Adelaide is a long way from Kakuma Refugee Camp in rural Kenya. The enormity of the journey Gabriel Arou took to find freedom is not lost on the Centacare Disability Support Worker who is sharing his story in the wake of Refugee Week.

Gabriel Arou was 11 when civil strife in South Sudan turned his life upside down.

“Every day we would look after animals, go bushwalking, fishing, but then, because of war, everything changed,’’ Gabriel says of growing up in the city of Bor, the capital of Jonglei State.

“People were being killed, attacked by gunmen. South Sudan was fighting for freedom.’’

With the once peaceful agricultural hub now an epicentre of conflict, Gabriel fled with his mother and sister across the River Nile.

The trio spent the next six years in camps for displaced people, sheltering from the escalating political violence that would ultimately destroy millions of homes and livelihoods.

“Each time a town was attacked, we would have to flee,’’ Gabriel says.

When the family became separated, Gabriel settled at Kakuma Refugee Camp, established in Kenya in 1991 to provide basic shelter for registered refugees and asylum seekers, primarily from South Sudan and Ethiopia.

Food shortages, malnutrition and illnesses were high in Kakuma where water and food were strictly rationed.

Amidst the hardship in his overcrowded surrounds, Gabriel says he found hope in the kindness of strangers.

“I was supported by people I didn’t know through the UN agency, UNHCR. They were donating food, medicine, and sending it to the camp out of goodwill,’’ he says.

The donors’ compassion remained a driving force for Gabriel after he arrived in South Australia, with his sister, on humanitarian grounds in 2003.

“I was inspired by the help I had along the way,’’ he says. “I said to myself, if other people can help, then I can too.’’

Driven to give back to community as strangers had for him, Gabriel joined Centacare as a disability support worker in 2018.

“I know my help means a lot to the clients,’’ he says. “I am making a difference in their lives and that is very important to me because of the help I received from people who expected nothing in return.’’

At Xavier House, a supported accommodation site in Elizabeth East, Gabriel assists two men with intellectual disabilities to hone their independent living skills and build social and community connections.

On the back of Refugee Week, his message to others facing challenges in their lives is never give up.

“Have hope because God opens the way for people,’’ Gabriel says.

“I know when I was in Kakuma, I never thought it would be possible to come to Australia. The only thing I knew about Australia was kangaroos which I’d seen in a book when I was a teenager.

“But Adelaide is home for me now and is the place I can support my family and others through my work.’’

The legacy of childhood trauma and its subconscious impact throughout generations is revealed in a new paper which charts the journeys of two fathers as they work towards safe reunification with their children.

The paper, Using the Adult Exploration of Attachment Interview (AEAI) to break the cycle of Intergenerational Trauma: Illustrations from a Family Reunification Program by Centacare staff Dr Jackie Amos, Bryony Gibson, Bryan Todd and Sam Carpenter, highlights the role therapeutic reunification work can play in breaking the intergenerational transmission of neglect and abuse in households where the parents’ own early experiences have compromised parenting.

Published in The Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, the paper follows two fathers – Gary* and Peter* – whose children were placed in care due to serious concerns for their safety.

The case studies demonstrate how the use of Adult Exploration of Attachment Interview therapy, when integrated closely with social casework, helped each father to address the causes of behaviour and psychological distress that had caused their children to be unsafe.

This trauma-responsive therapy is used by Centacare’s reunification service, to explore how parents’ experiences of trauma in their childhood can impact their parenting out of conscious awareness. This can empower parents to use their learning as a resource for change.

The reunification service (now known as Unify) is funded by the Department for Child Protection to support families to address the concerns that led to the removal of children so that they can safely return to their birth family, without statutory oversight.

“In families that come into contact with the child protection system, trauma is a common theme behind almost all safety concerns,’’ said Sam Carpenter, Manager, Unify Family Reunification Services.

