This year has been a big one for Westcare Child and Adolescent Services - Westcare celebrated 30 years of operation in January 2011.
Julie, not her real name, is a teenager in care. Her weekends sometimes end in an early morning return to her Salvation Army abode, accompanied by five or six police officers that she has fought to a standstill under the influence of various substances.
Julie’s lot in life is problematic. The clock is ticking, and no-one knows how Julie’s story will turn out. The folks at Westcare, however, in the parlance of the street, ‘have Julie’s back’. They have hope for her and support her, as they have with countless other young people who have gone through the same issues over the network’s 30 years of service.
Julie’s plight raises large questions. What kind of person harms a child? Why? What circumstances lead to that eventuality? How can we best help young people recover from a horrendous start to life? These questions rise when you visit Westcare. They are important. But they are not the most pressing query.
While damage is acknowledged and context is understood, it’s that last question (what can we do to help these kids heal?) that consumes the staff members’ waking thoughts. It’s difficult to understand the struggles that children in care go through unless you’ve worked with them, been one of them, or met with someone who’s lived through the process and emerged on the other side of the experience.
Westcare staff literally couldn’t do what they do if there was a ‘nine-to-five’ programmatic or attitudinal approach. So, where do Westcare’s practitioners stand on therapeutic relationships; the great social work tension between being accessible and compassionate while still protecting yourself and ensuring self-care – ‘beyond the call of duty’ engagement versus professional distance ? It revolves around a very Christian concept – treating people they way you yourself would like to be treated.
‘You can’t have a therapeutic relationship with a young person unless you have a therapeutic relationship within your organisation,’ explains Glenys Bristow, the senior manager of Westcare’s training, education and development services. ‘If John [Avent] doesn’t have a therapeutic relationship with me, and if I don’t have one with Pete [Annesley], then we don’t have a relationship with the staff that’s equal; it’s the same with what we do with kids. There are “mirror” neurons in the brain, and everything that we do is mirrored.
‘If we forget to care for someone that can lead to other lapses. Even the smallest thing can quickly grow. So we treat our workers and volunteers the same way we treat the kids. If they are not safe and nurtured they can’t keep the kids safe and nurtured; we need a healthy organisational culture that goes beyond a clinical, dispassionate approach. We need to engage with the kids as human beings.’
‘Our philosophy,’ John Avent adds, ‘is that if we ensure the staff are well looked after and supported then it follows that the children and adolescents will also be. If doesn’t abrogate our responsibility to have good program models and guidelines and expectations. All of that works well in stage two: stage one is making sure staff and volunteers are supported.’
A lot of insight has been gained, Glenys explains, into trauma and attachment theory. ‘Some of our kids are suffering from extreme traumas. There has been a lot of trauma attachment training in the field, that we run here in partnership with Berry Street* right across the state,’ Glenys says.
‘Extremely experienced psychologists work with staff, who do 24-hour therapy with kids… we have ups and downs, but when children turn 18 funding evaporates, even though they still need to be nurtured.’
A young person aged 14 or 16 may come into the system, having experienced abuse for an extended period of time. ‘We barely get started with interventions that we can demonstrate have made a difference,’ John says, ‘and then they turn 18 and are excluded from the majority of support and nurture that was previously wrapped around them.'
The reality is that Westcare staff continue to support children in an after-hours capacity ‘but as a systematic response to young people,’ he adds, ‘we are lacking as a society. We have a responsibility to continue to provide support and nurture.’
In endeavouring to meet that responsibility, Westcare staff are conscious of ensuring their own physical, psychological and spiritual health. ‘This is a difficult job,’ concedes Glenys, and we have to prepare people. Police, fire brigade and ambulance personnel have back up available at a phone call, so we residential workers are really the only emergency service that works alone with dangerous kids without backup, and consequently we have some really nasty assaults at times.
‘We can’t evict children and say, “Come back tomorrow” - kids need to be nurtured. They need to be parented.’
* Berry Street is a child and family welfare organisation that has cared for Victorians since 1877.