Our lovely Niamh is returning to Ireland to start her own family after two years working with families at Bonnie’s. She spoke to Moya about her training and work in the UK and what she’s learnt from her experience here in Australia.
Working at Bonnie’s has made me realise that there are many different ways to measure the success of my work. If I have had even one conversation with a woman that comes back to her 10 years later when she needs it, that to me is a success. Sometimes it’s hard to know the impact of the work that you’ve done. Sure we can see whether the women we support have achieved the goals that we’ve set out – obvious things like housing or a car. But it’s really the personal growth stuff that is important to me. It’s harder to measure but it’s what will shape women for the rest of their lives, and impact on the futures of their children.
I love seeing my clients’ independence grow. Often the first sign is when I stop receiving calls from them. At the start we work together quite intensely but over time that decreases as they begin to feel empowered and self-reliant. You know, they’ve made the call to Centrelink themselves or they’ve gone out and gotten themselves a job and they’re are working in the community or doing something they’ve aspired to but never thought they could. Success is surpassing those limits, whatever they are.
Recently a woman who has been with Bonnie’s for quite a number of years told us that she’d never felt that she was good enough or capable of anything. But doing some simple needlework and sewing with our group made her feel she can do anything. This woman still has the same needs and difficulties: her visa hasn’t been granted, she doesn’t have any housing sorted – she doesn’t have any of these things. But the change is in how she feels about herself.
My background is mainly in child protection. I’d always wanted to work with children and I suppose, naively, I went into it with the idea that children should be removed from abusive parents. Over time, my ethos has changed to having more of a focus on early intervention and wanting to figure out why these parents are being abusive – what are the underlying factors for the whole family unit, rather than just removing the children, because that’s proven not to work.
Perhaps the biggest impact on me was after I had a car accident, I decided I wasn’t going to sit around and wait to be rehabilitated but that I was going to study. So I went back and did a postgrad Masters in Child Protection and Welfare.
While I was studying we had a group of young people in their 20s, who’d been through the whole care system, come in and speak to us. We role-played a case conference, where they put me in the middle of the room and these young people played the principal of the school, the social worker and the residential staff and they all sat around and talked about all the great things they were doing for me and what kind of life they were hopefully going to make for me and then they made me leave the room and close the door.
I’ve never felt so vulnerable and confused as when I was put in that position. And I think that had a huge impact on me and kind of changed the way I work. I suppose I just thought we were saving these people from all this abuse but not looking at the bigger picture. It was very powerful.
I also worked in a homeless service in Ireland but it was more of an emergency centre around domestic violence and drug use, and didn’t offer the case management and care like we do at Bonnies. It was very depressing, the system there, because it felt like you were just taking care of basic needs and that was it. There was very little in the way of long-term support.
When I came to Australia, I didn’t initially plan to go into solely domestic violence work. I was thinking more of doing child protection but then I went for an interview at Bonnie’s and I just really liked the place. It felt quite homely and more of a smaller NGO service rather than government. And I decided I’d rather take that path.
Working with people from different ethnic backgrounds was a big learning curve for me and especially learning about Aboriginal culture. I knew so little and, it’s sad to say, but in Ireland we don’t learn anything about Australian history other than Captain Cook.
What I’ve really found different is the depth of service we can offer. I have felt like I have time to help the women understand their rights as individuals and as mothers, and for it to really empower them.
There have been a lot of highlights but I suppose I have just loved the whole dynamic of the staff here: and how homely it feels. And how passionate it feels. And how empathetic people really are.
Our Executive Officer Tracy is just so knowledgeable but personal too – it’s been like having my mum here as well as my boss! Having that sort of role model really filters down.
I don’t think there are many services where you can really feel that the majority of the staff are in it for the right reasons. Bonnie’s has a big heart. I’m going to miss it!
Told by Niamh