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SHANE BAUTISTA: REPAIRING CHILDHOOD TRAUMA - YOUTUBE RECORDING

From the age of 2, Shane didn’t have the normal upbringing. His mother left and he lived in kinship care with his Nan and Pop until his Nan dies when he is 5yo. He lives a haphazard life with many moves, including a breakdown in his permanent foster care family, and he is subjected to sexual abuse and unimaginable losses as people come and go in his life. He attempts to end his life once, suffers bulimia as a form of self punishment, struggles to fit in and feels broken and dead inside. Yet outside he appeared happy, confident and was able to achieve success in the creative arts (he joins Johnny Young Talent Team and stars alongside Colette Mann and works on Neighbours and other TV series). Eventually he finds his voice, comes out as gay in his 20s and finds success in nursing and education after reuniting with his foster family).

Shane wants others to learn from his experiences. He encourages parents and carers to validate children and to learn and educate themselves where they don't understand sexual identity or gender and to provide a safe space without judgement so that children may be an open book and share their feelings. He wants parents and carers to understand that sometimes that means Scouts or Sports are not enough and that encouraging children to have inner drive is important. He also recognises that if children are befriending the misfits, or older friends, it may be because they are being bullied or don't fit in, or it may even be that any attention, even sexual abuse, is better than no attention. Your child might just be looking for someone to befriend. Further to that Shane reminds us that sometimes children will attempt suicide, and live with an eating disorder or even reject parents and carers outright, just so those people they love the most don't have the opportunity to reject them. Belonging and identity are so interwoven.

He wants Government and support agencies to look for ways to support families to stay together with the right supports in place and for social workers to get some lived experience behind them so they can support children and know what questions to ask. Above all else Shane wants all children to feel safe, secure and to feel like they belong and to get psychological and other support and diagnoses early. Shane hopes that other children can learn from him rather than turning to drugs to run away from the inner turmoil. Shane leaves us with insights we can all learn from in raising our children.

00:00 - Start 01:53 - Who is Shane today? A 44yo mental health nurse. 02:47 - My Mum was young and damaged, suffered severe epilepsy and there were allegations of abuse by an older brother. My parents relationship was a violent one and my Mum had a temper. She would go from man to man looking for validation after my parents divorce. One of those men lost his temper and smothered my face with pillows. To this day I cant have anything on my face and am claustrophobic. 8:50 - Living with Nan and Pop offered structure, routines and family traditions. It was the happiest of times until Shanes Nan dies when he is 5yo. 11:52 - After Shanes Nan died his sister got pregnant and his Pop just didn't know how to care for him 13:20 - DHHS were involved as they realised Shane needed support. Instead of removal that could have been in home support. 14:52 - As a child you don't understand sexual abuse. You just like the attention. 15:53 - Shane's Grandfathers and Uncles feelings towards his Dad rubbed off on him. 17:10 - Shane's and his Dad never understood each other. A tale of two cultures. 18:40 - Shane's foster parents were supportive of contact with his Dad, but accepted in his teens that he had had enough 20:50 - Trying to help Shane make friends by joining sports or scouts made him feel more isolated. You need to do things that truly fit. 22:29 - Disconnection feels like an emptiness, not a sadness, a dead feeling inside. The mental health issues and attachment disorder amplify that. 29:34 - If you don't have friends, or you are bullied. you may be drawn to befriend the misfits 35:00 - Shane was afraid of rejection from the family, and ended up attempting suicide and resorted to bulimia before rejecting his foster family by ending the placement. He had to reject them so they couldn't reject him. Strange but true. 37:10 - Drugs offered the opportunity to run away from the inner turmoil and feelings and create a high 38:50 - The self loathing and not respecting or loving himself took 12 years of drug use before he moved on. 43:35 - Provide a safe, accepting, non-judgemental environment and educate yourself where you don't understand sexual or gender identity. Validate and learn. 46:20 - Don't let anything stop you in achieving things. Its drive that is important. 48:44 - Social workers need life experience and to learn from real lived experience

SHANE BAUTISTA: REPAIRING CHILDHOOD TRAUMA - TRANSCRIPT

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice evidence based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people.

PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse and follows child safe standards.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

Today we are speaking about foster care, kinship care, identity, being gay, abuse and more with Shane Bautista.

From the age of 2, Shane didn’t have the normal upbringing. His mother left and he lived in kinship care with his Nan and Pop until his Nan dies when he is 6yo.  He then lives a haphazard life with many moves, including a breakdown in his permanent foster care family, is subjected to sexual abuse and experiences unimaginable losses as people come and go in his life. He attempts suicide once and gets support the next time he feels suicidal. He struggles to fit in and feels broken and dead inside. Yet outside he appeared happy, confident and was able to achieve success in the creative arts (he joins Johnny Young Talent Team and stars alongside Colette Mann and works on Neighbours and other TV series). Eventually he finds his voice, comes out as gay in his 20s and finds success in education (supported by his foster family).

What can we learn from Shane about how we can offer safety, connection and peel back the layers to understand the child within?

Warning this story discusses care, sexual abuse, grief, mental health, suicide, addiction and more. Best suited to adult audiences. 

1:40 Welcome Shane and thankyou for joining us.

That was a long intro!

1:53 Thanks for joining us. Do you want to start off by telling us who you are today before we delve into that history?

I am 44yo and I work as a mental health nurse and alcohol and recovery. My main passion at the moment is my candle business (Impact Candles) via ecommerce and business to business also.

2:47 So you have experienced and done a lot in your life. Can you teel us a little bit about what you experienced in your Mum and Dads care before being cared for by extended family?

One of my sisters Julie who was adopted out and who I met at 18yo actually described Mum (from her adopted file) as when she was young as damaged: mentally, severe epilepsy, a bit of drugs and allegations of rape or abuse by an older brother. So it’s a bit of a family history there that could blow up if I stirred the pot

My Mum as far as I know had a temper and she would go from man to man for some type of validation. She met my father and he was Filipino and my Mum is English. The story goes that he was on a Filipino navy ship and he jumped ship so he could stay in Australia. What I can remember is that it was a pretty toxic relationship. At around 3yo I can remember Dad coming home and there was a fight and Mum throwing dishes at him. I would just hide under the bed. I’ve witnessed my Mum having an epileptic fit on the couch and in a toilet where we were locked in there for an hour or two. That was pretty heavy.

They divorced and separated and my Mum moved to her Mum (English grandparents) and my older sister Christine was in there as well. Mum had her when she was 15yo. It was a bit of a messy upbringing and my Mum was in and out of my life from then until about 5yo.

My Mum tried to take care of me and one of her boyfriends was living in a caravan park and I wanted my Humphrey B Bear light on and was having a bit of a temper about it. This angered this man and he tried to shut me up with pillows over my face. My Mum pulled him off and we took off and my Mums twin brother came and got us. He was a bit protective towards us. He would have wanted to flog this guy. To this day I can’t have anything on my face due to that time. I am claustrophobic also.  It used to come back in nightmares but not anymore.

When I was with my Auntie and Uncle I was having these nightmares but that has stopped now.

8:50 You ended up living with your Nan and Pop. They offered you safety, connection and love and encouraged you to be ambitious with skating and other creative pursuits. It sounds like you really thrived in that environment. Why was that?

With my Mum and my Uncle Stephen, they were twins and they were put through dancing lessons, tap and ballet and dancing. So that carried on with my older sister Christine going into figure ice skating as she was 10 years older. As a teenager she was pretty much skating full time. which she did very much full time before and after school. So when I got to 5yo my Nan put me in skating also. They dressed me up as the Easter Bunny once at the Easter show! Often Nan would put meals off or ask Steve to help pay some of the house bills so she could put us through these lessons. She really put us first before herself.

10:30 Did you thrive in that environment?

That was the happiest time in my life. The Sunday roasts and whoever from the family wanted to come on Sunday. I remember her with her baking and her cupcakes on Sundays. So she really took care of us and that was the most stable time for me for a few years. I was 5yo when she died and I was by her bedside and witnessed her gasping for breath as she had liver cancer. I still unfortunately have that last memory of my Nan but I try and remember the good things.

11:52 Your Pop found it hard to care for and be available to you after she died is that right?

Yes he didn’t know how to do anything. Wives did everything back then. He would forget to feed me. Often I would go to school in prep or grade 1 without underpants on. Nan had done all that stuff making sure I was dressed properly. I just was really left to my own devices.

My sister Christine had at the time moved out and she was across the road at her boyfriends place and she got pregnant at 17yo. I guess as he was getting older and didn’t know how to care for a young child.

13:20 Do you look back and think something different should have been done at that time?

Yes DHHS were involved in that way at the end of that because my Auntie and Uncle took me on and I lived with my cousins. No support for my Pop. Maybe some additional support for my Pop would have helped but maybe he was getting to old to care for a young person. I was 5yo running the streets, hanging out with teenagers and living beyond my years. After my Nan died sexual assaults were happening. There was a boy next door that would play with me and his older sister would babysit me at times. If I went over to their house or he came to mine he would do things to me. My sisters boyfriend his younger brother was doing the same thing too.

14:52 Is that something you are aware of at the time that it is happening to you and you should speak up?

As a child you don’t know that it’s wrong and you like the attention.  I was lonely and the friends I hung out with were older so I guess you don’t think at that age you just things its a game or something. As you get older it affects your behaviour and the way you do things in your adult life.

15:53 You ended up having more contact with your Dad Roy before a foster family was found for you?

Funny story my Grandfather and my Uncle hated my Dad so I guess that rubbed off onto me. I was told this story about when I climbed the house with a box of rotten tomatoes and when my Dad came I would throw them at him.  I idolised my Grandparents and my Pop was like my best friend so I guess he rubbed off on me as a young impressionable boy.

17:10 Can you differentiate that now in terms of your real feelings and how you were impacted by other people?

My Dad and I never got along or understood each other. I was brought up in Australian Culture. He was Filipino culture. He would say you are too Aussie. And he didn’t know how to be a father. He was never around so we never got that father son bond. It was not much of a relationship at all. Even when I was in foster care and he would have access, he wouldn’t spend one on one time with me, he would take me to friends parties, or take ladies shopping. It was never one on one father and son time. After a while I just said I don’t want to go there anymore.

18:40 You were living with Joan and Bryan, your foster family, at that time around 7yo. Could you talk to them about it? As a biological family member you would be encouraged to spend time there but he didn’t have the skills?

They were quite supportive and would always encourage me to give him a chance. There was a time when I was 8 or 9 and there was some reason why he couldn’t drive me home so I caught the bus by myself in Dandenong and got off in Hallam Road, at the paddocks where the bus stop was on the other side of the freeway. It was nighttime and I got off and walked across those paddocks to back home. When I opened the door Joan was in shock and wanted to know how I got home. I said I caught the bus and she was fuming at that.

From my childhood from 5 I guess I was the most streetwise kid so I could have easily caught the bus at 5. They always tried to encourage contact but they also supported my decision in my early teens when I said Id had enough.

20:50 You lived with Joan and Bryan, your foster family, and they enrolled you in sports but at times that made you feel more disconnected as your interests differed?

It was more scouts. Joan was trying to make me find friendships. So she enrolled me in Scouts. At times it was fun but I didn’t really fit in with the boys because I was obviously gay and didn’t want to do the boy boy stuff. They did support me in the creative arts and driving me to rehearsals at school and things like that and coming to the shows. But they never had an experience of a young child that liked girly things in those days.

22:29 You are obviously feeling disconnected. What does that feel like and do you feel it daily?

With my mental health issues, depression and anxiety, and attachment disorder, that probably still carries forward in my life in attaching to people. I have a small group of friends but I have a lot of acquaintances. At times I do feel a disconnect to the world and an emptiness. I don’t feel sad but sort of dead inside.  The weekend just gone I went away with my best friend Danny who I live with and a couple of girlfriends and that was such a recharge and I came back recharged and remotivated. But a couple of weeks ago I was feeling demotivated and there was nothing inside. So Im going to find a new psychiatrist and get a proper diagnosis. I think there is a bit of ADD (attention deficit disorder) as well. So I’m going to get a proper diagnoses. Back in my day there was no help it wasn’t spoken about.

Did Joan and Bryan want that for you?

Maybe they weren’t educated on mental health and the social workers I had seemed to be younger straight out of college with no experience.  On one hand you are not being offered help and on the other you have all that shame and you are burying it down. Joan would talk to me and try and encourage me to talk about my feelings, but because Im a people pleaser, I would want to share my feelings but the anxiety would take over and I couldn’t share my feelings. That must have been frustrating for Joan because I just couldn’t share due to the anxiety and it being undiagnosed. I guess if the social workers were trained more in mental health and adolescent mental health that would have gone a long way.  If someone had said we understand you are going to have these feelings. 

As an adolescent if you get asked to go see someone you would just say no I’m fine. I think you need to be forced! Even if it was just you know go and see a psychiatrist or psychologist and just give it a go. They may be able to help you. These days there is a lot of support and resources which wasn’t available in the 70s and 80s.

Even the book you have written about your life is helpful for others to see those feelings are normal. That was an incentive for me to express everything, which was quite healing. I wanted to help adolescents in care or not to go through their sexual orientation or identity, to see that there are other people out there experiencing what they may be experiencing and that they are not alone.

29:34 You talk about being bullied for being gay and then being tortured by your friendship group and then you hang out with the misfits because they became your friends.

In Year 9 in any teenagers life it is the hardest year because you are out of puberty, a little bit mature but also easily led by other kids, either the bully or the victim. The first half of Year 9 I was failing everything except drama.  I had the worst attitude at 14 going on 15. Everything I had pushed down started to surface. I was being bullied because I wasn’t good at sport or people called me a poof. I would hang out with the smokers that were older because I wasn’t getting along with my peers. I was getting attention that wasn’t the best.

It sounds like you were doing everything you could to keep hidden.

The funny thing was I went to Hampton Park Primary and Secondary. In the 70s and 80s it was quite an affluent suburb, very white, middle class, upper class. That school sucked. It wasn’t until I blew up my life with my foster family in Year 10 and moved to my cousin Tanias high school in Doveton, a rougher school, the second half of year 10 and Years 11 and 12, they were the best years of my life. For me middle, upper class kids could be awful and entitled. Anything else would be a chance to frown upon and be bullied. Found less judgement in that environment and safer to be myself, but still not coming out as gay. I didn’t come out until I was 23 with my foster family.

35:00 You were prepared to lose your foster family at that time to keep everything hidden and not affect them?

I was afraid of rejection from the family. When I tried to kill myself that didn’t work. I guess I was in the defensive and rejecting them before they could reject me which is just stupid. They kind of knew that I was gay but no one spoke up about it. I wish they had spoken up and forced the conversation. Joan and Bryan didn’t understand it due to age and culture. When they grew up there wasn’t much of that around so they weren’t equipped to deal with that fight against the sexual tension, the confusion and self loathing and I was self punishing with bulimia. In this day and age I would have been sent to hospital.

37:10 You ended up exploring with ecstasy and a whole lot of other drugs when you were 23 and came out?

The first guy I ended up with at 23yo was a drug dealer. Then I was obsessed with Italians and Greeks and “wog” boys. I had my first fill of ecstasy and it just started from there. You take one pill then you are taking two then you are trying speed, cocaine, amphetamine, GBH, Ketamine and because I have an addictive personality I would chase that high. It would be Thursday to Sunday chasing that high and then Monday I am supposed to try and work. Very wasted.

38:50 You talk about wanting to get away from that shame and find identity. What’s the turning point for that?

From 23 when I came out to about 35 I was a drug user. I was just running from myself and all the turmoil and feelings. Drugs did that for me. When you are out and take drugs with your friends and you meet more friends because everyone is on the “love” drug it’s a really good time. So I would be picking up a guy at the pub, going off and making out at the toilets. I started to get a name for myself as easy. It wasn’t until my 30s that I started to slow down. When I was 24 as a dancer I moved up to Sydney. That didn’t work out and I was working for Virgin records as a casual and then a manager. I wasn’t getting paid enough and when my dancing finished my housemate suggested I try escort work as I was already giving it away for free. So I did. For 6 months I was a male escort. What I realised is you don’t get to select your customers. Lots of older men, married men, straight men. Hardly ever gay men. Mainly closeted men.

One of the guys was smoking ice at the time and offered it to me so there we go again I was addicted to ice for 6 months. It really takes a hold of you that drug as it makes you feel invincible.  I guess the older, uglier men didn’t matter as I was drugged up and it was all about making money. On a weekend I could make $3,000. The self loathing part of me and not respecting and loving myself allowed me to do that.

43:35 As parents and carers we have an opportunity to learn from you as despite having people around you you didn’t aske for help. I don’t mean that negatively as how can you in that situation. So what do we do when there are kids feeling like they don’t belong or depressed. What do we do that could be different?

Provide a safe space to not feel judged and to be spared of rejection. We have a lot of kids identifying as non binary and using the pronouns correctly. So if they say I look at myself as non binary and I would like to be called they/them, try and embrace that as a carer even if you don’t understand it, educate yourself. There is a lot of support for children’s sexual identity so just try to understand where it is coming from and don’t call it a phase like I got. Provide a safe space without judgement. Fear of judgement is the biggest catalyst for teenagers behaviour and whether they shut down or open up. Even if you don’t understand it.

46:20 You really have made a difference in other people’s lives as a nurse and drug and alcohol counsellor. So what has given you that inner drive and how do we get others to tap into that?

One thing Joan would always drum into me as a teenager was that you can always achieve what you want to as long as you have the drive. Don’t let anything stop you achieving things. So having the confidence to allow myself to do that. I also didn’t want to be like my parents. There is something in me that wants to achieve things and life is short so make the most of it. I do still suffer from mental health but I have a lot of good family support now. Sometimes I wish I didn’t do 3 degrees and bought a house instead! That innate drive to want to be better.

48:44 Is there anything else to discuss today?

Something else to discuss is social workers coming out with degrees is to try and gain some more life experience and educate yourself in what kids go through today. Don’t just look at things from a text book. Get out there and look at life. Volunteer at different support groups and see how people live and the conversations they have. See it face to face. I guess they have placement and things like that which is good. I guess just educate yourself and live the life of other peoples shoes to gain that understanding.

To anyone making the time to listen to this recording, thankyou for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life.  Until next time have an amazing week

OTHER RESOURCES

Resilience by Shane Bautista – available here

Impact Candles – Shane’s business – see here

 

Choosing a Trauma Informed School with Chrissie Davies - Youtube Recording

Chrissie Davies has over 20 years experience working with children and families, as a teacher in the school classroom working with extreme behaviours, and as a mother of two young children, one through adoption and one through permanent care. Chrissie has had experience with navigating the school system due to trauma behaviours showing up unexpectedly. The beautiful child led systems in kinder and pre school were different to the teacher led expectations in school, and suddenly trauma behaviours showed up. Chrissie spent a year trying to work with the school on these trauma behaviours until she eventually decided to move everything to a location that would suit the families needs for the long term. That included finding a trauma sensitive school where teachers are Berry Street trained and behaviour is managed in a trauma sensitive way, embracing concepts like time in, calm spaces and sensory items. What happened? It was a great success. From daily worries about behaviours to not one phone call all term to report on unwanted behaviour in the classroom. Wow what a transformation. What changed? Not her son? The environment changed. So getting it right is invaluable. And what does her son think? He says the teachers at the new school support him. That's how every child should feel. Find out more about how to navigate schools and how to advocate for your child from Chrissie. She has some great tips.00:00 - Start 01:12 - Some schools will be lost in knowing how to understand, approach and work alongside kids with trauma behaviour. 03:30 - The right school that supports your child is critical. You school needs to explain how they would deal with tricky behaviours. 06:20 - Be upfront about your child's background as often children will fly under the radar until Grade 3 or 4 when there is a leap in expectations. Alternatively they may start to unravel as they move from kinder and preschool which is child led, to teacher led instruction. 09:25 - Find out if the school is trauma informed or willing to be trained by Berry Street to be trauma informed. Ask what happens if the wheels fall off because research tells us that trauma kids can unravel at any point. 12:46 - Arrange a non standard school tour so you can assess the day to day reality. Look at how the schools values permeate through the school and look at the behaviour management policy and how teachers relate to each other. Do they look happy to be there? 18:49 - Approach teachers as an ally: you have so much information about your child and trauma, so suggest to the teacher you would like to share what works and continue building a positive relationship with the teacher, yourself and your child. 21:27 - Advocate strongly: trauma is a disability and you are entitled to realistic modifications in the classroom. Focus on your child's strengths and interests in IPL or other meetings with school leaders. Remember the right approach from the teacher interacting with your child can make the difference: their tone, look or even a rejection can set off a child. Advocate for flexible seating and noise cancelling headphones and a calm space or sensory tools to help with children's nervous systems. 27:25 - School selection begins at 2 to 3 years old so that you can offer your child stability for the long term. If you are fighting to get what your child needs, or needing to involve the education department to get what you need, maybe its time to give up on that school. 30:26 - Make a long term lifestyle plan when selecting your school and be confident in your decision and work out how to sell a change of school to your children 38:39 - Schools don't work for all but they offer communities so don't give up on them

Choosing a Trauma Informed School with Chrissie Davies - Transcript

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice research-based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people. PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

Today we are discussing choosing a trauma informed school with Chrissie Davies from Chaos to Calm.

Chrissie has over 20 years experience working with children and families, as a teacher in the school classroom working with extreme behaviours, and as a mother of two young children. Chrissie has a wealth of knowledge to share.

Welcome Chrissie.

01:12 Chrissie with your experience in schools and lived experience, you would understand the importance of choosing the right school for our children from an adopted, permanent care or kinship care family? Can you share with us a bit about your experience?

Boy do I ever. And Im so excited to do this topic because I feel like it is going to help so many families that come along after us. 

For those of you who don’t know about my work, I sit in this niche position as an educator for 15 years and now run my own consulting business and raising two neurodivergent children through adoption and permanent care.

Navigating the school system very sadly I found out first hand, particularly last year with my little guy starting school reminded me how far we have to go in school settings understanding developmental trauma and what that looks like in a busy classroom.

We plodded along ok with my daughter and she didn’t really have any behavioural challenges per se. As we know the kids that are the loudest get the most support.  She masked lots of her trauma behaviour which is a very real challenge that many families need to be aware of.  But boy did my little guy let the whole universe know how hard it was for him.  I am not exaggerating when I say, this particular school where we are at, and its not about shaming the school it’s about creating awareness, in our experience they were completely lost about how to understand, how to approach and how to work alongside us.  Unfortunately that educational setting did not work out for us and our family.

3:30 Why is finding the right school SO important for our kids?

School communities become a very important part of our family village. We cant survive without them. If you choose to send your child to a formal educational setting, the school leaders and in particular the school principal, the people who deal with the “tricky behaviours”. If you don’t get that right you live what we lived through of an incredibly challenging year. Are they ever going to get it? There is value in investing time to get it right. The happy ending is that it is very often not our kids but it is the environment.   My little behaviour kid who was getting sent home every second day is now thriving and we have not had one phone call all term. It has been transformational. I can tell you right now not much has changed about him. He is still his gorgeous rambunctious little self. But the approach the understanding the language the environment the support is a complete contrast. I said to the kids this morning I’m doing an interview today and my little guy, who is 6 and a half, said the teachers at this school never yell at me. They really care about kids and they support us better. unit.

06:20 Is it important to be upfront and honest about our child’s trauma background?

For sure. We were probably blindsided a little bit because our child had done really in the same child care setting and at stand alone kinder. But those settings are very child led. They follow their strengths and interests.  Once children hit more formal education it is really different and it is sadly not so much about the child anymore and it is very teacher focussed and teacher led. I think we are getting better at it but there is not a lot of room for individualisation. So when you have kids that don’t fit the mold, clearly my kids saying “Why do I have to sit on the mat. I want to move Mum”. I was like I know. There is a real shift from child to led to teacher led in education and this is where the wheels can really fall off in education. So being really honest and transparent with school leaders is really important because we might think our kids are doing ok in kinder. But the truth is that as our children’s brains grow and develop things more and more of those trauma behaviours or neurodivergence or others can start coming out at any point along that journey.

What we see generally in education is that kids can coast or fly under the radar until about Grade 3 when there is a huge leap in expectations and capability in what children are supposed to do. That is when we can see the gap widen if there are challenges or neurodivergence that goes hand in hand with our kids. So what becomes apparent in Grade 3 or 4 is that it becomes really apparent that the child is struggling or having some challenges. So that is important to keep in mind as well. Like I said you will get a really good indication from school leaders just by having that conversation about whether they are really invested. Schools are really good at saying the right things and their websites say the right thing but it’s not really until you are in the trenches or in the throws of suspensions and meltdowns at school that your really see how the school rise to the occasion or are a little bit overwhelmed in knowing what to do.

09:25 So how do you know as a parent if the school is using trauma informed practices?

You ask. And at a very bare minimum, the leadership are trained. The really great model in Australia is run by Berry Street in Trauma Informed Training run by Berry Street. This is the challenge we had. They just wouldn’t commit to any trauma informed training, or at least send my sons teacher. That’s what I mean about being invested – at least willing and open to learning. That is a question you could ask, what happens when the wheels fall off because research tells us that trauma kids can unravel at any point. They can be triggered by certain emotions or smells or memories. Have you dealt with these kinds of children before? There is a misconception that trauma doesn’t come from families like ours. There is a lack of understanding of the early brain development. We were told very early we wouldn’t get any help with education because our son comes from a good family. It has nothing to do with us as the adoptive parents. Its everything in utero. So get an understanding that if the wheels did fall off what are they willing to do. 

I want to also clarify that teachers are only as good as their leaders. There were many instances that teachers have been willing and wanting to do training but they are knocked back by leadership. Its important to remember teachers are the ones on the front line. They are the ones dealing with the challenging behaviour and disruptions in the classroom. Nine times out of ten teachers are amazing. Often teachers can’t do enough for you. But at some point their hands are tied in terms of access to training.

12:46 What are some of the questions or things we should look for when doing school tours?

I really want to iterate this, especially if you are doing a staged school tour. That school will sparkling like the Chrysler building in Annie. That school will spend weeks preparing, putting up displays and cleaning.  So you need to go into it with the knowledge it has been staged. So if you can get on a non staged tour you will get more of an indication about what is actually happening in the school. Lots of schools will do that if you call up and explain how you want to get the setting right and explain the situation. Most principals will be open to that.

One of the really important things for our kids is focussing on the school’s positive behaviour program that they use. Most schools will have a set of values that they follow. The model is meant to be ingrained and embedded throughout the entire school community. Teachers should be using that language. Awards given out at assembly should be linked to the school values. Many schools aren’t doing this. I nearly died when my daughter got an award for putting her hand up in Grade 2. I was pretty sure she had mastered that!

The biggest challenge we have with our kids is that there are a lot of schools that are empathetic and patient and understanding. But that doesn’t move our kids forward. Do you get what I mean? Because our kids need that little bit extra. Are they running social skills clubs. Are they running inside clubs for children having trouble on the playground. How are they communicating when kids are in trouble? What happens to them. Are they sent to outside the principals office on a cold concrete floor. Are they swept up into a beautiful Grade 3 class and nurtured and  involved with those older kids. There are so many ways in which schools view behaviour. Many still view it as discipline and conformity.

