The role of agency: Understanding children’s safety in the context of family violence

Anita MorrisAnita Morris from the University of Melbourne, presented the findings of her PhD thesis.

What do we currently know about children experiencing family violence?

Undoubtedly it has a negative impact on children’s physical, emotional and psychological well-being but some children appear to have a certain level of resilience compared to others.

Anita’s research fills the gap in family violence research by bringing the voice of the children forward.

The study was based on the question ‘How is safety realised in the context of family violence?’

Anita scaled her participants on a scale from “Vulnerable and Unsafe” to “Safe”

Towards the vulnerable and unsafe end participants reported; forced or intrusive contact with the perpetrator, poverty, substance abuse, poor maternal physical earth, child sexual abuse, chronic mental health/trauma effects, limited informal supports and the role of formal interventions.

Some participants had positive experiences with interventions (relief etc) but for others it had caused unease or worry.

Key Finding: Mothers and children lacked agency for the above reasons.

What does agency mean?

Anita explored different aspects of agency through the interviews with participants and analytical theories.

She defined agency as, children being able to:

  • Act for themselves,
  • Seek and receive answers,
  • Be aware of their roles in the family,
  • Be able to make decisions about who they trust and have that respected,
  • And, that they acknowledge they play a role in family resiliency.

Mothers & children suffering family violence often lack agency

Anita finished the presentation showing a variety of quotes selected from her interviews with mothers and children exposed to family violence, who provided a variety of complex insights into a very complex issue.

Read more about family violence and a book on the subject in a previous post.

Written by bloggers from SYN Media.

Children’s voices & the power of an image: exploring ways in which children let us know of difficult life experiences

Children's Voices and the Power of an ImageTwo staff from the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne’s Gatehouse Centre For The Assessment & Treatment Of Child Abuse and Trauma, Mary Raftopolos (Psychologist) and Olivia Dwyer (Art Therapist & Child Psychotherapist)  focused on how children communicate their inner-world through art therapy.

Art therapy is generally divided into two concepts:

  • art as therapy, as a cathartic process ( for the purification and/or purging of emotions); and,
  • art in therapy, as art made in the context of psychotherapy.

Regardless, emphasis is placed on the process, not so much the final product.

Images and artwork produced by children who have suffered family abuse and breakdown were displayed to the audience, and we were challenged to consider how we experience and interpret these images.

These images included paintings, drawings and Sandplay Therapy that children, who typically are unable to verbally express, use to convey their inner world.

Sandplay Therapy involves the child making a picture in a tray of sand, and without any further direction, allowing the therapist to observe the process in which the child forms the art piece. Miniatures are chosen as they create an image/world in the sand.

Many of the themes conveyed in the featured pieces of art included:

  • Self regulation (fences, police, natural boundaries),
  • Poor relationships,
  • Fear,
  • Chaos,
  • Growth,
  • Containment,
  • Journey,
  • New beginnings,
  • Hiding treasure/finding treasure,
  • Gathering of energy,
  • Or, celebrations/rituals.

Mary and Olivia concluded the workshop with some of the positive results from art therapy over time, including the process being used as a tool of catharsis, in addition to allowing children to convey thoughts and feelings they would otherwise not be able to verbally.

Art Therapy & Sandplay have indeed proved wonderful, non-intrusive ways of working with children who have experienced trauma and/or neglect.

Blog by: SYN Media blogger

Importance of relationships for the developing child – Dr Bruce Perry

Bruce Perry Keynote Day 1” I think its always important to be reminded of how important it is to create safe, developmental experiences for children,” Dr Perry.

Dr Bruce Perry was referring to the Good Childhood Conference, reiterating how essential it is for society to understand that at every point in time, we are in “the process of inventing the future”.

The presentation, recorded in his Chicago hotel room, resonated with the themes of the conference, focusing on brain development at an early age and building healthy communities.

Sociocultural evolution has, over time, lead to the changes in the way we construct our society: our language, religions, childrearing, family structures, art, science and technology.

Dr Bruce Perry

The focus of Dr. Perry‘s presentation lay with the relationships and interactions children are offered at a young age and the profound influence intimate moments such as talking, touching and holding eye contact can have.

Human beings have also absorbed thousands of learnings from previous generations. But this is not always a good thing.

“In the process of inventing the future, we have invented some things that are really wonderful…and we have invented some practices that actually are quite disrespectful of some of our genetic gifts,” Dr Perry said.

Our greatest biological gifts are the power of relationships and the brain’s malleability.

Dr Perry referred to the case where a young girl was, essentially, raised by a pack of dogs and, with no human interaction in the early stages of her life, she essentially acted like a dog. Dr Perry co-authored a book on another similar case, emphasising the malleability of human brains to learn from and adapt to their surroundings.

