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Parent Infant
Family Australia

Work with Urban Aboriginal families

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An Overview of our work with Aboriginal Families - ' The Keeping Families Together Project'

It has been well documented that early childhood experiences are of primary importance to adult health and well being. Based on this, Parent Infant Family Australia (PIFA) believes that a powerful way to combat the disproportionately high burden of negative health and social outcomes in the Aboriginal community is to support Aboriginal families during their child’s early years.

In 2005 PIFA was invited to form a partnership with the Aboriginal Children’s Services in Redfern, to develop a specialized response to the over representation of Indigenous children in out of home care. The overarching aim of this project would be to support the safety and development of Aboriginal children, within their families wherever possible. This would be achieved by not only supporting and preserving family units through the crisis of possible removal of a child, but also, by working long term to build parenting capacity so that children were kept out of the out of home care system altogether.

Because the time around birth and early parenting is recognized as a window of opportunity to bring about change in families and, since getting in as early as possible after a problem arises is key to child and family outcomes, an early intervention model was identified as most likely to meet the aims of the project. The model developed took into account input from our Aboriginal partners that Indigenous child protection issues almost exclusively stem from long term, chronic issues which are unlikely to be resolved by short term, ‘one size fits all’ interventions. The model also used insights from PIFA’s extensive experience which corresponded with current research evidence that specific family vulnerabilities such as substance abuse, mental illness and parent’s own experience of abuse and neglect are associated with poor outcomes from typical family preservation service interventions.

In 2009 this work was extended into the Mt Druitt, Blacktown and Penrith Areas

The ‘Keeping Families Together’ model is distinctive in that:

  • It is evolving organically through the development of relationships with and feedback from the Indigenous community
  • It is intensive, individualized and long term when necessary
  • It is based on the latest research on parent child relationships
  • It isoffered by highly qualified professionals
  • Although the work is based on the latest research and offered by highly qualified professionals the Indigenous concept of Dadiri and other tacit knowledge shared with us by our Indigenous partners and clients remains inherent in our practice
  • The focus on connecting parents with a range of supports and facilitating the formation of a therapeutic community around each family has led to the development of relationships between a diverse range of organizations and the formation of a loose cooperative of disparate agencies
  • The work of all agencies involved is enriched by mutual sharing and support while organizational autonomy is maintained
  • There is an inbuilt commitment to facilitating reflection on the work and dissemination of insights and learning gained to others involved with Indigenous families
  • Evaluation is linked to individual outcomes via an ongoing action research model

Examples of work in the "Keeping Families Together' project

Home Based Support

Urban Aboriginal parents have suffered dislocation. They have been dislocated from their land, their culture, their community and often from their own families. As a result of many levels of loss and trauma this generation is left with anxiety, rage, depression and a sense of helplessness in the face of conditions over which they feel they had no control. Urban Aboriginal families, while facing all the stresses of any new family when they have a baby, also face quite distinct challenges related to marginalization and trans generational trauma. Supporting Aboriginal families during early parenting requires a special type of engagement which, while taking into account the normal developmental needs and stresses of all new parents, appreciates the particular issues which they face and is sensitive to their cultural heritage. Home visiting offers a way to individualise services for parents and children and show that we are willing to engage with them wherever they need us. The program is offered as part of a range of possible services in which families can become involved. PIFA consultants visit vulnerable families at least weekly from pregnancy and for up to five years.

Within Families:

  • Improved emotional relatedness between parents and their children
  • Reduced number of children in OOHC
  • Extended social networks
  • Deepened understanding of the role of the past in influencing the present

In the Broader Community:

  • Increased understanding of the needs of urban aboriginal families during pregnancy, birth and early parenting
  • Improved ability to offer appropriate interventions

Support in Groups

PIFA, works together with our Aboriginal partners to offer a range of groups for Aboriginal women who are pregnant or have a young child.

Therapeutic Mothers' Group
The aim of this group is to help women manage the anxieties which arise during motherhood and to alleviate, as much as possible, the impact of these anxieties on the parent-infant relationship.
Group goals are to:

  • Assist parents to increase their sensitivity and emotional responsiveness to their child
  • Support parents to overcome negative patterns of child rearing and replace them with parenting strategies that are both rewarding for parents and beneficial to their child’s development

Workers are still discovering, with the aid of Aboriginal women how best to give support. So far what has been learned is that these women require, along with developmental information and practical strategies which all parents find useful:

  • therapeutic help to think about how their cultural and individual experiences might impact on their ability to care for their child
  • support to come to terms with past traumas and manage the effects of them, so that they are less likely to be re-enacted in their relationship with their child

DVD Package on the Effect of Substance Abuse on Parenting 2007

(please see our shop for information on how to obtain copies of this DVD)

PIFA 's work has revealed that engaging and supporting urban Aboriginal parents during the transition to parenthood requires innovative programs that can embrace not only issues which effect all new parents but also integrate the effects of past influences and cultural heritage.

The idea for this DVD came from Aboriginal women in our groups, who noted the lack of culturally appropriate, information on this topic.They wanted to develop a resource for other families to use around the time of birth to help them think about the impact of substance misuse on their babies develop strategies to make positive changes in their lives and the lives of their children.

