reflect on how my ethics and values influence my practice; I became more effective in how I engage with our Aboriginal people; and had the opportunity to develop more experience and understanding in working with families who are at risk.

I realise everyone’s experience will be different, but I found for me, to take that leap and plunge straight into the deep end of unknown, is something I will never regret.  I would not be in my current employment if it weren’t for my choice to go remote for practicum. I am now a qualified Social Worker in a children’s counselling role for Relationships Australia.

If I had one piece of advice to give someone thinking of taking on such a change and/or challenge, it would be “Be brave, be focussed, be open, be comfortable with being uncomfortable and find humour when you can.”

I look forward to my future and know that from my experiences I will continue to learn, reflect and develop my skills.  My journey still continues and may it never end, as I navigate my way through the many paths of Social Work.

Lissy Lissy Suthers is a Children’s Counsellor with Relationships Australia NT.

 

When everyone else Goes Left, Keep Right.  It might be the harder road but its much more fulfilling.

When everyone usually ‘Keeps Left’, Go Right: My top 3 tips to achieving the fulfilling social work career you want

I read recently that the key to having a fulfilling job is to choose a job with meaning!   I would go further to say that a truly fulfilling job is one that has meaning for a cause you are really passionate about.   I was recently described by a colleague that I was the most passionate person she had ever met – what a compliment!

Up until April, I was working towards creating myself a new dream job at Relationships Australia so that I could travel a bit less and pursue something I became really passionate about – prevention of trauma in young children! In November last year, I resigned from my present position and had two months to find funding for the new project. It was a big risk! If it didn’t find the money I would be unemployed. Prevention work is not something governments are generally interested in funding. April came, I didn’t have any money , and so my work came to an end.

Others would stay on the side of the road they feel comfortable on, but not me. I ‘kept right’ and never gave up on my dream. I really believe that the program I’ve developed can stop the cycle of trauma affecting children exposed to domestic and family violence. I decided to promote the project on my new business website. Then two weeks ago Relationships Australia offered me a second chance. They have re-employed me for three days over the next three months to try again!

I feel so blessed. How many people do you know that are being paid to try to create their ideal fulfilling job?

Here are my top 3 tips to chasing your ideal, fulfilling dream social work job.

When everyone else Goes Left, Keep Right.  It might be the harder road but its much more fulfilling.

When everyone else Goes Left, Keep Right. It might be the harder road but it’s much more fulfilling.

1.  Establish a Trusting Relationship with the Big Boss

From day one, I developed an honest, open relationship with the CEO sharing my hopes, dreams and stories about my past practice that gave her insight into what made my heart tick. I just opened up to what I was passionate about and she developed a job to fit. Along the way, my CEO would pop her head into my office regularly and was always interested in what I was doing. By laying my cards on the table in the first instance, it felt like we had a relationship based on trust that has stood the test of time, even when things got hectic. Believe me, if you don’t have trust in the Big Boss, the passion will soon die! Do everything you can to keep the lines of communication open, no matter how busy everyone gets.

2.  Educate others in the office about what you are doing – the good, the bad and the ugly!

Don’t be scared to share with colleagues, supervisors and Managers what gets you really excited. I believe you should celebrate your successes. It is not bragging. I know that sometimes colleagues might feel threatened by me sharing stories of success and good practice.   However this is an inadequacy they need to deal with.   As a social worker, I feel it is my responsibility to the profession to encourage others to share their good practice stories too, like in group supervision, student supervision, debriefing, mentoring, writing about their practice or more informally. It also takes a lot of guts to admit your faults, where you went wrong and what didn’t work. I think my colleagues appreciate people who approach their work with honesty and integrity. We learn just as much from our mistakes as we do the success stories.

3.  Don’t be scared to take risks; never give up and have faith that it will all work out in the end

Sometimes I have some pretty weird and ‘out there’ ideas. They don’t always get taken up but I still feel free enough to share them and push the boundaries. You never know, one of those crazy ideas might just work! Some people respect me for “thinking outside the box” and not just accepting the status quo. Other people might view me as a feather ruffler. But I know what it’s like to have creativity stifled and it does not lead to a fulfilling job at all.

I’ve had a hundred people tell me my project is needed in remote Aboriginal communities and the resources created are fantastic. All the signs are leading me down this road but I still have one big barrier – money to get it started! I really believe this program will make a difference to the lives of Aboriginal kids not even born yet so I won’t give up.

If you are passionate about what you believe in, you will take risks! Because in the end this isn’t about you. It is about the most marginalised people in our community we are trying to help. And there’s nothing more fulfilling than that!  So my advice is ‘Keep Right’.

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

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.