Audio transcript: Innovation in Aboriginal child and family services
Seminar facilitated & speaker introduced by Daryl Higgins
Audio transcript (edited)
Good afternoon everybody, Daryl Higgins here, I'm the Deputy Director at the Australian Institute of Family Studies and I’d like to welcome you all to this afternoon's webinar on the topic of "Innovation in Aboriginal Child and Family Welfare Services". I'd like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we're meeting and pay my respects to Elders past and present, to Elders from other communities who also maybe participating today. As you're all aware we have some very interesting speakers today from the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency who offer a wide range of innovative and culturally relevant services that are responsive to the diverse needs of Aboriginal communities.
First of all we're going to be hearing from Professor Muriel Bamblett who's a Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung woman who has been CEO of VACCA since 1999, she was Chair of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care agency for more than 10 years and comes with a wealth of experience in innovation and leadership in provision of services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families. She's going to be supported today by two of her colleagues, Connie Salamone who is the Executive Director of Strategy and Services at VACCA and Megan van den Berg who's an Executive Manager of Community Development. And together the three will be talking about their personal experiences from their agency's perspective and from their knowledge of services around the country about innovation in Aboriginal child and family welfare services.
As you know the webinar is part of the Knowledge Circle which is a service that we provide here at the Institute of Family Studies which is really focused around providing positive resources for those who are working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families and it's really about celebrating new approaches to help keeping our children safe and happy in their communities and is an opportunity to share good practice knowledge about what works and to increase the accessibility of information that will help us to assist. After we've heard from each of our speakers today we are hoping that we will have a few minutes left at the end for some questions from you, so please if you have a comment or a question that you'd like to put to our speakers, please get in early, the first questions that come up are the ones that we're most likely to get to, so please type them in in the chat box.
We will be recording this seminar, this webinar, and the audio and presentation slides will be made available on the Knowledge Circle website in due course. We will also have a post webinar forum on the Knowledge Circle website where you can discuss the issues that have been raised today and we'll send you some more information about this after the webinar. So without any further ado I'd like to hand over to our first speaker, Professor Muriel Bamblett, thank you.
Thanks very much. Can I too begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land and paying my respects to Elders past and present. Can I also acknowledge all those who are listening today. I just wanted to sort of briefly start by telling you how this session is going to run. Firstly I'm going to because you can't talk about child and family welfare without actually sort of giving a bit of an overview of where we are with Child Protection and the data and so I'm going to begin by just providing a brief overview. Connie Salamone is going to follow after me and she's going to be really putting it out there as to why Aboriginal services are different. We've also prepared for you a kinship care case study to demonstrate how we as Aboriginal services are different and fleetingly we have Megan van den Berg who will give a brief overview of VACCA's cultural programs, so it's really great for me to have two really, really skilled and experienced people with me.
I work for the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency and VACCA was established in 1977 as the statewide Aboriginal community controlled and operated service. And we were established because of the high numbers of Aboriginal children that were removed from their care and placed in non-Aboriginal placement and proceeding to the Aboriginal Legal Services. We did grow out of the desire to bring our children and our young people back home to community. Today we are one of the largest Aboriginal child and family welfare services in Australia and at the moment we employ in excess of 250 staff here in Victoria. Our desire to keep children and all children safe both physically, emotionally and culturally is still what drives us today and is part of who we are.
I want to really sort of talk about the context of child welfare. Despite - we have all of this effort nationally and in Victoria we have it, there's been a lot of investment in Aboriginal services - but despite our best efforts the numbers of Aboriginal children in out of home care are continuing to rise. They are rising at roughly double the rate for the rest of the community. The reason for the disproportionate removal of our children from their families are really poorly understood but today I want to sort of attempt to give you a snapshot of the data and highlight some of the practice issues that we have found at VACCA. I also want to touch briefly on the factors impacting on overrepresentation, the under representation of Aboriginal families in support and helping services, and I want to touch briefly in my session on cultural rights.
I really wanted to start off by talking about the high numbers of Aboriginal children that are in Child Protection and if you look at the data, the data says that Aboriginal children are ten times more likely to have a Child Protection concern substantiated, 15 times more likely to be placed on a protection order, and 16 times more likely to be in out of home care. So the further into the system the further the overrepresentation. One in 10 Aboriginal children experienced an out of home care placement in Victoria compared to one in 164 for non-indigenous children. And alarmingly the data says that across Australia there are 14,000 Aboriginal children in out of home care. Now look at the population, I mean in Victoria we're .6 per cent of the population and 10 per cent of the out of home care, so that's alarming.
