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Infant Massage supporting Aboriginal Parents and Children – National SNAICC Conference 2017

During the past three days, over 1,200 people gathered in Canberra for the national SNAICC2017 Conference.

SNAICC, the peak-body in Australia representing the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, included not one, but two presentations in the proceedings about the Baby in Mind First Touch Program, and how it is being adapted by workers supporting Aboriginal families in Australia.

On the final day of the conference, I was lucky to be invited to attended in person, to hear a number of our graduates presenting their papers: Eileen Wanganeen and Karina Mitchell from Relationships Australia South Australia, and Deb Pattrick and Liz Poole from the Core of Life Parenting Program on the NSW Central Coast.

It was not only a privilege to see that this important national conference had dedicated two separate sessions to exploring the use of cue-based infant massage. But, these were also two stunning presentations showing how our training is being used by graduates to transform the ways that some of the most vulnerable families in our community are being cared for.

The two groups of presenters echoed many of the themes being discussed across the whole conference by keynote speakers, presenters, and delegates alike: the deep and growing concern many of us have about the worsening statistics for some Aboriginal children: the growing number of children being removed from their families and culture, and the seeming increase in child mental health issues being experienced by Aboriginal children in many parts of Australia.

In their presentation, Karina and Eileen explained the way that deep childhood trauma, experienced over many generations, continues to affect many Aboriginal families and communities today. They shared the story of one mother using their service who, at 19 years old, had already had a short life filled with horrific abuse and trauma. Without her own childhood experiences of being held, nurtured and cared for, she had little experience to draw from when it came to parenting her own children – two of whom also had serious medical conditions. Before she reached the age of 20 years, she already had her children removed from her care.

With a new baby on the way, Karina explained how she was able to work with and support this young mum using the First Touch Program. She described how it had given this mother skills and confidence in responding to her newborn baby’s social, emotional and physical development needs.

The women giving these presentations work in some of the most complex situations imaginable, where the lives of parents and children are affected by their decisions every day. Of all the things they do, of all the aspects of their work, I am honoured they chose to showcase the First Touch Program.

Karina’s words, that the First Touch Program became the “last piece of the puzzle in this mum’s ability to have a strong relationship with her new baby” were set in stark contrast to so much of the noise made by peacock politicians and media ‘personalities’ about issues facing some Aboriginal – and other groups of very vulnerable parents.

These people sit in offices, fitted out with custom-made furniture costing the amount of a small house – wringing their hands and complaining about the ‘burden’ of families like these. Their ‘solution’ is to come up with largely complicated and expensive responses which, for the most part, are designed to punish people for trauma that has been inflicted on them, and their families, for generations. And which have the effect of ensuring the continuation of this trauma for many more generations.

Meanwhile, we have people like Karina, Eileen, Deb and Liz who are just getting on with doing what needs to be done.

So what happened in the end? The skills and changes that occurred as a result of Karina’s work, not only resulted in the new baby being able to stay safely with his mother – and to stay connected to his community and culture…but the mother’s other children were also able to be returned to her safely.

Outcomes like this have profound implications not only for the individual people concerned, but also for communities, and all of us.

I found Karina’s telling of this story deeply moving. Not simply because it described how the First Touch Program helped this particular parent. For me, I was most moved by hearing how this simple, little cue-based infant massage program is empowering workers like Karina, Eileen, Deb and Liz to influence change over, and over and over again.

The cost of training a worker like Karina is just $3,000. In just a few short years, her skills in delivering the First Touch Program will be used with hundreds of families. This means that, effectively we heard a story about four children being returned to family from state care, and about elimination of key developmental risks for mental illness in these same four kids, for the tidy sum of about $10.

We don’t really need more reports and national policies, do we? Instead, it seems to me we need greater investment in the women and men who are connected with families in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. We need an acknowledgement that the work being done by the people who support families in the first 1,000 days is skilled, thoughtful and often complex, and to be deeply cherished for the value it brings to all of us.

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