As part of a multi-government commitment to address Indigenous disadvantage, Aboriginal Child and Family Centres are being set up around Australia to offer a range of early childhood education services and support for Aboriginal children and their families. Camille Howard takes a look at the first service to open in NSW.

A mother steps forward carrying her baby. Aboriginal Aunties walk up behind the pair, wrapping mother and baby in a possum skin cloak stitched together by local Aboriginal women. The mother announces her baby’s traditional name to the gathering, and so the child is welcomed into the community.

This traditional ceremony, a local custom among Gunnedah’s Aboriginal community, was recreated as part of the official opening celebrations for Winanga-Li Aboriginal Child and Family Centre. The ceremony is significant because Gunnedah, located in northwest NSW, was once an important stop on the possum-trading route. Today, 11 per cent of the town’s population is Aboriginal.

And it’s the understanding of these connections to community and country that make Aboriginal Child and Family Centres (ACFCs) so important within their communities.

Winanga-Li is one of 36 ACFCs being established around the country as part of the Australian Government’s commitment to closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage in health, housing, education and employment.

One roof, many services

In NSW, nine ACFCs will provide a range of early childhood education, health and family support services under one roof—with different management partnerships in each location—to improve the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal children and provide support for their families.

To understand why services like Winanga-Li are necessary, you need only look at the latest Report Card: The wellbeing of young Australians, released earlier this year.

Some key findings from the Report Card, produced by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY), show the number of Indigenous children in out-of-home care is rising, significantly higher than for non-Indigenous children, with young Indigenous Australians also highly represented in the juvenile justice system. Indigenous youth unemployment is also disproportionately high, as is the percentage of children with physical health vulnerabilities.

Another disturbing statistic shows that although the majority of young Australians are participating in education, the rates are very low for Indigenous youth. And while figures for Aboriginal participation in early childhood education were not available (Australia as a whole ranks a shocking 30th out of 34 for early education participation), the report did note that there was ‘significant’ gap in the levels of early childhood developmental vulnerability (language and cognition) in Aboriginal children.

Figures like these led the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), to first sign a National Partnership Agreement on Indigenous Early Childhood Development in July 2009, committing $564.6 million over six years to closing the gap.

Stronger children, stronger families

Winanga-Li is the first ACFC to open in NSW, and was established through a partnership between Uniting Care Children’s Services (UCCS), its Jaanimili unit and Relationships Australia NSW.

Winanga-Li is a Kamilaroi word meaning ‘to hear, to listen, to know, to remember’, and was chosen by the local community.

Because a significant percentage of Gunnedah’s population is Indigenous, community involvement is paramount for the success of the service, which will transition to full Aboriginal control by 1 July 2014.

‘Our Jaanimili unit plays an important role in addressing our commitment to recognising and celebrating Aboriginal culture in communities and in services that we provide,’ says Anna Johnston, the Practice Manager Early Childhood at UnitingCare Children’s Services.

Programs provided include family support services, early learning services, health services, playgroup and parenting programs. While priority is given to Aboriginal families, other families in need in the community will also have access to programs.

‘In Gunnedah,’ Ms Johnston says, ‘we work closely with the Local Reference Group to provide services for children and families encompassing our Aboriginal Service Delivery Principles of relationships and trust, partnership, communication and consultation, capacity building, access to adequate resources, and respect, integrity and acknowledgment.’

These principles are evidenced in the commitment to employ only Aboriginal staff in all positions at Winanga-Li. ‘Our partner, Relationships Australia NSW, has employed a centre manager, an administration officer and two Family Connectors who all work closely with the early learning educators,’ Ms Johnston explains. ‘They have developed partnerships with several community and health agencies in town.’

Breaking down barriers

To combat well-known barriers to Aboriginal families accessing formal children’s services—including access issues, distrust of children’s services, and family relationship barriers—Winanga-Li offers reasonable fees, bus transport for children, a sense of ownership of the whole centre, and focuses on making the centre more natural, welcoming and involving of parents and the local Aboriginal community, including educating and employing more aboriginal staff.

Although officially opening at the end of July this year, Winanga-Li has been delivering interim services from early 2012.

‘We have gone from an historic church hall with a trestle table for an office desk to a magnificent building, engaged and committed staff, educators and community, and a range of integrated services delivered from a beautiful purpose-built centre for the children and families of Gunnedah,’ Ms Johnston says.

‘Interim service delivery has been valuable in that it has enabled the educators to build relationships with other early childhood services in town, while also offering support to families.’

The centre is now fully operational, with an Aboriginal staff of 10 and includes a disability support worker and speech therapist working from the new premises. The new early learning service is also up and running, operating at full (35-place) capacity. ‘There’s been a lot of pressure on us to open!’ says Ms Johnston. ‘The children are just incredibly settled, even though a lot of them haven’t been to childcare before.’