I wanted to as well talk about children's contact with their parents and I wanted to - last year the Department of Human Services undertook in response to the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry of 2012, they undertook to review the situation of every child within stability timeframes within Victoria. Within this review were 367 Aboriginal children and what they found was alarming. They found that Aboriginal children's contact with their parents is limited. Of the 367 children in the DHS stability project, 93 or 25 per cent had had no access with their mother in the past six months, 168 or 46 per cent had had no access with their father.
They found that Aboriginal children are often placed apart from their siblings and contact can be limited. They also found that there are difficulties in placing our Aboriginal siblings together. For instance there were 74 children with three siblings in out of home care but only 26 who were actually living with their three siblings. Of the 15 children in VACCA's permanent care review, only four were placed with their siblings, the remaining 11 had siblings spread across up to six placements. So that tells the story of lost culture, lost family and lost community.
All along I've been referring to the system that fails to protect the indigenous Aboriginal children, but when it comes down to it, it’s people, it's us, it's people who operate the system. If there are mechanisms in place to do the right thing by Aboriginal children and their families and they are not being adhered to, what does it say about our service system and the people who run it? And I'm sorry if this may upset some people because this may seem to be a harsh thing to say in a sector that's characterised by workers that really work hard, that are committed, there's a high degree of commitment, and there's a passion to work with children.
But what other interpretation could there be. Is it a lack of resources? Maybe. Did we know about the policy, do we know about the legislation, do we enact it? Surely it's not that. I ask you to consider these facts. We've got legislated practices that are aimed at maintaining children's connection to their family, community and in supporting Aboriginal children's identity, but it doesn't happen. Again back to the stability data. Of the 367 Aboriginal children in the DHS stability project, 239 or 65 per cent had not been subject to an Aboriginal family decision making meeting. Now this means that it's in legislation that all children when there's a key decision about an Aboriginal child must be accorded an Aboriginal family decision meeting so their family can make key decisions. 58 per cent not happening. 309 or 84 per cent of the children in the stability project did not have a cultural support plan despite being in legislation. 100 or 40 per cent had no recorded stability plan, again in legislation.
But what's alarming for me is that 54 or 15 per cent had no current case plan. A child without a case plan, everybody knows in child welfare you need - it's illegal to not have a case plan. This is why we say that Victoria's approach to protecting Aboriginal children is failing. In much the same way as Adam Goodes and the Human Rights Commission campaign says, "Racism stops with me", so too should we all be saying Aboriginal children's best interests, it starts with me, it starts with us. If you look at the factors that impact on the overrepresentation, I don't want to spend a lot of time because I do a lot of talks on it but it's really important to understand that there are structural inequities and inequalities, that there's a differential presence of risk factors to which we don't have adequate - we have really inadequate responses. And I'll talk a little bit more about that later. The socioeconomic disparities, higher levels of poverty, homelessness, poorer health, lower education, unemployment, prison, that data is ever there, everybody knows the data around Aboriginal disadvantage and the disproportional overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the systems aimed for everybody in Australia. We know about parental issues, about drug and alcohol, family violence, mental health, cognitive impairment. The reason the number of Aboriginal children come into care is predominantly for family violence associated with poverty and homelessness, but do we have a child protection response to that, no.
The other issue that contributes to the overrepresentation is workers' perceptions and their attributes and this influences the way information about Aboriginal caregivers and our families, parents, is represented to Child Protection. And I think it's really important to have Aboriginal people involved when Child Protection are making those decisions. But what's really concerning and we talked about the data, is that Aboriginal children spend longer in care, their less likely to be reunited with their family and although markedly overrepresented in Child Protection, receive proportionally fewer services. And data from services and from reviews and just indicators, all the indicators, indicate that there's an Aboriginal higher engagement ensured to get interventions. So what we know is that Aboriginal families are accessing the services but they're being referred, and they're being referred to somewhere else who refers them to somewhere else and so there's this referral circle where everybody is referring Aboriginal families around.
Aboriginal services are primarily funded for tertiary services so it means we're the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff waiting for families to fall over, it's too late. But I want to say that there's some really, really good data coming out, particularly around our early intervention and the investment by government in early intervention and prevention. We've found that 60 per cent of families presenting to our VACCA integrated family services were referred from Child Protection and the early data is really encouraging where the program is stemming the flow of Aboriginal children into out of home car and it's doing that quite dramatically. So that proves then that when you have Aboriginal people involved earlier, we can prevent Aboriginal children entering the Child Protection system and it's really critical that we're involved upfront.