The Behaviour Management Policy should be on the website. You can get access to that as parents. But it’s usually a beautiful well written document.

The other thing I say is look at the teachers. Do they look happy? Do they look like they want to be there? The school we are at now, any interaction you have with any teacher at that school is so positive. You can just tell that they love working there. Teaching is a really hard job and at times a thankless job. If you see teachers and their relationships with each other and how they communicate with leadership at family events, that’s an insight into what is going on. If teachers are happy in their job you will know it.

Should you take the child with you on the school tour? I would say no. At the end of the day a 7 year old doesn’t really know what is best for them. Not every school environment is right for every child. Traditionally we went to our local school but now we are overwhelmed with choice, yet we are limited sometimes in terms of zoning. The reality is not every environment works for every child. I’m all about giving kids choices but I don’t think this is one they should make. Once the decision is made sure take them on a tour. That is then us being really confident in understanding and knowing, that as adults we understand trauma and adult relationships and we know what is best for you.

This is my daughters third school would you believe, where they had a beautiful cinema room. I can imagine kids  doing the tour going yes I want to go to that school because they have a movie room. Children are all about the sparkles, rainbows and unicorns. They don’t have the depth of understanding. They see it they want it.

18:49 How can we confidently advocate for our children’s needs in their classroom?

One of the biggest challenges we had was it became more about don’t tell us a how to do our job. We are experts when it comes to our kids. We know so much about trauma and we are always googling, learning from each other and watching podcasts like this so we have so much up to date information. Teachers are doing the same. But they aren’t experts in trauma. That is an important relationship where we need to come alongside teachers. And there is a huge disconnect in schools understanding that we are your ally. We have so much knowledge about this kid we can help you if you let us share what works. It also comes with an understanding that our child is not the only child in the classroom. So be mindful of hello here I am again. So once again doesn’t that come back to building relationships with people and having that relationship with teachers where teachers can share the good days as well as the tricky days. We get so much negativity and teachers are quick to tell us about the tricky day. I work with teachers around this – use the sandwich: come in with a positive, then come in with the negative and knock the parents out with a positive. This is so important. We know our kids have got challenges. Trust us we deal with it daily. First and foremost the relationship with the teacher is incredibly important.

21:27 How can we confidently advocate for our children’s needs across the school and families too?

I have been doing a lot of work around advocacy with families who want to feel more prepared when going in for ILP (individual learning plan) meetings and meetings with the leadership team. Understanding the language and using the right terminology around modifications. What is a realistic modification that you are within your rights to advocate for? You are not being annoying. Your child has a disability and they are entitled to realistic modifications in the classroom.

I’m just let it all out. We have so much radical acceptance and the more open and honest you are, and you don’t have to tell the whole life story. For example when we moved recently I said casually to one of our neighbours both of our kids have got ADHD and sometimes they struggle with emotional regulation so you may hear them from time to time. Sorry! Being open and honest with people is incredibly important because people still don’t understand what is going on. And isn’t that a good message for our kids. There is no shame in who you are. ADHD is just one part of who we are, just like you have blue eyes and blonde hair and like playing with sticks.  The more we do that the more they will do that.  My daughter actually came home from school telling her class that she was adopted. I was like great, that is radical acceptance. The more we can teach our children how to do that the more they will do that as well.

Most ILP meetings should focus on the strengths of the student. The things they do really well and things that they are interested in. That keeps our kids motivated. The second most important thing is language and approach. We know our children are very often functioning in a dysregulated state, most of the day, so even a teacher look or tone or rejection can set them off into meltdown. That can all be avoided with the right approach from the teacher interacting with the student. If they don’t understand rejection sensitive dysphoria, as a components of ADHD, or if they don’t understand hypervigilance or transitions. We talked about with our son even just someone new moving through the room. Even just the assistant principal turning up in the room makes his brain go danger, danger, high voltage. Its not always possible to avoid. But then understanding that if that child does have a meltdown or is triggered you know why.

The other thing that I would love to see is flexible seating options. It should just be a standard in any classroom. Gone are the days of whole body listening, throw all that garbage out the window please. Have any seating available for children, have noise cancelling headphones available in every classroom for all kids.  That sort of stuff can be implemented so easily in every classroom. Even just a calm space where kids can go to take a break so that they don’t reach meltdown point. There are so many simple things that can be implemented. We can advocate for our kids. Sensory tools. So many of our kids nervous systems are compromised. Those sorts of things should just be a standard in every classroom.

27:25 What happens if we get it wrong? How long should we hang in there hoping for change and the right support?

It’s a tricky one. Not everyone like us has the capacity to just pack up and move for a better school option. I know so many families that have moved or have left their house empty or are paying more rent or more to get into a school, which is so wrong on so many levels. But as families we really need to be thinking about this a lot earlier, when our kids are 2 or 3. Sending them to the local school may not be the best option.

In terms of hanging in there, we gave it a year and in the end we just felt like we weren’t moving the needle at all in terms of their willingness and understanding. At that point we had no choice but to move on. But where do you go? We looked around in our area and spoke to lots of schools that were very open and very understanding and willing to take us. But as a family we need stability. We deal with so much in our life in general above and beyond neurotypical families that having stability is important. We are safe and stable for the next 5 years. That weight is lifted off our shoulders in knowing that no matter what happens, even if the wheels fall of, we are in a great supportive environment that will support our family for a long time. That stability is so important to our family after having lived through all the ups and downs. So I think everybody has a different threshold. I like to think I’m pretty strong. So give it time but if you feel like you are just banging your head against the brick wall and you are at the point that you have had to get the education department involved like we did, you know that’s pretty bad.  You really shouldn’t have to advocate or fight that hard for your child to be understood.

30:26 What sort of things are important to consider if you need to transition to another school?  Are there things that helped your child with this?

Like I said for sure, with absolute resolution, knowing that the next move is the right move. We could have moved to any old school but there was a chance that it could happen again. So look at the big picture. Look bigger than that. Think about is it worth hanging in. Are you getting enough from the school that you think you can hang in another 4 or 5 or 6 years. That’s a long time. It’s a big part of your life that you go to every day. It is a really big part of our life, even more so for our kids. Because of their start in life and the losses our kids have already experienced, their disruption to identity and understanding who they are, I feel like getting the sense of community and belonging right for our kids is so important. I’m getting goosebumps saying that. Even though it might feel like our kids don’t want to go or don’t want to be there, they actually probably do. Its just everything else that is unravelling them. People used to say to me why doesn’t he want to go to school I would say he does want to go to school he loves being there. He would come home saying I had a great day today Mum and then I would get the call from school.

Coming back to what I said before about being confident in your decision. My daughter sobbed and sobbed I don’t want to move. She was on the transition of where her friends become more important. But I knew she would love it. But she couldn’t see the big picture.

But once we made the decision we were very strategic in how we conveyed the news to our children. Because my son has high anxiety we didn’t tell him until the end of school. We didn’t want him going to school saying we are leaving, this school is rubbish. We sat my daughter down first and said because you are older we wanted to tell you first. Her and I made a day of it and drove to the new house and picked up the keys and she is living the dream being near the beach. We knew it would be much more difficult for my son to transition. Also having really clear understanding that that yes stuff is going to get real for a few months. It’s been a hectic 4 months and we are coming out the other side now. School is amazing. It’s just the transitions. New house, new room, new school, new way of getting to school, new friends, new people. All those things that we know are really hard for our kids. But really drawing them into “it’s not just about you or her”, it’s about a lifestyle change. You don’t have to move to the coast to get that. But moving schools can be the life change for you as a family. When you sell it like that it’s about the betterment for everybody and the entire family will be happier if we don’t have this hanging over our head. Or if we are around people who get us and love us and accept us for who we are even on the hard days.

For myself personally I felt so let down by the education system. I had spent my entire career working in education and supporting other people’s children and then when it came time for my own child it failed and I was let down dismally. My heart broke for my son and for the system and for how hard it is for our kids and for all neurodivergent kids in this current system.

I just want to end of by saying really excitingly in education in Victoria there is a Statewide reform around trauma informed practices (the Statewide Trauma review – more here). It’s probably been pushed off the back of Covid because we are calling the Covid experience a traumatic experience. But what that means is excitingly that there is something like billions of dollars going towards this. That means that at a leadership level in every school there will be people working on and understanding trauma. That was one of the reasons why we moved because we are now in the region where it is all rolled out. The area that we were in in Melbourne will take another 3 years. Even if we can get schools to do the Berry Street training, it can take years for them to get their head around the philosophy and get up to speed and to embed this. We don’t have time. We have poured our whole life into these kids. We don’t have time to wait. It’s an exciting time in education. And something I have been talking about and advocating about for so long. The research shows and I am living proof of this, that all children respond to therapeutic approaches. It’s a no brainer. So what that means is that all of our kids hopefully are going to be understood and have teachers and educational leaders that really do have a good grip on trauma. That can be life changing for the families coming through.

38:39 Last thoughts?

As a passionate educator, a lot of people kept saying to me and I thought at some point that  I might end up home schooling my child. But my heart isn’t in it. I still believe in education and what school communities bring to our children. And don’t get me wrong I understand it doesn’t work for all kids. But I feel like that if we can get it right for our kids they can go on to thrive. They can be a part of school communities and also be around other children that understand them. That’s also why I like my kids to be empowered to understand who they are. So don’t give up completely on education. My heart took a little while to heal after what we experienced. I don’t want any other families to go through what we went through. Everyone said to me if anyone can change the system its you. I gave it a really good crack and we definitely did get some change in there but I wasn’t prepared to hand our kid over long term. So trust your gut parents.

Thankyou. To anyone making the time to listen to this recording, thankyou for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life. Until next time have an amazing week.

OTHER RESOURCES

Chrissie Davies – Chaos to Calm Consultancy

Matrescence with Melissa Christian 

Melissa Christian was an early childhood educator who became an intercountry adoptive parent of 3. Her journey to motherhood was long, 15 years in total, and there was time for lots of learning from Therapeutic Parenting to Circle of Security. However, something wasn't quite right post adoption. A type of post adoption depression called matrescence. While she now had the perfect family, internally something was not quite right. Melissa explains her experience, the feelings and why it is so important to be able to talk about it. Motherhood involves a change in economics, emotions, biology, physicality, culture, social and spiritual life. Ones self identity is forever changed. Add to that layers of perfectionism expected of adoptive parents and its a formula for disaster. Melissa encourages all parents, particularly adoptive, to seek help when you need it and talk openly about the adjustments and challenges to get the help you need. 00:00 - Start 00:50 - Melissa's journey to motherhood: 8 years fertility and 7 years before adoption 10:20 - What do adoptive mothers feel? Do all mothers feel the same? 13:57 - What is matrescence? 15:40 - So what did you do from there? What sort of things helped you? 18:23 - How do we help permanent carers, kinship carers and foster carers, who have similar experiences? 21:31 - You found post adoption services and other things that worked for you. What were they? 22:50 - What are some things that other expectant mothers (on paper), should plan for or expect that perhaps you didn’t? 24:13 - Were there some areas that you think we can better support pre or post adoption?

Matrescence with Melissa Christian – Transcript

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice evidence based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people.

PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse and follows child safe standards.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

Today we are speaking about Intercountry adoption and Matrescence with Melissa Christian. Melissa was an early childhood educator before becoming an intercountry adoptive parent of 3. Her journey to motherhood held a few surprises, one of which was a type of post adoption depression where expectations of a joyful motherhood and immediate connection were not the reality. Welcome Melissa.

00:50 Can you tell us a little more about your journey and the experience of becoming a mother?

Thankyou for this opportunity to share with you.

I am an adoptive mother of 3 and we adopted our first child after a 7 years wait in the adoption process itself.

We planned  to adopt from China but a lot of things happened and we ended up with a letter stating we had a 22 year wait. We didn’t want to be in our late 50s adopting.

So then we discovered the special needs China program where they allocated children to the world and chose children for families. Ass we started that journey we had to look at different special needs that we were willing to accept.  One of them was a condition with the heart.

We waited in this program and nothing seemed to be happening. China decided to upgrade their system and it was a month and another month and we were waiting to adopt for the past 7 years and prior to that in fertility prior to that for 8 years.

Then finally we had a phone call from our social worker about a little boy in Taiwan that had a heart condition. Thankfully we got accepted.

We had to madly get our paperwork together. It was about a 9 month “pregnancy” to apply to adopt and be accepted. That was all going smoothly and we got a phone call one day asking us to be in Taiwan by the weekend to attend court.

So we did this not having any idea about it. You do anything as you know this is your chance.

We met our beautiful son and spent 4-5 days with him and attended the court process and then we had to come home as the Australian Government doesn’t line up with the Taiwanese Government in being able to stay there and wait for the process of immigration to finish.

So we came home and with all of the waiting that was the hardest waiting that I have every done in my life. It was a very painful experience flying out of Taiwan and knowing that a piece of your heaert is being left behind.

It was really traumatising.

The 8 weeks was good in that we now knew our son, what clothing he needed and what his interests were. So we could prepare for him coming home. We knew it was roughly an 8 week wait and it was 8 weeks to the day. But during those 8 weeks I built up a little wall around myself to protect my heart. You are feeling very fragile and you are about to become a mother so a whole new world is opening up to you. So of course you protect yourself because you have had hurt and you protect yourself as much as you can with the slow adoption process.

This little wall I built up just made it a little bit harder to form attachment and bonding. I struggled before I met the birth family. I had all the care needs for my son down pat. The caring there was no issue with that I was all over a routine. But feeling like a Mum. How does all that feel. Am I meant to change overnight? I really struggled with that.

We met the birth family on the Friday and it was a hard morning for me to get myself there and and I just wanted to delay it as much as possible. Everything was signed off but there was that what if.

So I met the birth mother and she reached out to take our son to hold him and of course part of you goes oh that’s our child. He rejected her. That did not sit with me either. He had just rejected her in favour of us. It was an unsettling feeling. I felt really uncomfortable. This was her goodbye. I set up some toys on the floor and left for her to have some time together saying goodbye. I felt much more at ease after that. I feel so much better, he has claimed me as his mother and we can go forward now.

But I still struggled with this feeling of not feeling it. As time went by you sort of put yourself on this wheel of perfection. We are doing this and that and everything was all about the child.  You support the child because you are so in love with this child that you never had. But you are not realising how depleted you are becoming yourself.

I believe I got to a point that I wasn’t coping as a Mum. I remember thinking what a thankless task this is being a Mum. I had to ring my Mum up and thank her for everything she had done for me. It was an awakening of the woman that I was and now I am just nobody. I am giving to everybody and I have nothing for myself.

So it was a really hard time and we struggled a lot with that.

So we kept on going and we applied to adopt a second time. You get yourself to a place where you are ok, or you pretend to be ok, but you aren’t really meeting that inner need that unsettled feeling of there is something not right on the inside.

We applied to adopt and were allocated 2 girls and it felt so right and the process was really quick this time. From allocation we were in Taiwan less than 3 months later to attend court. It was incredible meeting these two little girls.  One was two years and 4 months and the other was nearly 12 months old. Now here we are a family of 3, more than we every dreamt of really. You pinch yourself going is this real. It was incredible.

We attended court again and came home. We had three weeks at home. Then we were asked to go back and pickup the girls. We were able to have time in Taiwan and share more of the culture with our son which was really good for him. Then we brought our girls home.

10:20 What do adoptive mothers feel? Do all mothers feel the same?

Just prior to bringing our girls home, our social worker put us in contact with a support worker from Relationships Australia. I had a great conversation with her but not one part of it did she recognise or understand what it was like to be an adoptive mothers. She understood child trauma, she understood additional needs and she understood all the psychiatric support needed for adoption. But she didn’t understand me and I was left with this empty feeling of but where is our support.

I started doing some research and got in touch with different support agencies, but we were living very remote and there was nothing available to us. So it did leave me feeling a little bit empty but of course we rushed into the next adoption. Of course my son struggled with having an additional 2 in the family. That was tough for him and we had some things going on in the family and we moved interstate.

The adoption was going smoothly. I did Therapeutic Parenting courses and Circle of Security courses. By chance I picked up a parenting wellbeing magazine and read this article about Matrescence. Oh my goodness. This was me. This was my lightbulb moment of realising everything I have been feeling as a mother. My economic lack. My emotions. So many parts of me all just came together in that moment. I got in touch with Amy Taylor-Kabbaz who does Mama Rising with the matrescence formula. I did do a podcast with her. Wow this is what we feel as adoptive parents, just like other parents do.  Just having that acceptance and recognition that this is what all mothers go through.  We are not taking away from the children at all. But all mothers feel the same things inside whether it’s all of the aspects of matrescence or one or two or whether it’s at the beginning of your experience or down the track some months later. In your spiritual being everything changes.

13:57 What is matrescence?

The physical change that mostly biological mothers will go through. But I was going through that too. Because my whole focus was on my child I stopped eating. So my physical did change in that aspect.  Maybe others would go the other way. Your hormones change With my second adoption I really felt that maternal pull. My emotions kicked into gear. Your emotional status, your world has turned upside down and your emotions are crazy. You suddenly have this beautiful child. Your social aspect. Suddenly your friends have disappeared. There is no one to talk to, nooone understands. Your cultural. Suddenly you are their mother in this world. Your economic so you don’t have the income or independence any more. Everything is gone. And of course the spiritual. Your life revolves around this child and you are giving it everything. Your self inner identity changes. So its bringing all those things to the forefront.

15:40 So what did you do from there? What sort of things helped you?

Amy Taylor-Kabbaz had a short workshop through Mama Rising so I knew I needed healing and needed to put the guilt and shame away. The feeling of less than as a mother. So I started working on myself first. I then realised after talking to other adoptive mums, who had been friends right from the first adoption, that they felt these things to. So I started to launch out and joined a group for foster and adoptive mothers and started sharing. And I heard back that others felt this too. There are lots of different adoption groups. Just reach out and make this a conversation that you can talk about in an open way.

So its like self care and self identity that you are making sense of. Whether you are biological or otherwise.  Where is that space for you so that you can give to everyone else in your environment, combined with the extra layer of perfectionism as the chosen adoptive parent.

Society puts us up there. You must be an amazing person because you are an adoptive parent. No I’m just a mother. This is how my family has come to me. But don’t make me feel that I am better than anyone else. I am just a mother struggling like everyone else is. Whether they came by adoption or kinship care or biologically.

18:23 How do we help permanent carers, kinship carers and foster carers, who have similar experiences?

Have an open conversation. It is ok not to be ok. We have to take that pressure off. In the adopted world especially you can’t fail as everyone is watching you. We need to take that pressure off. You are a mother. You know what is right for your children. You know what is best. There are failed families everywhere. It is ok to admit I am really struggling. Your children are not going to be taken away from you. There is no threat of you never being able to adopt again. We get it. Motherhood is hard. Today you are struggling, tomorrow we can go forward together. Kinship care, adoption and foster care organisations need to relax a little so that we can do this in a really productive way. Mothers will always make sure attachment and bonding are there. We feel it we know it. We need to be a little bit more open.

Maybe we need to look at a buddy system. I’m coming into adoption I’m not sure what the process is going to be. Here is a mother who has been through it lets buddy them up and let’s make a village. Our children miss out on the village. We ask they get back to it on their own. Lets get back to mothering and the village. I really love Eastern life and travel life which is about looking after the mother. The first 2 weeks, 60 or 90 days is feeding the mother healthy food and looking after the family and the mother to recover from the birth. Adoptive mothers feels that too just in a different way. If we can be there it can help them to understand we have got your back.

21:31 You found post adoption services and other things that worked for you. What were they?

Therapeutic parenting is great and gives you the tools you need to take a step back from perfectionism and to understand how to guide behaviour in the right way and to support children.

The Circle of Security is really important and about the attachment and bonding.

Relationships Australia has some great support workers who do get it in supporting foster and adoption networks. There are some great stories and there are some people that are definitely meant to be in the adoption networks. There are others that should find other employment. I am hearing some wonderful stories of supporting adoptive mothers.

22:50 What are some things that other expectant mothers (on paper), should plan for or expect that perhaps you didn’t?

Matrescence. Put it out there as a word. Be prepared for matrescence so that when they may experience it they know this is normal Im going to be ok. For myself the most I got was talking to other adoptive families.  Even in the workshops we attended pre adoption it was hearing the other adoptive families stories. I remember even after our first adoption remembering what we were told – ok that makes sense now. A lot of those things are really really helpful.

24:13 Were there some areas that you think we can better support pre or post adoption?

Just having open conversations that you are not up on a pedestal, you are not the perfect superheros of the world. Reality and a realism check. You are going into this and it is not a lot differening in your mothering and mothering experience to any other mother. Just bringing it back to a real normal feel.  Sameness. Im feeling it is the connection between the biological and adoptive foster mother is so similar. We do have some extra additional things there. But the actual mothering experience is not a lot of difference. So we need to break the barrier down.

25:30 Anything else?

I am a mama rising facilitator. I do run mother circles for foster and adoptive mothers. I do have a website if people want to find out more about my circle of grace. www.matrescencesupportsisters.com

For a book to read, Mama Rising by Amy Taylor-Kabbaz that helps explain a lot more than what I have mentioned today.

Thankyou.

To anyone making the time to listen to this recording, thankyou for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life.  Until next time have an amazing week

 

OTHER RESOURCES

Amy Taylor-Kabbaz – Book Mama Rising, including information about the Pillars of Matrescence (Physical, Hormonal, Emotional, Social, Cultural, Economic, Spiritual) which involves healing with Connection, Kindness, Strength, Trust, Value and Grace

Melissa Christian Matrescence Suppport Sisters – Adoptive, Foster and Biological Mothers Support Groups and Workshops

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) with Vicki Skelley - Recording

00:00 - Start 01:20 - FASD is the no blame disorder 03:08 - Living with FASD is like groundhog day everyday 05:37 - FASD and school is challenging 12:15 - Montessori school worked well in primary school 17:02 - High school isn't safe so home schooling was the best choice for life skills development 20:06 - Therapy that helps 29:17 - Food additives 33:00 - Food choices and building life skills 36:44 - Medications need to be trialled at home 41:46 - Behaviour, self esteem and living life to the fullest 47:25 - Look at the disability and what causes the behaviour and modify your approach 50:30 - Diagnosis and testing process 59:25 - Advocating in schools and for NDIS 1:03:00 - Submit a carers impact statement from your worst day 1:04:25 - Resources to access

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder with Vicki Skelley - Transcript

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice research-based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people. PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

Today we are discussing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder with Vicki Skelley. Vicki is a permanent carer who has 11 years lived experience of FASD with her granddaughter who will be turning 13 years old soon. 

Vicki’s granddaughter also has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Specific Learning Disability (SLD), Development Coordination Disorder (DCD) and dyspraxia, dyslexia – all of which are hidden disabilities - she looks like any other child on the outside.

Vicki has embraced lots of therapists and other supports including psychologists, a speech therapist, occupational therapist, art therapist, music therapist and physiotherapist.

So she has lots of lived experience to share and some wisdom to impart.

01:20 What is FASD?

FASD is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder which is caused when the child is in the womb due to alcohol exposure – the mother drinking alcohol. The brain and the nervous system starts developing 3-6 weeks into the pregnancy. So it could be that the mother could drink then and it develops into FASD. So the mother may not necessarily drink the whole way through. 

It’s called the no blame disability because a lot of women could be drinking in the first 4 to 6 weeks and often you don’t find out you are pregnant until 6-8 weeks where the damage is already done.

03:08 What is it like for a child with FASD?

FASD is a full body disability. Not every child has the same damage done. It affects their daily life, their motor skills, their physical health, their learning memory, communication, emotional n regulation, social skills. Its brain damage and full body disability. Some children have facial features but that’s only about 6% of cases. The majority you wouldn’t know because they don’t have the facial features.  It can take a very long time to work it out. The simplest way to describe it is its like a lightbulb. Some days the lightbulb is shining bright and its ready to go. Other days its like a loose wire in the light flickering on and off. On other days its completely off. A bit like groundhog day because she doesn’t have a memory so its like resetting every day. You don’t know what you are going to get on any day.

05:37 What is your experience of school for a child with FASD? Mainstream school, private school and home schooling?

My granddaughter wasn’t diagnosed until she was 9 so she had already been through a fair bit of kinder and school. She had previously been diagnosed with ADHD and had learning disabilities identified at kinder, in addition to sensory and social matters. So by the time my granddaughter had already been to school, I didn’t have all the information about all these things and the schooling was really hard for her.

She was probably labelled as the child that was disruptive, not paying attention, trying to mask and go under the radar, socially immature as most with FASD are 5 years behind socially.

We did mainstream up until the end of Grade 4.  Once I got the diagnosis in Grade 4 I came armed with a lot of information to the school at the end of Grade 4. It was very much like the ASD diagnosis we had prior. Keep things the same, no change. Many of those suggestions were don’t make change. That would go out the window if there was an emergency teacher. She was in a low maths class so she saw a different teacher for maths. That maths teacher couldn’t get her head around the FASD concept and would come up to me and say what’s wrong with your GD today. She knew her timetable last week but today she doesn’t. Why is she lying to me? She couldn’t get her head around the FASD.  I would have to remind them to read her report and understand this is part of her disability. Groundhog day.

So we didn’t get a lot of support in mainstream schools. Also the Victorian education department don’t recognise FASD as a disability. Only the South Australian education department do – the other states and territories don’t. So it was a lot of effort on my part. Hopefully that will change soon. I don’t understand why one state has trained staff. So it was a lot of training on my behalf for mainstream school.

We had an Individual Learning Plan (ILP) that I would hold the school to.

You can contact your regional education department and they have a disability advocate that can talk with the school and attend meetings.

But really she needed an aide and she couldn’t get an aide provided by the school under FASD.

When it got to the teacher calling me and saying Im not going to be at school today you may be better off leaving her at home. That was lovely of her but not how things should work when my child is having meltdowns spending half the night awake because she hated school in the end and she had a lot of time off maybe attending 50%. That’s when I looked at what is my next option as I cant keep forcing my unhappy child into school. With FASD they do suffer with depression as well as they don’t fit in. As they get older they start to realise they are different and don’t fit in.

She doesn’t have an intellectual disability so that door was shut. You can’t attend a special ed school unless you score 69 or under with an intellectual disability.

12:15 Montessori worked well

So that was when I looked at the next option which was Montessori learning.  Monetssori is very visual and they cater for a lot of children that may be a little bit outside the square. Every child has an individual learning program for each child and they have an aide in each room. They have a wellbeing program. They look at the world and how everything is connected, gardens, chooks and very free based. Children got to choose how best they were feeling and when they would do their subjects. You may not feel like doing maths first thing in the morning. So that was Grade 5 when we started the Montessori journey. She was skipping into school and loving it and we had a teacher that had taught a FASD child before. But then lockdown started which was home learning.