He then went on to explain how relationships in modern society have taken a turn for the worse because we are now based within huge networks of people unlike the small clans of hunter-and-gatherer times. Children are no longer raised surrounded by extended family and small tribes of people but spend countless hours surrounded by other humans who they don’t know and don’t interact with. Furthermore, technology is a distraction and is reducing the amount of intimate interactions children share with others.

“You might have 100 friends on Facebook but you might not have one single person to have dinner with,” he said.

In what he termed “modern tribalism”, Dr Perry said the ways in which society compartmentalises itself has resulted in material wealth yet “poverty of social relationships”.

“A healthy human being is a related human being.”

Humans are wired to feel stressed and threatened by other humans. After all, we are our own main predator. This stress can be managed throughout life if productive interactions and and healthy relationships are forged during childhood.

But, according to Dr Perry, the way our culture is currently organised induces a state of social and cultural neglect in our children.

Any programs that decrease physical, social and emotional isolation will be effective in making a difference. Currently, the percentage of children in “high-risk” categories is growing and the apparent “poverty of relationships” is a leading reason.

CEO Sandie de Wolf at The Good Childhood Conference

Dr Perry said programs and initiatives such as the Good Childhood Conference are important in encouraging investment into children and developmentally-appropriate ways to raise children.

Berry St CEO, Sandie de Wolf AM, agreed saying: “Relationships are at the core of everything we do”.

The Conference is done: what now?

Packed Celebrity Room at the Conference
Participants packed into the Celebrity Room at the Conference to hear from keynote speakers

We were thrilled with the success of our inaugural The Good Childhood Conference. I know you can’t judge success by numbers but here are a few statistics:

  • Over the 3 days of the conference (starting with the pre-conference workshops) we had 1000 people in attendance;
  • During the two day conference there were 64 presentations & activities, including: 8 keynote addresses, 10 keynote presentations, 40 concurrent sessions, 2 performances, 1 youth panel, 1 youth led workshop, 1 football skills drill, and 1 book launch;
  • 63 young people and 25 foster carers attended the conference on scholarships;
  • There were 18 displays and exhibitors, as well as a street artist creating a work in front of our eyes;
  • We were supported by 7 sponsors, 22 supporting partners and many friends of the conference who provided scholarships for young people and carers.

Presenters and delegates alike have been very positive in their feedback and we thank you for your encouragement.

In holding the conference we were seeking to explore what sustains a good childhood and how we can best support those who have not experienced a good childhood and we are keen to understand whether we met this aim.

We are currently analysing delegates’ evaluation forms and will be sending out a survey to those who attended to obtain further information to assist us with future planning. Watch this blog to find out about some of the themes from this feedback.

What happens now?
One of the unique features of The Good Childhood conference was the presence of young people from SYN Media who attended all of the keynote and a range of other sessions, commenting on conference themes on twitter and drafting blog posts which we will share over the coming weeks.

This blog is going to become a permanent fixture for the Berry Street Childhood Institute as we encourage you all to engage in this conversation about what we want for children in Australia in the 21st century.

Why don’t you enter this conversation right now by commenting here? Otherwise get involved on Twitter at @ChildhoodInst.

Thanks to all of you who participated in any way at our conference!

Welcome to The Good Childhood Conference blog!

CEO, Berry Street
Sandie de Wolf AM – CEO, Berry Street

This is a first for me as I join the blogging community!

At Berry Street, we believe that all children should have a good childhood, growing up feeling safe, nurtured and with hope for the future.  Sadly, evidence and our experience over 136 years tells us that this is not a reality for far too many children.

I think there is a lot for us to learn and share about what sustains a good childhood and how we best support those who have not had this experience. One of the key ways forward is bringing together parents’ experience, the knowledge of practitioners and different disciplines.

There are a wide range of terrific speakers lined up for our inaugural The Good Childhood Conference, designed to appeal to different audiences.  Some will be controversial. That’s part of the intention, because we really want to start a broad conversation about childhood.

We hope to have a large contingent of young people at the Conference – as both presenters and participants.

Like the work of Berry Street, our Conference will appeal to people from many different disciplines.  50 workshops will cover areas such as child protection, education, early years, wellbeing, place-based initiatives, family violence, the impact of technology and Out of Home Care.

We couldn’t be doing this without our Sponsors and Supporting Partners. We are especially grateful to the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, who describe their role as helping to build a strong and fair society for all Australians and developing social policies to:

  • Increase opportunities for all Australians to participate in our society and work
  • Promote cohesive and connected society
  • Support basic living standards
  • Support individuals, families and communities to build their capacity

So, please spread the word and I look forward to meeting you at the conference.

Sandie de Wolf, CEO, Berry Street