I know that most people would know that for Aboriginal children we have the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and it talks about the rights of children. But not many people actually understand the rights as pertain to Aboriginal children and their cultural rights, so I just wanted to spend a couple of minutes on talking about the importance of children's rights and their rights to maintain connection with their families. So the convention on the rights of children, it's based - and if you look at Article 30 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Aboriginal children and young people have rights pertaining to maintenance and connection to Aboriginal people, maintenance involvement in Aboriginal forms of expression and maintenance involvement in Aboriginal culture.
I talked before about the data and we talk about practice and policy. Each State and Territory has very good policy around Aboriginals, the Aboriginal Child Placement Principle Cultural Support Plan but are we complying with it. So are we violating the rights, the human rights of Aboriginal children? I say yes. So children also have rights pertaining to information and service access, those rights apply broadly to all people. Children have rights to have their day-to-day experience reflect cultural values. And it's really important that Aboriginal young people have the right to be cared for by staff and managers and an organisation that are aware of the importance of culture and actively promote their cultural wellbeing and have access to cultural resources as part of their daily living experience. And that's really important for Aboriginal children and later you're going to hear from Megan about some of the work that we're doing around culture and including culture into children's lives
But we know that embedding Aboriginal knowledge on identity is important to the formation of children's identify and we know that Aboriginal children actually it improves their transitioning when they have access to their culture. But for Aboriginal children their identity is a lifelong process. A lot of people think that doing a plan in a point of time is actually if you do a plan for an Aboriginal child at two, does it meet their needs at seven or eight, does it meet their needs at 14 or 15. No. So children learn along their lifelong process and it needs - any - a child's identify is one in which events, activities, community insight, and society influences and engages the child in the process of self-discovery. Aboriginal people address identity formation by providing experiences that will inform the child's spiritual, emotional, mental and physical self. All those elements are important to a child's cultural wellbeing and to their safety and to their emotional health and to the importance of growing children.
We know the importance of clan and tribes and knowing the children know who they are, where they come from. Children must understand in order to fully recognise the impact of separation and disconnection from cultural knowledge to prevent the present day, we need to make sure and I think it's really important, a lot of our work in Aboriginal services is to make sure children know where they come from and it’s not just a map on a page, it's about connection, connection to native title. Children have rights under native title to know where they come from and are able to claim their heritage. Given the importance of land it's really important that children maintain those connections.
But cultural connection is not just about a boomerang, it's not just about taking children to a museum or an activity. It's really about understanding that children need to maintain their connectedness with their spirituality, and hearing the stories of creation they link children to their ancestral knowledge and their kinship values. And they are really critically important to our children. And children, when they're connected to their culture, they actually are much better emotionally; their emotional wellbeing and their physical wellbeing are looked after. As indigenous people we have systems to keep children connected through our Elders, through our ceremonies, through our stories and through our kinship structures and support networks.
We are a collective society; we have an Aboriginal worldview that values kinship as a foundation of social life. Our Aboriginal children develop their identity as they are related to everyone in the community. Many in the community call me Aunt. For Aboriginal people it's a respect thing, and it's really important to me to have that relationship with those in the community. Spirituality is the cornerstone of identity, our Aboriginal children live their culture through their interactions with their community, with the people that are around them and surround them. Our traditional view that Aboriginal children are the gifts from the creator and this is something that's been really, really sort of important to remember, our children are the story holders of our future and it's really important that they take up that role. And Elders play a critical role in the identify formation of our children.
And I think it's really important now to hand over to Connie and Connie is going to provide for you an overview of why Aboriginal services are different and I'm really looking forward to this and I hope that you enjoy the next session, thank you.
Thank you Muriel. I'd like to begin too by acknowledging land and pay my respects to the traditional owners of this land, to the ancestors past and present. As Muriel has described, what we've heard is of a particular culture, a particular community that's different and Aboriginal organisations reflect that difference. I'm non-Aboriginal, I've worked in mainstream services and government and what my presentation is about are some of the differences that I've observed in having been at VACCA now for about 14 years.
For me one of the fundamental differences is that Aboriginal organisations to be successful have to be successful in two spheres. They have to meet all the requirements of mainstream services, for example the accreditation requirements. But they also have to make sure they maintain their Aboriginality. So the requirements on them to be successful are far more complex, and I see some of the differences in a whole range of areas, which I've outlined on that presentation. What I'm going to do because time won't allow us is just pick out a few from the slides and just talk to a few slides in a bit more detail.
