8 September 2022

Rob Ryan, Executive Lead - Strategy and External Engagement (Child, Youth and Family), shares his reflections on the importance of family strengthening to support child protection.

A woman sitting on the floor hugging a child.

I want to share a story about Tina*. Tina is a young person with a complex history of trauma and harm who was placed in foster care.

I first met Tina when she was fifteen and in the care of the Department. I was a young officer working in the child protection system, and I worked with her as her caseworker for several years before moving on to another role.

Six years later, I received a call through the Department information line to say that Tina wanted to talk to me. Tina had accessed her file under the Freedom of Information provisions, and she had gone through all the staff she had worked with, trying to find someone who still worked in the Department. Tina came across my name, and she asked me if I would go and have a coffee with her.

I’ll never forget her words “I want to talk to people who knew me when I was growing up”.

Tina and I caught up for coffee, and she reminded me of what her childhood was like in the care system – multiple placements (too many to count) and numerous schools. Due to a lack of social support, she had left care into homelessness, poverty, and loneliness.

Since that time, I have built a kinship connection with Tina. I watched as Tina re-connected with her mother in adult life in a desperate attempt to link with her history. Long after others were no longer there to support her, it was her mother who, despite her own challenges, was so willing to reconnect with Tina.

I saw the struggles Tina had in maintaining relationships, holding down employment, being unable to fit anywhere and having no place to call home. I have seen Tina experience difficulty in her romantic relationships, creating a spiral of events that have led to her children also being in the care system. These are the same underlying issues that her mother experienced, and so the cycle continues.

I reflect back on Tina’s life and the vulnerable and at-risk children in our community and ponder what more we can do to make a positive difference in the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Over almost thirty years now, I have seen the incredibly hard work of staff in the child protection departments, non-government agencies, foster carers and the community putting more and more resources into child protection.

I know there is definitely a place for this important work, but we have to be honest that it is an extremely tricky system to navigate.

We have a system that needs a radical rethink of what we can do to make a huge and generational difference.

I think of someone like Tina and wonder what her life path may have been if we had provided extensive support to her family at the beginning of her journey. What would have happened if even 5% of the funds that were spent on Tina’s chaotic mix of placements, legal processes and a multitude of caseworkers were instead invested early to support her family with housing, rent assistance, education support, counselling and a liveable income?

During child protection week, I believe that now more than ever, we need a targeted and universal focus on family strengthening and how we all find ways to invest in children, young people, families and communities.

If we focus more of our energy on supporting families and learning from those with lived experience, we will all benefit, but more importantly, our children and society of the future will benefit.

Recently many of my colleagues and I had the privilege of sharing time with parents with lived experience of the child protection system.

Their experiences were heartbreaking, deeply personal and, most importantly, a call to action for each of us that cares about children and our community.

In the words of one of the parents, “knowing there were people out there that have travelled the same journey and succeeded – that gives hope.”

Two women sitting next to each other. One is comforting the other. Text reads: Knowing there are people out there that have travelled the same journey and succeeded, that really helps. It gives hope.

There is hope, and that hope starts with family strengthening so that every child in every community gets a fair go.

Thank you to the brave people who so graciously shared their lived experiences to help create a better pathway for future generations.

Rob Ryan.

A person's story is precious. We take storytelling seriously. Sometimes people are able to tell their own story, and we love that. We always make sure they give us their ok, and we will always honour the trust placed in us to bring their story forward.

*Names have been changed to protect the children in this story.

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