THE challenges and rewards of working on the frontline of child protection, homelessness, domestic violence and other community services were explored at Centacare’s inaugural Rural and Regional Conference last Friday.
The event at the National Wine Centre brought together staff from Whyalla, the Riverland, Murray Bridge and Mount Gambier for a day of professional development and workshops led by clinical psychologists, Dr Donna Kite and Chris Connelly.
Professional and personal experiences, and the unique ethical issues that arise from working in regional, rural and remote locations, shaped discussions throughout the day.
Staff highlighted the positive impact of community connectedness, creativity, collaboration, and spirit but said this was often offset by challenges, such as limited resources, conservatism, black holes in technology, geographical isolation, limited access to specialist services, and difficulties recruiting staff and sourcing local training.
Also, there was often community confusion when programs ceased and funding providers changed, affecting how and where some services were delivered.
Travel, lack of workers’ privacy due to their high visibility in small communities and the ethical dilemmas this posed were other reoccurring themes.
“We have to constantly be upskilling due to a lack of specialist services in regional areas, so we keep looking in our professional tool kits for what we can add because we know there are limited options,’’ Donna said.
“You walk a fine line in the country areas and the longer you are there the more complex that becomes because professional and social boundaries become completely blurred.’’
“The way we navigate that,’’ said Chris, “is to look for supervision as a learning experience and an important element of self-care.’’
Personally, staff said the lower cost of living, camaraderie, the resourcefulness and resilience of regional communities, scenery, and quick commute to work were positives.
However, planning for and responding to environmental dangers, such as catastrophic bushfires, took a professional and personal toll.
Centacare Assistant Director Pauline Connelly, who organised the conference, said it was important that staff knew “our support does not stop at Gepps Cross’’.
“I wanted to have a time where you could experience feeling really valued and be acknowledged for the work that you do, and for the geographical environments you live in and the challenges inherent to those,’’ she said.
REGIONAL CASE STUDIES
- Five-hour drive to Adelaide
- Located on the South Australian and Victorian border
- Services cover 22,000 square kilometres and 66,000 people across seven local government regions
- More closely populated than other parts of SA
Centacare runs the Limestone Coast Domestic Violence and Homelessness Service, based in Mount Gambier.
Manager Susie Smith says the tyranny of distance coupled with policy change, and a lack of specialist DV services and perpetrator programs in the lower South East and outlying areas, is challenging the way frontline workers respond to clients.
This is simultaneously exposing inequities between metropolitan and regional funding and service design, as rural case managers are spread thin across large distances with increasing workloads and a strain on resources.
The scaling back of women’s health services in remote areas over recent years, and the focus on primary health care at the expense of health promotion, has impeded community connectivity.
This has affected the opportunity for victims living in isolation to identify as being at risk of DV and therefore the ability of frontline workers to respond to and support them.
When a case manager can’t meet victims in person, they Skype, email or coordinate phone hook-ups, sometimes in neutral locations. By partnering with other agencies such as South Australian Police (SAPOL), Families SA, Housing SA and community members, Centacare can create a broader support network for clients.
Susie says the Limestone Coast’s close proximity to Victoria brings other challenges, including:
- Increased demand from women fleeing interstate
- Intervention Orders (SA) and Family Violence Intervention Orders (VIC) are not legally binding once the border is crossed therefore increasing the risk for women and allowing perpetrators the freedom to continue to abuse
- Greater need for staff to be cognisant of interstate resources/laws/legal processes
“Women in rural areas are at higher risk of DV, and death caused by DV, due to isolation and other factors,’’ Susie says.
“There is a lack of other general welfare/mental health/drug and alcohol services in metropolitan Mount Gambier and there are no services in outlying regions or public transport to towns such as Bordertown, Keith, Kingston, Robe, Beachport, Millicent, Naracoorte and Penola.
“This poses staff retention challenges due to the increased risk to clients which, coupled with decreased resources, can result in a higher propensity for coronial, legal investigations, as well as the sheer inability to respond to a level that is a given in metropolitan services.
“The misunderstanding, or non-understanding, of the rural context by metropolitan-based services can sometimes disempower rural workers.’’
“We have incredibly solid working relationships with other service providers who truly understand the context of working in the region,’’ Susie says.
“This gives rise to a high level of collaboration and service integration that is often held up as a good working model by government policy makers.’’
Other positives include:
- Increased autonomy, scope for creativity (resource permitting)
- Life/work balance
- Little or no commute times
- Community – living in a very supportive, giving, resilient, positive community of like-minded people
- Cultural growth
- Leisure activities and easy access to beaches, bushwalking, bike trails, river boating, river and sea fishing and water skiing. Easy drive to the airport and close proximity to other tourism destinations, such as the Great Ocean Road and Grampians.
“Yep, I think I want to stay!’’ Susie says.
- Located 396km northwest of Adelaide
- Largest city in the Upper Spencer Gulf region
- Founded in 1901 as the town of Hummock Hill and renamed Whyalla in 1914
Centacare’s Whyalla Regional Domestic Violence Service (WRDVS) is a DCSI accredited Specialist Homelessness Service and preferred support provider for a range of programs designed to assist women and children who have, or are experiencing, domestic or Aboriginal family violence.
The WRDVS Crisis Housing Program provides accommodation and assistance for woman and children, but the safety and privacy of service users and staff needs constant attention.
“One of the challenges is accessing training, specific to our service delivery sector,’’ Manager John Rademaker says.
“The majority of training opportunities are delivered in the city by metropolitan agencies or departments. This provides a challenge not only in the logistics of transport and accommodation but also for a small team, as we are unable to send everyone because frontline staff are needed to deliver our services.
“As the lone provider of a crisis service, we are also unable to `close’ the office for the day to allow all staff to attend. So that means some miss out (particularly where training may only be delivered once a year).
“Sure, those staff that do attend can provide feedback to the other staff, but this is not as effective as attending the training in person. Also, SKYPE training is only as good as the broadband infrastructure that is available, which is spotty at best. Maybe the NBN will improve this, but we are still waiting for the rollout.’’
John says the high visibility of frontline workers and lack of privacy means balancing professional and personal relationships can be tricky.
“We all shop at the same shops, go to the same venues and sporting events.
“While the team are very clear around their professional boundaries, sometimes the people we support are not as aware of these boundaries. They will often take the opportunity to use the `chance’ meeting in the supermarket as an impromptu counselling session or to air a grievance.
“Staff members are very professional and polite in redirecting these engagements to a more location during work hours.’’
While Whyalla is a large urban/industrial town with a diverse range of social and health services, John says there is a lack of specialist services and accessing those that do exist, is difficult.
“Visiting specialists from Adelaide are booked in advance and are usually only in the community for a brief time. We use our generalist practice skills to manage clients while they wait for these services.
“If a young person living in Whyalla wishes to seek support from Headspace in Port Augusta, they need transport.’’