“The involvement of the system can often compound this by shaming parents for the symptoms of their trauma and unintentionally denying children opportunities to heal alongside their parents; allowing the pattern to repeat in the next generation.

“This paper shows that working with families in a therapeutic, trauma-responsive way can directly address the root cause of safety concerns and provide opportunities to break the cycle. 

“For both families, the outcome was more nurturing and safe parenting, relationship repair and safe return of children who may have otherwise spent their childhood in the care system, with a likely higher risk of their own future children also experiencing harm.”

Gary’s story

Gary was referred to Centacare six months after his third child was removed from he and his partner’s care at birth after experiencing withdrawal symptoms having been born affected by illicit substances.

The report documents the rupture of Gary’s relationship with his father, who had a disability, and how reconnecting with his mother marked the beginning of his interpersonal trauma in early adolescence.

Gary was introduced to drugs and was the victim of sexual exploitation. His mother and stepfather enabled the abuse in exchange for cheaper supplies of illicit drugs. Gary began using substances regularly from age 14, resulting in addiction and associated criminal activity.

The report states that through AEAI, Gary formed an understanding of the vulnerabilities that can lead to poor parenting and was able to “feel some empathy for himself and his failure to look after his children’’ which enabled him to identify how his parenting affected them.

“The awareness of his own enduring and painful loneliness slowly translated into Gary becoming more emotionally available and actively engaged with his son and his needs,’’ the report states.

Gary was reunified with his son 10 months after engaging with Centacare.

Peter’s story

Peter’s two children, aged two and three, were removed due to him perpetrating domestic violence against their mother and his wife. Additional concerns included mental health issues and drug and alcohol misuse.

The report states that his children’s trauma was exacerbated by frequent care placement changes and that they displayed behaviour issues including hoarding food, emotional withdrawal and tantrums.

Initially, Peter had limited insight into how his violent behaviour affected his children. On one occasion, he broke every window in the family’s home while they were inside.

The AEAI was used to explore Peter’s capacity for empathy by drawing on examples from his own childhood.

“When Peter was able to see the impact of his father’s behaviour on him as a child, through the lens of being a child again, he could then see the impact of his adult behaviour on his own children.

“Although this insight brought Peter face-to-face with the devastating fact that head had harmed his own children and continued the traumatic cycle that he had wished to avoid, he was able to use this awareness constructively in interactions with his son.’’

Peter’s children had been out of his care for 23 months at the time of full reunification.

Breaking the cycle

The paper evidences the value of introducing trauma-responsive interventions in other family-based support services to increase access to supports for “very vulnerable and traumatised families’’ and help lessen the load on the child protection system by making long-term care a genuine last resort for children who experience harm.

“Centacare’s Children’s Services Unit is privileged to have Dr Amos’ work as the basis of our Therapeutic Framework as it inspires our staff to believe safe parenting is possible within severely traumatised families,’’ Sam said.

“This paper helps to shine a light on this framework as a different way of working with families in child protection that really works. The outcomes for these two families are not unique and they give hope that childhood trauma does not need to be an ongoing life sentence.”

The paper can be accessed via http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/anzf.1490

Centacare launched its 80th year with a focus on sustainability at a special forum held at the Otherway Centre last month.

The event doubled as the Managers’ Commissioning Ceremony, with Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide Patrick O’Regan joining Centacare Director Pauline Connelly and Deputy Director Leanne Haddad in welcoming staff to their leadership roles.

The forum is held annually in the tradition of mission, accomplishment, and encouragement with an emphasis on compassion, kindness, integrity, and inclusivity.

“In the midst of our business, we do not often get a chance to step back and see the results of our input and influence or see have we have been shaped and how we have grown,’’ Pauline said.

“With our teams we plan, and we build on ideas and experiences gleaned from reflecting on the past and looking to the future, and once a year it is good to stop and remember why we are here.’’