Because many of the services (supported playgroups, early literacy programs, young mothers groups, men’s groups, sexual health groups) have been running from temporary premises in the lead up to the opening, the transition was fairly smooth, and just involved transferring location.

In fact, the official opening took place one year to the day of the first sod being turned, and Ms Johnston admits they were fortunate to have a supportive local council and building team. State support from Family and Community Services was vital, too.

‘They had a dedicated support officer who worked on that project, Simon Munro, so he was constantly bringing the partners and the community and the local reference groups and the staff together to make decisions on all sorts of things,’ Ms Johnston says.

Most importantly, community involvement was pivotal. ‘The thing that has really struck me about Gunnedah is that it’s a unified community; it’s a community where people can track back generations of their families. It has got a strength of Aboriginal families that have been around for a long time, and it’s got a community that functions well. There wasn’t a lot of division within the community, it was a very positive community to work together.’

Like all the ACFCs, Winanga-Li also has the position of Aboriginal Early Start: Early Diagnosis Coordinator attached. ‘The aim of this role is to provide timely and limited support to Aboriginal families with a child who has been recently diagnosed with a disability, or identified with a developmental delay and is awaiting diagnosis, by linking them with useful services and agencies. This role will also provide a valuable bridge between the centre staff and educators, and other services and agencies in Gunnedah supporting families,’ Ms Johnston explains.

How the community of educators within the centre works together is also vital. ‘One of the challenges we have faced is melding a united team when the early learning educators and the family workers have different employers with some different policies, different employment conditions and different work backgrounds.’

Regular team meetings, staff development days, developing protocols, and ongoing management support from UCCS and Relationships Australia NSW has helped ensure a united team.

Moving forward, Ms Johnston recognises the relationships staff build with families will be key to the success of the service in attracting families who may not have previously engaged with a formal early learning service. And until the transition to full Aboriginal control, there is plenty of support for staff to foster these relationships. ‘Staff have the opportunity to meet and talk with other Aboriginal staff from across UCCYPF* on a regular basis, through Jaanimili gatherings, regional yarn-up mentoring and coaching services, as well as the professional support of UCCS.’

* UnitingCare Children’s Services currently manages 55 children’s services in NSW and ACT and is part of UnitingCare Children, Young People and Families.

On track to close the gap?

Winanga-Li is one of nine Aboriginal Child and Family Centres (ACFCs) in NSW. The National Partnership Agreement Indigenous Reform Agreement (Closing the Gap) set targets to:

  • halve the gap in mortality rates for Indigenous children under five within a decade;
  • halve the gap for Indigenous students in reading, writing and numeracy within a decade, and
  • ensure all Indigenous four-year-olds have access to quality early childhood education within five years.

Earlier this year, the Australian Government has set new Closing the Gap targets to ensure 90 per cent of enrolled Indigenous children across Australia attend a quality early childhood education program in the year before they start full-time school.

According to an announcement from then Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Peter Garrett, Minister for School Education (4 June, 2013), one of the government’s first Closing the Gap targets—ensuring all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities have access to quality early childhood education—will be met this year.

SNAICC says Aboriginal control vital

Despite the apparent success of Winanga-Li and other ACFCs, Frank Hytten, CEO for Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), has been outspoken about concerns the newly formed services are not living up to their proposed objectives.

He identifies three key areas of concern:

  1. a lack of Aboriginal control;
  2. insecure funding;
  3. changes to funding from Budget Based to Child Care Benefit funding.

‘They were originally funded as Indigenous Child and Family Centres; at least half of them have very little or zero Indigenous input,’ he says, highlighting the lack of Aboriginal control in South Australian services in particular.

‘They have funding until the middle of next year and then the current funding runs out,’ he adds. ‘It takes two or three years to get established properly, to build your network, and facilitate partnerships with other community groups.’

And if services change from a Budget Based Funding (BBF) model, Mr Hytten says they may become inaccessible to many Aboriginal people.

‘The whole point of setting these things up was to create a centre that was holistic and a bit wrap-around, that could cater for the different needs in a non-stigmatising way—Aboriginal people talking to largely Aboriginal people,’ he says. ‘What we’ve ended up with is a mixture of services where often Aboriginal people aren’t running them, where it appears it might become inaccessible to the Aboriginal community (to a poorer community, generally), and it will make the centres unviable if they have to chase attendance rather than [focus on] providing services to children.’

‘It’s about creating an environment in which Aboriginal people, who remain the most disadvantaged people on this continent, can actually get services so they can stop being most disadvantaged people on this continent.’

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