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ASK THE EXPERT: Start early to keep kids out of care

“In an ideal world, we’d work with fathers before they become fathers,” says Roger Pugh from MacKillop’s Safe Early Years team who take the approach that it’s never too soon for early intervention.

Father Engagement Outreach workers, Roger Pugh and Mark Colletti, are part of a pioneering team who work with vulnerable families recovering from violence. A partnership between MacKillop Family Services, Queen Elizabeth Centre (QEC) and the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA), the Safe Early Years program is a counselling and community-based service and its Father Engagement team helps men build the skills necessary to find non-violent ways to communicate and create a happy and stable home environment.

Psychotherapist Mark Colletti has been with MacKillop Family Services for three and a half years and has a background in therapeutic practice and out-of-home care. Prior to joining MacKillop, Mark worked as a psychotherapist with Aboriginal communities in Queensland after leaving his native Canada.

Mark’s experience has made him a passionate advocate for early intervention which he believes makes a real difference to families experiencing family violence.

This pilot program is different because it interacts directly with men. It takes a holistic approach where we’re not just dealing with the symptoms but tackling the root causes of violence and intergenerational trauma.

– Mark Colletti, Father Engagement Outreach worker

“Breaking down barriers can be the most difficult step in the process. We assure the men we work with that we are not there to judge, but to support their connection with their child. This is something we really want to achieve, but they don’t know how to go about it. Up until we engage with them, they’ve experienced a different understanding of how a male behaves, where violence and manipulation have been used by men to get their own way.

“How can you know how to play with your children if you’ve never been played with as a child? If you’ve been manipulated your whole life, then you will often use manipulation and mind games in your own relationships.”

Roger Pugh has been with MacKillop for 14 months and previously worked in youth justice, drug and alcohol counselling and as a couples therapist. Ideally placed to look at the whole picture, Roger understands how the dynamic between partners impacts on families,

“Trauma has a significant effect on the lives of children and it’s important to help fathers understand how their behaviour impacts on children and relationships,” he says.

Roger adds the key to working with men is building trust. “Some of the men we work with have not had many positive experiences with other men in their lives when they were younger. We go into their homes and through our interactions with them, we can reassure them that they are not alone. A lot of men need help to untie knots of frustration and disempowerment and they need guidance to find new ways to manage conflict through the process of better communication.”

Father Engagement is an agile and flexible service that works with art therapists, psychotherapists, dance therapists, nurses and counsellors to focus on helping the family unit to work together. Roger says the ultimate aim of this collaborative approach is to keep more children from entering the care system.

“Our model is to get in early and support people to communicate better and commit to non-violence which will help a family unit to stay together. We’re tired of seeing more and more kids come into the care system and remain there for long periods of time. Foster care should be a short-term solution to allow families to work through and sort out their problems, but too often this does not happen and kids end up in long-term care. Finding ways for families to move beyond violence and develop better channels of communication will be a first step in stopping kids entering the care system.”

Families can be referred to the program from the courts, police, QEC, VACCA, DHS, or GPs. Families can also self-refer to access help.

The Father Engagement workers engage with families from all types of backgrounds. “Domestic and family violence is not confined to lower socio-economic backgrounds. We get referrals from right across the spectrum – people under stress, the ‘worried well’, people from culturally diverse backgrounds. There is no typical situation, which is why we develop different strategies for each individual client. It’s not possible to have a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Our strength is that we can be flexible and adaptable and tailor services to meet individual needs,” says Roger.

The Father Engagement service is available to families living in the local government areas of Port Phillip, Stonnington, Bayside, Glen Eira, Kingston, Frankston, Mornington Peninsula, Greater Dandenong, Casey and Cardinia.