Preventing the removal of Indigenous children in Inner Sydney

Background

There is a significant gap in the rate of child removal between Indigenous and non-Indigenous families in Australia. Indigenous children represent 6% of the total number of Australian children but 37% of children that have been removed from their parents. The 2020 Family Matters Report projects that the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care could double by 2029.[1]

To address this challenge within his own community, Redfern Indigenous community leader Shane Phillips developed the Redfern Family Mentoring Strategy to prevent and reduce the risk of child removal among local Indigenous families, with support from Inner Sydney Empowered Communities (ISEC) and Jawun programs. Founded in 2013, ISEC has been an important vehicle for elevating Redfern community priorities to the Commonwealth Government for funding.

ISEC is governed by a representative Board comprised of members from the two local Aboriginal Community Alliances: Redfern and La Perouse. Membership to the Redfern Alliance is drawn from ‘opt-in’ Indigenous-controlled organisations. The Family Mentoring Strategy was identified as a priority by the Redfern Alliance, who were successful in securing an initial $120k in annual funding from the National Indigenous Agency of Australia (NIAA). This funding would support the employment of a Project Coordinator and Lead Mentor in order for Tribal Warrior to deliver the Strategy under a new program name: the Healing Our Mob through Empowerment (H.O.M.E.) Family Mentoring Program.

Jawun prioritised supporting the development of the H.O.M.E. program to help the Redfern Alliance in addressing the critical need for change within the region. Four Jawun secondees from IAG, CBA and Woolworths were sent to ISEC and Tribal Warrior to support needs analysis, program design and systems development over the past 5 years. Tribal Warrior H.O.M.E. Program Lead Mentor, Lily Miles, was also a participant in the 2021 Jawun Emerging Leaders program, which provides training and networks to community-identified young leaders that are seen as critical to the future of the region.

Approach

The principles of the (H.O.M.E) Family Mentoring Program are built on learnings from Tribal Warrior’s successful Clean Slate Without Prejudice (CSWP) Program.[2] Shane Phillips explained:

“Parents of kids in the CSWP program saw the success of its mentoring approach and expressed a desire to have a similar form of support for themselves. Some of these parents were asking for help because there was heavy involvement of DCJ in their lives, threatening child removal. We felt that the existing process wasn’t empowering families to own their change. We created the Family Mentoring Strategy to help families empower themselves to change through culture and strength, addressing the cause of their challenges, rather than symptoms.”

 The H.O.M.E. Family Mentoring Program utilises a mentoring and cultural healing approach, working holistically with Indigenous families (adults, youth, and children) residing in Inner Sydney who are at risk of removal, or have experienced removal of their child or children, to keep kids at home and within the community.

The program has been running for 12 months and includes a program manager who oversees the program, a lead mentor who leads the work directly with families, and a program coordinator who looks after administrative matters, including service referrals. The program also employs mentors who engage and support families directly. The mentors have the capacity to work with up to 10 families at one time, which have children either already in or at risk of being placed in out-of-home care. H.O.M.E mentors support families by referring to services where complex issues exist, attending court hearings and mandatory meetings with the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ), and supporting with police orders. Families are supported to create goals (that also meet DCJ priorities) and Cultural Care Plans to ensure families feel empowered and informed about the process, their rights and responsibilities when achieving their family goal of restorations or preservation.

An example of a Jawun secondee that supported the development of the H.O.M.E program was Jefferson Damayo, who was sent on a virtual secondment from Woolworths for a six-week period to support the establishment of systems and evaluation processes in early 2021. Jefferson worked closely with Lead Mentor Lily Miles to identify the systems and evaluation requirements of the program. This involved investigating its operational requirements, such as collecting case notes, to document activities and demonstrate the impact of the program for existing and prospective future funding. Central to this process was co-designing data systems to ensure that the empowerment journey of the Redfern Alliance was demonstrated, rather than solely meeting grant reporting obligations.

Jawun has also provided direct support to Lily Miles through the 2021 Emerging Leaders Program. The theme of the program is ‘collaborative leadership to drive change’, with program participants undertaking training modules, producing a case study and meeting with key Indigenous organisations, corporate partners, and government stakeholders to support their growth over 5 program phases. So far, Lily has undertaken workshops delivered by Jawun corporate partners in driving cultural change in leadership (Bluescope), PowerPoint slide design (BCG), leadership in a crisis (Qantas) and presenting skills (Allens).

Outcomes

The program has successfully restored 2 families thus far. For one of these families, representatives from DCJ told H.O.M.E. mentors that the family had no prospect of restoration prior to the involvement of the program. The case had been ongoing for 5 years, with the family very disengaged from discussions with DCJ and no progress being made towards the goal of family restoration. Another family had been working through complex issues, with DCJ representatives struggling to engage with the parents. By empowering these families to use their voice and make positive changes, DCJ came to the decision that it was safe to return the children to their families.

Tribal Warrior staff have reflected on the strong impact of Jawun program in supporting the growth of the H.O.M.E. program and the development of emerging leaders. Shane Phillips stated:

“Without Jawun, we would probably be less than a third of where we are now. The secondment program has given us momentum and resources at a critical time for our community.”

Lily Miles added:

“The role that Jawun secondments play within community is invaluable. It gives us skills and connections that we didn’t have access to, making things easier for us. With Jefferson, he helped us consider what software was suitable to improve program reporting, then helped us to establish reporting processes. But more importantly, he trained us to do it ourselves.”

Reflecting on her time within the Jawun Emerging Leaders program, Lily said:

“Even though the program is only partway through, I’m already getting so much from it. I’m establishing new networks and have taken something important away from each workshop. We recently had a session with the Chief Marketing Officer of Qantas, which was so powerful. We’re modest and don’t always share our successes. It was eye-opening to hear how that can be approached from an expert.”  

Jawun aims to deliver shared value across its partnership, with secondees also undertaking development opportunities through their secondments. In his secondee survey at the end of his secondment, Jefferson expressed that he felt his secondment experience improved his engagement skills, self-confidence, and flexibility. He concluded:

“I feel Jawun has opened my eyes and helped my understanding of our Indigenous culture…to see and feel the passion from my host organisation [Tribal Warrior] has truly left a mark on me to continue to be a better ally…the secondment has added more fuel to help in many other ways I didn’t possibly consider before.”

Next Steps

It is the aspiration of Shane Phillips and Lily Miles to continue growing the H.O.M.E. program to support the restoration of more families and continue minimising the risk of child removal. Tribal Warrior is also in the process of documenting the processes of the H.O.M.E. program, with the support of Jawun secondees, to share the framework with other Indigenous communities facing similar challenges across the nation. Lily Miles expressed:

“We see this program going nationwide, along the east coast and west coast, so that we can share its successes with other communities. Each community is different, and we don’t believe in a one size fits all program approach. But we see the benefit of this framework for our people and want to share and adapt it for others in need.”


[1] Family Matters Report 2020, ‘Measuring trends to turn the tide on the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care in Australia’, accessed 17 November 2021: https://www.familymatters.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/FamilyMattersReport2020_LR.pdf

[2] CSWP is for Indigenous youth between the ages of 12 to 25, supporting them to learn and practice culture, routine, discipline, and respect through dedicated mentoring and group activities. Visit the Tribal Warrior Website for more information: https://www.tribalwarrior.org/clean-slate-without-prejudice