Staff were gifted native seedlings ahead of a sustainability workshop – based on Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ – which was delivered by Sarah Moffatt, Catholic Archdiocese Director of Pastoral Life and Mission, and Peter Beirer, Assistant Director.

It’s never weak to speak! On the contrary, it takes courage to ask for help.

That’s the message from Centacare’s Eric Cruz in Men’s Health Week (MHW).

The newly appointed R U OK? Ambassador is on a mission to build understanding, connection and confidence in males of all ages so that they feel comfortable to seek support for struggles in life.

“Mental health for men has always been taboo, and men asking for help is too often seen as weakness,’’ Eric said.

“This must change.’’ 

Building healthy environments for men and boys in the home, workplace and social settings is the focus of MHW, a global campaign promoted annually in June.

Having experienced his own mental health challenges, Eric, a foster care Recruitment and Assessment Officer, knows what a difference speaking up can make.

“I found there was a real gap in services for males to access help,’’ he said.

“Building healthy environments and normalising discussions around mental health from a young age is hugely important because it can help to close that gap.

“It takes courage to speak up but knowing there are people around you who will listen and support you through life’s ups and downs is a source of comfort and confidence.’’

Eric’s passion for mental health led him to undertake the R U OK? Community Ambassador Program. He has joined a network of R U OK? Ambassadors with lived experience from across Australia to initiate conversations about mental health and suicide prevention.

“It’s an important role and I hope that I can continue to start conversations and help to lead change in society where it’s not weak to speak.’’

Statistics show that boys suffer more illness, more accidents and dier earlier than their female counterparts.

Men take their own lives at four times the rate of women, while accidents, cancer, and heart disease all account for the majority of male deaths.

Understanding Early Trauma is the global theme of Infant Mental Health Awareness Week (June 13-19) which aims to start conversations about an often overlooked and misunderstood subject.

Nathan* was identified as a high-risk baby in utero, due to his mother’s drug use and unstable living situation.

Born premature, he was removed from his family at birth and placed with a Centacare Foster Care immediate care household, while his mother sought stable accommodation and therapeutic support.

At two months, Nathan was transitioned to a reunification specialist short-term carer in the hope he would one day return home, as his mother was making progress towards a safe environment.

Small and underweight for his age, Nathan was clingy and became easily distressed if his carer walked away.

Now aged one, he continues to struggle with separation anxiety, but has gained weight and is learning to talk.

Nathan’s specialist reunification carer provides guidance and support to his mother, who he visits four times a week, as they work towards successful reunification.

While Nathan’s story is unique, the complex trauma that underpins his early start in life sadly is not.

Of all the children that Centacare reunified with their families during this financial year, half were infants, and all have experienced some form of trauma – such as domestic abuse, parental drug use and neglect – before the age of two.

Understanding Early Trauma is the global theme of Infant Mental Health Awareness Week (June 13-19) which aims to raise awareness and community understanding of the consequences of trauma in the early years, and how it can lead to difficulties later in life.

Centacare Foster Care Manager Amalie Mannik says the week unites professionals and organisations around the world and highlights the buffering impact healthy relationships can provide infants.

A large part of this is raising awareness of the profound impact that trauma experienced during utero can have on an infant’s mental health.  

In Centacare’s case, Amalie highlights the role specialist reunification foster carers play in changing the early childhood trajectory of babies like Nathan.

“The perception that trauma doesn’t impact babies because they are too young to understand, or hear and feel what’s going on, absolutely is incorrect,’’ she says.

“We see the impact early trauma has on infants every day. If it’s not responded to therapeutically, and if the attachment between child and adult is not built, the resulting pain-based behaviours will only get worse and continue throughout the baby’s childhood.’’

A quiet infant, for example, can speak volumes about their silent struggle, explains Amalie.

“A baby might be described as a good baby on paper because they never cry, but that’s actually very concerning,’’ she says.

“It tells us they have learned that crying out won’t help them and that they are resigned to not having their basic needs met, so they stop trying to communicate what they need – a clean nappy, sleep, nurturing cuddles, food, clothing.

