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View from Frontline with Debra Mainwaring

by PeakCare Qld on 30th April 2014

Home -> Articles -> 2014 -> April -> View from Frontline with Debra Mainwaring

An interview with Debra Mainwaring.

Debra is as the Principal Psychologist of Cared4 by DJM Psychological Services which provides services and programs that support the learning and development of vulnerable children, young people, their families, care teams and schools.

What is your current role?

I have worked in the child protection system for 28 years across the UK, QLD and NSW starting as a volunteer while at university at what was then called a ‘Battered Wives Home’, then a Residential Child Care Officer at a setting run by a UK Regional Education Department, trained as a teacher and taught across all age ranges from 3 to university students. I held a position as a Head of Special Education Services in a large expatriate school in Singapore where I lived and worked for 5 years. I then trained in the UK as a postgraduate Educational Psychologist and worked across districts in Cheshire, Dudley and Essex in the UK supporting teams around the child, schools and communities and advocating the educational and developmental needs of children in out of home care placed in out of county residential settings. I spent 5 years in Brisbane developing and delivering child protection and special needs awareness courses for university students training to be teachers and psychologists and in preparation for managing a research project advocating the educational needs of children in out of home care in QLD I spent time working as a Guidance Counsellor with Brisbane Catholic Education, a Guidance Officer with Education Queensland and a Teacher/ Counsellor at an Edmund Rice Education Australia Youth + Flexible Learning Centre. I then managed a Collaborative Education Program between Youth + and Life Without Barriers South Brisbane/ Gold Coast Team for 4 years until I opened a multi professional research based learning and development clinic in Springwood with a Speech Therapist & a Literacy Specialist and have since been joined by a Psychotherapist, Occupational Therapist, Art Therapist and a Paediatrician! We aim to seek grants to help us continue to offer low cost services and programs to children and young people in out of home care as well as their carers and the schools they attend.

What motivates or inspires you in working with or on behalf of children, young people and/or families?

Both in my work roles and in family life (my sister was a foster carer for 8 years and I have provided respite care and mentorship to young people over the years) the young people continue to inspire me. Most of them are survivors of unimaginable pain and deprivation both physically and emotionally, yet with authentic care and support are willing to set high expectations for their future and develop positive, trusting relationships with others. I often imagine myself in their ‘shoes’ and doubt my ability to do the same. When things are not working well for a young person at home or school I am determined to work with them to help them find the source of safety and inner peace that will help them learn and grow beyond their often unfortunate and disappointing beginnings. I have had the privilege of working alongside and received training from some amazing carers. Kate Cairns is one such carer and she describes the relationship with a child who has experienced relationship pain as being like a dance and how we need to change our steps to keep to the rhythm of the child and learn new dances together. I am always learning from young people and from others across the world who work with young people and their carers and am keen to share our successes with others both locally and internationally. A current 16 year old mentee of mine has had to live in a homeless shelter yet continues to go to school each day and attend two traineeships that she found for herself after responding to hundreds of job adverts, has handed in assignments for her Year 11 early and is passing all the goals set for her traineeship to qualify for Cert III awards at TAFE!

Do you think outcomes will improve for children, young people and families in Queensland as we commence implementing reforms recommended by the Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry?

It will if we really listen to children and young people, not just to what they say but how they behave/ communicate with us. We are not consistently good at that as we bring our own beliefs about what is ‘best for them’ and what they need from both our professional lives and our personal lives. There needs to be a lot of investment in training adults working with children and young people to explore more deeply what would help them, for instance, feel safer. There are great tools and protocols available such as NSW ‘Count Me In - Taking PARTicipation seriously’ but their use is not widespread and the child’s perspective is often left blank. I think what makes it hard is that we as adults need to give our power away and provide all young people with the sort of skills programs like the CREATE Speak Up program offers to a few. True participation of young people requires that they create a space of their own, set their own agendas and develop tactical skills for influencing decision makers. This capacity for self reflection in young people is vital for their wellbeing and it’s facilitation requires the availability of skilled facilitators in mental health promotion in all areas of their life: home, school and leisure. Also there is not a culture of what I call ‘pipeline’ professional training. Care team members and other stakeholders hold a lot of information about children and young people and when they leave their role much of that is lost. I see some evidence of induction but little evidence of investment in training people up to a role or managing handovers when people leave a role. This makes continuity of care and planning very difficult and frustrating for carers and young people. The pace of interventions and follow up are crucial for progress in caring for young people.

What do you think are the greatest challenges that we face in the future in implementing these reforms well?

Most children come into care as a consequence of poverty - not just financial but a lack of stimulation and support across all developmental areas: physical, sensory, social, emotional, personal, intellectual, communication and behavioural. The main person expected to fill these voids are the foster/kinship carer/ residential workers who are still not given the professional status and training required to equip them adequately for this important role. The main reason I remained a respite carer was because I could not afford to stay at home full time yet this is what I felt was required to provide the unconditional love and support as well as advocate for the young person at school and allow space for myself to learn the new ‘dance steps’ as required. Yet, why I have been a successful mentor is because I am unpaid in that role and the young person knows. It would be great if more people were encouraged and supported in becoming skilled mentors who provide inspiration and support to both children and their carers. Perhaps tax incentives rather than direct income would help.

Another issue is that the state school system does not provide adequately for children with trauma histories. Their biggest barrier to learning is mental health and yet they are not adequately supported, there is no verification for mental health support, schools are not properly resourced and teachers and support staff do not feel adequately trained. In the community the mental health support is restricted to very traditional methods of delivery that is not equipped to meet complex trauma needs and is crisis driven. Care teams need the support of schools and the community for their role to be most effective.

Are there other comments you would like to make?

I would like to see an increase in preventative work that looks deeply what works in stopping this ever increasing flow of children entering the child protection system - particularly around the prevention of drug and alcohol abuse and the education of young women around the prevalence of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder that affects a large proportion of children in the child protection system.