While Montessori were absolutely fabulous during lockdown, it wasn’t the same as what we were hoping for. We went into Grade 6 at Montessori with a new teacher who was new to the school. They had never taught Montessori and they had only ever taught secondary college. I went armed with all my FASD information for her. She said she can get my child from a Grade 3 level of maths and English to a Grade 6 level by the end of the year. I thought this is fantastic. But I kept saying but you have read all the reports and you have been on the FASD website. But obviously that didn’t last long. She tried to make a lot of changes. My child was no longer allowed to wear no socks and shoes. She had to wear shoes all the time. She left it up to the children where they sat every day whereas my child would need the same spot. So there were a lot of meltdowns and it didn’t go well. Lots of meetings including our team of therapists involved in the school.

By then it was half way through the year and more lockdowns and I had to make decision about high school. Montessori offered another year but she didn’t want to do that because the other kids would know. But she just wanted to be normal.

17:02 Home schooling

I couldn’t access a high school to support her.  There was no way she could have a locker and go to multiple classrooms and deal with multiple teachers and have a good day. And then deal with peers where she would be an easy target and do whatever a friend asks her to do. She would be in danger and it wouldn’t end well. So that was when I decided that home schooling would be the way to go from a safety perspective.

We don’t do maths and English in the conventional way. We work on life skills to help her to be independent in the future. I don’t believe she will ever live on her own. But maybe in a group setting she may be able to. So we work on cooking, measurements, safety.

The program isn’t fixed. You can choose what you do its pretty flexible. I had to apply through the Education Department to home school. You have to be approved for it. It’s a pretty quick easy process. You write down what you think you will be dong, I put down life skills pretty much for everything. I got an exemption for language because she doesn’t understand English let alone another language. You connect in with the HEN (home education network) group. We do some of the social activities. They meet every Tuesday in our area locally so we can attend those.

I also moved all her therapists to during the day so that makes our home schooling easier with less driving after school or on weekends.

20:06 What do you do as a parent or carer to help a child with FASD? Therapy!

We have a lot of therapists.  Sometimes people think you can get therapied out. Maybe you can. But my team of therapists that I have surrounded around my granddaughter, we work as a team and we don’t have a set program. We work on what is happening today or how she is feeling today because the big thing is depression. So we work to her capabilities.

We have two psychologists that we see fortnightly alternately. We see one face to face with a therapy dog just to talk or to help with depression.  The other psychologist is the one that originally had her diagnosed and put her forward. She is in Shepparton unfortunately so we Zoom with her. We do speech fortnightly and she has been on board for 3 years in our team. She works on social interactions. We work through a series of books that she suggested on social skills. Reading between the lines because people say things but may have hidden meanings so reading peoples facial expressions may convey to you what people are thinking and that helps with how to respond to that. For example I’ve taught my granddaughter we don’t always have to tell the truth. Sometimes we need to fluff around the truth. Rather than telling someone they look terrible in a pair of jeans. For her she just says things as they are.

We have an OT that comes to the house as well.  She used to go to the Montessori school as well. She works on a battery and that gets colored in with different colours indicating where her energy is.  They may come across as lazy and lethargic and they are more than happy to sit on the couch all day. So its constant motivation. We are currently working on pairing up another child in our area. We have done one session with the two fo them together. We are going to alternate one week at her house one week at our house run by the OT to try and bring social connection.  Hopefully that will work out. My granddaughter was pretty closed shop to it as its easier for her to look for the negative rather than the positive.

She also has art therapy once a fortnight in the home working on emotions.   She loves getting messy and art. Sometimes Ill come in the study and there will be paint sprayed everywhere. She can just be free and express herself. Sometimes they work with clay. There are not rules around it its just letting yourself go.

We do music therapy which is singing lessons. Her singing teacher which she has had for about three years who we also met at Montessori also does meditation and yoga. So she teaches her breathing techniques. Instead of shallow breathing you breathe from the stomach deep down. Luckily my granddaughter can actually sing and she is an awesome singer actually but she just doesn’t want to sing in public. The singing teacher has just got a Diploma in Hypnotherapy for motivation so we may start that program with her as well. We do that weekly in the home each week.

We also go to physio weekly so that’s to help with her coordinations disorder and her core body strength because she is very tall as well. A bit like ASD they can have body movement problems.

We also have an assistance dog so we have dog training each week.

29:17 What about food and food additives?

Definitely removed some additives. My granddaughters first diagnosis was ADHD. Its quite well known that with ADHD certain food colorings like green, red or blue can often set them off to be a bit hyper.

Now that I have the FASD diagnosis I see the main focus as FASD as her main diagnosis and ASD, ADHD etc as secondary. Some of them cross over. Does she have ADHD? I don’t know? She has FASD which is a whole body disability. She definitely has a reaction to food colourings and high sugar items. There are definitely a lot of additives for children with ADHD that you should avoid. I read a lot of labels over the years. You get to know what affects your child. Usually that child will crave that food and wait 20 minutes or half an hour to see abusive, teary, smashing walls, being disruptive. Try removing that food for a few days to see if you still have the same reaction. It’s an elimination process. One day my granddaughter got picked up and taken to a party. They took her to McDonalds and gave her coke. She cant have coke syrup because it sets her off the plant and she was like that at the party and then after the up you get the meltdown. In those situations all I can do is give her lots of water to get it out of her system.

33:00 Choices

Now that she is getting older, if she does have something behind my back that she knows she shouldn’t have and she comes home and is crying and havin a meltdown then we will need to have that conversation again. Its really hard when other kids can have these things and they are fine. As she gets older you have to put the choices back in there so they can make the choices for themselves. I hate coke to be honest. I started buying bottles of it and allowed it. I thought there is a day that’s going to come for her to make the choice. She doesn’t have as bad a reaction to bottled coke as she does to coke syrup.  I would allow her to have a drink of coke in the middle of the day so then I’m teaching her to make those choices that yes not a good idea to have coke at nighttime at 8pm at night.  Otherwise you put it up there on a pedestal and they will run riot one day. They might get abusive and the police might come along and cart your child off. They might end up in a psyche ward.  I’m teaching her choices and they have to be hers. You know you are going to feel like this after you have a certain thing. Are you happy to get this knowing how you will feel. That’s much harder when they are younger and you try and remove as much of that as possible. This is all safety that I am working towards. Im not always going to be there walking behind her so she needs to learn to make some decisions about herself. She knows how bad she feels. She is managing coke quite well within the house.

36:44 What about medications?

Her first diagnosis was ADHD at 6 or 7 years old. Paeds put her on ritalin. It was meant to fix her at school. I wasn’t open to it but we did a trial once on the weekend. I wasn’t going to pop some pills and send her off to school. She popped some pills and it didn’t work. She was walking around me in circles going Nanny, Nanny, Nanny please help me I cant stop. Any medication you try you should always try in your own environment anyways as you don’t really know how your child is going to react. And the teacher has other things going on anyway. So that confirmed for me she has some aspects of ADHD but the ADHD medication doesn’t work for her so its not an exact fit. She takes Melatonin to help her sleep. We also have a sound machine. Sleep is a big problem for children with FASD. We have this sound machine which lasts 8 hours with about 18 different sounds like a fan, the ocean, rain and others. I bought it off a sensory disability website.  The best thing! That’s what you do. Trial and error.

I give her iron to help with brain function. That’s it for medications.

Otherwise we have relaxation sleep sprays for the pillow.

She used to listen to a meditation tape at night but now she prefers the sleep machine.

Paeds have wanted her to go onto anti depression medication. Im not willing to do that yet. Once I do that you cant come back from that. Its life long. So I am hanging off. Probably there will come a day that we will have to go onto anti-depressants. But I would like at as many feel good things until then.

41:46 How do you help their behaviour, self-esteem and enjoying life to the fullest?

I have always provided her with a calm environment. She has a four-poster bed with curtains around. We have fairy lights and different things that make patterns on the roof. So she has that calm, safe space for a meltdown. So I will say maybe you need to go spend some time in your room calming down and then we can talk about what’s going on. Sometimes its like dealing with a 3yo because they get themselves so worked up they don’t want to hear you and they aren’t in the right mindset anyway. Its better off for them to be in a sensory environment that calms them.

When she was smaller she had a tent with cushions and her favourite toys.

I keep her off certain foods or because she is good at stashing things, I did investigate locking things in cupboards and the fridge. But I haven’t gone down that pathway. At some point you have to allow them to be responsible for themselves. I’m working on daily teaching them to manage those decisions. I just remove the stashes every day. I keep her room clean. I clean her room once or twice a day because with FASD they only go forward they don’t go backwards.  So she has the draw open and she doesn’t have a sense of what is happening around her so she will trip over and smash her leg or knee or something. She will change her clothes multiple times a day. I hang them up because is she puts her things in the wash it will be all the clothes not just the dirty one. I see other parents punishing their children for these things. For myself you can’t punish the child because their mind is in disarray. Everything is in a mess in their mind. Its much easier for me to go in there everyday and that provides her with a space that isn’t in a mess. If I keep teaching her it will eventually happen. It might take 8 years. Now I write a list. You cant just say to a child with FASD go clean your room, put your shoes on, brush your teeth, brush your hair, go to the toilet, shut the bathroom door and take the dog out for a wee. You would be lucky to get one thing done. Now I write a daily list of what order it needs to be done in. Now I have her making her bed. It might not be the best but its made. She shuts her draw and cupboard. She puts on her shoes and now she can do up her shoelaces because that’s the coordination and thinking. Its very hard for a kid with FASD. Groundhog day and same thing every day until one little thing will happen and they know how to do what they need to do. It just becomes habit.

47:25 Look at the disability and what causes the behaviour

It doesn’t help with yelling at the child either. I look at the disability. What part of the disability has this behaviour come from. When you can shift your mindset you will be surprised what comes. The other thing is it’s a bit like ASD you try and keep everything the same. If there is going to be a change like moving house or going on holiday. You just need to put as much pre warning into it, even on the whiteboard crossing off the days, and talk every day about the preparation of what is going to happen. Take your comfort staff with you so you take some comforts from home with you. I also use a visual clock which has a timer on it. IF there is something I want her to do it shows you the red part going down and when the buzzer goes off this is what you need to do, whether its getting off the technology or something else. She has no concept of time or what day it is or what the weather is like. Every day is it hot or cold today? Is it still winter today? She doesn’t feel hot or cold so she could be walking around in shorts in winter and in trackies in summer. So if she isn’t in my care someone else needs to watch that so she doesn’t get dizzy or dehydrated.

50:30 Process of getting diagnosed and the testing required for FASD – the WISC V and reports?

When it does becomes quite noticeable that your child has some form of disability, usually someone would have said something to you or you would be noticing certain behaviours. I already knew my granddaughter had already come from early childhood trauma. It was easy to label it in one box. She was with me from 22 months so we just worked on the early childhood trauma which was psychologists obviously and then moved to some other diagnosis such as ADHD because of behaviours and ASD. I was lucky to get into a psychologist in Shepparton who was opening the first FASD clinic in Victoria out of the hospital. My granddaughter was the first one to go through that clinic. Prior to attending that appointment you need to fill in a heap of paperwork. We had to have some confirmation that her mother had drunk alcohol during pregnancy. I knew my granddaughter had been born drug and alcohol addicted. I knew that the mother had drunk nearly every day and  had taken ice and pills and whatever. You need to provide details of where the child was born so that the hospital can obtain records. 

The FASD clinic was a full day 9am to 3.30pm.

I’m not sure what the process is if you don’t know the child’s history or have access to the bio mum to admit that. There are a lot of other markers. It was a verbal from me and that was accepted. You don’t need a signed confession or anything.

We went along for the full day of testing but it was pretty good.

There is a whole team. The paeds flew in from Perth and Queensland because that’s where the FASD hubs were.  We saw the paeds and they did the measurements to see if there were any facial features. Basically dissected the body from head to toe. Checking over everything. Then she had an appointment with a psychologist and I saw a psychologist separately. Then we had speech. We stopped for lunch with a hospital lunch.  Then we did the full day of testing.

There was another team of about 20 people in another room.

They obviously did that right through lunchtime because in the afternoon we did some other things.

It took about a month where I then went back on my own to get the report.

I met with the paeds and a few other professionals. They had diagnosed my granddaughter with FASD. They went through the report in depth page by page and explained everything. It was extremely in depth.

You can take the report into the school environment. There was a lot of good stuff including the one line that is they will require the full support of NDIS.  That was when I applied for NDIS because I applied with ADHD and we never got there. I hadn’t thought about it before that.

The one thing that broke my heart in the report was reading it was highly unlikely she would make it to high school. I remember reading that thinking that’s not going to happen. I now understand why. Having the FASD diagnosis was like the missing piece of the puzzle. It all fitted once I started doing my research and making accommodations.

And yes you need the WISC V test which can be done through a psychologist because that gives them the testing that they need to do measures against the FASD. Most people if they have an ASD diagnosis they probably will have had a WISC V test done anyway.

59:25 How do you advocate for and what do you advocate for in schools for children with FASD with NDIS?

It is neurological. 80% of children diagnosed with FASD have been diagnosed with ADHD prior. That is perhaps professionals getting to terms with FASD. It is immediately covered with NDIS and you can apply straight away. The line from the FASD reports should be put in. The line that this they will require full support from NDIS, lifelong support, no medication that will fix it.  It’s a permanent disability. There will always be therapists. Its just teaching them to be independent.  You put in for everything because it is a full body disability.  They are trying to get rid of psychologists so don’t go with the depressions content go with the day to day needs. They do cover OT, speech, music therapy, art therapy.  Keep pushing for emotional regulation.  Also we get the physio covered because that is about poor body movement. 

1:03:00 Carers impact statement on worst day

I strongly suggest that anyone that applies needs to do a carers impact statement on your worst day with your child. We don’t want to think of their worst day but from an NDIS perspective you need more support and funding. If you are not happy with it just put in for a review. They aren’t going to take it off you. They will give you more. Don’t be scared of them. They are a Government department but don’t be scared of them as you are just fighting for what your child needs. Its not their fault. This service is there for that.

1:04:25 Any other things to discuss or resources to access?

Most children are in mainstream school so hold your school accountable if they are going to that school and being in their care all those hours. Most schools think it must be something happening at home. Go in armed and give them handouts. You are their advocate and you know them best and the school needs to accommodate that. Make sure you have regular meetings with the school and the principal, year in year out. Sometimes teachers go renegade. Make sure you have that individual learning program or behaviour support. Back it up with an email – as per….the school will do this. You need that to come back to when you check in in a months time. If you do get the disability worker involved from the education department make sure it  happens. Don’t be scared to home school if you feel that it is in your childs interest from a mental health perspective. If you are not happy with the professionals change. If it doesn’t feel right to you change. I have to refer back to an Speech Therapist she had a session with one time. The speech said she doesn’t need speech.  Well that’s not true. But how many carers would say ok this professional has told me she doesn’t need speech. So if you don’t think its right it probably isn’t right. It’s the same as when you look out for the safety of your young person. Well they touched me wrong or were saying something that is inappropriate. Don’t be scared to change or challenge therapists. If you feel your diagnosis doesn’t fit keep searching or asking. If you think your child has FASD, which is bigger than ASD, get on a wait list and get diagnosed.

Thankyou. To anyone making the time to listen to this recording, thankyou for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life. Until next time have an amazing week.

OTHER RESOURCES

NOFASD  - No FASD Australia

HEN – Home Education Network

VRQA – Victorian Registration & Qualifications Authority

Community Kinship Care - Recording 

Mitch and Rach spoke to us about the community kinship or village care model that they operate within to surround a young boy in care. They are the extended family to this boy who is in kinship care with another family. Mitch is the Director of Complex Behaviour Change at CBC Change in Melbourne and has 30 years clinical experience. Rache is the Director of Resources at CBS Change and has worked in supporting adoptive, permanent and kinship carers with strengths based culturally sensitive case management. Mitch and Rach have a wealth of experience to share. We learnt some really important lessons about what is important. Whether that is falling in love with the child or surrounding the child with real family experiences. Sharing dinners together as carers are simple things that can normalise relationships and keep everyone connected. Similarly talking through with openness how to parent and how to add value and enrich the child's life are equally important for the child to continue to repair and move forward. A really honest account of how we can all be making a difference in someone else's life.

00:00 - Start 00:53 - How Mitch and Rache got involved in village care 03:43 - How the village model works - a primary carer and flexible carers who talk and discuss things openly. 05:40 - The secret ingredient - falling in love with the child, becoming like a family 08:46 - Looking to add value at all times - dinners, broad social groups, culturally appropriate care and different skills in different homes. Its about more than just sharing clothes. 14:16 - Attunement and connection require you spend the time being available and that you eat together so the child sees people around them functioning in a relationship 19:39 - So much pleasure by contributing in this way and each person in the family has a different special relationship with the child 22:45 - If others want to get involved ask at your school who may need help or contact various agencies from foster care to permanent care 24:40 - Your job is to just listen and keep children safe, not to determine who is right or wrong. Be flexible and open and supportive of the team around the child, no matter your personal views 28:22 - Secure attachment involves "learning the child" and bring them into your rhythm and connect. When ruptures occur reconnect. Reconnect often. 34:02 - You need to hold in mind that the child has not had a secure start, so security in relationships is key. Attachment, connection and relationships that are rick and repair and heal are important. Use a strengths based approach. 40:46 - Child protection is a system and it will have flaws like any system but you can do something to change that.

Community Kinship Care - Transcript

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice research-based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people. PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership. 

Today we are discussing kinship care with a village care approach and how to provide behaviour support.  

Mitch Bayliss is the Director of Complex Behaviour Change with over 30 years clinical experience as a  sociologist in Metropolitan Melbourne. 

Rache O’Dowd is the Director of Resources and Support at CBChange and previously headed up St Luke’s Anglicare in Bendigo, supporting adoptive, permanent and kinship carers with strengths based culturally sensitive case management. 

Mitch and Rach are also “village” respite carers to a young boy alongside the main kinship carer and other “village” respite carers. 

0:53 Welcome Mitch and Rach.  Would you like to tell us a little more about yourselves? 

Rache - I can tell you a little bit about how we got into this. We did kinship care for a number of kids in particular one where Mum had mental health and the father was deceased, We had this boy here on and off for 2.5 years. Prior to that we had a couple of children come and stay through my children’s friends. We connected with the children’s families, let them know we were here and they could come and visit anytime. We had no rules about that because they were adolescents. We were minding children rather than parenting these adolescents because they were older.  That was how we formed a relationship was to try and not be a parent.  Even though there were some times where you had to parent. There was one boy that stayed with us that smelt bad. He didn’t know how to wash. Mitch eventually had to show him how to wash. You need to have a shower and put new clothes on, not put the old clothes back on. 

So that led us to our children being very open who was here and how we did things. 

We were very clear with our children from day one that when a child walks in here they will try and stake out a place and that as a family we needed to stay firm, without being rude or anything.  Immediately as a child comes in they will try and stake out a place, so we had to stay united as a family and communicate with each other. 

We had my daughters, partners, sister come and live with us through the department, which was the worst experience. She came through the Department (kinship care), which was the worst experience we have had. She didn’t last long as she was extremely damaged, she was a runner and had no idea what family care was about. 

We got into this village care situation really because of Covid and no one wanting to take on children. A lady I worked with offered that if there were any babies that came up that she and her husband would be prepared to have a child. I wasn’t a friend with her she was just someone at work. They knew in this foster care system people just weren’t taking on children. At that time I was setting up the Section 18 at Mernda Aboriginal Corporation and I was aware of this young child. So that was sort of how it happened because there was this child that needed care and there was nowhere for this child to go. So that’s how this village model got setup. And this commitment around sharing support started there. We all committed wholeheartedly even before we met the baby. 

3:43 So you have this village model that sits around the child. Can you tell us about how that works day to day and how you share and navigate that. 

The primary carer is the primary carer. That is our friends now. Because I was extremely lucky to understand the field, we have been able to have conversations between all of us that can be tricky, but you have to remember at all times that the primary carer is the primary carer. It was being able to have those conversations and be very honest. We are very honest but at the end of the day that couple have full responsibility for the child and how they want to parent the child. 

They are very flexible though. They hate guns. We have toy guns here everywhere because we live with our 8yo grandson as well. Nerf guns. So that is challenging for her, but she accepts that she cant rule everything, so we talk about it and she accepts it. You have to be prepared to get upset and to sit on the sideline because that’s your job. The whole idea for this young man was to have respite care built in from the start so if there were any issues or anything happens there is support. He is extremely comfortable with the child. 

5:40 You need to fall in love with the child. 

Mitch - You have to fall in love with the child, so there is a process, and there is a certain point in the care at which that is very clear that you have fallen in love with the child and then you grieve and feel it when they don’t come one day. Because primary carers make decisions actually we are off to Melbourne this weekend. That also says to you it’s kind of working – we are attached and have formed a bond. Rache is the motivator and she has been very set on being able to do this.   

Rache - My next job is caring and I am devoted to it and I enjoy it. With all the experience I have I hope this will continue.  We have the time and space and our family is not perfect but we have raised socially conscious children.  Our family is not perfect, far from it.  You have to accept at times your children will get hurt because that has happened in the past. We can be way over the top. 

Often day to day we keep in contact all the time. If she needs an extra day she will call me. We have him overnight one night a month.  And we have him every Monday and sometimes on a Sunday. Its very flexible – if they need the whole weekend we do that. And he goes away too. Its very flexible. 

The other day I was talking about how we run into him in town now, and he used to be a bit confused about am I going with you or he would be a bit defensive “I don’t want to go”. Now he is hi and understands the transitioning and coming and going. We were very worried about what we were doing as well, because it’s a bit of a trial. Its no different to me living around the corner from her and doing all the things we did together. 

8.46 You also look for opportunities to impact his or his situation in other ways. What are some of those things that you do? 

I bought him some shoes or when she comes to pick him up I might have a platter ready for his dinner. She always feels guilty because I have younger children here than her and our house is very busy. I grew up with 8 brothers and sisters so this is not busy to me. This is just life. 

We are trying to mimic what would already be in his culture and have all eyes on and a community around him that are close to him so he can go to different people, a network of family, because we are becoming family for sure in the way we operate, even when we have a fight. It’s about trying to be very culturally connected in the right way. And doing things that are purposeful for him. 

We share clothes like you wouldn’t believe so sometimes I’ll run out of a jumper or socks because they are all at the carers house. We share the clothes and whatever else we have. People in the community were so good. We also had babies so we kept a lot of things from our grandson who is only 8. We got given a pram.  The carer has been given so much stuff also. People are willing to support and I think it’s the only way they know how in a whiter society. In another culture they may support in other ways. People are very curious but its so easy to step forward. 

The day when we realised what Looneys we were was when Mitch, I and the mother/carer (because she is the mother and I am happy to call her that as she acts very much like the psychological mother). We were on the couch and we were talking about how brilliant he was and how he was going to be the next Prime Minister because he is very advanced. We looked at each other and said we sound like those nutty parents. You know that that is there.  Once that is there, that love and connection, you know it. 

The other thing we do as a community is she looks at what we have and she trys to provide something different for her child at her house vs ours. Like we have a big trampoline so that is something special that he does with us. 

We have a few manly things like a punching bag and our grandson has been teaching him how to use it. The mother/carer would take him for a bushwalk and discover nuts. We would do that but we are into other things as well. We have a knife throwing range and we throw 12 inch nails. He is learning different skills in different families. 

14:16 He is getting connection and a variety of quality attuned carers. Can you tell me more about that and working out where they are at when they first come into the home? 

We are attuned in and know the background. It’s the standards as you have to learn how to connect and regulate. Picking up rocking patting good structure and routine, predictability, lots of engagement and fun and play. All the stuff you would normally do. That’s what we have been doing. Because we are so tuned in you watch and you know when to pickup, hold or explore. That dance that occurs is the key to it and you let the child grow and do what they need to do. He has been so easy, this little boy, and I think its because of our experience. Also having an 8yo who is a big soother, and is growing up like a brother, is really good for him. Our grandson is living with 5 adults so its good for him to share and play too as we all automatically give to him and share with him.  So these two are interesting to avoid the me me me. They are like mates now. 

I think children have lost the concept of imagination and play. We are very much outdoor people. But nowadays you are competing with machines that somehow seem more interesting than the world. With Atticus we explore as much creative play as we can before you get to school and you have to do all that writing and your imagination changes. The early years should be spent exploring the world and that is where our parenting is all similar.  

He has a plastic keyboard from the op shop that the mother/carer would never have.  We loved it when she came over and we said look he already has a computer. 

And the food you need to eat together, you need to look after each other, that’s really important, and he needs to see as people functioning in a relationship. 

We have lots of animals. They don’t have animals.  He collects the egg and does the chooks as part of his routine.  We have a big dalmation. He is not scared of dogs or having a dog whack him in the face with his tail. He will push him away.  We have two cats and he is going to get bitten or scratched because he wants to grab their face. We have a parrot that flys around the house at night. We have a budgie. We have guinea pigs. We like animals and a lot of its about wandering around in that environment and just talking.  

19:39 I just think it is so hard to get people to understand how easy this is to do this for just one day and how much pleasure we get back. Absolute and total. Imagine being able to give and every pleasure receptor in your body gets set off. And then you say goodbye and they have to do all the hard work. They can’t believe how trashed we let our house get. I say he is only here one day and he can do what he likes. 

When he arrives there is a like an echo throughout the house with his name.  Everyone says his name. 

My daughter is always present but each of my sons has a different way of dealing with him and what they do. One takes him out into the yard and talk to him. The other one is very gentle and very sweet. For us we are more active play. He is immersed in a world. The only thing we don’t do is take him out a lot. She takes him out a lot and they go to bands and recently went to Carols by Candlelight. We tend to just keep him at home so for us he is just engaged with us. One thing I have noticed is that peoples curiosity is not always good. They talk in front of him as though he is not even there.  You see the good side and you see the ugly side of the community. That’s why I try and be a little bit protective.  

We have had some atrocious things said to us. Its racism. I have got myself in trouble with my family now because I didn’t like something that got said and I’m not going to back down. People should know better. You have to call it out. I have worked at Bendigo District Aboriginal Corporation and Njernda and racism is still there. Actions too. Reconciliation is a very powerful idea, if we were able to actually work it. There are elements that are working very well and there are elements that working at all. There is still a them and us. White people are still learning to respect. They are not there yet. 

22:45 How do you get started with this type of respite? How would you recommend others create this for themselves? 

All I know is we do it with our own families. We see our Aunts and Uncles and we offer care out when we can.  Not everyone does obviously. I don’t live near my family so I don’t have that sort of connection. If I was at primary school now and I realised some child was in care, I would offer them help. Maybe go to the school and say is there a child being cared for here? With foster care they are not going to do it and with kinship they probably don’t really look at family relationships and what is actually going to happen when you have a child in care. They often don’t look at family relationships and what is going to happen and they are left on their own. When we had that young girl that was absconding and breaking things it wasn’t child care protection that were concerned, it was the police. If you cant get that system to care, how is that going to work. For me it needs to be in your local setting what you are going to offer. I am sure there are so many people that want to offer things but don’t know how to do that. Its also hard sometimes to ask for help. 