“We might see babies with sores or who are developmentally delayed and have different health issues, or babies that won’t settle or give you eye contact because they haven’t experienced a secure attachment with an adult.’’

To support sustained healing from adverse childhood experiences, Centacare foster carers work within a therapeutic care team framework.

This wraps support around the infant’s parents – many of whom have their own history of childhood trauma – to increase parenting capacity and forge familial bonds.

Part of the specialist carer’s role is to establish regular positive contact with parents and then co-regulate with the infant post-contact, to ensure repair work after potential trauma triggers and assist them in developing a sense of safety.

“Trauma always has an imprint and quite often it’s reactivated through smells and visuals,’’ Amalie said.

“By bringing a baby back to the family where they did experience the trauma, the carer lets the baby know that they are safe through that process. The carer co-regulates with the child after family contact to help them develop coping mechanisms and a secure attachment with their parent.’’

Centacare has emerged as state leader in the foster care sector for its reunification model, therapeutic framework, and specialised training packages for reunification carers, based on Dr Jacqueline Amos’ thesis When wounds from infancy collide, The mother child relationship as trauma, trigger and treatment.

The therapeutic framework not only informs practice, but is embedded across all facets of the program, including policy and procedure.

“We have observed when foster carers provide infants with predictable, warm, nurturing and emotionally attuned responses, the infant thrives, goes on to develop trusting relationships and starts to view themselves as worthy of love and belonging,’’ says Alicia Remedios, Training and Review Officer.

“Our teams highly skilled practitioners support carers with providing attuned responses that communicate unconditional acceptance and curiosity for the infant’s inner world which further leads to improved mental and emotional wellbeing of the infant and changes their trajectory – now and in the future.’’

*Not his real name

Alicia Remedios and Amalie Mannik see the impact of early childhood trauma regularly
in their roles with Centacare Foster Care.

The two-day Holi festival does much more than bathe India in colour – it spreads hope around the world, writes Alicia Remedios.

Holi is one of the most significant festivals for Hindus and is celebrated by people of different faiths in India. Growing up as a non-Hindu in India, I learned that the festival had a deep religious importance to my Hindu friends and their families.

Holi signifies triumph of good over evil and marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring and new life.

Traditionally, a bonfire is lit the night before Holi to start the festivities.

These continue the next day and involve tossing fistfuls of coloured powder and buckets of water at one another, gorging on delicious food and dancing to drums and traditional music.

For me, Holi has always symbolised the spirit of unity in diversity, the strengthening of friendships and the sheer joy and glee it brought to my childhood.

I have vivid memories of the morning of Holi and filling up water balloons with my friends, prepping our pichkaris (water guns) and making sure we had sufficient coloured powder to throw in the air and at each other.

I especially enjoyed the delicious malpuas (fluffy pancakes served as a snack or dessert) my close Bengali friend’s mum would make.

The day ended with a hearty meal shared with neighbourhood children and their families and some much-needed rest after a long day of fun!

Holi will be observed March 17-18.

Alicia is a Training and Review Officer with Centacare Foster Care.

Picture: Bartosz Hadyniak

Foster Care Manager Amalie Mannik explains why her Estonian folk dress is a nod to the decorative beauty of traditions passed down by generations.

My folk costume is called pühalepa and originates from Hiiumaa (translates to Hiiu Island).

The blouse and apron, and their intricate embroidery, were handstitched by my great-grandmother Jenny Ülesoo.

Vilma Beier, an Estonian craftswoman woman in Adelaide, now deceased, made my headpiece from wool she shore from her sheep (rastas). Mine is an open head `maiden’s’ piece which indicates I’m not married. Married women wear the head piece with a red cloth underneath to differentiate their relationship status.

Vilma also wove the wool for my skirt on her loom. I layer this with a silver coin belt, crafted by Jaan Kirk, an old family friend.

