the parent support service (australian capital territory)

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  • Child Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 3, pp. 357 - 362. 6~ Pergamon Press Ltd., 1979. Printed in Great Britain.


    Elizabeth Smart Barbara Hicks 74 MacKenzie Street Mental Health Branch HACKETT. A.C.T. 2602 Capital Territory Health Commission AUSTRALIA A.C.T. AUSTRALIA


    "Speak roughly to your little boy And beat him when he sneezes,

    He only does it to annoy Because he knows it teases".

    The words of the Duchess in Lewis Caroll's "Alice in Wonderland" suggest a fairly massive projection of adult feelings onto a child in care, The hypothesis that was fundamental to the establishment of the Capital Territory Parent Support Service was that this phenomenon of projection regularly occurs when parents are under stress.

    It seems probable that, in Australia, holier-than-thou attitudes to those known to have abused a child, mask a generalised anxiety about personal parenting skills in today's complex society. The P.S.!?. was therefore designed primarily as a preventive measure, to provide supportive counselling for parents experiencing stress, and publicity for the service has aimed at creating a climate in which ANY parent can admit feelings of aggression, frustration and inadequacy.

    As the universality and normality of parents "back' feelings ebout themselves and their children is recognised and accepted it should become easier for those with deep-rooted problems to seek help before a crisis occurs.


    The sits for the capital of the newly created country of Australia was chosen in 1909, but Canberra only developed slowly until well after World War II. At that time the government became increasingly centralised and there was such en influx of public servants, academics, and employees of service industries that the population increased from 39,000 to over 200,000 in 20 years.

    Land in the Capital Territory is vested in the Commonwealth Government, so each suburb is carefully planned, In theory ne~ghbourhood groups are established. In practise there are problems comparable to those met in other rapidly developing suburban areas, but accentuated because the city is far from the centres of population where many residents still have their roots. Low density housing, and poor public transport mean reliance on the motor-car, and it is easy to feel isolated, especially if tied to the house with young children.


  • 358 E. Smart and I). Hicks

    The residents of Canberra are younger and more affluent than the national average, and generally expect a high standard of living. Since 1977, however, the rate of

    unemployment has increased more rapidly than anywhere else in Australia. There is also a

    higti divorce rate, which can partiy be accounted for by the age structure of the

    population. Together, all this suggests that many families are probably under

    considerable stress. None the less the reported incidence of child abuse and neglect has

    been comparatively low up to date.


    "A City Without Soul" is a tern used by many non-residents to describe Canberra,

    but in reply to these critics it could be argued that it has a "heart" manifested by a

    wealth of individuals and groups concerned about community welfare.

    In 1975 the 1st Australian National Conference on "The Battered Child" was held in Perth (W.A.), and for a time Child Abuse was "news". Jan Carter addressed a meeting of

    workers in the ltielfarc Industry; housewives discussed the issues at 1ocal'Priendshi.p

    meetings"; the two statutory Health and Welfare Agencies struggled to come to grips with

    problems of inter-agency policy; and 16 different groups were found to be looking at ways

    to prevent child maltreatment.

    Eventually a voluntary service organiser and a senior social worker with the

    Statutory Mental Health Service took the initiative in bringing together those who were

    interested in co-ordinating their thinking, and rationalislng their planning.

    Many meetings later a Committee of Management was set up to establish the PARENT

    SUPPORT SERVICE, as an autonomous telephone counselling service far parents. staffed by

    trained volunteers working under the supervision of professional consultants. The aims of

    the service were:-

    To help clients to clarify their problems

    To provide information about community resources and to enable clients to use

    these effectively

    To provide clients with a reiiahlc and supportive listener whom they could

    trust in times of crisis.

    The decision to act was essentially made by individuals, supported in principle by

    the Mental Health Service and by a few community organisations. Three groups agreed to

    have official represent&ion on the Committee, and of these "LIFE LINE" - (an organisation

    similar to the Samaritans) - was the most significant. Life Line's willingness to provide

    the initial contact with clients, and their exoertise in the training of volunteers, made

    the P.S.S. a viable proposition.

    Immediately there was opposition from those who saw that problems would erise if

    the service infringed on the statutory duties already being carried out by government

    agencies. Time was taken to gain the co-operation of these antagonists, and in order to

    a+tain credibility and recognitinn, a detailed policy document was drawn up. This dncunent

    sets out the philosophy of the service, together with procedural guidelines for dealing with

    all situations that could conceivably involve legal liability.


    As the P.S.S. was established without any financial backing it has no office

    facilities of its own. Tnose wanting to use the service have to ring the "Lifeline"

    number for their initial contact and within 24 hours the case is allocated to a volunteer

    who phones the client back (or makes a home visit if there is no phone). From then on

    the frequency of contact and the way in which the relationship develops, depend on the

    needs of the client.

  • Parent Support Service 359

    A client who described her counsellar as "somewhere between my mother and a social worker" was probably typical of those who have banefitted most from the service. In other words, the counsellor is someone who cares* but who is without the emotional involvement of a member of the family: someone who accepts feelings of anger, resentment and inadequacy without condemnation, but who also gives positive encouragement and reassurance; someone who has skills, but with whom there are not the barriers that some clients feel separate them from professional workers,

    It is made clear to the client that the service is confidential, but that each volunteer is responsible to a consultant. Permission to consult with other agencies or workers, is always obtained from the client, except when emergency action has to be taken on behalf of a child, and against the client's wishes. So far no such crisis has occurred, but if it does, responsibility for action will rest with the consultant and not with the volunteer.

    The disadvantage of using "Life Line" for clients' first contact is that, after ventilating their feelings, some subsequently deny that they have a problem. Under these circumstances it is hard for the P.S.S. volunteer to establish a relationship, and all that can be done is to leave the way open for the client to call back if another crisis occurs.


    The present group of 14 counsellors are all mothers. They differ widely in age and in cultural background, but they all possess the ability to listen to other people, and to care about their clients. They also share a readiness to risk having to make radical changes in their own attitudes.

    Men are not excluded, but so far none have volunteered.

    The selection of volunteers is crucial to the service. Not only are they expected to undertake rigorous training, to use the consultants regularly, and to accept considerable responsibilities, but their families must be ready for the service to intrude, at times, into the privacy of their home life. Personal interviews, before and after training, have proved effective in selecting out, by mutual agreement, those not ready to undertake the work.

    The three consultants ars professional social workers practising in local counselling agencies. Each is responsible for a group of volunteers and is available to them for consultation about their own or their client's problems.


    All volunteers undertake a basic training course of at least 3 months. At first it was thought necessary to provide them with a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the medico-legal aspects of child maltreatment, so that they would be fully conversant with pitfalls that they should avoid. As it turned out the first group of trainees were well armed for problems they seldom met.

    After six months work with clients, it became increasingly clear that the role of the volunteer is to stand alongside the client as a supportive friend, avoiding as far as possible action that would link them in the client's mind with the statutory, legal, or medical authorities. The focus of the second training course was therefore radically altered. The didactic presentation of factual information was cut to an essential minimum, and trainees were taught to develop intra-personal awareness and inter-personal skills through such means as role plays and group discussion. In this way they were better prepared for the central core of the work that they were actually to undertake.

    Inservice training t


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