The impact of Our Way Home

Everything we know about growing healthy children points to strong, secure attachments to people and culture in childhood being the foundation for happy and well adulthood.

The out of home care system, as it stands, has often failed to achieve this goal. This harms children, who don’t develop the secure connections they need to be well adults. It also harms their families and communities, who are left helpless and disempowered.

“Who are the people looking after my child? What are their values? What religion are they? What clothes do they wear? … I felt sick not knowing all of those things. That not knowing, it’s like a hole in your heart.”

Family member with experience of the care system, interviewed for this project.

Co-designing ‘Our Way Home’

Our Way Home, a joint initiative of Parkerville Children and Youth Services and Innovation Unit, funded by LotteryWest, is pursuing a new approach aimed at changing this story. Our Way Home started with this question: How might we create an out of home care system within which connection to parents, biological families, communities, and culture is prioritised and realised?

From that starting point, project partners undertook an extensive co-design partnership between people with lived experience in care, families, Aboriginal elders, carers, staff, and workers that has resulted in a new model of care called ‘Our Way Home’. There are four key principles to the Our Way Home model (which you can read more about here), and one of them is that children should be ‘connected by default’ to their families and communities.“

"Having 1000 (paid) people in your life won’t make up for having one person who loves you.”

Family member with experience of the care system, interviewed for this project.

Beginning in June 2021, the Our Way Home model was prototyped and tested at Parkerville, and as part of this process Family Link Workers were employed to liaise between children in care, their carers, and family members. The goal of the Family Link Worker is to identify significant connections in a child’s life, identify the barriers that exist to having relationships, and overcome these to establish or grow connections. You can read more about the Family Link Worker role here.

Connecting Milly with her family

While still in its early stages, the Our Way Home model and the Family Link Workers are already making an impact in the lives of children like Milly*.

Milly, a primary-school aged child, has been in care since birth, and has had no contact with biological family over that time.

Through the Our Way Home project, a Parkerville Family Link Worker and Department of Communities staff were able to track down a genogram that had been done for Milly, which had been done when she was taken into care but which her carer, Daphne*, had never been provided with. With that information in hand, Parkerville’s Aboriginal Practice Lead approached family members and started to build relationships with them.

Over time, as the Practice Lead built trust and grew relationships with the family members, a huge family network who wanted to connect with Milly was able to be identified — including nannas, cousins, and a biological sibling. The family members, who live in a different town, have started sending photos and having phone calls with Milly, supported and encouraged by Daphne.

Milly’s family had made efforts to connect with her in the past, and Daphne had always wanted to connect Milly with her family, but within the existing system, contact had not been established.

With Our Way Home, it was someone’s responsibility (the Family Link Worker) to make that connection happen. With that, and the support of everyone involved — Parkerville’s Family Link Worker and Aboriginal Practice Lead, Department staff, Milly’s family members and Milly’s carer — all of the pieces were able to be joined up. The first in-person meeting between Milly and her family is currently being planned.

“When we started there was a little girl who had no family. Now she’s got the biggest family in the world.”

Milly’s carer

Ongoing challenges

While success stories such as Milly’s have started to emerge from the model, challenges are also emerging.

Early successes run the risk of making this connection work look ‘too easy’. In fact, many of the people and communities involved have good reasons for not wanting to be involved with a system that has not proven trustworthy in the past. Having workers and carers with the skills, expertise and commitment to grow relationships and gain trust in spite of this past experience is hard to achieve, but will be key to any success the Our Way Home model can have. It will also be critical to ensuring that early successes continue.

The need to ensure children’s safety and well-being are, of course, paramount. In some cases, keeping children safe means that parents need help or support to address outstanding issues in their lives, and all too often, there are shortfalls in the affective responses that are available. This is particularly true where parents bring understanding, skills and knowledge from outside of the dominant cultural model. Addressing these gaps is outside of the direct remit of this project, but will be critical to its ultimate success.

Importantly, connection in the Our Way Home model is not always expected to involve family reunification, especially at first. Contact can consist of activities such as phone calls, attending sports days or school events, or having visits or short stays. In some instances, it might just be about knowing who people are — their names, where they live, how they are related. It can also involve connection to other significant people, such as former school friends or neighbours. What’s important is that wherever possible, children have the opportunity to establish, maintain and strengthen connections with people who are important to them.

Building on our successes and our strengths

As this model moves into its pilot phase in 2022, additional issues and learnings are likely to emerge.

However, Our Way Home is already demonstrating is that, when we set out to create an out of home care system within which connection to parents, biological families, communities and culture is prioritised and that intention is backed up with dedicated resourcing, genuine connections can be built between children in care and their families. That’s good for children, families, and for communities, and we hope to see much more of it as we move forward.

“I invited [my grandchild’s carer] to my 60th birthday, with the child. Because she is part of our life. It’s like we are all part of the family.”

Family member with experience of the care system, interviewed for this project.

*Names have been changed on this page to protect the identities of the people involved.