So just to clarify that I'm non-Aboriginal and so this is the perspective that I bring to this presentation. The other thing I want to say is that I've made comparisons between mainstream services and Aboriginal services and not everything is going to apply to all organisations, so please bear that in mind, this is just a general overview. So if I look at community and governance, for me this sets the context of why Aboriginal organisations are different, why their practice is different and why they understand innovation differently. So as Muriel said, children are seen as the future of the community, they are the future Elders of the Aboriginal community. And what it means is that as part of the community, children as clients, their families, staff and the board of directors aren't all separate communities, there is that one community. They see each other socially, so in fact our understanding is quite different about how an Aboriginal organisation should operate, as opposed to most mainstream organisations where the directors, the staff and the clients actually have very separate lives outside of work.
The Aboriginal community also expects its organisations to voice the political aspirations of the community, self-determination. So VACCA is an Aboriginal child and family welfare agency but the community would expect VACCA to make comment about constitutional recognition, and a whole lot of other things that impact on Aboriginal wellbeing more broadly. Whereas if you're a mainstream child and family welfare service, there's not an expectation by your clients that you're going to make broader comments, they would expect you to maybe advocate about their particular issues but that would be it.
I think another difference is that most of the organisations grew out of a rights focused agenda. So in the 1970s began a whole range of Aboriginal organisations really focusing on stemming - initially from VACCA - stemming the flow of children out of the community. Mainstream services largely grew out of a church and charitable based model, so the organisations see themselves and are seen by their constituents as quite different. The other thing that made for me quite a revelation was the importance that the community organisations play in the community's life. So they host festivals, they host the sports carnivals; VACCA does children's days. So the organisations are really well connected to their community and it's a much more integrated approach. So practice community events are not so separate as they are in mainstream, so in fact children - VACCA's children would attend our community days as would children who are not involved in child welfare at all, so it's a much different focus in that respect.
I think from another perspective that's different is understanding governance and I think this is particularly misunderstood by many mainstream services. Aboriginal board members are elected on the basis of their Aboriginality and community involvement. This is seen as a key determinant of the expertise and skills required to govern. So what it means is that Aboriginal organisations privilege quite rightly the importance of maintaining the Aboriginal identity of the organisation, otherwise they're simply another organisation. That isn't to say that the things of governance that a board would do, don't get done, but it's done differently.
So for example at VACCA rather than have perhaps an accountant on the board, we have a risk and audit subcommittee that involves those sorts of professionals with the board and senior management. And that's really often quite misunderstood by mainstream services. And if you go back to what - if you remember what I said initially, to be successful they have to meet all the compliance requirements of a mainstream service, so it's not about it having lesser standards in governance, it's about understanding governance different and how it's actually played out is quite different. I think also there's much more role complexities, if they looked at the directors for example, a director in a mainstream service is unlikely as I said before to socialise with clients, with staff, a director of an Aboriginal service is part and parcel of the community. So their role is governance but also has a much more direct connection to the community.
If I move onto business rules, I'm just going to focus on one, again just for time, and I just want to focus on conflict of interest. One of the things that people struggled with especially when I came to VACCA, they said one of the problems with Aboriginal organisations is that there's a whole lot of conflict of interest, you know, staff might be related to one another, they're certainly related to the community that they serve. And certainly it's been my experience that the Aboriginal approach to conflict of interest is actually a much more sophisticated understanding than we have in mainstream services. For example it's actually just simply understood as something that has to be managed.
So for example if at VACCA there's a worker who's working with a member of their family and there's perhaps a quality of care concern about the child, well that has to be managed appropriately. That worker will step down and someone else will take his or her place. However what people don't understand is the fact that people are from the same community, know the families, is actually an additional protection to the child. So for example there was a case where Child Protection were going to withdraw because they thought things were OK. And what was very clear from VACCA's workers was that in fact the children were not OK because they saw those children very day in the community. They saw the level of neglect; they saw the level of family violence because they are in that community. And for me that actually added an additional protection to the child. So I think we need to understand conflict of interest very differently than how we understand it in mainstream and I actually think it actually adds added protection as I said to children.
And I'm just going to leave it there for time, I'm going to go on to management practices and just pick out a couple to talk about. So I'm going to talk a bit about how Aboriginality is seen as a key management competency. As I said I'm a non-Aboriginal manager and what I'm very clear is that management needs to be able to understand the cultural context with which you operate. In mainstream because they're part of the dominant culture, that's just a given, whereas in Aboriginal organisations management is actually much more complex. So there are a number of issues that I would speak to Muriel and to my other Aboriginal colleagues about because that's something I don't actually know but I know is critical if I'm going to provide good supervision, good direction within an Aboriginal organisation.
The other area I just want to focus on is the authorising environment. Often what I hear from mainstream services is when there's poor practice with Aboriginal families, they feel paralysed because they're termed racist. What I think Aboriginal organisations can do, they can call it what it is and if for example there's poor practice, if there's poor decision making, that's what it is. And so we all have to take responsibility for that. So I think there's an authorising environment that says actually that practice is not OK irrespective of what the family is and I think that's a really important quality that Aboriginal organisations actually bring to practice.