24:40 Listen and safety, with flexibility and openness 

I think me having an eye for noticing when something is wrong has helped. Also when children came here distressed because of things that had happened, I didn’t push them away. I have a very strong agenda around adolescents because I see how badly they are treated. No matter what school you go to or where you come from often when two or more adolescents are together they can be seen as a threat. It was important if a child came here I would listen to them. I don’t care who was right or wrong. My job was to listen and to keep them safe, tell their parents where they were and say they were able to stay and we can sort it out. Adolescence is a very bad time. Our adolescents were crazy. For me it started with being open.  

That is an important point because you have different parenting approaches and different people involved and its very easy to fall into judgement about how people should parent if they are doing something different to you. That openness and willingness to talk about it and accept that there is difference and difference is actually good. Its ok. There isn’t one perfect approach. I think its also about communication and talking and it’s a bit like us dancing around him as a bigger system, always trying to stay in tune and connected, with each other and also with him. The big advantage he has had is that we are educated and understand how to foster secure attachment. That is an important point. This worked for him but it may not have. That idea of an understanding about how you do that for a child and how you do that together as you need to have security as a team here. You need to feel safe with each other in order to provide the safety that he requires. 

That’s what they do really well as they let us know regularly how important it is for us to be in his life. They manage that like the team leaders. It’s very important to have that and keep connected and have that all there. It is different parenting and different styles. We are different people.  Like Mitch said, I’m not going to get into an argument about what is best and what is not because that is not the point for this young man. The point is to feel and grow be loved and strong in a community with people that care for him. 

He is at the centre of all our thinking. We have approached it as it is what it is for as long as it is, because it was a bit uncertain, but its for life. He is part of our family and that is something that happens over time naturally of course. The intention is we don’t put a time limit on it. We will do everything we can while we are there. If he is with us in our lives forever great. 

28:22 Top tips for secure attachment 

Secure attachment is about being totally attuned and reading and learning that child. Hours sitting there, whatever you have go to do to learn the child. I did it with my own which is just spending time holding them and talking. Mitch has got this fantastic trick he does that he has used on lots of babies, including strangers babies like the 5 month old baby from next door. This is his trick for attuning in that works really well. 

The infants, very young children, you really have to tune them in and bring them in to your rhythm. Regulate against you. I have an interest in meditation which is where some of this comes from. So I get the child and you do the normal patting and rocking but I bring my breathing down and time it with theirs. I use a visualisation of breathing out breathing into their body and when breathing in bringing it back in. It takes about 1 or 2 minutes for the child to settle. I did it a few years ago. The mentalisation is taking in the child and responding on that basis.  Once I have the relationship or the connection by matching, I will then gradually bringing them down to a relaxed state. Once I have matched them and have the connection I will bring them down. 

That capacity to attune. Secure attachment is the circle of security and that idea and fitting into that space. I do think it is about providing a safe space when they are distressed and an opportunity to support their ability explore in the world. A lot of that is about being tuned in to where the child is at and what they need. The child yesterday he is beginning to form language. He comes in, sees me and connects with me immediately and we had been outside for a little while playing. He is pointing at the table and getting upset. It’s a different problem solving now that he is communicating, but it’s the same idea here. I keep going to the table and eventually it is the little brown cup he wants. I said do you want a drink and he goes yay (claps hands) - finally I got it. He had a couple of drinks. It’s a different type of problem solving but the same thing that is forming for him is that I am regulating with him. That repeat pattern as your child needs to be in a relationship with you. As they get older they cant always have it. Theres a rupture. So there is always that rupture repair dance. Out of a relationship and back into a relationship. That to me and with the child exploring, taking risks and becoming more resilient, not wrapping them in cotton wool, having the opportunity for risk, is what builds the secure attachment and develops a child that can regulate themselves over time.   Secure base so if something happens you can come back. Safe hands secure base. 

34:02 Security in relationships is key to compensate for a compromised early start 

For me I often react intuitively and think later but for me it is being present and having that absolute unique opportunity to be a part of their development in whatever way you can. You cannot do that if you are worrying about the washing. Or worrying about this. That’s why this community idea of kinship connection works. If she has something coming up and she is busy, why would you be disengaged with the child just to get that done when she can call me and say blah blah this is what happening and we will go yeah sure fine. She has birthdays, she has 50ths and she has all those normal things that we do that sometimes, if they are your child that is different in terms of biological and that is the network. But if it’s not, your mindful of what you are doing. And you need to be. Because that didn’t come because the family was ok. And that never goes and it will always be there and it needs to be paramount in your thinking. Someone like this young chap who is just adorable needs that presence of mind. There was no presence of mind for at least the first 9 months. I know that. So there is still a long way to go with him and you need to keep that in mind. I must present. Whenever she calls we just do it. We are boring and don’t do much. If it’s not convenient, which rarely it is, its easy to accommodate. Her and her partner and the family and the kids are amazing and we are lucky to be a part of it. That’s what I want people to understand. You get more out of it than you give. If I could spruik it so the government paid you to go around to every school and every doctors surgery we would do that. I have done it more than once and the kids have come and gone or stayed in contact thats their choice.  It works just to be there. 

What Rache was indicating there too is the fact that secure attachment is also that security in  relationships and you are really fostering secure attachment between adults. I like the idea of in some ways all attachment, connection and relationship going on here. That is what he is being surrounded by, the milieu of relationship worlds. Because the beginning hasn’t been great, you are actually always sensitive to providing experiences that are rich, that are repairing and potentially healing. The impact of neurobiology because of what had happened to him. 

But also holding in mind those parents and not thinking and being negative. You can have your own thoughts and feelings when he is not around. I watch the carer. She is so supportive in now engaging us with now doing unsupervised contact and get the Department away to make it as normal as possible between her and the parent. She keeps informing us and is very positive about all that, even though we know it is heartbreaking to think of what he went through and heartbreaking to think Mum and Dad can’t have him. Even if that is fake, even if that is you being compassionate on a level that you produce the empathy rather than feeling it, then do it. Its too easy to judge and what is the point. That is his mum and dad and you can’t remove that. Its having compassion and understanding for others, holding him in heart and also to have others around like his family involved over time and find a way of making it all work. You have got to extend to them first, and not accepting things that may be abusive, but be open to making the relationship work. It’s a strength based approach for what is working, not for what is not working. Try and find those moments. The family connections are slowly building now because the carer is just a powerhead for being culturally ok. Going around the sides sometimes so the people have an opportunity to be with this young man. The first feeling you have is oh what no you have run away. You have that emotional feeling but you need to channel it in a way that is positive. We always share photos so we are all connected.  So that the maternal side know about what we do and want to know about it and they are in agreement with what is going on so we can provide as much of a positive relationship as we can about everything. The carers are A1 when it comes to this and its about relationships. 

40:46 Is there anything else to discuss? 

There is something about working in child protection that people need to be clear it is a system and it is very much like Centrelink or any other Government system. It is floored because there is not enough money and for different reasons but it’s the only system we have and can go to and its hard. I don’t think the carers have a great time with it as well but its about making sure that the Department is not central to your problem. Don’t make the department your issue. Get away from them if you can. Go to permanent care if you can as quick as you can. No child should be raised attached to the Department.  Sens of belonging. There is nothing worse than hearing a child say at 8 my worker says. I think people need to understand that.  The department isn’t doing it to them so remove yourself from that and the legalities as much as you can. 

I just go back to fall in love with the child. It is essential Not just making it work in that sense, but for you to be willing to do the extras. They cease to be a burden and they become a delight and a joy.  That is how we approached it.  We welcome him because we missed him.   

I experienced hands on when our daughter got pregnant at 18 the communities ideas of that sort of thing. It wasn’t what people perceived as normal. We got asked blatant open questions about things that were none of peoples business when you are exposing yourself to things that aren’t the norm. You need to put yourself out and not care what others have to say. All I used to say about my daughter’s child is any child is welcome in our home and that’s what you have to think fullstop.  It doesn’t matter about the disaster or chaos or anything that is going to happen. There is an element of unconditional love and openness to others in a way that supports them. People should do that with all children to support them to have positive connection. We sound like saps but we are normal people and do stupid things. Even the older ones.  

My father grew up in out of home care in a boys home and then in foster care and his way he managed caring about people and vulnerability was amazing. He was very open to difference. He never used to say well you don’t know what is going on in someone else’s life. He was just very generous with other people and brought other people into our home and he said you accept and be kind.  Our kids have told us where they think we were fools. They have fallen in love too.  They love it and are old enough now to reflect on what having other children here was. They were never put second ever.   

Thankyou for making the time today. 

OTHER RESOURCES  

https://www.cbchange.org/about-us/ CBChange 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUAL8RVvkyY – Dr Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey 

https://www.bdperry.com/ Dr Bruce Perry 

https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/articles/what-is-the-nugel-program 

https://www.bendigoadvertiser.com.au/story/4694762/pilot-hands-back-control/ 

Therapeutic Assistance Dog Process – Vicki Skelley - Youtube

Vicki Skelley is a permanent carer who was looking to find a way to look forward to brighten her granddaughters future after a bleak FASD diagnosis. Vicki wanted to support her granddaughter with a best friend, and also find a way to make an invisible array of disabilities visible to others. The solution came in the form of Zara, a beautiful Italian Lagotto Romagnolo, a type of non shedding poodle, trained as an assistance dog by DogsforLife. Vicki learned that you don't just turn up and receive a fully trained assistance dog. It involves weekly training with her granddaughter and a variety of dogs. Weekly sessions of an hour each following many rules, such as toileting off the property to picking up after the dog. All of this was her granddaughters responsibility, not Vicki's. An extra challenge when one has a SPD diagnosis too! Did they succeed? Did they get funding assistance or NDIS support? Listen in or read the transcript to find out.

00:00 - Start 00:40 - We wanted an assistance dog to help with making hidden disabilities visible and to support my granddaughter with ASD, ADHD, SPD, LD, trauma, anxiety, depression, coordination and FASD. 03:10 - Our assistance dog is a Lagotto Romagnolo, similar to a large poodle, and came to live with us at 14 months old, after she was raised by a foster family. She goes to appointments, like the dentist, and the shopping centre with my granddaughter. 05:25 - The training program is two years long and weekly. OT and Psychologists from Dogs4Life observed Zara with their trained assistance dogs and set out in a contract what they could do for us. 12:09 - You can chose smaller dogs if they are suitable to train, but Dogs4Life mainly work with 2 dog breeds and mainly females. They work with Lagottos or Labradors. 13:14 - I chose Dogs4Life because I did research and made a connection at a community fair with a Dogs4Life dog trainer. 14:36 - It costs around $40,000 for an assistance dog in addition to food, medical and maintenance. 16:44 - You work with many dogs over 2 years and then chose the dog that's the best fit for you. Dogs4Life trained Lagottos and Labradors and we chose Lagottos due to their high energy. 19:42 - Don't start too young - your child needs to be responsible for the dog. 21:51 - The child is the dog handler, not the carer, and has to feed, water, toilet the dog daily. 26:25 - The benefits are many: mental health and wellbeing, having a best friend and sense of purpose. 29:02 - The hardest challenge is when the dog first comes to live with you. So many rules such as toileting off the property and its not allowed to eat scraps. 34:54 - Assistance dog training differs to dog therapy training. Your dog is specifically trained to suit your exact needs and is covered by a Public Access Test so you can take it anywhere. 39:58 - You can live anywhere with an assistance dog. Its your right. 41:55 - NDIS Support - Make it a goal and be prepared for a two year appeal process 47:16 An assistance dog does not replace therapy.

Therapeutic Assistance Dog Process – Vicki Skelley - Transcript

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice research-based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people. PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

Today we are discussing dog therapy and the therapeutic dog assistance training process with Vicki Skelley. Vicki is a permanent carer who has done the work with her granddaughter and her gorgeous dog companion Zara.

Welcome Vicki.

00: 40 Can you tell us a little bit about your granddaughter and what led you to look at getting a specially trained dog for therapeutic support?

My granddaughter came to live with me when she was 22 months old and is now 12.5 years old. Over that period she was diagnosed with various disabilities that weren’t there when she was 22 months old. That was a long process right up until about the age of 9. She has ASD, ADHD, SPD, coordination disorder, learning disabilities, early childhood trauma, anxiety, depression and the main diagnosis and the latest diagnosis, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). The reason I started looking at assistance dogs was because of her invisible disabilities. They weren’t present on the outside to others until getting to know the person. I got to a point that I felt I cant have it tattooed on her forehead. How do we alert others? That is how some of those behaviours associated with those disabilities come out. Socially they don’t have the capacity to relay what they want. The anxiety level is probably already quite high. Emotional regulation. So it was really important to me about how to move forward in the future to be able to continue to go out into the community and make other people aware straight away that this person has a disability and may need some extra help.

03:10 You now have a specially trained dog, Zara in your life. Can you tell us about Zara – what sort of dog is she and what does she do day to day?

Zara is a Lagotto Romagnolo, which is an Italian breed of dogs, similar to a larger poodle, so a medium sized dog and she is non shedding.  She came to live with us when she was 14 months old. Prior to that she was with a foster family. She supports my granddaughter by giving her a sense of purpose, for instance getting out of bed. There is motivation as well. She supports her emotionally such as just by laying with her around the house.  She gives her exercise because you have to go for walks. That might not just be walks it might be going to the park for a bit of ball play. She supports her going to appointments. My granddaughter doesn’t like the dentist so she goes to the dentist. She supports her when we go to the shopping centre because of over sensory and anxiety, everything kicks in. While she is at the shopping centre, my granddaughters focus is on the dog so it takes the focus off what is going on around her. And that also alerts other people in the community when we are out and about that this person has a disability.

05:25 Can you tell us about the training program that you went through at Dogs 4 Life to make this possible? I understand you don’t just turn up and receive a fully trained dog? What dog breed options did you have to choose from?

It is a long process. At the start I thought why is this so long, can we not just get a fully trained assistance dog and off we go. Being at the other end and now having a dog I now understand why and the process. Once I started researching assistance dogs I decided to go with Dogs4Life. You go online and complete a form and disclose disabilities, behaviours, therapy you are doing, reasons why you think an assistance dog will help you. Dogs4Life then contacted me and they do a home visit with their own psychologist. They came out with a fully trained assistance dog and do an assessment. A meeting in your home – a fairly laid back meeting on the couch. For instance the dog was sitting on my granddaugheters lap. The psychologist at that point if I look back was assessing what was going on with my granddaughter and the dog, what interactions were happening. She was fairly laid back but taking lots of notes. Dogs4Life also have an OT who has a dog. She also came out and did an assessment with the dog at home. Very similar taking lots of notes. They obviously get back and have a pow wow and decide if an assistance dog is going to be a fit for this family and the child. They then send you a contract that is very in depth and tells you how that dog is going to support your child. What they can do.

That is just the start of the program and if you accept the contract you move on to weekly dog training sessions for an hour with a trainer through Dogs4life. They bring a fully trained assistance dog with them and that’s for 2 years. That might start off in your home, maybe the first few sessions, getting used to the whole comfort thing with a dog. That moves out into the community with small slow baby steps. That might be a walk around the block. Then we might start going around the block to the park for some play. You are also concentrating on crossing roads, how you cross roads. The dogs are trained to anchor as soon as you get to the end of the footpath anyway. My granddaughter was oblivious to those types of things. She would just walk out. It was really good in that respect. You move forward to going to shopping centres and going up and down lifts. Dogs cant use escalators so that was another fear we had to overcome as my granddaughter hates lifts. It’s not safe for the dog to go up the escalator with a dog. Going on public transport,all the aspectsof going out,  going to the shopping center, going to the supermarket.

The modules are up to the trainer. There is no set training program that was given to us. Im sure the trainer has a set program from Dogs4Life that they follow as to yes we are ready for the next step. If  you cant negotiate walking around the block and stopping, You have to learn how to walk the dog, you to have a loose lead. The dog walks on the left side. They have to become second nature to move to the next step.

With my granddaughters disability, with the FASD, which is permanent brain damage, her brain is quite short circuit on most days, and she doesn’t have a memory.. So for her its like groundhog day every day. I can only imagine what it is like for her – very frustrating. So everything we do is about consistency, routine, same same and so that she learns it as an action rather than a memory.

12:09 Did you have different dog breed options to choose from as part of that process?

Dogs4Life mainly purchase Lagotto’s or Labrador’s, mainly females. Females are probably a little bit more settled earlier in age than males do. They have worked with some males but predominantly its those two breeds and they are females. Saying that, they will, if a particular person has a preference for a type of dog, such as a really small dog, they can train different dog breeds if their suitable to be trained for the disability.

13:14 How did you choose Dogs4Life?

I was looking into it and then I went to one of those community centre open days where they had all these kind of different therapies there and took the girls. There was actually a trainer there from Dogs4Life. She had a little stall setup. Initially I thought she was someone with a disability with an assistance dog. I went over and found out she was a trainer with Dogs4Life and she gave me some information and she has been our trainer for the past 2.5 years. I did look at some of the other programs. The programs and prices are all basically the same. I think because I made that connection I went with Dogs4Life.

14:36 What are the costs involved?

About $40,000 all up life long. When you get an assistance dog with Dogs4Life, they are there for life. That includes all their training, the weekly training for 2 years, the dog because they purchase the dog, the foster family training. That’s not the food, medical or other costs.  It covers that before you get the dog, such as when its with the foster family as the foster family don’t pay anything. I buy the food and if I have to take her to the vet I cover that such as her yearly injections. I have had to take her to the vet once before. I pay for the grooming as she has that type of poodle fur that needs to be clipped. However, if you are lucky enough NDIS do pay for assistance dog maintenance of around $2,400 per year. Don’t quote me on that! I haven’t personally managed to get that yet. I need to go in for the fight on that one.

16:44 Would you recommend choosing the program then the dog or vica versa? What age would you recommend doing this?

With Dogs4Life you are working with Lagottos and Labradors over that 2 year period. You don’t just work with one dog. We probably worked with 8 to 10 different dogs over that period of 2 years. We got to see the different personalities between the two dogs.  The Lagottos might be a little bit more higher energy than the Labradors. My granddaughter has low energy so she needs that motivation. When it came time to get our dog, and when we were ready, and we were a little bit behind because of Covid, so it was about 2 years and 4 months, we got invited to go to the university where they run the program at Latrobe. We got the chance to meet Zara there. We were told they had one dog there that could be suitable and there were 4 or 5 other dogs we could meet the week after. So we went along and the head dog trainer was there and he is the one that matches up the person and the dog as there has to be a connection. At the end of that he said Zara would be a good fit. He said you can go away and think about it and you can meet other dogs next week if you want. We went away to think about it and my granddaughter said I want Zara. We did have a choice. And there were Labradors as well.

19:42 What age would you recommend doing this?

My child was just over 9, when she got diagnosed with the FASD.  Because that could cause such hard times for her future and because it was such a hidden disability. I can’t really answer that question but for us she was just over 9 and it was a 2 year program and she was just turning 12 when we got Zara. So she was just under 10 when we started the program and that was a good age because she was capable of doing things physically and with prompts. Me personally I wouldn’t do it with too young a child. The child can’t be pulling the dogs tail or doing rough play with the dog. There are certain rules around having an assistance dog. They are trained not to bite, not to do tug of war, not to chew your furniture. And if you have younger siblings you have to incorporate that as well. Is that going to work?

21:51 What about the ongoing commitment and training for your granddaughter?

The dog is her dog and I am the secondary handler of the dog, but I’m her carer so it’s still my responsibility to remind her but she has to physically do everything for the dog. Basically she has to get up in the morning and take the dog to the toilet and the dog doesn’t go to the toilet on property. The dog has to be off property to go to the toilet. The reason behind that is because you are going to take them into the shopping centre or on public transport so you have to teach them to go to the toilet on command. You say a basic word and they have to go to the toilet. She has to take them out to the toilet in the morning on the nature strip. She has to then feed the dog and measure out how much to eat. We don’t want the dog to end up overweight, because they will eat all day. We have to make sure the dogs water is filled up so I have to check the water and tell her have you checked the dogs water today it looks a bit low. We then have to go out on our pooh walk because the dog is in a routine just as much as the child. She has to walk the dog and I walk behind as I am just the carer behind overseeing. She has to stop, she has to know when we get to the grass the dog goes on a long lead so it has the opportunity to go to the toilet. She has to say the words. She has to pick up the pooh and that was a huge one. It’s a sensory thing and its disgusting. Its part of the two year training. I never thought we would ever get to that but she does it. When we get home its about whats happening today. Are we gong to the therapist. Is the therapist coming to the house? Are we taking the dog or not. She knows how to put the dog walking stuff on the dog, which is the dog harness and she does all ll of that. If we are going out what do we need to take. We need to take water, a bowl, is the weather hot, is the weather cold. There is a lot of responsibility on the child but really if you just incorporate that in your routine. But as a carer there is a lot of responsibility because you cant just assume someone with a brain based disability has done what they need to do.

At the same time it takes the focus off themselves and she is focussing on the dog and she is not thinking about her depressive mood as the dog needs these things done regardless of how she feels. It helps her to realise its not just about Im depressed, unmotivated and not moving today.

26:25 How has your granddaughter benefitted from the program? Independence, friendship, motivation, caring for others.

It has improved her mental health and wellbeing astronomically. It has reduced her anxiety as she can now go to the shopping centre, somewhere that she didn’t want to go before. In fact before she didn’t even want to go in the car and now she sits in the back in the car. With a lot of disabilities, they are often thinking the worst. It’s raining, so there’s a storm or this and that. It gives you a best friend. Socially its hard to have friends because your peers think why is she not interacting socially the way we should. It gives her a best friend. It gives her something that she loves and cares about but she gets that love back from the dog. As long as the dog is fed and walked. Animals are full of love so they will love you no matter what. Its given her a sense of purpose. It shifts the focus off herself and she feels needed. Sometimes children with disabilities especially at my granddaughters age heading into being a teenager. They don’t feel like they fit or have a purpose and they don’t feel they can do things and they want to be like everybody else but they find it ten times harder. So she feels like she has a purpose and is needed and she knows things about assistance dogs that other people don’t know.

29:02 What were some of the challenges along the way that you weren’t aware of previously that you think every family needs to consider?

Besides the commitment from the carer, the hardest challenge I found was when Zara came to live with us. Its ok to have weekly training for an hour and then we had a few weekly one on one sessions with Zara before she came for a bit of bonding. Once the dog comes to live fulltime it’s a very full on process and probably the hardest part because there are a lot of rules and it’s a very strict program that you need to stick to. We were having 4 hour training sessions in the home for the first week so you had sometimes two or three. We had the OT here we ha the dog trainer here. We had to forget doing anything else. It was a very intense part of the program because you have to remember that the dog has been with a foster family so it’s come into a strange house so we have to make sure the dog is supported but then we also need to bond the child with the dog and they need to find their way together. So that’s why it’s such an intense part of the program. There’s rules. You cant be leaving chocolate around. One of my granddaughters things was having chocolate hidden in every part of her room.  We had to do some retraining around that. I started that training before. The dog isn’t allowed to eat off the floor. It’s not allowed to eat scraps. We need to be sitting at the table and we have to clean up after ourselves because a natural thing is for a dog to eat scraps. That’s hard if you go to a restaurant. I did get to a point after 3 weeks that I thought oh what have I got myself into here. It was full on for me because I had to make sure all these rules had to be followed. There were so many rules that needed to happen. And we still needed to go for a walk come rain, hail or shine. Dogs4Life set a route A around the block that we had to do 5 times a day. Over the weeks we had other routes to walk.. It was to make the dog familiar so it knows how to come home. With her brain she becomes disorientated and while I might have walked that walk a hundred times she might think I don’t know which way to walk but the dog knows which way to walk.

The other thing I would like to say in that is that if carers are thinking about getting an assistance dog for their child, just be aware that an assistance dog doesn’t replace a carer. You cant just think you can send your child out the door for a walk around the block with the dog and everything is hunky dory. That is hopefully the point we will get to. That is definitely the aim to make her more independent.

Also requires a whole family commitment as there are other things you need to think of. If you are going down the beach like we did in January for a few weeks, you have a dog. You can’t just go to the beach for the whole day in the sun with the dog. That’s just one example. It’s a whole family commitment and it’s like having another family member. The dog is there for the person one on one. The dog is not there for me. Its not there for my granddaughters sister. So you have to be mindful of that.

34:54 Is Zara an assistance or therapy dog? How does the training differ?

Zara is an assistance dog but under that comes an emotional therapy companion dog. The training is different.  With an assistance do if you have a child that has some form of disability where they require a dog to alert, maybe they have a diabetic child, the dog can be trained to alert if their levels get too low or you might need an assistance dog to push the button at the lights.  They are trained to suit the disability. A therapy companion dog is basically trained and used for not just one person. For instance my granddaughters psychologist has two therapy dogs in her room which she uses for emotional support for the child when they are in the room talking. So they are trained to be with more than one person. An assistance dog is trained to support just their one person. In saying that they might have therapy dogs that they use in retirement villages or children’s hospitals or schools to support wellbeing and mental health. Someone individually might have a dog that they call their emotional support dog. An emotional support dog isn’t covered by legislative laws. Whereas an assistance dog has to sit a PAT test every year (Public Access Test). They have to do that PAT with their person each year so that they can go anywhere. The only place an assistance dog can’t go is the operating theatre. So if you want to get on a plane, say we decided we are going away and my granddaughter is taking the dog, then that dog can sit on a seat next to my granddaughter and I don’t think I have to pay for that seat. I haven’t tried it. I haven’t put that to the test. There are other things such as if I want to go and stay in a motel, I don’t have to pick a dog friendly motel. They prefer you don’t pick a dog friendly motel.  I don’t go to dog parks. I don’t go to dog only beaches. I go to beaches where dogs aren’t allowed because she is allowed because she is an assistance dog. They are covered under a law so if you get knocked back you are supposed to call the police because you cant refuse assistance dogs entry. I have seen people walking around with therapy dogs with  dog therapy jackets on around shopping centres. I haven’t seen them pulled up.  I wouldn’t personally say anything but legally they are not actually covered.

39:58 Did you make that decision about getting an assistance dog or did Dogs4Life?

My granddaughter actually helped me make that decision. She was the one that first mentioned it. She said I want a best friend and someone that understand me and loves me no matter how I am. She was always an animal lover. Animals were always something she connected with. When she was younger she used to bring all the snails home from school. She felt they would have a better home in our house.

Whatever program you go on if they don’t think they can offer you what your asking for, they will tell you straight out. But it might be what your home is like. If you have 8 kids and you want an assistance dog for one child, that might be a little bit awkward. Its going to be a lot of work. Where you live does not change whether you can get an assistance dog. People that live in flats or high rise apartments can have an assistance dog. The dog doesn’t go to the toilet on property anyway. The dog doesn’t bark because its trained not to bark. You can’t even get refused a rental property if you have an assistance dog.

41:55 How did NDIS support you in this venture?

