HSV Public Lecture by John Macdonald, Berry Street Childhood Institute, at Balwyn Library on 28 April 2016

In 1877 the Victorian Infant Asylum was established in Fitzroy. It moved to Berry Street in East Melbourne in 1881. An early champion in this field was the Scottish-born nurse Selina Sutherland, who became the first licensed child rescuer in Victoria after the Neglected Children’s Act was passed in 1887. She cultivated the press and key political allies to argue for social reform in the face of the hardship abounding in 1890s’ Melbourne. Depression had come on the heels of the economic bounty of the gold rush. The rate of infant mortality was one of the highest in the world and infanticide also a problem. Without any social services from the government many people were in desperate straits. The Victorian Infant Asylum was able to offer shelter and care for illegitimate babies and their homeless, ‘sinful’ mothers.

At the turn of the century the Sutherland Homes for Children opened near Diamond Creek but was sold, and its services amalgamated with Berry Street, in the 1990s. Berry Street is now the largest child welfare agency in Australia, with 27 offices across the state, at Melbourne, Ballarat, Shepparton and Morwell being major hubs. About 90% of their funding is from the government, most of it from the Victorian government. They are committed to accepting all children in need who have been abused or neglected. Many have complex needs, but the Berry Street mantra is ‘We never give up’.

Berry Street has been a forerunner in acknowledging that families range from the traditional mother, father and kids unit to same-sex couples and single parents. Their programs also cater for indigenous children in specific ways, ensuring that cultural contact is maintained. They are also mindful that in times past they supported the removal of aboriginal children from their families. In 2006 a formal apology was made about this.

Some of the services

Foster care: Berry Street accredits and trains foster carers. However, need exceeds supply at present. At least 1,000 more foster carers could be used.

They also support kinship carers; when parents are struggling and children are in jeopardy, other relatives, usually grandparents, step up to help.

A small residential service provides temporary or ongoing care when other options are not available.

Education: Early Learning is Fun is a program for refugee families (Karen, South Sudanese and Afghan) to understand the importance of the early years in a child’s education.

The Berry Street Education Model has been a successful alternative to mainstream education. There is a student: teacher ratio of 7:1.  Awareness of the effect of trauma on the capacity to learn has led to a specialized program of core subjects, alongside mind-fulness, martial arts and psychotherapy. The staff are aware that it may take hundreds of hours of careful, tailored contact with a traumatised child before healing and change can occur. Currently there are three schools, at Noble Park, Shepparton and Morwell.

Berry Big Adventure provides invaluable education through the challenges of camping and outdoor hiking. Trips to the Kimberleys and Cann River in Gippsland in the past have boosted self-confidence and enhanced life skills.

Finance: There is a matched savings program, Saver Plus, which helped over a 1,000 people last year with budgeting advice and micro-finance loans. Parents focus on saving for their child’s education.

Advocacy

Berry Street has contributed submissions to the Royal Commissions into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and also into Family Violence. They have used the findings from these inquiries to assist in their own work and their collaboration with other government agencies. Now that there is greater transparency about domestic violence, thanks to Rosie Batty and others, as well as mandatory reporting of child abuse, the Berry Street case-load has increased.

In 2014 Heartcore was launched. A compilation of stories from Berry Street students complemented by photos of street art by Kaffeine, it is a graphic and moving insight into young lives on their precarious journeys. Copies are available for sale through www.berrystreet.org.au. HSV was grateful for the complimentary copy presented to the Society by John at the end of the lecture.

Report by Jennie Stuart

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