I'm going to move onto service delivery and spend a little bit more time here. Certainly one of the concerns that people used to talk to me about when I came to VACCA and why on earth would I stay at VACCA was because of the view about the lack of clinical and diagnostic approach to practice. And so what I've actually experienced is not that the skills are not there, but that in fact it's a much more narrative approach to practice and I'll just give you an example. Very early on in my days at VACCA I was doing some work and I asked one of the Aboriginal workers could she please give me their assessment of this family. And the worker said to me, "Oh no Connie, we don't do things like that, that's just you social workers" and I said, "OK, so can you tell me a bit about the family?"
So I put up on the whiteboard what this worker was telling me. So I asked her questions about the parental relationship, I asked questions about the individual parent's relationship with the individual children. I asked questions about the involvement of the extended family, I asked questions about how they got involved with services and how they responded to services, I asked them about the parents' mental health issues. And so by the end we had on the board what I viewed was a very sophisticated psychosocial assessment. And I said to the worker, "What you've shown me is a really sophisticated assessment" and she said, "Really, me?" And I said, 'Absolutely" for what I did wrong was with my language and how I approached that individual staff member, so she felt quite disempowered by the use of my language so I think that's a really important lesson to learn.
The other thing for me, one of my major learnings also has been the importance of personal relationships as a key intervention strategy to achieve change, that if the worker that's working with you is respected, you know they have their interests at heart, you know they're part of that community, that of itself is a really strong impetus to actually implement some change. And I think that's often misunderstood. I think the other area I want to focus on is the importance of children's cultural identity as not only fundamental to their wellbeing but the importance of culture as a treatment modality or as healing. And I again think that's often seen as a bit of an add on rather than what I've learnt is that it's actually a critical path to any sophisticated intervention into families, particularly vulnerable families' lives.
So it's really important that we know that the importance of our cultural connection for treatment and for resilience, children to feel proud of who they are, is a really important first step in their healing process. The other thing I'm just going to talk about is the Aboriginal client's experience and Aboriginal community's experience of the system is built on 200 years of child removal policies and practices. So just have a think about what that means for an Aboriginal family and for an Aboriginal agency. So what it means when they come to practice, they're very aware that there's 200 years of engagement of Aboriginal families with services that have been there primarily to remove their children. And so I think that means that you need to look at how you approach families quite differently and Aboriginal services can do that because they share that history and I think that's a really important approach.
I'm just going to move on to the next slide. What this slide is about is some of the things that I've encountered through being non-Aboriginal at VACCA and some of the things that people tell me so I'm just going to share them with you. And one of the most interesting things for me has been how government in particular has become paralysed in moving forward in many areas of innovation because not all the agencies agree. So you don't all agree and we can't do it. And yet I've been at meetings with mainstream services where they don't agree either but the government decides we'll take some action and we'll do something. So there's almost an assumption that because the Aboriginal agencies can't agree there's something wrong so it's a very deficit model I think operating here.
The other thing again which is quite amusing is that if there's differences between the Aboriginal agencies it's always viewed as community politics. But differences between mainstream services are seen as fairly normal business. The other area is often when they talk about Aboriginal services or failing in terms of looking at stemming the flow of Aboriginal children to out of home care, what often isn't acknowledged actively is the fact most of the Aboriginal dollars are tied up in mainstream CSOs, and yet when I come to discussion with government as does Muriel and others, it's often about well what are the Aboriginal services doing rather than saying well actually where's all the money. So are we getting the best value for our money? So it's really important to think about that, to think about what are you doing in that space.
Again as I said before there's often a very deficit approach to Aboriginal organisations, as I said before people are quite horrified and surprised that I'm still in an Aboriginal organisation because of a view that in fact Aboriginal organisations aren't professional, can't do, and in fact that's not been my experience at all. The other just last point I'll raise on that page is the devaluing of our cultural knowledge. So we've had multiple requests for you know, to come and help an agency become culturally competent, to have partnerships, and that costs Aboriginal agencies. We have to put staff into it, we have to develop resources, and yet when you talk about it they want it all done for free and I think well if you wanted additional financial assistance, you pay an accountant. So the question here is why is that cultural knowledge is devalued and it's devalued if you're not prepared to pay for it. So again just a comment to think about.