Great subject. Sometimes their your best friend and sometimes their not. When my granddaughter first got accepted on NDIS it was just after the FASD diagnosis, even though we probably could have gone on it sooner. I was really lucky that I had a good person as I didn’t know much about it. She put in a long term goal for my granddaughter to have her own assistance dog. So that’s the first step to have that put in as one of your goals. Once it is there it is hard to get out. That was a direct connection to supporting therapy for her even though we have other therapists.

NDIS paid for her to have those two years of weekly dog training. You have to be really careful here because I don’t want someone else to just think it will just go on NDIS. Every individual is different. They are trying to cut back on assistance dogs over the last couple of years because there are children with ASD that are trying to get assistance dogs.

Then after 2 years and we knew that wasn’t long before the time was coming for us to get our own dog. Dogs4Life have they own OT and psychologist so they do the NDIS paperwork that’s required to put in for the funding. So we did that process and it was denied. All criteria were met except it’s a child vs an animal. Animals can be unpredictable. There is a fine line there. It can be argued. You can go through an appeal process that can take up to two years. I wasn’t prepared to wait. We had already waited two years and it would have been another two years.

That’s when I looked at other avenues. You can look at fundraising, you can look at a GoFundMe page and you can get someone in the business community to support you for fundraising. I was having a conversation with the manager of PCA Familie at that time and she said we can help with that. I put through all the information we had from NDIS and Dogs4 Life. I also put through my own statement. The person at PCA Families could only approve a certain amount of money. So the person from PCA Families also wrote a statement of support and that when over to a board meeting at OzChild and they approved the funding. That was how we ended up getting the funding for Zara. OzChild sent the payment through to Dogs4Life. It was a miracle really.

There are other funding options that I have become aware of such as Variety who will support funding assistance dogs. They do intake once a year and the criteria has to be that you are denied funding somewhere else first.

47:16 Is there anything else you wish to comment on today?

Everyone’s journey is different. I can only tell you my journey. My thought process in getting an assistance dog was look into the future. For instance, my child is 12.5 and about to become a teenager. Going by my FASD report the future was sounding quite bleak. I think I was looking at a therapy that would best help my child. But an assistance dog does not replace a therapist. The assistance dog is part of our therapy team. We still do speech, OT, art therapy and the dog is part of that team.

Thankyou

To anyone making the time to listen to this recording, thankyou for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life. Until next time have an amazing week.

 

OTHER RESOURCES

DogsforLife

Dr Jenny Conrick Adoption Effects on Relationships and Parenthood - Youtube Recording

Dr Jenny Conrick is a Social Worker and Doctor of Philosophy, Melbourne University associate and educator, with a background in government and health sectors, adoption, out of home care and trauma. Dr Conrick has been exploring the lifelong impacts of adoption on adult adoptees. In particular, adoptees as parents, and the impacts of trauma, post natal depression, attachment and life transitions. She has uncovered some important areas that matter to adoptees, such as preserving the family they create and avoiding any secrecy. Similarly she has uncovered some important needs to support in adoption support services, from providing an opportunity for adoptees to speak about their adoption to validating and unravelling their experience and having specialised antenatal support. And if you are a grandparent to your adoptees children, her research highlights the importance of stepping up and being interested and attuned. It matters more than you may think so get involved and show your interest!

00:00 - Start 01:08 - Introducing Dr Jenny Conrick 02:55 - This research study into local Victorian adoptees becoming mothers received a great response, highlighting the importance of adoptees sharing their stories 06:21 - No matter how good their adoption experience, counselling was sought and most felt they weren't attuned to their adopted families 09:23 - Revelations from the study: They viewed being a mother through the filter of their adoption experience. 10:55 - They experienced a loss and grief that was unexpected and overwhelming. 14:15 - They would do anything to protect and preserve the family they created, meaning spousal relationships were important, even when divorced. 15:15 - They identified as victims of secrecy and didn't want secrecy within their family. 16:38 - They learnt to be a mother, not from their adopted mothers, but from the partners and other people in their lives. 17:46 - Being a mother further impacted their relationship with their adopted parents. The more distant grandparents caused a distance between the adopted person and their adopted parents. 19:25 - Being a mother reactivated a search for birth members and or knowledge. 23:20 - The emotional wellbeing of the mothers was impacted, and their sense of identity, and several experienced anxiety or depression. 26:15 - Early separation has wide reaching impacts with support needed for professionals to understand adoption impacts and for adopted children becoming parents to have antenatal support. Adoption impacts across the whole lifespan - a status that remains. It involves consideration of attachment and neurobiology too. 29:30 - Relevant theories: Jack Schonkof, Bruce Perry, Bessel Van De Kolk, Hal Grotevant, Amanda Baden, Mriam Steele, Arietta Slade, Peter Fonagy, 32:48 - ABC and Theraplay 33:54 Future Directions

Dr Jenny Conrick Adoption Effects on Relationships and Parenthood - Transcript

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice research-based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people. PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

Today we are discussing adoption and the impacts of parenthood on adoptees with Dr Jenny Conrick.

Dr Jenny Conrick is a Social Worker and Doctor of Philosophy who has been associated with the Social Work Department at the University of Melbourne for over 7 years. She has 30 years practice as a Social Work clinician, manager and educator in the government and health sectors, providing services to those with an adoption, out of home care and trauma experience.

Dr Conrick has been exploring the lifelong impacts of adoption on adult adoptees. In particular, adoptees as parents, and the impacts of trauma, post-natal depression, attachment and life transitions.  Welcome Dr Conrick. 

01:08 I would love to know more about you and how you came to be involved in these areas of social work?

Thank you, Sonia, for the opportunity to speak with you today.

My interest in adoption began in childhood with a family friend who had 2 adopted children; and throughout my practice as a Social Worker in the Child and Family Welfare area, I have often met clients who have an adoption experience. When I worked for the Adoption Information Service, part of DHHS (now DFFH), I was struck by the issues that those I met struggled with as adults, and I searched the literature to see what it had to say about working clinically with adult adopted people.  At that stage I found very little information, and there seemed to be a view at that time, that being adopted was no different to being raised in a family to which you were born. The issues that adopted people spoke about negotiating throughout their lives, were not recognised, and although there were and are thousands of people placed for adoption in the Australian community, little was understood about their experiences as they move through life.

Subsequently I worked with VANISH as a counsellor; I have been providing education for prospective Intercountry Adoption parents; and more recently offered consultations to the Relationship Matters intercountry counselling service. I currently teach at the University of Melbourne and have a small clinical practice, mostly with people who have an adoption or out of home care experience.

2:55 You have recently released a study where you researched women adoptees that became mothers. You identified some significant revelations.  Can you tell us a little more about the study: who was included and your findings?

Yeah. So, my Ph.D.  focused on adopted women and their experiences as a mother. The study was initially advertised in a magazine called Melbourne’s Child (a free magazine distributed each month to health, education and recreational locations within Victoria) and then through word of mouth. I had about 45 responses and 21 fulfilled the study selection criteria, which were that their adoption took place in Victoria and they still had children living at home. Of the 21 women included in the study- 18 were interviewed and 5 were part of a focus group that evaluated my interpretations of the findings. I decided to locate the study solely within Victoria as each State has its own adoption legislation, processes and histories, that can impact differently on each individual and their experiences.

The average age of the participating women was around 44 years, and the average age of their children was 12 years; so, they were experienced mothers who were able to reflect on being a mother over years of parenting. The average length of their marriages/ partnerships was 19 years and 3 had separated from their partners. 18 had completed tertiary study (10-university; 8- vocational training) and interestingly 75% held professional occupations in community services, health & education areas. Two were in business and 1 was focused on raising her children and caring for her adoptive parents.

6:21 It was significant to note that each of the 21 women had learned that their early weeks of life (up to 3 months in fact for 2 women) were spent in more than one pre-adoptive setting such as a hospital nursery, or baby’s home, with only 2 women having been additionally placed in pre-adoptive foster care- so they had unsettled beginnings. And from what we now know about the impacts of stress on the developing architecture of an infants brain, we can wonder about the impacts of these early experiences for the adoptee, and their subsequent need for a particular understanding by their new parent/caregivers, about how they learn to trust, to regulate their physical and emotional responses, their attention, and their behaviour.

When the women in the study reflected on growing up in their adoptive families, a spectrum of experience emerged: 9 women said they had had very good adoptive family experiences; 3 said they had had a good upbring, but with challenges, such as the death of an adoptive parent, or a parent with mental health issues; 6 women said they felt they had never quite fitted with their adoptive family and/or had never felt they had been understood by their adoptive parents; and 3 women recounted experiences of abuse of one kind or another, including sexual abuse.

18 women had known of their adoption status since infancy; 1 had learned about this as a primary school aged child; and 2 women were late discovering of their adoption status. The openness and freedom to discussion being adopted, had also varied, with those who had a more open experience commenting that this had been positive for them.

9:23 The main finding from the study was that all but one woman consciously viewed being a mother through the filter of their adoption experiences. The participant who felt a little differently was in the midst of parenting young children and caring for her adoptive parents and said she could not afford to reflect too much on her adoption as she feared it might open a can of worms. She did however state that she had no knowledge of any medical conditions that might be inherited by her children, and at times felt this was something she would like to find out about.

10:55 Having children and raising them, for this group of women, awakened a profound sense of grief and abandonment, which by and large caught them by surprise. What they once may have accepted in some measure now held a new, visceral meaning. Birthing and holding their infant children led them to wonder who had held them when they were that age; who had thought about them and who had considered what they needed? These thoughts and emotions also led them to consider the losses experienced by their birth and adoptive mothers- to ask what was `it like for my natural mother to have been separated from me; and what was it like for my adoptive mother who has perhaps never been through this birth experience. So they wrestled with many conflicting emotions and 3 women described falling into a depression after the birth of children. The women also spoke about this sense of loss re-emerging at varying points, as their children grew.

For all but one woman, their own children were the first biological relatives with whom they had a close relationship. They spoke about how incredible it was to be with someone and be able to touch someone who was like them in some way. Nine of the women reported that they were afraid to be separated from their infants and one described how she had spent the first 6 months with one foot in the cot- almost superglued to her child. There was of course a continuum of experience and another participant said that while she loved her children, she couldn’t allow herself to be in love with them, for the first two years of their lives- she was anxious that there might be a separation, and this was of course very challenging for her.

14:15 Another thing the participants in the study spoke about, was their strength of commitment to the family they had created, to their children and to being the best mother they could be. Where participants were separated from their children’s father, they made a huge effort to make sure their children kept a connection to him. They felt it important that their children knew where they came from, unlike themselves, who had lost information about their own biological family, extended family history, medical history all of those things that inform who you are.

15:15 The women in the study placed a high value on openness and honesty in their relationship with their children and partners and believed that the lack of information and discussion and/or secrecy about their adoption in their formative years, played a significant role in holding these values. They also felt it was important that their children were not victims to their experience, but rather empowered by it.

Several women saw their own family as an opportunity to repair the past, and to give to their children what they had not had. However, for 4 participants being a mother did not completely fill a personal void. One person commented that she thought that having children would fill that need, but it actually hasn’t…it hasn’t filled that void that’s in my life – and this was another sadness for her.

16:38 I asked the participants where they had learned to be a mother. While two women spoke about learning to be a mother from their adoptive parents, by and large, their primary model (particularly by those who had received poorer parenting from their adoptive family) came from other sources such as partners, friends, mothers in law and even Maternal Child Health Nurses and the Australian Nursing Mothers Association.

Partners’ as ‘good fathers’ were significantly valued by each woman.

17:46 Having children also impacted on the relationships of the participating women with their adoptive parents. Relationships strengthened if their adoptive parents supported them following the birth of their children. How adoptive parents responded to their grandchildren and took on a grandparent role was significant. Five participants spoke about having come to see their adoptive parents and particularly their adoptive mothers in a more positive light after having children because of the support they provided; several felt disappointed in their response as grandparents, and one felt that the birth of her own children exacerbated the difficulties for her adoptive mother.

19:25 Being a parent reactivated an awareness of the gaps in the participants knowledge about their own origins. It freshened a desire to either get more information or to commence or recommence a search for birth family members, for themselves as well as for their children. At the time of interview, twenty women had obtained their adoption records and/or searched. Twelve had experienced at least one contact with their birth family and nine had maintained some form of ongoing contact with them. Four women had not met any member of their birth family and a fourth participant had had letter contact only. Internal conflict was experienced at times because of their sense of loyalty to their adoptive parents; several women did not tell their adoptive parents of their search or contact, and others waited to search until after the deaths of their adoptive parents.

Also, the type of contact varied as did the satisfaction with the relationships. Expectations could vary between the participants and their birth family members about the type of relationship they might have (the frequency of contact; what they called each other; how they would be introduced to others  etc); there could be misunderstanding and hurt about things that were said and the way they we said; silences between contacts could be misinterpreted and the participants needed to reconcile their biological connection to their birth family, while having little or no shared history; and having a shared history but no biological connection to their adoptive family. For those who experienced unsuccessful searches or reunions or where contact broke down, a further sense of rejection was experienced for themselves as well as a sense of loss for their children. How adoptive parents responded to their daughter’s search and contact experiences with birth family had an impact on the strength of their relationship. Negotiating these complexities and the multiple extended family relationships was an added layer of fatigue and demand for the participating women at the time of raising their own family.

23:20 All of the experiences mentioned, impacted on the emotional wellbeing of participants and resulted in several women experiencing depression or anxiety that they were concerned would impact their ability to be a parent and might influence their children’s emotional health.

Of significance was that all but one of the participating women, had sought counselling at some point in their life. Some for anxiety and depression, some following search and reunion, all for making further sense of their adoption experiences. Many had attended counselling services that had not had an understanding of adoption matters.

A final finding of the study related to the participants sense of identity. As well as the usual adjustments that come with being a parent, the women in the study also asked where do I fit, and belong. They reviewed and re-integrated in different ways, their adoptive family experiences and their birth family knowledge and experiences- their membership to two families of origins; combined with their family of procreation and the various extended family membership that accompanied this. They were aware of the changing social attitudes to adoption and changes to legislation and policies that impacted them, how they felt about themselves and how others might see them.

26:15 What does that mean for adoption support? What do you see as some recommendations or changes that we could consider in light of your research? What do we need to offer adoptees as they become parents, in response to what you have uncovered?

Where possible, support families to enable children to safely remain with their family of birth.

I think we need to understand the impact of early separation on infants and their birth family. And better support those who subsequently care for them (adoptive parents and or others) to understand that behaviour indicates a response to the past as well as the infants interpretation of the present.

We need to understand that separations such as adoption, do have lifelong consequences and impacts, and there needs to be appropriate, adequately funded service, available across the life span to support those with this experience. Professionals need training to deeply understand the impacts of adoption and other separations.

The women in my study wanted 5 things:

  • They wanted an opportunity to speak about their adoption and tell their story
  • They wanted validation of their experience.
  • They wanted the opportunity to unravel the impact of adoption for them.
  • And then to speak to someone who has an understanding of adoption matters.

They also recommended that there be information available during the antenatal period about how adoption might impact when adopted people have children.

29:30 When we last spoke you also mentioned a number of other theories that might be of value in understanding more about adoption matters, in light of your studies. I wonder if we could look at these briefly?

Sure. Taking a developmental perspective and understanding that adoption issues can be triggered at significant life transitions, is important. The work of Jack Schonkof, Bruce Perry and Bessel van de Kolk, around neurodevelopment and the impact of stress on brain architecture, attachment relationships and regulation, can help understand the needs of infants and children who experience separation. This has relevance for the adoption experience, even into adulthood.  Also, the importance of parents understanding their child’s feelings and intentions and how this impacts the parents’ interpretation of their own, and their child’ s behaviour. This flows into the idea that parents help the child to regulate their physical and behavioural responses to situations. I am thinking here of the work of Peter Fonagy, Miriam Steele and Arietta Slade around the implications of parental reflective functioning and adult attachment styles for parenting.

The work of Hal Grotevant is significant. He heads up the Minnesota longitudinal study in the US, following a cohort of adopted people from childhood across the life span. One of the things he notes is the importance of adoption openness in communication about adoption status, within the adoptive family. Responding to the child, giving them a sense that it is absolutely ok to ask about and explore anything. That adoption status is an absolutely fine thing to have. Beth Neil from the UK is also doing longitudinal work to understand impacts of adoption and foster care for all parties across the life span.

Amanda Baden from the US talks about micro aggressions that adopted people may feel throughout their lives. She is an intercountry adoption person herself. She defines micro aggressions as all those comments people make unintentionally that cause a sense of other in the person.  Some of the women in my research talked about those. They talked about comments like a new baby in the family. Comments like she looks like Grandma, or she looks like Auntie Joan. The adopted person knows the baby looks different. That just creates a little sense of distance and separation in the adopted parent. Understanding the challenges of reconciling multiple identities and understanding deep loss is essential.

32:48 You mentioned when we last spoke the work of Mary Dozier and her Attachment Biobehavioural Catchup (ABC) program?  Can we have a more detailed look at that and how it relates to Theraplay?

So, I guess I would see Theraplay as one of the available programs/ techniques/models of therapy, for assisting in strengthening the attachment relationship between parent and child. Dan Hugh’s PACE model (playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy) would be another example.  Mary Dozier’s ABC Catchup, focuses a little more on helping parents understand the meaning behind their child’s behaviour, and so address self-regulation, behaviour and attachment issues from this angle.  Each of the models are based on the theories previously mentioned.

33:54 Do you have any other thoughts or questions arising out of your research that are important to explore in the future?

In the future I would like to hear from men about their experiences of fatherhood and from the children of adoptees about their intergenerational experience. I think the reunion process, over time, is an area that needs further exploration.

I would like to the women who took part in my study, who shared their stories and taught me so much.

Thankyou

To anyone making the time to listen to this recording, thankyou for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life. Until next time have an amazing week.

 

RESOURCES

Being adopted and being a mother by Jeanette Elizabeth Conrick

Mary Dozier ABC Intervention

Attachment and Biobehavioural Catch-Up Intervention

Research Report Supporting ABC

Peter Fonnicky Anna Freud Centre

Amanda Baden Micro-Aggressions National Centrer on Adoption and Permanency

David Brodzinsky The Psychology of Adoption

Beth Neil Supporting Parents of Adoption

Harold Grotvenat Adoption Research Minnesota

Therapists - Dani Lucas - Youtube Chapters

Dani Lucas completed her family through adoption and is a skilled trauma informed specialist. Dani shares with us her insights into finding and arranging therapy for children and in supporting others with complex trauma history, family violence and more. 00:00 - Start 00:46 - Who is Dani? 02:20 - How do you work out which therapist to go see from speech therapists to psychotherapists? 05:10 - Tap into recommendations, use your network/word of mouth and do your online research too 07:06 - Be prepared to tell your child's story over and over again like its a movie reel, sharing facts 09:28 - Setup goals, guidelines and expectations early, including how feedback works 11:40 - You will know if you have the right therapist: read your child's comfort level and consider looking for multi disciplined therapists 13:45 - Don't overload your child: ensure flexibility in appointments to cancel and prioritising goals. Wait for the best therapist you identify, don't just jump in with an alternative 16:00 - Use professional bodies websites as a guide to fees and ideally commit to one or two sessions 18:07 - You may be able to access therapy within school hours 19:58 - Remember to consider alternative modalities and non talking modalities.

Therapists - Dani Lucas - Transcript

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice research-based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people.

PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

Today we are discussing therapists with Dani Lucas.

Dani is a program coordinator for Relationships Australia Victoria and was previously the Team Leader of Permanent Care and Adoptive Families. Dani is a skilled trauma informed specialist with a Bachelor of Psychological Science and Post grad qualifications in complex trauma, family violence and therapeutic interventions.  Dani is passionate about the sector and the delivery of services to families and children.

00:46 Welcome Dani. What else do we need to know about you?

Thankyou for having me Sonia. I do have a long-standing passion of working with children, families and individuals that have a history of trauma with a journey that started in child protection in the 1990’s. In a professional capacity I have worked across a range of programs with families, young people and then in a personal experience where I have had to navigate the landscape of finding and accessing therapeutic services along the way. It can be a tricky mindfield to juggle through. I’ve got two children of my own. One who came into our family the biological way and one who came into our family through the intercountry adoption program. For both of them we have had to seek therapists and it can be really daunting and going through the uniqueness of your children’s needs on an ongoing basis can be a challenge but very worthwhile and its really worth it to get the correct services for your family.

02:20 There are so many different types of therapists and specialists.  How do you know whether it’s a speech pathologist or a tutor for example that you might need, or a Sensory specialist (ASD) or psychologist, play therapist or psychotherapist?  How do you work that out? What’s the first step?

I suppose it is complex as you say and the first step is to look at the age of your child and what is the most pressing need.  Our first priority when we have children is to fix all their problems and address their needs. But its really important not to overwhelm the child. Sometimes they can need many interventions across the space of 6, 10 or 15 years. It’s important to work out what is the most important area to focus on first. Also factoring in things like cost.  Assessments are expensive. Therapies are expensive. And you will often find if you write down the things that come to mind the most that your child is struggling with that you feel they need help with and then try and explore that. A good discussion point is with a good paediatrician or a good GP. Or even a more well rounded advocacy program like PCA Families or more family counselling can even point you in a lot of those directions and identify what is a good place to start and what you need target with your child.

When you are looking at psychology, psychotherapy and all those kind of things you need to factor in the age of your child. A lot of people jump to talking therapies but with a younger child starting with play therapies or art therapies or those other things that you may not be thoroughly convinced are going to work.

You may get recommendations to completely “out there” type of things like therapeutic yoga, surfing lessons, mind body type things, but for some children that’s the first step in starting to identify different parts and senses in their body. Firstly look at whats out there, explore options and preferably discuss with a paediatrician or GP.

05:10 Where do you go to find those professionals? Is it about getting online, tapping into recommendations or your network or word of mouth?

It’s about compiling a bit of a list from all three. It will depend on where you live – whether you are more rural or you have accessibility to the city where there may be more options. Certainly looking at some of those key words on online web pages. Following it up with a phone call and really trying to understand if they are more in depth in the trauma space that a lot of our families and children come from. There are a lot of psychologists that work with generalised trauma and if you dig a bit deeper and give them a call and dig a bit deeper you may find they don’t work with families made up from adoption or uniqueness. Coming from the space as an adoptive parent it took me a long time to find those people.  There is a lot of leg work to get to that person. Certainly online groups. I know PCA Families do have a talk session and get other parents together and that can be a great resource. You can get a lot of information. Also don’t be surprised if you get a recommendation that doesn’t work for your child. You may just not click or get the rapport going. That won’t mean your child doesn’t need speech therapy. It just means they may just not click with that particular speech therapist. We had a similar experience with our second speech therapist when we moved states. Sometimes it is unfortunately just a bit of trial and error.

7:06 How do you start the conversation with a therapist?  This is a difficult one for caregivers – knowing what to share whether too much or too little.

It is really hard to tell your child’s story over and over again sometimes to a therapist. But you may have to be that person that does that. I was given a recommendation once from an NDIS provider and you just have to really put yourself as if you are watching a bit of a movie when you tell the story as you need to detach a little bit and tell the facts.  Giving that background and context and content of your child’s story is really important. You will get the feedback even verbally or facially from the therapist if they know where you are coming from.

Sometimes it wont come across as the best person that you pull out of the hat and meet all the goals, Sometimes its just someone that has a similar passion and wants to go down that journey with you.

I think its also really important to set up mutual goals early in the piece. Its not problematic to keep coming back to them. A lot of people are fearful, especially if they have been on a waitlist or something, I don’t want to offend the therapist or I don’t want to do this.  But it’s your child’s journey and you’re not going to get the best out of it if you cant have that kind of relationships with the therapist.

Sometimes you can provide them with added resources around context. They will obviously know their profession but you can be giving them some of the background. It’s really important to establish those guidelines and what your expectations are and if they can meet them before you commit to any longstanding relationship.

09:28 How do you build the relationship? What should you expect as a caregiver in terms of contact with the therapist yourself and being informed about their work with your child?

It’s really important to setup those guidelines and expectations from the very beginning. It’s a mutual process. It will depend on the age of the child and if it’s a psychologist and speech therapist and OT. There will be some of that confidentiality exploration. Especially if the child is in their early teens they may ask the child to consent to share particular information. They will always share safety concerns with you obviously.

Working with speech pathologists and OTs, you would setup what works. Whats the feedback? Am I in session, not in sessions, what works for you. Makes sure that is really clear before you start engagement with the therapist. And then regular checkins and to see how its going. You have to set realistic expectations. We all want our children to get the best and we all want to see some type of change but  some interventions can take months or years.  It’s really important not to get discouraged. That fine line. Pause or take a break if you don’t feel its going somewhere. Reassess the goals with the therapist. I’ve had therapists say  I think we have come to a stumbling point, maybe we should try something else or maybe we should bring in one of my colleagues. I’ts really important to keep that discussion open if you find things are stalling. Or sometimes as children enter their teenage years they might develop that bit more of a relationship with the therapist where they become a bit more friendly and therapeutic and that stepback needs to happen again.

11:40 How do you know if you have found the right therapist?

Often it is reading the child’s comfort.  You will often find that children don’t want to engage with therapy especially if they haven’t been doing it for a while or if their friends and peers aren’t doing it. It’s really good to have a therapist that is quite flexible and open with you and with your child. If you are getting that good rapport and discussion you are probably more than 80% of the way there to getting that good therapeutic relationship. When they can have that, oh he is tired today so we pull back and they adjust things to fit in with your child.  If you are getting a very strict and regimented with reaction, you can often find that doesn’t work well with children that have come from a trauma background. They do need some flexibility in that process.

Depending on the age of the child, its good to engage the child into the process and seek feedback. You will always get oh I don’t want to go or don’t want to do this. When they have a good achievement and come out positive and smiling you generally know that you have got that measure quite right.

I think sometimes it’s good to get a therapist with a multi disciplinary background. I had a young person who said to their Mum Im just going to give this person a call and talk to them. The person they were speaking to was a speech therapist that had a background in psychology as well. He was just really ringing him more as the male that I can interact with sort of thing. You can see that they have that bond that was really lovely to see.

13:45 What are some of the common challenges or pitfalls?

I suppose one of the big ones is that overloading. We commonly fall into that mistake if our child is struggling at school or struggling with anxiety or any kind of things we just want to wrap them around and try and fix the problems all at once. The biggest problem we fall into is we often want multiple interventions and we want a quick fix often which is human nature. We are getting quicker and quicker, and covid has slowed us down. Trying not to overload your child. They may be diagnosed with a couple of different things, so really prioritise what is important.

You will find that children who have had a lot of early childhood trauma are easily fatigued and overloaded. They are even easily overloaded just with school work sometimes and you will get that feedback from school that they are disengaging or they are not concentrating or having meltdowns and shutdowns. Often that is just because they are overloaded. If we add too many layers to that it starts to cause more issues than it does help. 