Project Aims:

  • Train Aboriginal women in film making techniques
  • Support Aboriginal women in the City of Sydney to make positive links with the community
  • Develop a resource to help Aboriginal families think about issues of substance use and parenting and how to make positive changes for their children

Project Objectives

  • An experienced film maker worked alongside Aboriginal women in making a DVD for Aboriginal Families
  • A social worker/psychotherapist from PIFA worked with the group to help them think through their ideas, to debrief when necessary and support them emotionally
  • Aboriginal women who had been trained during the making of a previous package “Australian Dreaming – Being Pregnant”, mentored new recruits to the work group
  • Women in the group interviewed community members, assisted with the PR and the distribution of the package in the Sydney City area
  • The PIFA worker worked with the group to develop a DL flier to accompany the DVD
  • The package was launched in October 2007, and made available throughout the City of Sydney, NSW and Australia

Overview of Project

Substance misuse has been identified as a priority area in the NSW Aboriginal Family Health Strategy. Solutions to substance abuse are closely linked with solutions for family violence in much of the literature. Aboriginal women who attended our group programs at the Aboriginal Children’s Service and Murawina Aboriginal Child Care Centre identified substance misuse as a key factor affecting the lives of families and children in their communities.

Families in our Aboriginal programs often speak of an overwhelming and deep sense of powerlessness. This sense of powerlessness and experience of generational violence is often coped with by turning to alcohol and drugs. Research clearly shows that parents who are abusing substances have trouble balancing the needs of their children with their drug use. This causes problems for children of all ages but for infants whose brains are ‘experience dependent’ for development to occur, the long term results can be devastating.

The misuse of drugs and alcohol also fuels the feelings of powerlessness being turned outwards in the form of community and family violence. This is of particular importance in new families, since, ‘one experience of violence has been shown to be equivalent to a mother being on drugs for one month in its affect on the cortisol levels of a foetus’ (Quinlivan and Evans 2001). Family violence is now seen to be part of a spectrum that may account for Aboriginal infant mortality rates that are two to three times as high in the total population and the low birth weights that are more than twice as high for babies born to indigenous mothers than for babies born to non indigenous mothers’

The Parent Infant Foundation of Australia has had an ongoing partnership with the Aboriginal Children’s Service and Murawina Aboriginal Child Care Centre and the group working on this package was made up of Aboriginal women connected with both of these centres.

A PIFA worker and an experienced film maker worked alongside the Aboriginal women supporting them and training them in developing the DVD

Support via Early Childhood Education

Speech and Literacy Project at Wunanbiri Pre-School

Since it has been shown that the level of achievement in the early years of schooling has major implications for retention and attainment in later years, this project aims to ameliorate problems in early language development of indigenous children which would place them at distinct social and educational disadvantage during their early years in school and particularly in their transition to school at age 5.


    For Children in the Centre
  • Appropriate language development
  • Improved parent / child relationships
  • Improved self confidence
  • For Parents of Children in the Centre

  • Increased feelings of competency to help their children’s language development
  • Improvements in family relationships
  • For Childcare Staff

  • Feelings of increased competency to help children in the Centre who have issues with talking and understandingIncreased ability to understand literacy and speech development
  • In the Broader Professional Community

  • Increased understanding of the needs of urban aboriginal children around language development
  • Improved ability to offer evidence-based interventions


    A speech therapist visits the centre each fortnight to work with:
  • individual children - on their language development
  • parents - to teach and support them to help their children’s language development
  • childcare workers - to teach and support them to facilitate language development in children in their care
  • Findings from the project will be written up and disseminated via discussions with other Indigenous Childcare Centres, presenting at relevant conferences and possible publication

Expected Benefits and Outcomes

  • Assurance of a more positive transition to school due to greater confidence and ability to express themselves of the children directly involved with the speech therapist
  • More positive social outcomes for the children involved
  • Increased understanding of language development in the urban Indigenous community

Murawina Aboriginal Childcare Project (2004-2008)

    The purpose of this project was to:
  • deepen our understanding of a child and the child's family
  • create a program and action plan that will support both child and his/her
    parents / carers
  • follow up on that program with staff from both Murawina and PIFA.
  • The process was as follows:

    (1) A child who was of concern to the staff was chosen by Murawina
    workers .
    (2) A PIFA consultant talked to Murawina staff about the child, set up an infant observation with one of the staff in the room and homevisited the family on one or two occasions.
    (3) PIFA workers who were involved in the project facilitated a group at Murawina each Wednesday to discuss one of these cases.
    (4) Work plans were designed for the child and their family.

An example of a typical work plan:

  • A referral is made for parent or carer to one of the groups run in partnership with the Aboriginal Children’s Service
  • PIFA offers weekly home based support /counseling
  • Parents/carers are invited into the centre where PIFA and Murawina staff can talk with them and assist them with their management of their child
  • A staff person is be assigned to have special care of the child while they are in the centre and will be supported in this by supervision and support from a PIFA consultant
  • PIFA workers can be used to do observational and individual work with a particular child in the centre to report back to the Wednesday group meeting