My last slide in this section is really about some of my own personal learnings that I've had since being at an Aboriginal organisation. And I suppose one of the funniest things is that people think I just simply bring a lot to an Aboriginal organisation whereas in fact my practice and my professional and personal learning has grown enormously, I wouldn't be there if that wasn't the case. And I think that has meant for me professionally I've had to re-examine a whole lot of approaches and understandings that I had and perhaps the first one that comes to mind in my earlier years at VACCA was that I was taught as a social worker that you needed to keep your personal and your professional life quite separate. I came to VACCA and found there's no distinction and what I learnt actually was that it meant that some of the interventions that were happening with families were actually more successful because people brought their personal into that professional role.
Just to go over a couple of them. I think I was quite surprised and shocked how racism is alive and well in our welfare system and I do say I was quite shocked. And some of the experiences I personally have had is where people have thought I was Aboriginal and because of that they've done things like when I've made a statement about a family they've asked me for my qualifications. It's irrelevant; they don't ask anybody else for their qualifications. When there was a dispute with a Child Protection manager what the person said to me was, "Well you know, I've got five years' experience in Child Protection" as a means of trying to put me down. What I didn't say was that "I had 20 years' experience darling so don't tell me that". But in fact that sort of approach of putting people down and using language in particular I think is really alive and well in our sector.
The other thing I want to say is I've been really surprised because it's through my own ignorance, is how strongly you need to still advocate, you need to advocate for policies, you need to advocate for legislation, you need to advocate that the new program that is going to be rolled out will have an Aboriginal component. And probably one of the things that I find most interesting and I was talking to Muriel about is that because I'm saying positive things it actually holds more sway than if an Aboriginal person was saying it because they're saying, "Oh well it's their organisation". So I think we need to thin about that and what does that mean.
What I'm going to do is move on to just a case example. The context of this is this is an Aboriginal organisation and this is a case example in kinship care, Megan is going to talk about some of our interventions in terms of our cultural programs more specifically and I suppose we see, you know if we had more time we'd talk about them in a more integrated fashion but they're actually both part of the interventions that we provide and that's what I think makes us quite unique and quite innovative. So what guides our practice in kinship care for example, and you can see it up there. I want you to note that the first thing is child safety. So when people talk about culture versus safety, it's nonsense and it's certainly not an Aboriginal perspective. Child safety is first and foremost. What's also important is to actually have a child safe is they have to be culturally safe and that's what people misunderstand I think.
So our approach is always very trauma informed, one of the important things about Aboriginal organisations and what they really know is that you have to form meaningful partnerships and we invest an enormous amount of time in that in all our programs. So I'm just going to leave it there, you can read those. So the family. This group of three children under three in 2008 came into the care of the department due to family violence, substance abuse and transience. At entry they weren’t - the two oldest children weren't identified as being Aboriginal, their father was Aboriginal, and the youngest child had the same mother but was not Aboriginal. By 2010 it was established the two oldest children were Aboriginal and they had all been placed with their maternal grandparents who were not Aboriginal who were also caring for four children. At the time there was no contact with either parent or paternal Aboriginal family before VACCA's involvement.
In 2011 the family was referred to VACCA's kinship care so what did we do? So we began an assessment of the paternal family in terms of access, could they actually see the children. We did cultural awareness work with the maternal family, so for example we involved them, and we did things like explain key cultural events like Sorry Day, NAIDOC Week. We advised them of their dates, we explained the meaning of really important symbols like the flag. We talked to them about understanding the Stolen Generation and its impact on families. Information about our own programs, we gave then information about - the limited information we had about the children's tribes and the First Nation. We talked about our confirmation of Aboriginality with the maternal grandparents.
Then we reconnected the parents with the children. We also commenced a permanent care assessment of the maternal family and actually developed a function and care team. Basically what happened is that due to some concerns, which I won't go into, the maternal grandparents were really struggling to look after the children. So what that meant is that we then went from doing an assessment of the paternal grandparents for access, to actually looking at them taking the care of the children full time which is actually what happened. And you can see there some of the things that we actually did with the grandparents.
I'm going to move you to the next slide that is the complexity of the service system. So these were the services that were involved with this family. And the thing I need to tell you is that many of those services didn't know the others were involved. And what we did with the father was that we actually got him to have access with the child at VACCA's playgroup so it was a very non threatening environment, he was with other children and that worked really, really well for dad. So some of the problems we encountered in this case were racism from the maternal grandparents who were really not interested at all in the children identifying as Aboriginal at all. Collusion, the childcare centre had actually formed a really good relationship with the maternal grandparents and so didn't want to report the serious concerns they were seeing about these children's wellbeing.