Brooches are said to protect the wearer from spirits. Six rubies adorn my silver brooch passed down to me by my grandmother Mälle Mannik.

When I wear my Estonian folk dress, I feel proud to be passing on traditions of Estonian culture to my daughter’s Eevi and Silvi, who strongly identify with their Estonian heritage.

It also provides one with the overwhelming urge to dance!

Danica Davidson has lived most of her life searching for her cultural identity. Despite years of struggle, she has never lost hope that one day she will find a sense of self and place.

Danica Davidson has embarked on an all-consuming quest to find her ancestry and, in turn, herself.

For years she has struggled to gain a sense of identity and place due to limited information about her family’s roots in Broome, Western Australia.

Part of the Stolen Generation, Danica’s father was separated from his five siblings when authorities arrived one day to take them away.

“He was only days old when his brothers and sisters got removed,” Danica said.

“Dad was small enough to be hidden in a box and he was put in the back of a car with an Aunty who travelled out of Broome.”

Left behind was Danica’s grandfather who she said was forced to sign a statutory declaration to deny his Aboriginality in order to move to Ceduna, where he believed his children had been taken. He never saw them again, and died in 2001.

Danica desperately wants to know more about her grandfather and his mob but unearthing clues is a slow and painful process.

“That would be a massive piece of the puzzle,” she said “but I have asked my family questions and no one has any information.”

“Certain parts of my life have been put on hold as I don’t feel like I can move forward until I know the where, when, what, who, and why.”

It was not until Danica joined Northern Carers Network six years ago and began working alongside Aboriginal Elders, that her quest to know more became all-consuming.

She said her role as Aboriginal Community Development Officer had given her the confidence to embrace the heritage she was taught to reject as a child.

“The Elders I met and a few of the workers drove me to find out more about my ancestors, beliefs, religion and culture,” she said.

Part of her role is to coordinate Kindred Spirits, a program supporting Nunga families to develop safe and nurturing homes.

“I believe that each and every day I spend helping someone in the community is also helping me piece my life story together,” Danica said.

“Sometimes when I’m out in the community, when I announce my grandfather’s name, a few Elders are aware of him.

“I still feel I don’t know who I am.

I know I am a proud Aboriginal woman but from where and from whom I don’t know. I haven’t declared my Aboriginality because I want more information.”

Danica said her quest is as much for her own children and “grandies” as it is for herself.

“I want my grandchildren to know who they are and their background by the time they’re adults, and that their nanna researched it for them,” she said.

“To be able to sit my kids down and say `this is my journey’ and teach them would be everything.”

February 13 marked the 14th anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations.

Get in touch with Northern Carers Network on (08) 8228 8900.

Each year, Harmony Week (March 21-27) is marked by a week-long celebration of Australia’s cultural diversity. It’s about inclusiveness, respect, safety, and a sense of belonging for everyone.

At Centacare, our work is enriched by the origins, stories, colour and traditions of many different cultures which together make us stronger.

Throughout Harmony Week, we will be sharing some of the staff stories published in our internal newsletter, Culture Hub, an initiative of the Cultural Competence Committee to celebrate our collective identity.

First up, let’s meet Milijana Stojadinovic.

Enriched by diversity

Time has taught Milijana Stojadinovic to embrace her Serbian heritage.

Growing up, the first generation Australian pushed her ethnicity away after experiencing covert racism which led her to question her identity.

In her new role managing headspace Port Adelaide, Milijana hopes to use her experiences of “othering” to help young people who are feeling misunderstood as they grapple with their own cultural fabric.

“Having a name like Milijana Stojadinovic, my cultural background wasn’t something I could ever run away from, but I tried very hard to,” she said.

“I shortened my name to Mill and didn’t speak my language. I really pushed my culture away; it was something I was quite ashamed of.”