Similar to making snap choices on providers.  There may be wait lists so you may say Im just going to go with this person, but my heart is really with this person. Sometimes its better to wait. They may not be that right person so then you are going to have to start the journey again anyway and you may have put your child off speech therapy or OT or any of that. Its good not to rush and to take that time. I remember taking a year to find one particular specialist for my son. I just wanted to start. Its good to take the time and do the background work and have your questions ready when you find an opening with someone.

16:00 What fees should you expect to pay, or contracts should you enter into?

They do vary a lot. Most of the professional bodies on the websites will have a guideline of what you should expect to pay. Similarly does the NDIS, they have an approved rate. Of course NDIS has its own issues in that certain things have certainly escalated with NDIS and people have bumped up their charges.

Generally across therapies and providers they will be consistent. They are a good guideline to go with.

Some will do less out of pocket depending on your mental health care plan and your financial circumstances when you engage with them.

I find ones that want to lock you in, to be a little bit wary of unless there is a particular reason. I would say commit to a few sessions and then consider if you are going to lock in. Some will have a 10 sessions to say that they need that to get to a point. With some assessments and things like that it will be the case. But just really do your background and make sure it is happening in that sector rather than a one off.

Depending on what you are wanting out of it. Often you may be seeing a psychologist for multiple reasons such as for educational stuff as well as some complexities. They may say we need at least 5 sessions to give you any kind of ballpark and that’s probably pretty reasonable. At least that initial information gathering of one or two sessions should be all you initially commit to.

Sometimes speech pathologists or occupational therapists,  if they are coming into your school will want a firm commitment. But again I think its wise to do one or two sessions to see if that bond starting to happen.

18:07 How does that work with therapists in the school grounds?

It very much varies. It varies across schools. Some of the schools will have a speech pathologist there particular days and they will generally have a psychologist that comes for specific assessments but they are generally to do with funding through school arrangements. I find most people who are using regular speech intervention will have their own speech pathologist who engages with the school at a reasonable time to come in just because it saves the child having to do something else outside of school. Some schools are really inflexible with that too. Its really good to have that discussion with the assistant principal usually as the best port of call. Sometimes special ed support teachers will really help and write a recommendation if they think the therapist should come into the school. 

It does make life easier when they can come to school. But as they get a bit bigger the kids don’t always like to be taken away from their class and peers. So again having that working relationship where the therapist may engage some peers in activities if they go to the school, because then it becomes special time where they get to play a game like Uno at the end of the session. Again weave it into the class with the teacher and have that open communication then it can work really well.

 19:58 Is there anything else to comment on today?

Just the fact that I would say use your resources like PCAF and other groups like that and getting feedback from them on the more alternative programs. Look at alternative programs like horse (equine therapy) programs, art therapy, play therapy. There will be some rogue ones out there so do your research. You will find with younger children or pre-teens, where they are not really into the talking modalities, that they really do benefit from those non talking modalities, particularly with the horse (equine therapy) programs and music therapy.   

A lot of those school holiday programs that work with traumatised youth and adolescents will use that nature therapy connection quite strongly too.

Thankyou

To anyone making the time to listen to this recording, thank you for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life.

Until next time have an amazing week.

 

The topic of wellbeing in the caregiving space (kinship, permanent, foster or adoptive parenting) is important. Dr Stacy Blythe offers us advice, from research, that identifies how we might better impact attachment, minimise behavioural issues and improve outcomes when there has been prenatal exposure to harmful drugs or other impacts on executive functioning. Dr Stacy Blythe is well qualified to advise us as a parent of 8, with 4 biological and 4 non-biological children, and also a registered nurse, associate professor in the school of nursing and midwifery and deputy director of the translational research and social innovation group at Ingham Institute (health and wellbeing that make sense practically). 00:00 - Start 01:20 - Care for newborns falls short in out of home care 04:35 - Caregivers receive less prenatal or antenatal training or support 07:40 - Attachment might be compromised if we don't intentionally engage 11:31 - Methamphetamines like ICE may mean our children don't make eye contact 12:30 - Techniques that reward eye contact help 14:30 - Oral health care may compromise attachment too so we need to make it a priority 20:14 - Dentistry can be traumatic 23:41 - We don't know their biology, so check, check and check again 24:57 - Be sensitive and pre-emptive as they become teenagers searching for identity 25:50 - Executive function may be the cause of behavioural issues due to trauma history 29:37 - Communicate executive functioning deficits to others, like a new boss 32:18 - Resources and remember to look after yourself first www.pcafamilies.org.au  

HEALTH AND HOME CARE INTERVIEW WITH DR STACY BLYTHE - TRANSCRIPT

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice research-based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people. PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

Today we are discussing health and wellbeing in the caregiving space, whether kinship, permanent or adoptive parenting and caregiving with Dr Stacy Blythe.

Dr Stacy Blythe is a parent of 8, with 4 biological and 4 non-biological children, and also a registered nurse, associate professor in the school of nursing and midwifery and deputy director of the translational research and social innovation group at Ingham Institute, which is essentially an organisation focused on health and wellbeing practices that make sense practically, for South West Sydney, Australia and the world.

Dr Blythe’s research is focussed on children in out of home care and their families and she offers insight into infants who were prenatally exposed to harmful drugs. Dr Blythe has a developmental trauma postgraduate qualification and develops training for health care and social service providers.

01:20 We are delighted to have you here joining us. Welcome Dr Blythe. What else can you tell us about yourself?

Dr Blythe - Thankyou very much Im just glad to be here. That’s pretty much me.

01:22 You are amazingly talented at juggling a lot of different things. I wonder if you could share with us some of the research that you identified in how care is offered to newborns in out of home care and where that might fall short, relative to normal maternal health care offered to birth parents?  What should carergivers do about that? How can they help their child?

Thankyou very much. One of the things that I have learned through my own personal experience as a careprovider and my experience as a registered nurse is that the supports that we offer to kinship, foster and adoptive parents differs to those supports offered to biological families. One really good example of this is nurse home visiting.

In Australia we have this assumption of universality of our health care system, meaning that everyone gets equal support and those who require more support get more support. And this is true to an extent but only if you actually fit the mould.

So when I refer to families that are socially constructed, families that are foster or kinship or adoptive, they don’t get those same supports. In Australia we have nurse home visiting programs to work with women and infants and the whole family really, to help them in those early days after they have given birth. Usually referral happens during pregnancy or shortly after giving birth. For those families who have good support systems and who are knowledgeable and experienced, they may only have a handful of visits with the nurse. But for those families facing adversity, who have other issues that they might be dealing with such as domestic violence or homelessness or addiction issues or mental health issues, they may have increased visits where the nurse is working with the parents to help them parent well despite the adversity they may be experiencing.. The whole idea is to keep the baby front of mind so they can be a good parent in the middle of a bad situation. But because the referral pathways are usually during pregnancy or at birth, that automatically excludes foster, kinship and adoptive families. So one of the things I’m trying to do is change that so that we have pathways to offer the same support.

If we think about families in this particular context and the children that are in this context, often they have a history of trauma, they may have a history of prenatal substance exposure, and they may have experienced abuse and neglect, and all of those things create an environment where those children have increased caregiving needs. So we are not equipping the carers early on to let them know that, so it’s a battle, raising that awareness and empowering carers and adoptive parents to the best carers they can be.

04:35 Often caregivers are very time poor too so going somewhere externally to get support can be challenging in itself. I assume the system is still based on going to the maternal health centre for support?

I did a study recently with carers, adoptive and kinship carers, across Australia, to look at who is accessing child and family health nursing services (different names in different States). What we found was that about a quarter of carers were taking their children to the maternal health centre and a very small percentage were getting visits from nurses in the home. So the majority of carers were getting nothing. That was really concerning.

Out of the sample, we had about 200 carers who participated in the online survey, between a quarter and a third had never had children of their own. So they hadn’t received prenatal or antenatal classes where you talk about how to feed a baby, bath a baby, settle a baby, they didn’t have that assistance from midwives or nurses after birth where they show them how to do those sort of things, they had never been educated on how to select formula or how to give a bottle. So the fact that we aren’t giving them this nursing support is a real issue. And when interviewing these carers, they talked about scenarios where a caseworker would turn up with a child and a tin of formula on a Friday evening, hand over the baby and said good luck.

Even for older more seasoned carers who have had children of their own and who chose to provide care to children in need at a later stage in life, they do have parenting experience, but the rules change and things change over time. The age difference in my children and foster children is 13 years. A lot of things changed during those 13 years: how we sleep the baby, how we interact with the baby, how their brains develop. You forget and things change. So there is a real need for this sort of service.

07:40 One of the things that you highlighted for me is the significant difference in children who have experienced methamphetamines vs opioids. Can you explain that for us?

One of my real keen interests in the out of home care system is children who have that history of prenatal substance exposure. There is a syndrome called neo-natal abstinence syndrome, which describes a constellation of symptoms that babies have after birth when they have been exposed to high levels of opioids during pregnancy (heroin, methodone, morphine). They experience withdrawal like an adult would when withdrawing from drugs like that. Those babies present quite irritably, they cry, they tremor, shake and often need hospitalisation and medication to help them through that phase. But what we are finding increasingly in the Australian context is that more babies are being born with methamphetamine addiction or ICE.  The way that particular drug works on the brain differs. Opioids interfere with our adrenaline and noradrenaline because that’s what happens when someone cuts us off in traffic or if we are really excited and our heart starts racing that is adrenaline. Because it interferes with adrenaline, they have a lot to do with regular body processes. The reason they become nauseous and experience vomiting is because of the alteration with noradrenaline to help them through that phase. Methamphetamine babies don’t experience that and they don’t experience the withdrawal symptoms. So these babies are very sleepy and sleep all of the time and are sluggish and progress very slowly. But for young babies they can appear like the perfect baby.

So one of the scenarios that we can see is that we might place that baby with a family that has other children, but because the baby is so quiet and placid, everything seems fine, but the danger with babies born with methamphetamine is that they self soothe and they don’t reach out and they don’t attach. They don’t actively seek out carers eye contact. If you are a busy carer or a busy adoptive parent you might take it for granted that this is the perfect baby, rather than going out of your way to stimulate the baby. Simple things like learning to pass a rattle from one hand to the other is really important to happen during the infant phase with the left and right sides of the brain talking to each other. So if we are not telling carers and engaging with carers and letting them know they need to actively stimulate the baby, we are setting up the baby for poor outcomes. That can devastate carers who find out later that some of the behavioural experiences they are experiencing is because they didn’t have that stimulation early on.

11:31 Babies who have been substance exposed whether opioids or methamphetamines or a cocktail of substances, don’t have the ability to engage with their primary caregiver like a “normal” baby would. When newborns are born they automatically look for human faces to connect. Babies from substance exposure don’t do that. They look away. So they don’t want to engage. So its so important we teach carers how to make eye contact with a baby that doesn’t want to look at them. We are human too. That’s also challenging for carers to fall in love with and attach to that baby where the baby is looking away all the time. It’s really It takes a lot of emotional intelligence.

12:30 Are there techniques that work?

I interviewed a carer recently who didn’t have children of her own but had been caring for 10 years. She realised after about 10 years that a theraplay therapist gave her ideas. She had a 6 month old baby that wasn’t giving her eye contact. The therapist said get one of those rubber bouncing ball and hold the baby on it and when the baby looks at her they bounce the baby on the ball. So every time I look at my primary caregiver I get a positive reinforcement where she smiles and I get a bounce on the ball. When we are born our brains are only 25% developed. So what happens in our environment dictates the way our brains become wired. If children aren’t having those positive experiences, their brains aren’t going to wire in a typical fashion.  That can make  it challenging as they get older more challenging.

14:30 Another area of health and how treatment falls short is in relation to oral health. Can you tell us a little more about how oral health of children in out of home care may be affected?

This is an issue that I have been working on for the past two years and it is surprising to me how little research and how few policies there are to guide caring for the oral health of children in out of home care. We recently conducted a peer review of literature to see what kind of research was out there on oral health care in out of home care and found very little

We found some things that reported they have bad oral health or that some things are so severe they need general anaesthetic and need attention in theatre because their teeth are so bade.

We did a small study and interviewed carers about their experiences and found a number of things occurred that compromised children’s oral health. In Australia, we generally have some sort of health assessment that occurs when a child is placed into care and some follow up more comprehensive assessment later. These are pretty consistent that we assess them and we see that they have oral health issues. But once they are in the system the problem is accessing services. The public health system has long waiting lists andaccessing private services often requires pre approval from the agency or government department.

The other thing we found is that if we are on a witing list to see a public health clinician, if the child moves, we often lose that appointment. If we go from one place to another, there is no clear handover. I also don’t know how many carers are going to open the child’s mouth and check their teeth when they get there.  There is an assumption that there are other things that are more important like attachment. But if we have children with poor teeth who are in pain or who can’t eat properly that is going to affect their behaviour and interfere with their ability to attach.

The other thing is that depending on the age of the child, we have no awareness of what oral health training they have received prior to coming into your care. There may be an assumption that an 8yo child knows to brush their teeth twice a day when in fact that wasn’t something they had done prior to coming into care.  There are so many different issues. We also don’t know when the children are having regular visits with their (birth) parents, we don’t know if they have the same oral health training and know not to put juice in their bottle for example. Know to follow up with healthy foods.

I had a personal experience of how often we gave fruit, as we should have been giving fruit two times a day not 7 or 8 times a day, as the acid on the teeth had a big impact.

There is emerging evidence of the correlation between poor oral health and prenatal substance exposure. It needs to be more explored but we need to be more understanding that there is a correlation of poor enamel on their teeth because of prenatal exposure.

Thinking about early childhood educators as well.  We also need to explore their training so that they can actively looking for and identify oral health.

That goes back to our carers and parents, if they aren’t actively looking for information about oral health, they can be missing information. For example we don’t put juice in the bottle and we don’t offer solids until they are 6 months old. Some of our practices before now have been different to that, so we need to stay up to date. Oral health isn’t just about brushing our teeth. Its about eating well and having having everythiung in moderation and having enough calcium in the diet. A lot of these children may have experienced nutritional deficits during pregnancy. After they are born they can still have those nutritional deficits and we need to look at that in their diet to make sure that they are getting what they need.

20:14 The other aspect to dentristy work is that there may be other trauma . Lying in a dentist chair when you have experienced abuse or even something as simple as flossing where you bring blood into the mouth. What have you discovered with trauma informed needs?

Like a lot of people thinking about going to the dentist makes me feel quite traumatised. I am not a big dentist fan. But you are exactly right though. For a lot of these children who have a history of trauma, one of the big things about trauma is giving up control. Children don’t have the control to get out and fight back quite often. That’s why trauma is so overwhelming. Sitting in a dentist chair where they can’t see and the dentist is making noises and maybe even causing pain, can be extremely triggering and overwhelming for them. There are a lot of things that we can do. We can slowly introduce them to the dentist. Today we are going in the chair up and down and play with the light. For one of my children we had a filling to complete and it took us two hours to get it done because she would get so scared, so there was a lot of talking and soothing. But often the dentists hasn’t been given any training and they ask the child to just sit still. We go to a general rather than paediatric dentist. There is still more to be done in being trauma aware and receiving training.

23:41 Are there any other areas which long term carers may need to be aware of as regards health matters for their children?

I think one of the things we really need to be aware of is we know so little about their history.Even though we have open adoption and we have some things on the file, we really don’t know the history. So we need to be really committed to regular health checks and that we don’t make assumptions that everything is ok. One of the things I have become aware of personally is that these children are really good at covering things up. They may not always tell you when they have an ache or pain or something isn’t quite right.  It so important to get their eyes or ears or teeth checked. I do a lot more checking with these children as it’s different when the biology comes from somebody else and we don’t know what they are predisposed to.

24:57 Attachment and belonging

One of the things too is that we talk so much about attachment and belonging. Where children live with a family that they are not born into, as they reach adolescence, all of those issues as a teenager are so much more complex. It’s not just coping with the family tree experience from kinder or primary school.  As teenagers things become exacerbated because its really that time of looking for their identity. We need to be really sensitive and pre-emptive during that time and have those conversations.

25:50 Executive Function

One of the things when I do training with carers is helping them to understand executive function. Executive function is higher order thinking that boils down to three things. Its attention span. It’s the ability to be flexible in situations and its short term working memory. 

Children who have a trauma history often have poor short term executive functioning. This often creates behavioural issues or what appears to be behavioural issues, but it’s really a neurological deficit. The great thing is that executive function can be trained. Its like a muscle. The more you practice it the more you can improve it but you have to be intentional and use that executive functioning.  In parenting these children we need to be creating situations where they can use their mental flexibility or their short term memory or their attention span.

27:26 The chance to have success with practicing those things. And it looks different across the trajectory. These children developmentally might be a different age to what they are chronologically. You might look like a 16yo but acts like a 4yo. A l ot of that goes back to their ability to use their executive function. A kindergartner might not be able to follow the rules because they can’t control their impulses. You may have a 16yo that wants to learn to drive but they don’t have the mental flexibility to adapt to a changing situation. The rule in my house has been you need to be able to navigate public transport on your own before you can go for your learners. Until you can develop that skill to navigate public transport, you cant navigate the care. Its my responsibility to say you have a deficit here and we are going to put these things in place to help you with that.

29:37 First Job

If they have a poor short-term working memory, unless they communicate that to their boss, they can be seen as lazy. An example might be a young apprentice on the job site whose boss says I want you to move those bricks and then put that stuff over there and then get me a coffee. With a short term working memory after he has completed the first task he may then be wandering around and the boss comes back and goes why didn’t you do what I asked you to do?

One of ours was working in a supermarket and as my husband walked away from dropping him off he noticed him on his phone. After work we bailed him up - what were you doing on your phone at work?. He explained he was writing notes on his phone to write a list of what to do so he didn’t forget the details of what to do. That’s a great strategy.

It’s a neurological deficit and creating those strategies is important. I have heard from carers saying the children are too dependent. But at the same time their mobile phones are their best friends.

One of my boys was consistently late coming home. He just loses track of time. He employed the strategy of setting a time reminder on his phone. He has never been late since. Giving them those strategies will make all the difference to them.

32:18 Any other tips or resources to discuss

There are some really good websites that I refer to.

The Australian Childhood Foundation have really wonderful training like their Certificate in Developmental Trauma which was phenomenal.

The Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth. They advocate all across Australia for the education and wellbeing of children.

I would also like to emphasise that we need to look after our own health first. We need to model things well for the children and in moderation. I made the mistake of trying to be the perfect Mum and now I think did I try too hard as I watch my 29yo daughter struggle with trying to be the perfect Mum. I wonder is that my fault. Now I am no longer the perfect mum. But modelling health eating, exercise, mindfulness and deliberately going out of our way to build ourselves up. Our cup needs to be full if we are going to fill up the cup of the children that we love. It takes short periods of time on a regular basis.

We see that as spoiling ourselves but if we don’t do it our children aren’t going to grow up and do it. If you feel the need to make an excuse because you sat down for 10 minutes, don’t make the excuse.

Thankyou

To anyone making the time to listen to this recording, thankyou for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life.

Until next time have an amazing week.

RESOURCES

Australian Childhood Foundation

ARACY – Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth

Intervention Ideas for Children Impacted by Opioids (US Office of Special Education Programs)

 

 

Animal and Equine Therapy Video - Leanne Winter

00:00 - Start 00:48 - Introducing Leanne 02:36 - So what is animal assisted therapy? 04:58 - Animal phobias 06:40 - What animals do you work with? 07:28 - How do you start the process? Wandering around a paddock patting animals? 09:40 - Is being out in nature part of the therapy also? 11:02 - How does it work with families from broken attachments or trauma or who experience sensory processing challenges such as ASD or ADHD? 12:40 - What about emotional regulation? 15:24 - With equine therapy, how might that differ? Obviously the animal is much larger! 17:52 - Is getting the horse to follow you the aim? 18:38 - What about strong emotions like fear, anger, grief and others in equine therapy? 20:40 - Group-based therapy that helps with sensory processing disorders? 21:56 How is your profession regulated? What should carers look for in an animal or equine therapist? 24:20 Is there anything else we should know or discuss today?

Animal and Equine Therapy Transcript - Leanne Winter

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice research-based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people. PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

Today we are discussing equine and animal therapy with Leanne Winter from Mullum Road Clinic.

Leanne Winter is a clinical psychologist who specialises in animal and equine therapy and working with childhood behavioural, sensory and other issues, Autism Spectrum Disorder and Disability.  Leanne lived on a farm for over 20 years so she is a long time advocate of the value of working with animals.

00:48 Welcome Leanne. Can you tell us a little more about yourself?

I had a room based clinic for 13 or 14 years now. About 10 years ago I looked into equine therapy and couldn’t get insurance and there were no courses around so it was a dream that never took off. So I got into animal assisted therapy and started buying and training more dogs and more farm animals. My first therapy dog is now 12 and retired. I brought him into the clinic. No one was doing it at the time other than who had started the training. It just wasn’t done in private clinics. I was the only one of 12 of us doing the training that responded that I have my own clinic. The others in hospitals etc couldn’t get through the red tape. 11 therapy dogs later and its now equine and animal assisted therapy. The kids say we need a cow!

02:36 So what is animal assisted therapy?

The way that we use it we have clinicians who are all qualified psychologists. Most of them began as room based therapists doing ACT, CBT and other therapies.  They also need an interest in animals. Its then just about bringing another tool into the toolbox in the room. Sometimes its proactive and we are training the dogs or getting the dogs to do things and talking about what that is like for the client or what that experience is like. Other times we are doing room based therapy with the dogs on their lap and they are stroking the dog. Research shows that stroking reduces stress and the heart rate. Clients with trauma will say I’ve never felt this calm. Just being there they are doing their job. Obviously we can be a lot more proactive too. This is fudge a toy poodle who thinks he is my little assistant. Never go anywhere without him. Often I’m sitting up here with clients and there is a dog on every chair on about 6 chairs a dog each, all listening. Confidentiality they never tell anyone anything.

They just accept people for who they are so there is that unspoken acceptance.

4:58 Does that calmness come from children who don’t have animals at home?

We do a lot of do phobia work where they want to buy a dog but perhaps they have a child with autism who is petrified of dogs. They will come and work with us to work out how they can overcome that fear so they can purchase a dog down the track. I’ll just show you Fudge who is doing it tough. I had a child that was petrified and would run from dogs for no reason so we got her a dog. Often there are those experiences within families where the child wont go to the park because the child is screaming and up on the picnic table or it can be because the client has a genuine love of animals and has resisted counselling in the past. The parents are trying something different. It usually works

6:40 What animals do you work with?

Stick insects, guinea pigs, pet rats, chickens, duck, baby goats, baby alpacas, lambs just been offered, bearded dragons, green tree frogs, hermit crabs, miniature donkey and horses.

7:28 So how do you start the process? Some people will think this is all about wandering around a paddock patting animals hoping that the child simply offers up a relevant conversation about a trauma. Is that how it works?

It’s an indirect therapy and it took me a little while to adjust when I jumped from room based therapy. I was doing equine work and clients were feeding back that they didn’t like what we were doing. I had to shift and follow the client. Its very client led and indirect therapy. Its about how are you going which animals do you want to hang out with today. So clients come with their list and they want to see all the animals. I don’t think we can see them all. But just tracking around with the client and things just come up. Something will come up and naturally move into what we need to be talking about. . The miniature pony herd for example. An animal is a great rapport builder. One little pony is a boss and one pony is really shy. The little ginger pony chilli always gets picked on. So kids will see that’s just like what happens to me. I don’t like that pony bullying the other pony. It just evolves without me saying what happens to you at school.

9:40 Is being out in nature part of the therapy also? With smaller backyards and more time online I expect we are losing touch with nature?

Going forward I think there wlll be a big move towards eco psychology and nature-based psychology. Just as animal and equine therapy has taken off. A lot of my clients will walk around the property and talk or go bush and start talking. You are right kids are sitting inside on their screens often with no background. So to come out here and get muddy and dirty they come dressed in their oldest clothes because they know they are not going to get past 7 dogs without paw prints and mud everywhere. So gumboots on and off they go. I’ve had clients say they have never jumped in a puddle. So we go and jump in a puddle in winter and we do these things we grew up with so there is a real sense of getting back to the earth.

11:02 Interested in how animal therapy works in the context of families where they have already experienced broken attachment and removal from a birth parent that might result in social, emotional or behavioural challenges or delays. Specifically I am thinking about childhood trauma and sensory processing issues, such as ASD or ADHD. Is animal therapy a good choice for these children and families?

Yes. There are only a very specific population I would say no to, such as people that hurt animals as that puts the animals at risk. For attachment disorder and children and families that have gone through attachment issues, animal therapies research promoting it. In modelling how we look after our animals and the attachment we have with our animals, is modelling safe, healthy, secure attachment. The research is saying that through a child watching that and with the consistency we show the animals, that is how trust is built. That person, the psychologist or therapist is genuinely caring and looking after and caring for their animal so they will be an ok person to trust. It can perform some pretty amazing stuff and miracles.

12:40 Does that help with emotional regulation because your showing the calm with the animals?

It’s almost like coregulation. Little Fudge is showing us how to coregulate really well. Pretty relaxed. If clients are having meltdowns for example he will jump on and start pawing on them to bring them back. Intuitively he knows what to do there. We do a lot of work around emotional regulation as the animals won’t hang around you if your really heightened and dysregulated. The animals will just leave or go to the other end of the paddock. The child needs to learn how to regulate if they want to be with that animal. There is motivation to do it and there is direct feedback if the horse runs away from you. Clear feedback that the horse is not happy and not prepared to stay with you.

The job is not to bring them together but to teach that awareness of what you’re doing: the horse is reacting to what you’re doing with your body. So if the aim is to have the horse come to them they are going to have to do something different in their own body to achieve that. So its teaching self awareness and self regulation. Its providing that bio feedback. I have miniature donkeys that hadn’t been handled and the kids were running up to them to grab them and the donkeys were like no way and left. It took several months of the kids where if they had the patience the donkeys would go to them. Now they will run over for a cuddle. So it’s working within relationships as well. You want that relationship but how are you going to work it so it becomes a connection.

15:24 With equine therapy, how might that differ? Obviously the animal is much larger!

Surprises me how many people are frightened of chickens.

There is a bigger element of safety with the horses.

With the dogs we have to do particular training with them as a handler and the dogs are regulated and we get re- certified each year.

With my horses I am very careful. I only allow practitioners that I know have experience with horses to keep everyone safe with a big animal. Safety first. If it stands on your toe it will break your toe. Touch wood no accidents. Im very aware as I have been around horses all my life. So its about just notice where your foot is. Just notice where the horses foot is. Just notice where the fence is. If you are between the horse and the fence and the horse goes to move, you will likely get squashed. So teaching that awareness, that’s a sklll that will hopefully keep them safe in life with awareness training. If you walk down a dark alley at night what might happen. You will use that awareness to think about it which leads on to safety in life.

Initially it was equine therapy when I opened up. Some clients come here specifically for that but the rats, guinea pigs and miniature goats, they draw a huge following. Some people come here with horses in mind but then they merge and often find another animal they are more drawn to.