There was very poor cultural information about the children when we took it on; there were very limited assessments. Child Protection knew there was concerns about the maternal grandparents, they told us that, but they hadn't drilled down to what actual impact it was having on the children. There was an unwillingness to engage with services from the maternal grandparents, there was also a very fragmented history. The history of the children was difficult to put together because the Child Protection case had been scattered across three States. There was a lot of grief and loss from both sets of grandparents that had to be dealt with; they were very distrustful of services, as they had had previous child welfare experience.
The other thing, which is interesting, was that the maternal grandparents way of trying to avoid dealing with any of the Aboriginal issues was to have a constant series of complaints about something. So they thought if they could engage the agency in not just complaints management it would mean they wouldn't be able to look at the Aboriginal issues. So look at the outcome. The children are now in a safe placement. We've achieved compliance with the Aboriginal child placement principles, we've developed a connection obviously to the children's Aboriginal family, the kids have a meaningful cultural support plan, the kids are actually doing much better in their health and their emotional wellbeing, the kids have put on weight, they've stopped bedwetting, one child is now wearing glasses which was a major issue because the maternal grandparents really felt unable to get the child to put on their glasses, he's now wearing his glasses.
The kids are also spending time at home. Previously they were in care from 8.30 till 6.30 each day, now they're at home. They're attending kinder and we're now in the process of permanently planning the children to their grandparents. And the kids' rights, under the Charter of Children's Rights are now being honoured. Thank you for that.
Thank you very much. So we might now invite Megan to come forward and talk about cultural programs, so thank you very much Connie.
van den Berg
Hi, my name is Megan van den Berg, I'm the Community Development Executive Manager. I've been at VACCA for over ten years and been part of some really amazing projects such as delivering community programs including family strengthening programs, financial literacy, healing from family violence, connecting members from the Stolen Generation to community and culture and cultural revival practice programs. I've missed my little note there that I'd like to also acknowledge land and just acknowledge we're on the land of the Kulin Nation and pay my respect to Elders past and present and all Aboriginal people listening today. I really see Aboriginal programs group work as an important much needed practice for our community. I kind of really think of it as something magical that happens in those programs when you bring Aboriginal people together.
Our programs really work with vulnerable Aboriginal families and children in care in groups of around up to ten participants. And for about five to ten sessions depending on what the program is. The foundation of our work is understanding the impact of grief, loss and trauma and this is always built in to the development of the program and then the practice in terms of the way we respond to the family and the children from out of home care who are part of the program. It's about strengthening vulnerable families and children in cares connection, so the programs that we run are un for children in out of home care. At the foremost of that is their connection to culture, community and their identify as we believe this builds resilience and contributes to their healing.
Providing cultural programs to keep Aboriginal in out of home care who are often disconnected from their community culture and identify. So I guess in this particular opening there's many projects I could talk about what VACCA has done but I'm going to focus on two and that is the Possum Skin Project and the Koorie FACES Family Strengthening Project. I guess what guides our community cultural programs work is the voice of community is represented in all of our programs, that culture is seen as a protective factor and so it's essential and it's essential but I think it's an easy given, I think this is our business and we can do this easily. Cultural strengthening, holistic child focus and a family centred practice, trauma informed and that we're really about building a resilience of the families and the kids that we're working with.
So the first example I'm going to talk about is the Koorie FACES program. Originally this program was funded in 2005 and I don't have it written here in my notes but I do actually remember it was my first sort of big community meeting and sitting around with a bunch of Elders and community leaders and I had to do a presentation on this upcoming program. And they all said this is going to be a once off thing, you're going to deliver it, you're going to run out of money and then we're never going to see it again. And me being quite naïve at the time stood quite confidently, "No I see a future in this", and it is funny because you know now we're looking at nine years later and we're still being funded to deliver this program.
So Koorie FACES in a nutshell really is a five-week family-strengthening program. It was originally developed to educate families, Aboriginal families about resilience against drug use but the truth is it's become much more than that, it really is a family strengthening program. Its themes focus around history from an Aboriginal perspective, grief, loss and trauma, self care, communication in the family, family relationships and resilience. So you see here in the photo it's a family, an Aboriginal family and the whole program is centred around this family and audio scenarios are played featuring members of the family so we actually brought in a group of actors to help us create these real life audio scenarios. And what you're seeing here on the cue cards is behaviours.
So some of them, it's about being a role model and the community members go up and tick what they think are the good behaviours and what they think are the not so great behaviours. What this does is it puts the participants at the centre of the decision making of what they believe is good and what they believe is not so great. And they take that knowledge back to their own families, so we're really planting seeds throughout the program. The programs are highly visual and interactive and include group discussions, story telling, audio scenarios I've talked about, time to reflect on learning, involvement of Elders. So you see here the use of art and most of our cultural and community programs have an art element. The use of art provides a therapeutic base for Aboriginal people to story tell, reflect, express and heal without necessarily the use of words, or even having to share their personal story.