It wasnt until her early 20s that Milijana embraced her Serbian roots while studying social work and writing a thesis on migrants’ experiences of living in Australia.

“Doing my thesis helped me understand a little bit more why I felt the way I did as a young kid,” she said.

“It wasn’t a rejection of culture as such, it was a rejection of being treated like the `other’.

“I don’t feel like that anymore. I feel like I belong and that I’ve found my place.

“I do see myself as Australian, deeply, but I’m also an ethnic kid with strong ties back to my country of origin, language and cultural traditions.

“That’s my point of difference in the work I do with young people who are of different ethnicity but who have that affinity with me.

“I find that my relationships are really enriched by that commonality, and that point of difference, because they are on a similar journey realising where they fit too.”

A mental health social worker and mother-of-one, Milijana is acutely aware of the ways that cultural diversity influences conversations about mental health, how it is perceived and understood, and the impact of stress associated with migration and the readjustment into new cultures.

“I think it’s important for everyone to ask themselves questions and think about where there might be bias internally and where that bias comes from,” she said.

“Be ready to challenge it, and ask others questions too, but from a point of curiosity, not nosiness.

“Get conversations started.”

Centacare has partnered with community housing provider Housing Choices Australia and Aboriginal Sobriety Group on an innovative new project to prevent young people falling into homelessness after exiting out-of-home care.

Funded by the Department for Child Protection, the $2.7 million Next Steps pilot will provide young adults aged between 17 to 21 years on long-term guardianship orders with a direct pathway into low cost accommodation across metropolitan Adelaide.

A multidisciplinary trauma-informed care team will support participants to maintain tenancy and address complex challenges in their lives as they transition to independence.

Research shows young people leaving out-of-home care are at increased risk of homelessness, substance misuse and contact with the criminal justice system, and are more likely to have poorer health, education and employment outcomes.

Understanding participants’ child protection history and the ongoing impact of underlying trauma is a key focus of Next Steps. The model focuses on the foundation of trauma responsive practice and is underpinned by a therapeutic framework designed and implemented by child and adolescent psychiatrist and specialist therapist, Dr Jackie Amos. 

Participants will receive 1:1 therapeutic support to strengthen identity, agency and build life skills.

“Young people leaving residential care face many barriers as they transition into adulthood without family support,’’ said Megan Welsh, Executive Manager – Domestic Violence and Youth Homelessness Services.

“They may have high and complex needs that impact their capacity to live independently and impede their ability to enter and sustain their own tenancy.

“We don’t want to see them cycling in and out of homelessness – we want to see them settled in community and engaged in employment or education with a strong sense of place and belonging.’’

In the first two years, Next Steps will initially settle up to 20 young people in city HCA housing, with on-site access to medical, dental and mental health services.

“As a social housing provider with a long history of working with young people, we are excited to be a part of this collaborative model that digs deeper to build independence and life goals,’’ said Julie Duncan, General Manager, South Australia, HCA.

Centacare will provide wraparound support through therapeutic case workers, a financial counsellor, clinical nurse, and youth workers. Linked into this team will be a dedicated youth tenancy officer based at HCA.

An educator from Centacare’s Registered Training Organisation will support each young person to identify language, literacy and numeracy needs and offer pathways into foundation skills, where required.

“The model recognises that for many young people leaving care, early relationship templates can remain an unhelpful influence in their transition to adulthood, and many young people’s journey through the care system may not provide opportunities to address these influences therapeutically,’’ Megan said.

“Centacare believes that integrating therapeutic principles will provide the best opportunity for young people to overcome these challenges and maximise their potential.’’

ASG, through its expertise as an Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation, will provide cultural support and consultancy, and a much-needed lens and way of practice when working with young Aboriginal people.

“Cultural connection and support for many young Aboriginal people exiting care is vital. Working with our community networks, we are looking forward to helping create a sense of cultural belonging for those young people that seek it,’’ said Susie Andricic, CEO, Aboriginal Sobriety Group.

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