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Growing up in the Hunter, I have watched the region become more and more culturally diverse. In recent years, our community has welcomed lots of people from refugee backgrounds, along with a surge of new migrants. This was reflected in the rapid change in the culture of the families we were working to support here in DCJ. As a new manager, I saw lots of potential to harness the strengths in culture to help children and families. I could also see the gaps in availability and suitability of services. We had to rethink our approach – and it was going to take a team.
My first step was to connect with my colleagues from multicultural backgrounds, or those who had an interest in supporting multicultural families. As a leader, collaboration is everything. People always give their best when they have a sense of ownership. Bringing people in and giving them agency to advocate passionately for children and families helps them think creatively about what we could do, not just what we’ve always done.
The families that were coming into contact with our office were from diverse cultural backgrounds and had unique experiences. We needed to make sure our service could recognise and respond to their individual needs. We had young people from refugee backgrounds growing up within a dominant Australian culture, which sometimes clashed with their parents’ culture, especially around traditional ideas of family and gender roles. Women were living with partners who were using violence; they were terrified to ask for help in case it impacted on their immigration status. There was a lot of cultural context we had to understand before we could truly work alongside families. Together we took a big step back and explored the complexities.
It became clear we needed to get out of the office and into the community to know what families needed from us and who else we could work with to reach the people who needed us most. I met with everyone I could, over lots of cups of tea! Including the imams at the local mosques, and community workers supporting refugees, and services that support new arrivals to the area to settle in safely. If I got invited to somewhere or an event, my general rule was to just say yes. You never know where a conversation or a connection may lead.
I heard about the fear that many multicultural families have about government services, and their confusion about what we do. So then I began meeting with members of the community to address their worries. The more information I shared, the more information people asked for. Trust began to grow.
Partnering with strong local organsiations is cruical.
DCJ is here when children are being abused or neglected – but we know that keeping children safe within their families starts before they reach our service. I wanted to see what we could do together, early on, that would stop families needing us to step in when it got dangerous for kids.
Family Support Newcastle provides playgroups where refugees are welcome to participate. This has been incredibly successful. There are so many benefits when families have a safe place to bring their little ones and connect with other parents with similar journeys. In one of the playgroups there are families from Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and China. It is beautiful to see families making new connections here in the Hunter, with people who understand what it is like to start life over in a new country. It is a soft entry point for families to learn that there are services in Australia that are here to help, and that the government can be one of the services providing that help.
Zara’s House is another beautiful example of grassroots activism. It’s a safe and buzzing hub for women from refugee and migrant backgrounds. Language classes help women to learn English and build confidence in navigating life in Australia. Day care means they can learn while their children are in a safe and supportive place. Women coming together helping other women.
Another critical group is for separated fathers who have been violent to their partner or children. This group is run by Family Support Newcastle. It helps fathers to understand what respectful relationships look like. We need to be able to change men’s perceptions about power, control and violence if we want to be able to keep women and children safe. To do this well, we need to understand culture and harness its strengths as we work together to create the type of change that keeps children safe.
By looking at violence through a cultural lens, workers create an environment of openness. I saw families feel safe to share things they hadn’t told anyone before. A mum from Pakistan told a facilitator that she was being badly hurt by her husband and wanted to leave. These sorts of conversations just wouldn’t happen without the groundwork by these dedicated services and their committed practitioners and volunteers.
You cannot underestimate the power of connection and belonging in people’s lives.
Mosaic Multicultural Connections supports families to settle here in the Hunter. We can pick up the phone now and support one another to get better outcomes for children. I remember one time we were involved with a mum because her young children were being left alone at home while she was at work because she needed to financially support her family. We worked together to understand her financial situation and made changes quickly to support her so the children weren’t left alone.
In another family, the parents needed help to support a son who lives with significant disability. Our partnership meant that the family accepted support and now their son has access to services that help him live a life where he has choice and control. Without taking the time to consider culture, we can sometimes only see the barriers to keeping kids safe. But a cultural approach allows us to better understand where people are at and gently guide them to safety.
Through all of this collaboration and listening I have learnt more about what families need. When we get a report about a child someone in the community is worried about, we look to connect the family directly to our community partners.
Being out and about and meeting communities before they need us is having an impact. When a large group of Afghan refugees settled in Newcastle, we reached out to talk and share who we are and what we do. Child protection is a new concept for many refugees, and they have every reason to mistrust government given their experiences back home. They also carry with them the trauma of war, displacement, and grief over leaving their country and family members behind. At these gatherings we are clear about child protection law and what this means for parents and children living in Australia. We start a conversation about raising children in Australia; most importantly, a conversation where people feel comfortable sharing their experiences and learning from each other. We acknowledge what families are grappling with as they settle in Australia and how they can find help early.
As much as culture in the community matters, we also need to focus on individual children and families. What does culture mean to them? This is when we started to engage more actively in multicultural consultations. I could see the value in casework being guided by someone with lived experience of that culture or faith or who had experienced arriving in Australia as a refugee. I made a point of going along to these consultations – for my own learning and understanding, but I also wanted to give the message to my team that we are all in this together and that this is something, as a manager, that I value deeply. Then as work would progress with a family, we had a collective understanding and could walk together through their journey.
We have developed a cultural support plan for children in out of home care from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Children need to remain connected to their country of origin and its traditional ways, and each family needs us to consider their culture and how we can harness it to ensure this. Group supervision is also a great place for these conversations. It is a time to examine individual families, but broader concepts as well. When practitioners talk about how we work in a culturally competent way with one family, it helps build their skills for all, from the basics – like does the family need an interpreter – to more complex factors like the impact of someone’s faith on their parenting.
It has been a journey of two years now and the impact is clear … but there is still a long way to go.
Culture is so much more than language, food or celebrations.
We’re creating an environment here in the district where culture is lived and breathed every day. It is how we listen and talk to families, it is reflecting about culture in all our work, it is having a human connection that helps children grow and flourish with their family and in their culture.
20 Dec 2022
We acknowledge Aboriginal people as the First Nations Peoples of NSW and pay our respects to Elders past, present, and future.
Informed by lessons of the past, Department of Communities and Justice is improving how we work with Aboriginal people and communities. We listen and learn from the knowledge, strength and resilience of Stolen Generations Survivors, Aboriginal Elders and Aboriginal communities.
You can access our apology to the Stolen Generations.