So here this family-strengthening program has been developed in a way as I said that the strengths are highlighted and they're problem solving themselves. So in this activity the group come together and reflect on the values within their family. While other parenting programs might use the standard way of getting them to write their values on a piece of paper, in this activity you see that they are building a house in which they've written their own values that are important to them on each brick, so they're visually creating this house. And the next slide just shows some examples of that. So what you're really getting is a highly interactive program where the participants are engaged and feeling part of that process of coming to those conclusions about what will work and what won't work when they leave the program and go back home.
I'd also like to talk and highlight another program, which is the Possum Skin Program. So one of VACCA's ongoing - this is one of VACCA's ongoing projects, it involved a series of workshops that lasted over five months, they were facilitated by artist Vicki Couzens, Gunditjmara artist, and Wemba Wemba Elder Aunty Esther Kirby who had al long history of crating possum skin cloaks. The program was planned to first link the Aboriginal children into learning about history of cloaks and the importance of traditionally connecting to Aboriginal people in southeast Victoria. So the program really began by reviewing the Melbourne Museum collections where they would hold and hear about objects of up to 200 years old including 150-year-old cloak from the Coranderrk Mission. In this first photo you see Amy holding a basket woven by Truganini, which thrilled Amy, whose heritage is Palawa.
The project allowed the Aboriginal children and young people to connect with their Elders and community so they can learn about and actively contribute to their own culture in a way that's relevant and meaningful to them. So we would actually get the information about their backgrounds in terms of tribes, where they were from and then work with the Melbourne Museum in terms of linking them to the items in the collection that related to their tribe. So we tried to be really specific. In this series of photos you see Aboriginal children creating their own designs. This was after visiting the Melbourne Museum and seeing the traditional cloaks. The children drew what inspired them and what makes them feel strong and proud in their culture.
The following is a quote from Ruby who was 13 and participated in the project. "It was a great experience learning to sew something I never did before, it was a fabulous event because I built my knowledge on my culture and was able to understand why it's important to know about this and I'm able to teach others to do the same." So in that quote you can see that Ruby became and felt empowered to be a teacher. So over the five months of working on the Possum Skin Project we found that the kinship carers and children strengthened their experience and understanding of Aboriginal culture. They developed respectful and important relationships with Elders and the artists who ran the program. They became the next generation of cultural leaders and are already going out and educating others. They became contributors to the maintenance and revival of the practice of making possum skin cloaks and they were supported therapeutically by being part of this project and this has contributed to their healing. And ultimately they've built a stronger resilience throughout the project.
So through this Possum Skin Project, they're developed really on the basis of our knowledge of trauma theory and practical measures are put in place to minimise and support issues and to support the kids during this program and our workers are trained in this. So in this example we also had an Aboriginal boy who had lost his mother and drew designs on the possum skin about her. He commented that this design had made him feel more connected to his mum and this is just one example of the healing powers of this traditional practice. So this is one of the finished cloaks and I see that as a really amazing powerful image and what it does is it really shows that each line on the possum skin is a story from each child's ancestors, family, community and culture and it's reflective of their healing over the project.
We've also just got one final quote from Aunty Esther Kirby and I'll leave that, that's part of the presentation, I won't read through it but it really does just show the power of the work that we do in community programs.
Thanks very much Megan. Can I just finish by saying that Victoria, we're very fortunate in Victoria, we're home to much innovation in child and family welfare, we were the first Aboriginal organisation established, Aboriginal child and family welfare organisation established in the 70s, we have child and family welfare services across the State from Mildura, Swan Hill, Robinvale, Echuca, Bendigo to Shepparton, Albury- Wodonga, Heywood, Ballarat, Warrnambool, Geelong, Dandenong, Morwell, Sale and Bairnsdale. We were the first to appoint an independent Aboriginal Children's Commissioner Andrew Jackomos.
This State has led the development of culture support plans, therapeutic responses for Aboriginal people, led in providing special advice to Child Protection at notification. We have gained national recognition as best practice from SNAICC through AIFS. Clearly the most progressive legislation has been the introduction of Section 18 which is around the transfer of guardianship for VACCA the Guardianship Program provides a unique opportunity to develop a service that's based on Aboriginal ways of knowing and doing and is focused on growing up Aboriginal children safely and strongly.
Today you've heard from our staff, I think that it's been innovative, it's been a great opportunity for us to be able to come here today and we thank you and we hope that as I said before, that it will be the people that are listening that will actually assist us in contributing to a better way forward for all Aboriginal children.
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