17:52 Is getting the horse to follow you the aim? Is that accurate.

That could be one thing that you would do. There is an array of activities you can do with them. You could be doing brushing and that is about awareness. You could be leading a horse and imagine what its like to be leading this big animal and being in control of them. Or go into the shoes of a follower and explore what that was like.

18:38 What about strong emotions like fear, anger, grief and others and how that translates in equine therapy?

Tracking just comes up. They might come in and say I want to work on ABC and they end up being work on XYZ because working with the horse triggers something for them.  Emotions can be drawn into a session. Often I don’t know where we are going to go. The past session I said to a young woman would you like to halter the horse. We were in a group setting and she was the leader of the group and wanted to do it first. She got the halter and it got tangled and she threw it. Working with her over time I taught her how to do that. Sense of achievement. Learning a new task. Self confidence. Overcoming frustration intolerance. Disregulation to regulation. So a simple activity can have an array of other things you are working on. Even just sitting with the horse.

20:40 I believe you are looking to setup group-based therapy that helps with sensory processing disorders next year near Eltham. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Considering group based equine based therapy especially for women on the autism spectrum. Equine based running over 8 sessions over a term with 6 to 8 young people. We can set some structured topics like awareness, boundaries, relationships. A topic for each session. I just have to get the energy and time to get  it in shape and obviously Covid put the brakes on too. That might spill into other groups.

21:56 How is your profession regulated? What should carers look for in an animal therapist?

It’s taken off tenfold with places popping up everywhere which is a little concerning. When I did the course there was discussion around if you are a psychologist its therapy if your otherwise qualified you advertise differently . So look at their qualifications as names are misleading.

Check what they offer – we offer psychology and assessments on top of that animal or equine therapy. Just know that therapy may not be run by a therapist.

Just be mindful of good insurance and know what you are signing up for.

The Equine Psychotherapy Association lists therapists (120 hours of training supervision and assessment)

Those identifying as Equine Assisted Learning are typically riding instructors who have done the course while Equine Assisted Psycotherapists have some sort of Mental Health Qualification behind them.

24:20 Is there anything else we should know or discuss today?

It’s a pretty cool experience. A lot of my clients say it’s a long way to come to the country but when they hit Warrandyte and start winding through the bush to get here, often the parents are just sitting out in the trees waiting for their kids saying I’m doing my bit of therapy here sitting among the trees and listening to the sounds. Just like the birds in the background!

Thankyou

To anyone making the time to listen to this recording, thankyou for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life.

Until next time have an amazing week.

 

OTHER RESOURCES

Mullum Road

Animal Therapies Ltd

Equine Psychotherapy Institute

LAYNE BEACHLEY: ADOPTEE AND WORLD CHAMPION SURFER

Layne Beachley is one of the most successful surfers, male or female, in history with 7 world titles and 29 tour victories. Layne has an experience of a traumatic childhood in losing her mother at 6 and finding out she was adopted at 8. She reflects on her own life and how she wished she had been told at the outset that she was adopted. She wants adopted children to recognise they were accepted into a heart relationship, not rejected.We learn from Layne how winning and success were driven from adoption fear until she reassessed and let go of the story of rejection and judgement and decided to chose connection. That allowed her to stop sabotaging relationships and move towards love. Layne shares some great tips in how we can help children who are adopted, from creating honest, open curious relationships with our children where they are encouraged to be curious and safe to explore their history. She reflects on her own life and how she wished she had been told at the outset that she was adopted. She wants adopted children to recognise they were accepted into a heart relationship, not rejected. Layne shows us that it is intrinsic value that is important, not extrinsic, and she shows us the power of having a really clear vision, which allows one to have the capacity to chose when dream thieves are around. She also encourages parents and caregivers to step back from judgements others project, to empower you with empathy to explore where others have reactions to you or your children. By speaking with love rather than judgement, relationships will thrive, and we can then explore with our children how did that make you feel, why were you uncomfortable, how would you normally respond to this and how can I equip you to ensure you aren't impacted in the same way again. Layne says sometimes the mirror needs to talk back, love silences fear and that we need to embrace silence more and remind ourselves that we are enough.

00:00 - Start 00:50 - Welcome Layne. Who is Layne Beachley? 04:07 - School was cruisy but at best a back up plan. FOCUS: Follow One Course Until Successful 05:28 - Clear clarity of vision gives one the capacity to chose when dream thieves are around 07:30 - Winning was mainly fear based, avoiding discomfort. The education system could do more to embrace and reward curiosity 12:30 - Parents need to honour and articulate their own feelings. Many Dads fix things and Mums tell things, whereas we need to allow children to move through discomfort at their own pace 15:33 - Parenting from trauma requires safety to fail and make mistakes, to ask questions 17:50 - Unsafe situations arise but trusting your own instincts and intuition avoids mistakes 19:55 - The ocean keeps me alive, helps me feel centred and connected 20:40 - Therapies like Neural Emotional Technique and Rebirthing breathing techniques helped, as did yoga and meditation 23:30 - Reconnecting with birth family helped 24:33 - We don’t require external validation to connect with who we intrinsically are. The programs we are on are reprogrammable. Focus on love not abandonment 25:53 - In relationships, its continually evolving how you express yourself and manage triggers, but my safest place is in his arms (husbands) 28:08 - Find a way to contribute to the world and make that your intrinsic motivation 30:21 - Write a list of simple things you can do for yourself and tick them off 34:17 - Birthdays 35:09 - I am enough. Let go of the story, the judgement, and build the connection 39:35 - Have conversations with adopted children often: be honest, encourage curiosity, build connection, love and acceptance so they feel to safe to explore their history 41:42 - Stay detached from the judgement others project on to you. That gives you the empowerment and empathy to go back to them and say has something I have done upset you? Sometimes the mirror needs to speak.

TRANSCRIPT

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice research-based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people. PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

Today we are discussing adoption with Layne Beachley. Layne needs very little introduction in my view as everyone knows she is one of the most successful surfers, male or female, in history with 7 world titles and 29 tour victories. Further to that Layne is simply one of the most genuinely unapologetically honest people around with an experience of a traumatic childhood that has not defined her but perhaps shaped her.


00:00
Start

00:50 - Welcome Layne. Who is Layne Beachley? Tell us more about yourself.

My life story might take the whole hour. Or you can I just leave people to read my book: Beneath the Waves. To shortcut it I was adopted into a beach loving family with a last name Beachley and became a world champion surfer. Tadaa! Life in the fast lane.

I found my childhood to be filled with fun and adventure. A fair share of trauma. Having lost my mother when I was 6 and being told I was adopted at 8. And that was the moment that really shaped me that was the moment that I started to subscribe to this story that I was worthless and didn’t belong anywhere. And the only way that I could prove myself to be worthy of love and belong somewhere was to become the best in the World at something. So at 14 I decided to become a world champion surfer. Much to my school teachers disappointment. Why? Because I was very studious. I was really good at science, maths, English and geography. In year 9 I started to dabble in competitions and came dead last in the first events I competed in and that inspired me so I decided to keep working at it. And then in year 10 I won my first regional event and then won the State events then went to the national events and thought I really like this. This winning, this losing and just surfing. So I started distancing myself from my studies and focussing my attention elsewhere. So I failed during year 11. My year 11 report card literally said lock up Layne’s surfboard, it is a distraction from her studies and it will amount to nothing.

My heart goes out to everyone doing their HSC. There is so much pressure on these young adult shoulders to be really clear about where they are going and what they are going to do to change the world and very few people actually have the capacity to define that at such a young age. There are still people in their 50 and 60s that still don’t know what they are going to do.

04:07School seemed cruisy for you but for many of the children in our families that isn’t always the case?

It wasn’t cruisy but at best a backup plan. Because I focussed the majority of my attention outside of school. I had a couple of girlfriends at school I relied on for social interaction, mentoring and social interaction and connections and community. But I also had a bigger and broader and more fun and enjoyable community outside of school so that really helped me maintain perspective and balance. Even today and while I was winning world titles, the majority of my friendship group didn’t surf. So I had this really good balance in life. It wasn’t all just one thing. Even though I prescribe the FOCUS Acronym: Follow One Course Until Successful. But that’s when your on that course. So when your not competing I go to the bush or go snowboarding or hang out with friends that don’t surf and do something else. Maintaining that equilibrium in life is really the challenge.

05:28You had that really clear goal. Is that important for every adoptee to find? Or is it about having balance in groups of people to go to?

I think its really important for every individual to find. It’s got nothing to do with whether you are adopted or not. It’s having that sustained success model. Having a really articulated vision for yourself. As young adults we are easily persuaded. With peer group pressure we want to belong and connect so we feel like we need to fit in. I was fortunate to be so focussed and driven to succeed in this world of surfing that anything that conflicted with that I saw as a distraction and I just pushed it away. Whether it was late nights, drugs, partying, even boys. They were a distraction from my surfing. It gave me a really clear set of boundaries that I placed on myself. But that was because I was fortunate that I had a really clear vision. So I feel that it’s the clarity of vision of knowing where we are going and why, gives us the power to choose. Second to that is having the dream team around you. To elevate and nurture that in you. Are we all born world champions? No not me. But I had a dream team around me. That’s not to say that I didn’t encounter my fair share of dream thieves. My school teachers. Dream thieves. Some of my peers at school. Dream thieves. Some of my peers on tour. Dream thieves. Some of the guys at Manly. Dream thieves. I was surrounded by them.

07:30You have reflected that winning never satisfied you so you kept raising the bar and that was a way of avoiding rejection and that you sabotaged relationships and found it hard to find empathy for self.  You also won titles in both a love and fear mindset. 

I won 7 world titles and 6 of them consecutively, but I won 5 in a state of fear and 2 in a state of love. The difference between the two, and being number 1 and number 7 were in love, the bookends of my career, is that the first and last were in love. The fear based mentality is the adoptee mentality. The fear of rejection, the fear of abandonment, the fear of disconnection, the fear of looking stupid, the fear of not being enough. Can you see my t-shirt that is a daily reminder that says “I am enough”. We all need triggers and we all need reminders no matter how grounded or present or aware we are, sometimes the stories we subscribe to take us off track and we need circuit breakers to bring us back and wearing t-shirts like this is one of my circuit breakers.

Those 5 world titles in the fear based mentality were essentially win at all costs. That was sabotage mode. Operating out of fear. As an adoptee, there seems to be a continuous theme or constant fear of rejection or abandonment. The way that it shows up in my life is that if I am pushing people away, I am operating out of fear of rejection, so I like to push people away before I can be rejected. If I am behaving in a way that I know is not congruent with who I am, because now I am operating in a way that gives people a reason to reject me. So those two styles of behaviour are literally validation points. They are confirmation bias. I know if I behave this way I will get pushed away. Then I get pushed away and I say see I told you so. We have to challenge our own confirmation bias because over time they become anchors and when we anchor ourselves in these belief patterns they become self-serving and become self-fulfilling prophecies and we wonder why our lives have turned to crap and we wonder why no one wants to reach out and love us and support us because we have spent so long pushing everyone away to protect ourselves. I think that is what I was referring to earlier about why children have trouble in school. Im no good at maths I’m going to play up over here and the teacher will let me out and I will go see the principal. We have never been taught how to embrace discomfort. If we can accept discomfort because we stopped responding years ago.

That’s what we do in life. If we find ourselves in a state of discomfort, we have never been taught how to embrace that.

A state of acceptance ends all suffering. But if our immediate response or reaction actually, because we stopped resonding years ago, when we stopped owning the emotion. If class clown to to detract eveyrones attention away from the fact that we feel stupid or not smart enough, then that can become a theme throughout our whole lives. Unfortunately our education system fails us in some ways because we are told if you have the answer put your hand up. Shouldn’t we encourage curiosity. I don’t understand, what are you talking about? I guess for parents, exploring feelings and being more aware of their own feelings.

12:30What can parents be doing with their children to help their children move through those feelings?

Parents need to learn how to honour their own feelings. If they can’t sit in their own feelings they cant really sit with their children’s feelings. That’s where we have a bit of a disconnect. If we can teach adults to honour their feelings and honour everything that comes with that, then they will have the courage and the vulnerability to sit with their children and create the safety for their children to do that. I never had the safety to do that with my family, so I had to find friends to do that with. But I also recognised at a young age the importance of owning my own feelings or otherwise I was a lay blamer and reacted out and became the class clown and did all the things that sabotaged my happiness and my education. What I am doing with my own online education platform, called the awake academy is helping parents own their truth, starting with understanding their relationship with a variety of different emotions. How they articulate it and how they connect with it. Because we can’t move past what we can’t see. We cant shift an emotion until we feel an emotion. If we want to be happy all the time we literally manufacture things around us to make us feel happy whereas deep inside we are deeply unhappy. To transcend the unhappiness we need to honour it and give ourselves permission to feel unhappy.

The other thing I’ve noticed with parents is that many Dads like to fix things, because Dads don’t like to feel uncomfortable, so they are the first to come in and fix, and Mums are very quick to come in and tell. Poking a hole through your own biases and your own reactions to the discomfort of your children and allowing children to move through discomfort at their own pace in their own time through their own processes and systems. Just because it worked for you in 1975 doesn’t mean its going to work for you in 2021. And that’s more time consuming and harder. It actually cuts the long term struggle. It hijacks the self-sabotaging behaviours that we adopt in our 30s, 40s and 50s.

15:33There are practices we are aware of that help such as compassionate parenting, strong connection and playful parenting and physical exercise, which seemed to work for you. I wonder about reflecting back on these types of things?

The words that keep coming to mind for me is felt safety. That doesn’t mean I have walls around my home and heart. That means have the safety to fail and to make mistakes and not being berated and dragged across hot coals for it. Having the safety to not know the answers, and being encouraged to ask questions, which our education system does not encourage. And having the safety to define who I am and explore the world and have a sense of independence and freedom. I was very fortunate to grow up in a time when there were no mobile phones and social media.  So if you aren’t feeling safe on these things get off. The world will keep spinning without you on there. People who you are friends with will still be friends with you. Do what makes you feel good that is legal. And if something makes you feel uncomfortable, then sit with it and ask yourself why am I uncomfortable in this space, before you blame everyone else for making you feel this way. You were actually the one that chose to feel this way. I wish I had this understanding in my teens. I probably did because I was very conscious of who I spent my time with and I always surrounded myself with people who are older than me because I felt safer with them and they would give me a hard time but from a loving lens.

17:50You did put yourself in many unsafe situations as well.  Can you contrast that felt safety with safety.

I’m not saying I always felt safe. I proactively and voluntarily put myself into an environment that was unsafe such as riding really big waves and travelling to places I had never been to before and figuring it out as I went and sleeping on couches in England and hitch hiking and being picked up by strangers, But as long as I trusted my own instincts because when I didn’t trust it that’s when I made my biggest mistakes. I think we tend to stray away from our instincts when we feel like we have to fit in or belong.

It’s not only courage but also silence to listen to our gut instinct. If we are stuck in our own thoughts and stuck int the world that’s always spinning, we don’t tune into it.

19:55 - The ocean keeps me alive, helps me feel centred and connected

The ocean is my life force and my liquid Valium at the same time. It keeps life in perspective. It keeps me well balanced, happy, centred and connected. It’s a place where I feel really free and I love running to it when I feel sad or running to it when I’m excited. Its where I heal my hurts, its where I process my pain, its where I celebrate my joys and happiness. It’s that one place I feel truly connected and centred. I still surf every day.

20:40Was there anything else that helped you with unravelling or any therapy that you did?

I am still unravelling. I have done a variety of different therapies. In the last decade, in my late 30s and 40s, I have been going through NET, Neural Emotional Technique to help me disconnect from some of the things that trigger me. To get to the fundamental basis or get to the original event of this thing that happened and how that triggers me in my late 40s. You show me the woman I will show you the child. Always reflecting back into my childhood and wondering what is it in that moment, why did that trigger that behaviour? Oh that’s the story I have associated with it!

Another thing I do is rebirthing. I do a breathe every once in a while to transmute all of the stuck energy in my body and release it. As opposed to having to always having to think about it and talk about it. Because the body keeps the score, the body stores the emotion, I can process the emotion without actually having to go through all the thoughts associated with it. At the time it can be quite painful and confronting because my hands can be really tight fisted and my body is all tight and hyperventilating, but as I continue to breathe into it and breathe deeper into it it’s like I’m surrendering to it and it releases and then I’m free from another layer of stuff.

My naturopath does it and I’m interested to teach it myself.

It was essentially the rebirthing technique that I did back in 1997 that shone a light on my fear of rejection due to my adoption. If we can sit in silence and tap into the wisdom of our own sweet hearts. We believe we have to figure everything out which is the opposite of feeling through things. If we can get out of our heads for a moment. Which is why surfing is a beautiful thing for me to do because it brings me back in connection to my body and my heart. I meditate and do yoga every day to help me sit in quiet and give myself clarity and detach from the fear based story and at least change the story to something more self serving and less sabotaging.

23:30Did reconnecting with birth family help with your life journey?

It did actually. We all want to know where we come from and we want to know why we are the way we are . Im so different from my adopted family. They are all so tall with white pasty skin. I am 5 foot five, with olive skin and I have bright blue eyes, I look very different to my family and I behave very different to my family. So getting an understanding of what are the life events and genetic traits of my biological family that are so entwined and connected to me now. So meeting my mother was literally like looking into the mirror in 17 years time. There was no question that she was my mother. There were times we did connect. I went and stayed with her for a week because she lived in America. Observing her and going oh ok and watching her gave me some understanding of why I am the way I am.

24:33 We don’t necessarily require necessarily external validation to connect with who we intrinsically are. We know who we are and we get to chose that. Our programs we are subscribing to are reprogrammable. Its just a matter of owning who you are and where you are and recognise that if you have this fear of abandonment, fear of rejection, fear of worthlessness and love, then what you fear you are trapped by. Your focus needs to expand. It wasnt until I recognised that that behaviour was fuelling me for so long. Now Im here to tell you I was very successful with that mentality. But at what cost? When I had that realisation or that awakening that the way I was behaving wasn’t congruent with who I am and how I wanted to show up. It destroyed relationships and cost me sponsorships and I wasn’t being remembered for the things I wanted to be remembered for so it was time to change.

25:53Experts suggest adoptees like yourself choose really good life partners. They choose someone who will be there for them, with felt safety. Is that something that resonates for you?

Yes I am fortunate I have chosen well. I was setup on a blind date with a rock star that does love me and adores me and is so supportive and so encouraging. There are moments I don’t feel like he is there for me 100% of the time. That is kind of unrealistic.  Deep down I know he is. But then he is triggered by things I do that piss him off. He needs to have the comfort to express his criticisms and judgements and guilt. Establishing parameters around how we do that is a forever evolving process. Let’s call it marriage. Fortunately marriage and lockdown for us has become better. We spent the first 5-6 years together apart so we have grown together as we have become older. Deep down I know he is there for me irrespective of how I behave. I do feel very embraced. The safest place that I know that I always retreat back to is in his arms.


28:08
You have experienced trauma but you are a lover of life and a powerhouse for women and change and a pioneer for women and equality. Why you and how do I tap into that?

If I can bottle it and sell it. Yes please. It comes down to your intrinsic motivation. And you are doing it in your way by hosting podcasts like this. If we are contributing to society and contributing to the world then we are fulfilling our purpose and it doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as you do it. If you are waking up every day thinking about what can I do for myself, then you lose that sense of connection with a greater purpose, and then you lose connection with that intrinsic motivation and then you move to extrinsic motivation. A lot of people go through life like that and that is ok. I was probably misread to be that kind of person especially when I was competing. But I always had a greater vision for myself on the tour than just showing up and winning world titles. That adoptee mentality drove me to be a 6 time world champion but during that and on that journey and that pathway I was deeply invested in changing the landscape in women’s surfing. Changing how it was perceived, the value it had, creating opportunities and equality for women. That’s why I sat on the Board of directors for 15 of the 19 years I was on tour. So every day I wake up and think about what can I learn today that’s going to shortcut the struggle in other people. How can I be better today and in doing that how can I help someone else be better tomorrow. My attention is always focussed on the greater good and that’s anchored in my own self worth.

30:21 Time out is necessary and it starts with writing a list of simple things you love to do

It’s necessary otherwise you get burnout. I had to care for my Dad for a whole week and I had resentment by the end of the week. How do people do this 24/7 and not get resentful and bitter and twisted and angry. What are you going to do about it? Are you going to stay that way or actually do something for yourself? Start by doing this. Write down a list of all the things you love to do. Over the next month tick one off every day, week, month whatever, but start. During lockdown we feel like everything we love has been taken away from us. There are so many valuable, quality, less expensive, less time consuming, less exorbitant things, really simple things that we love to do but we don’t make the time to do it because we don’t give ourselves permission to do it  it or we make excuses or we haven’t thought about what is it we love to do because I have to focus on all these things. But the more we do something for somebody else the more you are depleting of yourself. So for you to show up as your best, what are you going do to for yourself. Im not saying everyday you will have time to do that. But only you can. The timeframes they have to work, they are not paid enough, they don’t have enough support. These teachers, paramedics and all these front line workers need some time to reboot themselves and rest and regenerate. No one can give them that time other than them.

One of my girlfriends did this on her birthday during lockdown. She decided to get her top 10 list and she ticked off all of those items on her birthday and she said it was the best birthday she ever had. And it was simple things like walking barefoot in the grass.

If you write it down you are 40% more likely to achieve it.

34:17How I celebrate birhdays and my 50th

That all depends on all the rules and the health regulations I have all sorts of ideas but I might just end up hosting a few people at home. Either way I will celebrate it. I love my birthday. With age comes wisdom. With age comes empathy. With empathy comes stronger connections. Even though my friendship group is getting smaller my connections are getting stronger. I love celebrating birthdays. That way you remember them.

35:09 - Remember the message “I am enough”. Let go of the judgement and build connection.

I would love to come back to the message on my t-shirt. I am enough. Adoptees can rely on extrinsic or external circumstances to validate themselves. Remember Steve Jobs said what is it about you adoptees. You always think you are rejected rather than accepted. For those of us fortunate to be adopted into very loving families, we are literally accepted. We are brought into family and loving and belonging and connection and acceptance. We may not be a blood relationship but we are a heart relationship and a bond. When I start to sabotage that relationship with family I have to remind myself it is the story I am telling myself that is preventing me from creating the connection. That story is normally anchored in judgement and fear. I have to pull myself up. What are the judgements I am casting that are preventing me from connecting with the other person.

I had that relationship with my biological mother. She told me aspects around being conceived through date rape and all sorts of things that I just wouldn’t believe. Because I chose not to believe her I created my own story and I just wanted to be right with my story that prevented me from connecting with her on a meaningful level. When I recognised that holding onto this story that was anchored in judgement of her, it prevented me from connecting with her on a meaningful level. I had to let go of the judgement and righteousness because my connection with her was way more important to me than being right about my own story.

The story that I had in my mind was that she was young and promiscuous and of course there was no way she was raped and of course she could remember my father’s name, who doesn’t remember the person they were pregnant to. She never really wanted me, she was too young to keep me and of course her parents told her she was too young and to gave me away. All judgement which means pushing, pushing, pushing. Which means validation, validation, validation.

We have been talking about advantaged thinking and how we bring that into what we do – it’s not about what happened to you, it’s about you were accepted so let’s focus on the acceptance and how we move forward from that mindset.

It all comes back to this. I am accepted therefore I am enough. Every one of us is enough exactly how we are. Nothing is broken or needs fixing. We just need to accept because acceptance ends all suffering. So if you can accept that you are enough then you are coming from a foundation of love and acceptance which is a stepping stone to much greater things. But if you are coming from a fear based state of rejection and abandonment and therefore not enoughness and worthlessness, then you become what I became, a compassionate less tiger shark that annhialates everything in front of it and lets you bleed out, because if you are not with me than get the hell out of the way. Win at all costs.

39:25Struggling with conversations around adoption with your child? Have conversations with adopted children often: be honest, encourage curiosity, build connection, love and acceptance so they feel to safe to explore their history

 

If any parents are struggling with conversations with their children around adoption, from my experience, please just be honest with them from the start. Let them be curious and let them know because that will build the connection with your child. That will help them know they are loved and accepted irrespective of where they have come from. It will give them a safe space to chose to explore that aspect of themselves. If they choose to do that its no reflection on you. If anything it’s a positive connection because you have empowered them with safety to allow them to explore that connection.

I wished my dad had been honest with me earlier on. It came as such a shock.

I never had reason to question why I looked different.

All my friends started to ask questions. I would just say I don’t know, I belong here don’t I?

Had I been told I would have been able to silence the questioning by saying I was adopted. Ok. Right. Instead of why do you look so different? Where did you come from. I don’t know. I don’t know.

41:42 - Stay detached from the judgement others project on to you.

(We have a couple of African girls in our lives so sometimes walking into a restaurant, 2 brown children and 2 white children, sometimes people are so obviously in shock to our presence.  They wore hoodies a lot to hide from it, living in a very white world.)

I stay in touch with my half-sister who lives in America, my biological mothers daughter. Some people call her weird and things like that. I said to her, when people want to bring you down or want to judge you and criticise you. It’s an opportunity for you to ask yourself what does that say about them. It’s not about you. It’s just triggered a story, a thought or feeling and they don’t have the filter to monitor how they are responding. What does that say about them? In the event that its inexplicable or unacceptable, then if you can stay detached from the judgement that they are projecting on to you, therefore you don’t take on the judgement, then that gives you the empowerment and the empathy to go back to them and say is there something I have done that has upset you.  What has given you reason to say what you have said or to behave in the way you have behaved. We are all mirrors to each other. But sometimes the mirror needs to speak.

But if you speak from judgement and fear, you may come out as a lioness. That’s when we go I’m glad I didn’t say anything. That’s when you may come out as a lioness. That’s when you have to ask the children, did that persons response to you make you feel uncomfortable. If so why. How do you normally respond to this. How do I equip you to ensure that that behaviour that will continue to occur doesn’t impact you in this same way. My advice. Smile at people.

Love always silences fear.  Going away with the mantra I am enough. Thankyou.

 

RESOURCES

Layne Beachley

Awake Academy

Ahn Do Brush with Fame TV Series with Layne Beachley

Girls Can’t Surf Movie – Fighting Sexism

Seven Core Issues in Adoption and Permanency

Parenting Strategies

African culture: how we can support cross cultural permanent care and adoption and overcome shame.

