Breathing Space is filling a service gap for young women whose support needs are largely disregarded after child removal, new research shows.

An evaluation of the pilot program, released today by Centacare Catholic Family Services and the Centre for Social Impact at Flinders University, recommends a scaling up of Breathing Space to allow more women to be supported.

The research details how the 18-month intervention delivers significant benefits across multiple life domains for participants and is associated with improvements in wellbeing, parenting capacity and self-determination.

In particular, the evaluation notes that four of the 12 participants who sustained engagement with Breathing Space were reunified with their children during the intervention, and reunification was at least partly attributable to the program’s supports.

One participant had another child during her intervention and the new baby remains in her care.

Launched by Centacare in late 2020 and funded by the Department of Human Services, Breathing Space works with women aged under 25 years who have experienced removal of a child or children from their care and are therefore at heightened risk of recurrent removal in the future.

The trauma-responsive therapeutic intervention – believed to be an Australian-first – delivers holistic, wraparound supports for women who have high complexity of need and present with a wide range of issues at intake.

These include the trauma, loss, grief and anger associated with the removal of their children, in addition to poor mental health, financial hardship, housing stress and homelessness, exposure to family and domestic violence and substance misuse.

Most participants have a history of trauma dating back to their own childhoods and have themselves spent time in out of home care placements as children.

“Breathing Space aims to disrupt the cycle of intergenerational trauma and child maltreatment,’’ Centacare Director Pauline Connelly said.

“Themes emerging from the evaluation include the multiple intersecting forms of disadvantage experienced by these women, and how their experience of child removal compounds previous trauma.’’

Commissioned by Centacare, the evaluation notes the rarity of programs for parents who have experienced the removal of a child, particularly in the Australian context, which makes the research especially important.

“The system’s failure to provide proper supports for young people with complex trauma who are experiencing challenging issues in their lives increases the likelihood they will find it difficult to parent safely and have their children removed,’’ writes evaluation author Dr Veronica Coram, Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact.

“An emerging theme from the Breathing Space evaluation is that even with program advocacy, systemic issues (notably inadequate supply of appropriate affordable housing, income support payments that leave people in poverty, and lack of effective affordable mental health supports) create substantial barriers to improving the lives of participants.’’

The evaluation details 13 recommendations and 14 key findings including Breathing Space’s role in offsetting broader systemic deficiencies in areas such as mental health, child protection, welfare, disability support and housing.

Dr Coram highlights how Breathing Space benefits women, children and society more broadly by reducing out of home care and child protection costs for government while keeping children with their parents where they are likely to achieve better long-term outcomes.

“Breathing Space participation was associated with a strengthening of the parenting identities and capacities of the young women, to the extent that a quarter of them were reunified with their children before exiting the program, and others reported developing more meaningful relationships with their children as a result of the program,’’ the report states.

“Enhanced parenting capacities were related to other improvement in the lives of Breathing Space participants, including a strong sense of self, greater resilience and coping skills, and feeling empowered to make better decisions for themselves and their children.’’

Key factors supporting Breathing Space’s positive outcomes for participants include “strong trusting relationships with staff, a trauma-responsive approach, integrated wraparound supports delivered by a multidisciplinary team, flexibility and responsiveness to individual need, and intensive therapy to unpack trauma.’’

The evaluation recommends Breathing Space should continue with appropriate resources to scale up to a caseload of 40 participants.

Charlotte’s story

(Extracted from the evaluation)

Charlotte (22) was referred to Breathing Space by the Department for Child Protection following the removal of her child due to concerns regarding unexplained physical injuries when the child was six months old.

Child Protective Services (CPS) had conducted a parenting capacity assessment and recommended the child be placed under the guardianship of the Minister until she turned 18. At the time of removal, Charlotte had no fixed address and was living with her child and partner between two different households. Charlotte was occasionally using marijuana prior to removal.

Charlotte was provided with an individualised and intensive therapeutic and practical intervention through Breathing Space from March 2021. Charlotte engaged with the case manager, senior practitioner, nurse and financial counsellor. After a period of homelessness, Charlotte and her partner obtained a private rental property and started engaging with Connecting Families to support increasing their parenting capacity. Charlotte also ceased marijuana use.

Breathing Space provided a range of supports for Charlotte. These included brokerage supports (food, furniture and household items); medical supports (doctors’ appointments, surgery, COVID-19 vaccination); contraceptive supports; financial supports (budgeting and debt negotiation); court supports (care and protection and reunification court); and therapeutic supports (therapeutic genogram, Narrative Exposure Therapy and Adult Exploration and Attachment Interviewing). Breathing Space also indirectly supported Charlotte’s partner to secure access to the Disability Support Pension, which improved the family’s financial situation.

In October 2021, Charlotte and her partner were granted 12-month orders and referred to the reunification court. In February 2022 Charlotte’s toddler was returned to the care of her and her partner, with DCP revoking the orders six months early. Charlotte is now enjoying many new experiences with her little girl, including first birthday parties, first Easter and first Mother’s Day celebrations.

SUPPORTING WOMEN: Breathing Space team members (from left) Tiani, Jessica, Jacki, Lynnette, Caz and Oakleigh.