Deb has worked in child protection for nearly two decades. Seven of her nine years at Centacare have been spent with the multidisciplinary Targeted Intervention Service (TIS), which supports families with children aged 0 to 18 years where early child wellbeing and/or safety risk factors have been identified. The onset of COVID-19 magnified the cumulative effect of families’ experiences, while demanding a new approach from Deb and the TIS team.
When COVID-19 took hold in March sending South Australia into lockdown, Deb wound back the clock.
For the Targeted Intervention Service (TIS) Case Manager, the challenges the new normal presented were an unexpected throwback to the 1990s, when she hit the road in a motorhome with her family to explore Australia.
From the rigors of overseeing School of the Air for her children, to keeping them entertained with limited space and resources, the mother-of-two well knew what families were now facing.
“It really took me back to that time; I’d been there and played that role, so I just started to think of what I’d done then to create fun, excitement and a fulfilling learning experience – and what families could do now,’’ she said.
With frontlines locked down by the health pandemic and Centacare staff required to work from home, Deb packed a “grab tub’’ of storybooks, strengths cards, recipes and music, and left her Murray Bridge office with a plan.
It began with a daily “check-in’’ call to each of the four families she was supporting, which were scattered across Murray Bridge and Strathalbyn.
Ordinarily, TIS provides critical face-to-face in-home supports to build rapport with families, in order to affect long-term change.
But COVID-19 called for a different approach.
“They could easily have shut us out at that point because we weren’t going to be there in person every week, so I knew I would need to dig deep for creativity to keep up the motivational interviewing and create change in families from the end of the phone,’’ Deb said.
Her daily calls soon became much more than just a conversation.
With the added benefit of Zoom, Deb used voice and video calls to instigate everything from gardening to baking, vegie growing, backyard science lessons, home clean-ups, and three-way school conferences to allay families’ fears.
“I found speaking from the heart with families helped to normalise the abnormal among us at a time when each day presented new challenges,’’ Deb said.
She used her own surrounds to inspire creativity in parents daunted by home-schooling, starting with the garden outside her home office.
“I’d turn my phone around so they could see my container planting, and that was good because it became `do as I do’.
“One mum got her kids growing carrots from seeds and I’d message web links on how to grow plants from cuttings.
“Another mum loved to cook so I dropped her off some supplies and we turned baking into a school lesson.
“The kids were out dancing and playing and they’d show me their bedrooms. We’d have races to see who could clean up their room first and then we’d read stories.
“We organised skip bins, and I could hear the excitement in their voices each day as they told me which rooms they’d tackled and what they were going to do next.’’
Steadily, Deb heard families grow in confidence and resilience.
“Through the phone and video calls, they learnt to talk things through, rather than just going into the panic of what things looked like for them,’’ she said.
“To hear the way they started to communicate with their children, and how they used that to make constructive change, it was pretty amazing seeing that transition.’’
In National Child Protection Week, Deb would like families to recognise they are not alone.
She said COVID-19 had reinforced the value of accepting help, even from a distance, and the importance of family and staying connected.
“Parents think they have to do it alone but the old saying that it takes a community to raise a child is really true; let people in and learn together,’’ Deb said.
“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by in this job that I don’t learn something from the families that I work with. It doesn’t matter what it is, if you’re learning, the day’s not wasted.’’
National Child Protection Week (September 6-12) is celebrating 30 years with the theme `Putting children first’. This means prioritising the safety and wellbeing of children. To grow up well, children need to feel safe and loved, have a chance to play and explore, have a say in decisions that affect them, and have access to essential things such as food, shelter and healthcare.