An empowered life that is enriched by dignity and justice for children, young people, parents, families and communities is the core intent of REFOCUS, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Service founded in 2010 to specialise in providing services for families and communities. Their focus is ensuring that parents receive the support and encouragement they need and the appropriate services to assist them.  Partnership and collaborative action is key to the work of REFOCUS.

The Early Indigenous Response Collective is one example of their commitment to partnership and collaborative action. Membership of the Collective is comprised of:  Maroochydore Department of Child Safety representative including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers of United Synergies Intensive Family Support program, IFYS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander foster care worker from D’Jinang-Djaa and REFOCUS Recognised Entity and Child and Family Wellbeing staff.

Darcy Cavanagh, CEO of REFOCUS notes that this collective offers a wealth of experience of culture and best practice for families.  The panel offer multiple cultural viewpoints to guide decision making. The various relationships across the community that members of the Collective have assists them in identifying the best person or organisation to engage families while identifying the least intrusive engagement. Darcy noted that 78% of panel members of the Early Indigenous Response Collective are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. Only one core member of the Collective, a Departmental staff member, is not.

The Collective was initially established as a way of addressing the backlog in notifications that weren’t being addressed in a timely manner. They meet fortnightly and will convene if needed for any emergency case. The Collective has become a way of delivering timely supports for families and responding to notifications. It is a goal for all notifications to be referred to the Collective before it is allocated to a Child Safety Officer.  “We link with health services and other community organisations because our relationships and connections usually mean we can often find out if the family is in need of support through the relationships and connections they already have in place” said Darcy.

The Department of Child Safety refer a notification or at times a closing Intervention with Parental Agreement (IPA) to the Collective. When notifications are reviewed by the Collective there are usually only 2 non-Aboriginal people in the room.  “It is known Aboriginal people and families have the solutions and know what’s best for them, but government processes don’t always allow time or the family’s process to happen.  Now we’re exploring this space and having the family and their community as the experts and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community workers as the supports.  They have specific skills to offer families to enhance their capacity and build on their strengths and abilities.  We’re so pleased to see that in these cases the Department has had the confidence to take on board and act on the recommendations of the Collective” said Darcy.  He further noted that the process thus far has been about learning each other’s boundaries and understanding and articulating why or if key parties need to be involved.   He says that they regularly ask themselves – Do we really need to be there?  “We need to always make sure we know why we are intervening/supporting and that we assist the family in understanding too and we support them in a respectful way” said Darcy. “Our cultural values remind us to maintain an expansive, holistic and forward-looking view in all that we undertake.”

When the Collective works with IPA case closures, they assist the step-down approach in supporting the family in continuing their goals.  “It is important that support doesn’t just disappear and connections to support options, particularly the universal options are maintained.  That’s the beauty of the Wellbeing service.  They’re universal services.  If no one needs to case work the family, they can attend the universal service and stay connected”.

Darcy notes that the Collective has involved a change in power dynamics and some giving up previously held power in order to create a safe space.  All Collective members need to be willing to be challenged to see others’ points of views.  “We’ve found that once we let go and try new ways it works.  This is an authentic and thought challenging space.  We always need to be family and community focused and not departmentally focused and risk averse.  This is where we see change happen – when we work with families in a respectful and genuine way without power imbalances.  This work is making great inroads for families.”

The Collective’s ability to connect families to wellbeing services and utilise the many soft supports available to ensure parents and families are doing well and staying connected is a significant benefit.  Darcy is enthused that these soft supports mean that often families have no contact with the Department of Child Safety at all because the Collective is utilising people who families already engage with.  This is effective in that it means that any concerns can be addressed immediately, sensitively and respectfully without shame or humiliation.  “The dignity of parents and families and the way they are responded to when they experience difficulties is so important.  These gentle approaches work.”

The Child and Family Wellbeing Hub utilised by the Collective is a place that respects the journey of each person and supports healing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.  They focus on the holistic traditional approach of Mind, Body, Spirit and Family which is underpinned by respect, humility, compassion, honesty, truth, sharing and love. Their path to wellness is a connection to community and country.

The Child and Family Wellbeing Programs offered include:

  • Indigenous Triple P – Parenting program
  • Circle of Security – Attachment program
  • Happy Bubs – For mums and newborns
  • Kai Kai – Learn how to budget, shop and cook for your family
  • Man Up – Men’s Business and culture
  • You Matter – Healing and self-empowerment
  • Intensive Case Managing – Providing in home support
  • Play Group
  • Youth worker support
  • Culture for Life

The physical space is also important to ensuring families feel welcome and comfortable. “We offer a people-orientated space.  Our workplace at REFOCUS is for people to feel connected and welcome.  We make sure that is how our children and families and workers feel when they enter it” said Darcy.  “It is so important that they feel comfortable and empowered because our job is just to guide them through and remind them of what they often already know.”

In the short time since the Early Indigenous Response Collective began taking referrals in June 2017, there has been a 14% drop in Child Protection Orders (CPOs) taken out and a 67% drop in Interventions with Parental Agreement (IPAs).  Darcy is clear that these positive outcomes are a combined effort of the work of the Collective together with the respectful way that Maroochydore Child Safety Service Centre is working with Culture which includes increasing the numbers of Indigenous staff and honouring and acting on the advice given by Indigenous people.   “It certainly looks like this model is a step in the right direction to reducing the over representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strat Islander families in the child protection system” enthused Darcy.