00:00 - Start 02:34 - Culture and norms and practices in Africa 09:33 - Roles of Mum and Dad are identified but becoming more equal 11:10 - Men are seen as strong, the protectors, and are not allowed to cry, resulting in PTSD or trauma, and subsequently coping mechanisms like substance abuse (Khat, a leafy amphetamine, or alcohol). Women are weak but similarly repress their vulnerabilities and don't express themselves eg post natal depression. Shameful matters like overdoses are taboo 16:56 - Deaths have rituals that protect women 23:50 - Menstruation and pregnancy and pre-marital sex are not discussed. 28:12 - Church or the Mosque is an important social space where you enjoy a strong, fun, warm culture or seek advice on family matters, but the father is the main decision maker 33:06 - Dogs and other animals are dangerous or diseased 38:20 - Hair goes to the core of your identity, to connection and felt safety 44:30 - Skin colour and skin shade differ in parts of Africa and skin colour can be a trigger for racism and bullying, which affects ones self-esteem and confidence 47:08 - Embrace cross cultural caregiving by understanding the culture and exploring the culture and immersing oneself within it. Africans are warm and welcoming so please join them with your cross cultural family

Culture, understanding and grief. How to support culture in care with Zahra Shire - Transcript

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice evidence-based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people. PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

I have been to many meetings where things have been discussed and agreed in relation to children’s lives, without any real cultural awareness.  Today I would like to discuss those aspects and also talk more specifically about grief and how that gets managed within a culture.

0:42 Introduction to Zahra

I am joined today by Zahra Shire. Zahra is PCA Families Client Services Officer and has a background in providing assistance to refugees and asylum seekers with the Australian Red Cross.  Zahra is passionate about outcomes for culturally and linguistic diverse communities and will finish her studies this year as a cross-cultural counsellor. Welcome Zahra.

What else should we know?

Thankyou for having me here today and for discussing a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. My name is Zahra and I was raised here in Melbourne. I am a CSO with PCA Families and have been here for 9 to 10 months now, but it feels like forever. Becoming a cross cultural counsellor is what Im working towards this year and I’m hope if Covid allows I will be able to finish that up by the end of this year.

So a little bit about me. I was born and raised in Australia. My parents migrated to Australia in the early 90s from Somalia in East Africa. So they have had their fair share of trials and tribulations, moving from a war torn country and settling here in Australia, due to the culture clash. Hopefully I can provide a little bit of insight into some personal and lived experiences that we faced

02:34 Culture is the often unseen thoughts, feelings and behaviours that underly a group of people.  There are very visible parts to a culture, like the clothes people wear, food or celebrations. But there are also many unseen parts of a culture such as family roles, importance of time, personal space, personal property and more.   

Children who are separated from their birth families can struggle with cross cultural matters. Cultural identity can create additional complexity in determining their own identity. Often there can be resistance to attempts to assist them in connecting culturally, perhaps because they are ashamed or perhaps because it is something a carer is trying to “force” on a child.  That child can also face prejudice within both cultural groups.

For me personally I have observed elements of the African culture, in raising two girls of African background, so its great for us to share concepts in this shared background.

I have observed practices that differ to how I raised my children and these girls. For example, I observed that there were specific roles for men and women and somewhat authoritarian parenting.  Women tended meals and cleaned, spent time on their presentation of hair and self and were expected to be well dressed in heels and dresses from around 12 years of age, hair tended to (which could take hours as the hair is coarse and frizzy, requiring braiding or treatment with relaxer to soften) they were accompanied by a male sibling outside the home and generally expected to be home at sundown, help around the home and remain home until married.  The men on the other hand appeared to be the breadwinners, allowed to roam freely, expected to be acknowledge first ahead of the females, with minimal eye contact as this could be seen as disrespectful and Mum would pay her respects to Dad by sitting at his feet. In addition, the Church pastor was consulted on all life matters, from whether a boy and girl could date, and the Church pastor to my knowledge was always male.  For younger siblings, there were also older siblings who expected compliance with their expectations.  Now this is only my observation of one family in a community, but I assume this goes to culture, not just family practices.

Obviously Zahra you have far greater access to a broader section of the community.  Are these fair observations Zahra of African culture and the norms within them for males and females?

Absolutely. Some of the things Sonia you've just mentioned are some things that do happen in some African households Because Africa is such a large continent and there are so many different religions and cultures inside, some parts of the country share very similar cultures and some share very different. I think religion does play a big part in where you're from. Just based on my experience, as we were growing up, my mum would predominantly be the one that stays at home and looks after us. The children and my father were the ones that go out and start working. But as that was happening in the early years we got to a stage where we would transition, where both parents started working and then the role sort of divided and became a bit more equal. So I find that as the years go on the roles are constantly changing and that's due to you know the lifestyle here. Predominantly back in the days when everyone was back in their home countries and before the war happened, a lot of a lot of the roles where the father is outside predominantly and the mother's always inside were prevalent.

We do share that the female is always accompanied by a male and that's really, and for many people the reason is surprising, because of safety. I feel like now in Australia we're in a country that is very safe and everyone's sort of independent. But back then there's a lot of wild animals there in Africa. Females they're seen as weak, so you know if a female is just roaming the streets then you know there's that there might be another male that sort of takes advantage. There’s kidnappings and there was a lot of things where you know where little kids were being sold and stolen. So it was more a sense of safety. That's not so much happening now. I recently went back to my home country in 2014 so it's not such a big issue then, but it was back in the time, which makes sense. So things are changing.

I feel that the roles are so much more equal now and there's a lot more education. I feel like when my parents were young and they had their mum and dad around, there was a lack of education. What was taught between each generation was sort of kept on, but as people started to move out and migrate to other countries around the world their culture, what they've learned, has sort of been merged in and incorporated.

It takes time to learn a new culture. You can't just you know suddenly turn up, move to a new country and then you adopt a whole lot of new practices. That does take time to get familiar and feel safe and make changes to how you live your life.

I think you mentioned hair is such a big issue in the African community. It's been a topic probably worldwide. I think maybe we'll get to a little bit more down into the conversation because it's a huge topic and we've come such a long way.

9:33 Did you want to say anything else about mother or father roles, growing up or how that's changed?  

Like I said um the roles have been a bit a bit more equal as we grew. Living in Australia you start to mingle with your neighbours and friends and you see females or other wives studying and working. You sort of think to yourself oh well if they can do that I can do that too. So notions just emerge as we were grow. My mum at the age of 35-40 decided to study. She is a person that didn't finish secondary school back when she was home so for her to at that age decide you know what, I want to go and learn something and do something was really inspiring for us to see. She went in and she did a short course, she did a diploma in early childhood and education. She was so empowered and then she was able to go out on her own and find work and it was just so empowering to see those little things have sort of stuck with us. To see their sacrifice has sort of empowered us to sort of give back and be appreciative of being here. And the power of education and you know creating your own destiny.

11:10 Zahra you have mentioned to me that within the African community there is restrictive emotionality and a denial of mental health challenges among men.  A boys don’t cry mentality. Can you tell me a little more about the masculine norms in the African culture and how that affects mental health?

Men are always seen in in our culture as strong men and strong individuals and they don't really cry or express their feelings or if they're having a bad day they sort of keep it to themselves. They go along. Especially seeing a lot of my uncles and one of my dad's older friends now. Obviously moving from a war-torn country, there's a lot of trauma involved in that. Moving to a country where you don't know how to speak the language, you don't know how to find work and you're sort of fending for yourself in a foreign place. It's a bit difficult. Nobody ever spoke about that and there was a lot of PTSD involved that was not treated that or discussed. It was more to keep it to yourself. I’m the man of the house. No one can really see me being weak and sort of that's how they would move along. Because of that it has led unfortunately to a lot of men in our community, older men, turning to stimulant drugs. There's a drug stimulant drug that is really that big in the African community called cold khat. It's a leafy substance and it's a drug that they've sort of used as a coping mechanism as they've grown up. That was the only way that they could resort to being able to cope with what they were dealing with, whether it be the demands of society or whether it be just erasing those memories of seeing your loved ones either dying back home as you were migrating or having to walk for days without food just to get out of an unsafe environment. So those are the sort of things that our older men had to deal with because of that mentality men don't cry and men are supposed to protect the family and women were seen as weak. But they themselves were also not really given the opportunity to express themselves. So women who would be giving birth had no idea about you know prenatal depression and postnatal depression. They would sort of work on it on their own and deal with it alone. Even for me as a female growing up I've had my times personally where I wasn't able to discuss with my families you know the things that I was going through because I've never seen my parents be vulnerable. You know you grow up in  a notion where there were times I remember my parents saying to me you're very lucky to be here in Australia. We've come from war. You've got a roof over your head. We didn't have homes to live in for a couple of days. Because that is being put into your brain constantly our generation we're also suffering in a sense where we're not being able to express ourselves sometimes. And then you can you see the younger generation again the cycle is just repeating itself and they're not seeking help, they're not seeking therapy. It's seen as a sign of weakness. For example, say you've got a friend who isn't from an African background saying hey maybe you need to see this counsellor. You know I see this counsellor and it helps. But you go oh no, no I can't do that. I can deal with it on my own. And then you've got the younger generation you know being resorting to alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism. That often leads to death. Recently we heard about a person from our community (we are a small community so everybody knows everybody), a boy passed away in his sleep. We thought okay that's unheard of. That's fine but then later on you find out he actually didn't die in his sleep it was overdosing. But nobody is speaking about it because the family see it as a shame. Rather than raising awareness in this area. So it's such a taboo in the community to talk about mental health and suicide and you know all these important topics that need to be discussed. Unfortunately as we move through the years we're going further into the future, it's still an issue of concern.

Especially now with what's going on with Covid.That again is all about perspective. I hear some people say oh you know they're living in a 5 million mansion. What have they got to complain about. But it's all about perspective right. So everyone's feeling it on some level - there's some change to people's lifestyles.

16:56 - When there's a death in the family that must be really tough I imagine if you need to kind of control some of those emotions. I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about then what happens with some of those ceremonies and rituals and how people grieve or how grief does get expressed.  And what are some of those restrictions?

When a death occurs in the family again it depends on what part of the country or what culture you follow and what religion you follow. Different religions have their own way of dealing with death and their own rituals. From where we come, if a family member passes away, there's a three-day grieving period from the day of burial so those three days are when you can have family over.  It's not really restricted to those three days but it's advised so that the immediate family can have time to grieve. Because you've got such a small community, everyone knows everyone, so everybody wants to come in and give their condolences. So there's a three-day period where family friends and families can come into the house of the deceased where they can give or pay their respects and give their condolences and leave. That's usually done for three days and then the immediate family can take as long as they need to grieve the loss of their loved one. So with females, and it's a bit different especially if it was the passing of a female's husband okay. Her grieving period is a little bit more different in a sense of it's not really called a grieving period. It's called a waiting period. So if a female's husband passes away there's a waiting period for her of four months and 10 days where she's pretty much not allowed to remarry. If she decided that’s the case and to remarry quicker after a death, especially you know back in the days a long time ago. The reason for that time frame of four months and 10 days is just because in case she's pregnant and if she is pregnant then her waiting period is extended until after birth and then after that time she is able to go out and remarry, doing that waiting period again. As you know as time goes on the rules change. But when my parents and their parents were younger and they were all back home in Africa the waiting period meant that the female wasn't allowed to leave their house. So in a sense if she needed to go out to the shops or parties or weddings or birthdays for that waiting period of four months and 10 days she wasn't advised to or allowed to do so. Obviously living here in Australia everyone's working and everyone's commitments are different and some people live alone so obviously those rules are different. What they mean here by not going out is it's not that you can't go to work, I mean obviously you can go to work, it's an essential need. Or you can seek medical attention, but things like not exposing yourself out into the community just after a death has happened. So its more about protecting the female after that because of losing her husband and her loved ones. So it's more protecting them and allowing them to sort of heal.

There's always a religious advisor to come into the house or you could go visit them and they can provide some healing. It's not therapy but some healing advice. And again seeking  therapy after a death is not so much a practice in our community. This is where you know they're not dealing with their grief and you find people after three four years and you can still see it in their face that they haven't grieved properly because they haven’t sought professional help. So it’s a big issue in the community.

So they can have friends and family come into their space absolutely, so they can seek help in that way.

Absolutely they can have people coming over friends and family with that support process but sometimes you know especially when it's a sudden death you just don't know how to deal with the grief and loss. Often you know once they come out of their waiting period they think oh I’m okay it's been four months and 10 days I’m okay I’m not crying anymore therefore I’m not sad. But there's also some probably underlying issues that you needed like some closure that you didn't receive that you needed. So it's always good to get that extra help. But then again nobody wants to show their weakness.

So the body of a person stays in the home for three days? No. As soon as the death happens, if the body is not with you the coroner or anything, it's actually recommended that they get buried right away. In our culture we don't do cremation. So the body is cleansed, it's washed and then once the body is washed rose water is placed on top of the body and then it's shrouded in a white cloth. Then the body is buried and at the graveyard, it's not a ruling but it's recommended that females don't attend. If they do attend, not to be as close to the burial only because women don't really take being at the grave really well. There's always the sense of wailing that they try to avoid. So it's not a ruling, females can attend, but if they do it's usually standing behind the men as the men put the body in the ground. So the men are protecting the women.

23:50 I wonder about other aspects of the culture that might make it challenging in you know a permanent care type situation or adoption? So things like this have been challenging for me in my experience. Menstruation and pregnancy. So for me permission was not provided for me to discuss the menstrual cycle with the girls in my care when it looked like that was really imminent. So I think that's part of a bigger religious initiation. But maybe you can talk to that? Then it also followed that pregnancy or premarital sex can also bring shame and stigma to the family and that can result in ostracization too. We were also asked to take in other pregnant African girls while these other two African girls were with for that reason. There was shame and they were being abandoned by family. We didn't bring that into our lives but its now one of my observations. So are you able to talk to menstruation and pregnancy first before I mention some other observations?

I've always wondered why this was the case as menstruation, pregnancy and premarital sex weren’t topics that were discussed when the time was required, if that makes sense. It was often a topic that was avoided. For me personally, when I was young, my mum didn't much  speak about it. She probably mentioned menstruation previously but very slightly, it wasn't dramatic in a sense where come let's have a conversation let's sit down, let's talk about these things. Thankfully for me being in Australia I learnt this at school, but I do wish that you know I had that talk with my mum face to face because that would have opened up those serious conversations that little girls and females need to have with their parents. So I never understood why it was such a quiet topic and even as I grew older and I myself became pregnant with my son I found it really challenging to speak to my mum about it. I sort of felt a bit embarrassed if that makes sense. Like how do I tell my mom I’m pregnant. Thinking about it now I actually had to create a story. I remember I had to create stories and I'd call my mum one day and I’m like oh mum I’m feeling a bit tired, I’m feeling a bit sick, or I started to list the symptoms of pregnancy. We laugh about it now because she says to me I knew you were pregnant and I knew you were awkward about talking about it. I’m like why didn't you just talk to me about it. I had to make a whole charade about it and I never understood why. And when it comes to things like that I find that my mum holds a bit of resentment in her upbringing, as a female, because again her mum didn't do the same thing. It's just like it's history repeating itself. So she probably assumed that I would already know. Then I remember talking to my sister about it when it was her time because I knew that I never got that. So I was my sister's go-to when she needed to talk about anything about menstruation. I’m making a change because I know what it felt like.

Well I went off to the museum because the museum's got information on it!

28:12 One of the other big observations is around socialisation and the church for me:

  • Church is the safe social ground with singing and dancing important aspects where everyone is asked to contribute to identified goals and often teens are identified as holding special roles eg dance group leader or are involved in further study to lead a church group
  • As mentioned the Church pastor is consulted on life maters such as whether a couple can see each other (pastor will assess if they are appropriately matched, mature and responsible enough to enter a relationship)
  • The church experiences offers storytelling and socialisation, depicting traditional roles as regards giving, caring for others, greed, selfishness
  • Parental responsibility extends beyond the parents to the extended family and broader community and consequently removal from the family home brings shame.

Are these aspects that you've observed and how do we help with those traditions and beliefs?

So socialisation in the African community. In our religion members go to the mosque and  there are imams that you go to to seek advice if there are issues in the family. But I find that these responsibilities are more put on the fathers of the house. The fathers would always have a say in who you would marry or if they were able to accept it. So they wouldn't go and see the imam it was more that you have to cross your dad first and then we can go to the imams to initiate the marriage or the engagement. Often you know today there are issues in couples who are not able to get married because their father or their mother have said no. It's an issue that doesn't seem to change and the reason is because it could be that the other spouse is from a part of Africa that they don't agree with, due to tribal issues between each other that are sort of causing um issues in couples getting married. So one spouse might be from the north and the other one might be from the south and they don't get a long in the history of the war background. They don't get along even till today. Even though you know these two might have been born and raised in Australia. There are still those issues. So those issues are not taken to the pastor or the imam as it's more so the father has a say.

If a child leaves the home there's so much shame that it brings to the family. It's like nobody really looks at what caused the child to leave the house. It's more about he left he's a horrible person and he is immediately exiled from the community. So it's an issue that needs to change in terms of socializing.

African people are really big on poetry and music. They love to gather during religious holidays and just share food. Weddings are a big thing. They go on for like two weeks, 14 days straight in one celebration after another. They love to go along and it's always showcasing the culture, the clothing, the poetry, the music and just using traditional instruments to just to have a great time. So it's a very warming culture and it's good to see that it still plays a part you know even though we're miles and miles away from back home. In Australia the 14 day wedding is probably cut down to three days because of work, life and commitments.  We can't all party for 14 days unfortunately. It's exhausting and there are the bills to pay. It’s too expensive but it's still good to see that we still embrace it. Living in Australia and living in a multicultural society we're all able to embrace different cultures and invite them along. It's just so good to see that. We're very lucky to be in a country where we accept everybody for who they are. A rich country from sharing.

33:06 There were also times where we would be advised to do something for the girls that actually went against their culture. For example, it was suggested we get the girls their own pet, yet they hated animals, especially dogs, predominantly because they spent their early years in Africa avoiding them  to also avoid disease.  Similarly, we would be advised we needed to get the girls hair cut because it had been 12 weeks without one. Now if you are African, you know exactly why that is.  African hair takes forever to grow long. It is highly textured, curly hair, prone to breakage. It needs to dry on its own, hence the head scarf worn overnight, preferably silk on a silk pillowcase. Utilising an oil, like good old vegetable oil (coconut or Moroccan is even better), and braiding, aids growth and minimises breakage too.  And a hair relaxer product is a game changer – immediately relaxes the hair so that it appears much longer.  These simple things like not having animals in the home and how to manage African hair are practices that went to the core of them feeling safe and secure.  How they ever got to feeling safe with 10 animals in our home, which they never embraced in 11 years, is beyond me.  If these things were known at the time of placement, surely we could have better outcomes as regards connection and felt safety. How do we get talking and documenting some of this for the benefit of other children being placed?

When you mention dogs I sort of freaked out a little bit. I think there's a reason why some African cultures are not accepting of having pets, especially dogs. I think nowadays  everyone's got a cat in their home. Maybe some African households. But I think the reason why again is because of avoiding disease. The dogs in Africa were pretty much wild and we were always taught stay away from them. If you see them, go the other way and don't run or they will run after you, which is just something I learned the hard way. So I’m personally  scared of having pets and dogs. Again it's the upbringing that we were taught to avoid dogs as they bring diseases. Living in Africa where we don't have immunizations or things to protect people and the medical help in the hospitals over there is really poor. So if there was a way to avoid getting a certain disease or sickness everyone would pretty much avoid them. The dogs in Africa were really wild so there were ones that you could pat or keep near you, there were ones that were going to attack you, so that's probably the main reason as to why there's that hesitancy.

I think the only way in getting families and African children to accept pets is probably just being able to expose them as much as possible. Some might not be accepting and it might be getting exposure therapy from a psychologist to be able to get those fears out. Some might be exposing them to dogs and you know maybe little puppies and getting them comfortable and then being able to slowly accept. Starting off with kittens or cats and or even having birds in the house or anything to sort of you know ease them in slowly. Especially those that have had you know those little bit of trauma in the past. I think that's just the best way and get them accepting. As time progresses these sort of things are subsiding a little bit, but there is that notion that's been embedded in you for such a long time that when you see it you sort of freak out. Until today I have these experiences even though I was born and raised in Australia. But I still have that fear. I got chased by a dog because my mum said to me oh run away run away it's a dog. I was thinking it's just a dog but because I was told to run I ran and then the dog you know chased. Now with my son who's a three-year-old, when we're at the park and he goes to the dog, I’m facing the other way but he's okay with it. I’m trying to change the trend so I let him touch whatever he wants to touch. It's really hard and it causes anxiety sometimes and it sticks with you for a long time.

38:20 Hair

Now hair, wow, where do I start? When I was younger when I wasn't wearing the head scarf, I've got really thick, thick traditional African hair and when I say thick I mean if I come and get out of the shower and my hair is wet, it will dry in less than 60 seconds and it will frizz up again. It was really hard taming it and managing it and often in our household, and I’m pretty sure it happened in a lot of Somali households, we would dedicate a whole day just for hair, because that's how much attention it needed.You know we'd start in the morning by washing our hair and then you know we go into brushing it out straight away, then putting those treatments in. Some moroccan argan oil was something that we would use a lot. I’m putting in that treatment just to make it a little bit more manageable. Often it was really embarrassing sometimes to even go to hair salons because when we were younger people would just look at us and be like you've got very different hair. I remember there was one time and it made me so angry but there was a time that my mum took us. This time when my mum was working. So dedicating a whole day to do our hair was a bit hard for her because she was working literally six days a week. So she thought let me go to the hair salon they'll cut the time down for us. We went to the hair salon and this is probably early 2000s and we looked at the price list and we thought okay 30 dollars for a trim and  a blow wave. We're good yeah let's go for that. So it was me and my sister we got in there, they started to wash our hair, they did everything. As they were brushing our thick hair you could see that they were getting a little bit annoyed or like it was really tiring for them. We get that but we just felt like we were a burden sort of thing. And then it came to paying and they looked at us and they said to my mum $250. What? My Mum was like, she wasn't the confrontational type. I spoke up and I said but it says here $30. She looked at us and she literally said your hair was very hard to work with today so it's $250 for the two of us. It was $125 each. Wow! My mum paid it but that was the last time she ever took us to a salon. That was the cost. Who can afford that? That was pretty much you know you've got African hair so you need to pay more. That's pretty much what it felt like and that was the last time that my mum ever took us to a hair salon.

There weren't a lot of African stylists back in those days that would open up or people that sort of knew how to work with African hair. They were still settling into Australia. They were still fairly new because we migrated very late into Australia. So people didn't know that they could open up businesses and they weren't at that place yet. So that was the last time we went and that was literally one of the worst experiences we've ever had. It was you know. Now I don't think you would ever see that happen. It was really, really difficult.

Often when we were in primary school and my hair was in braids you know you could see the other kids looking. It's like why is her hair different? Why is her hair always braided? Why doesn't she let it out? Often you know I didn't want my hair braided. I wanted to be able to have it pinned up and thrown up. It was that fear that you know the other kids would look at you. I often got bullied. I remember another African friend of mine who was in the same year level as me was bullied in the playground. It carries you as you grow up. But now thankfully with the bit of education and understanding and the power of social media and seeing African-American celebrities embracing their fro and not having to wear a weave or hiding it and being able to embrace it has sort of opened up and caved the way for us to also embrace our different hair textures. Now we've got so many hair salons that are accepting and wanting to take us and charging same price. It's good to see. There are still people that are not willing to work on African hair, which is fine, but at least we're not secluded out and there's somewhere, a place that we can always go to. There are treatments there, so many treatments now. So there's no more hair relaxer. We've got hair botox and we've got keratin which sort of carries and does that work well the character. It's not permanently straight but it does go wavy and it's a lot more manageable where it doesn't fro up. It's a lot more manageable and you can go to the beach with your hair and not worry about it buffing up. It only lasts probably three months. It doesn't last for a long time. It's probably three months and then you've got to do it every three months.

I can relate to all of what you said in terms of price because when we looked at it was over $300 so we actually got the hair done for the first time in San Francisco on holidays because it was much cheaper! It's much cheaper in America and half of our products can come from there anyway. How scary it was though sitting in that salon with all these bars everywhere.

44:30 I’m wondering are there other cultural things that I haven't observed that we need to be aware of that might make placement difficult or challenging? Other unobserved aspects to the culture that we might need to be aware of?

I think just the obvious reason that a lot of different countries inside of Africa. Everyone's got their different skin colour and skin shade is just something that a lot of people resort to when it comes to putting someone down or bullying them. They always refer to their skin colour. It's like hey you know go back to your country you don't belong here. So there's a lot of  racism and bullying that happens in society even today sadly enough. It just plays a huge detrimental effect in in one's self-esteem and confidence. Some of the issues that potentially that I can see happening in placement is sometimes a child might feel isolated especially if you're in a family and there might be that difference that the child might feel. Like you know my adopted mother or father have fairer skin than me and then going into school. Then you've got other children asking how come your mum's white and you're black. So there are those issues and knowing how to deal with those remarks and being able to provide a safe space in allowing the child to express themselves. Being able to have those open-ended conversations and just raising awareness in in bullying and racism and getting people to accept one another. So I think that's just another added issue that African cultures face.

I think we can all help with that. As an adoptive parent we can be going to the school and trying to share books and resources or you know content to educate the class. Teachers are often very welcoming of trying to educate in different aspects. But some of it does rely on us to make the effort to make that happen.

47:08 I guess I wonder now we've discussed all these many different things what are your thoughts on these intercultural adoptions or placements and how would you suggest the African culture be embraced when placing a child into a cross-cultural permanent care situation?

I think for me I welcome this. It's really important for families that are looking to accept children of African heritage is to understand the culture on a basic level. Just being able to accept a child and if the child wants to explore or express their culture and explore in a certain way that they are willing to accept that. If you find that the culture doesn't sort of align with your family values and beliefs then it's probably best not to accept the placement. But if you're culturally aware, diverse and you think you're able to do so then I would definitely welcome it. I think the key is to have constant open-ended conversations you know don't leave anything unturned or overlooked. Just being able to be a support system to them, there are a lot of internal issues that we've discussed today that I think the main standouts and issues in in the African culture. Being able to just be aware of that and accepting and if it fits within your family values then it's perfect, it's beautiful. We live in Australia and you know everyone is just so accepting of everyone. It's just going to make our country a little bit more richer in that sense. Like you say continuing to be curious and learning and sharing and not just sitting in your own little world. And African families are just you know reaching out to other African families. From where I come from and how we've grown up we're very accepting of you know mixing with other cultures and we actually encourage it. Just being able to share food and attend sometimes African festivals happening here and there. Just being able to you know not have that fear that they might not accept you. I mean I think we're the warmest people that you could ever come about. So we might look a bit different but you know we're just as human and we're very accepting of everyone. So put yourself out there. Sometimes when we're out and about and just seeing different cultures mixed with each other and like sometimes there's a lot of similarities definitely. Just being able to embrace that. I think that's just really important and respectful.

Absolutely. I think everyone at PCA Families would vouch for how for how welcoming and warm you are so it goes both ways. It must be from that family unit and the broader culture as well.

So thank you for sharing all those personal insights into your culture.

No worries thank you I actually really enjoyed it so thank you for having me.

And to anyone else making the time to listen to this recording by PCA Families thank you for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life.

Until next time have an amazing week.

RESOURCES

Maintaining Culture - Helping a Child Retain Cultural Connection and Identity, ACWA 2013

Parenting in Racially and Culturally Diverse Families, Child Welfare, September 2020

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