Sam Carpenter has heard in painful detail the countless stories of families who have had their children removed.

Some days bring back faces from the past – adults he first met as at-risk children years ago while working in the Department for Child Protection.

Now parents themselves, they have experienced the removal of their own children, and have been referred to Centacare for support by the Department.

Breaking this generational cycle is what drives Sam, Manager of Reunification Services, and his team as they work to reconnect parents and children who are living in out-of-home care.

“Seeing what they achieve under circumstances that we couldn’t even imagine is truly inspiring,’’ he says.

In some cases, the children have only recently come in to care, while others have lived apart from their families for many years under long-term court orders, often sought with the aim of creating certainty and stability for children.

“When you see children who are 16 and they have never lived with their parents but they want to return home, you see how the drive and desire to be with their family never goes away,’’ Sam says.

“That goes to show how important this work is, whether they’ve been in care for a decade or for just a few weeks.’’

Currently, Centacare is providing intensive therapeutic support to 37 families across two reunification programs.

While Centacare Reunification Service works with children in short-term care, the pilot Adolescent Reunification Program provides specialist support, offered over 12 months, to young people aged 11 to 17 years. Some may have never lived at home or been removed very early in life.

The program is being independently evaluated by Professor Paul Delfabbro at the University of Adelaide.

In 2018/2019, Centacare has successfully reunified 61 children and young people with their birth families.

The team works closely with Children’s Services Unit Lead Therapist Dr Jackie Amos and the therapeutic model described in her thesis ‘When Wounds from Infancy Collide’ strongly influences the team’s approach to families and working assumptions.

“We always assume those we are working with want to be together; that parents want to be a good parent to their children and that all children want a close relationship with their birth parent,’’ Sam says.

“We walk alongside the birth parent and offer empathy and understanding so that we can try and better understand the reasons why it might not have presented that way to the system.’’

Each family is facing a range of challenges but trauma is a common thread. Often this is manifested in drug and alcohol use, domestic violence and mental health issues.

“Trauma is frequently what gets in the way of them being the parent they want to be to their children,’’ Sam says.

“We try and get to the heart of someone’s trauma because we want to make long-term sustainable change and stop the cycle”.

This is the basis of the Adult Exploration of Attachment Interview (AEAI), a therapeutic intervention frequently used by Dr Amos and the Reunification team.

“What did they learn about being a child from their own caregivers? What did they learn about being a parent? When that is brought into consciousness they can then make a decision: What elements of that do they want to take into their parenting now, and what do they want to do differently?’’

It’s a powerful but painful process which has achieved numerous successful outcomes and fits with the team’s commitment to working therapeutically, using a strengths perspective, and to confronting intergenerational trauma.

The process has proven that positive parenting templates can be found and drawn upon, even in people with the most significant trauma histories.

The team’s approach is flexible according to the needs of each family and can include counselling, education, parenting skill development, regular home visiting and supporting family contact.

“ We never minimise risk for the child or young person, and we never look at people with rose coloured glasses,’’ Sam says.

“But we do focus on the resilience the families have shown in their life, rather than where they’ve gone wrong”.

The team’s experience working with adolescents returning home after experiencing a lack of stability over many years in the care system is a constant reminder of the importance of believing in families and giving them every opportunity to provide safe care.

“To say a young person needs to be in long-term care because their parents have not been able to do what they needed to in a particular time frame is a fair enough statement to make in a vacuum but we don’t live in a vacuum.’’

Centacare’s reunification programs are based at Seaton. Assistance is available for families across metropolitan Adelaide and in regional South Australia (for Adolescent Reunification), where Centacare works with partner agencies to deliver services.

The facts

  • Reunification is the planned process of reconnecting children and young people in out-of-home care with their families.
  • The Reunification Service works in a flexible, coordinated and collaborative way with families, the Department for Child Protection and other service providers to strengthen family relationships, improve the wellbeing of children, young people and parents and assist families to adjust as their children return home.
  • All work with families is done in the best interests of the child and with the child at the centre of case planning.
  • Families are referred by the Department for Child Protection.
  • Parents need to consent to working with Centacare and to become actively involved in the reunification process.