The power of groupwork - parents connecting to build leadership and change in Norway and England.

Me with Merethe and Renate from the Organisasjon for Barnevernsforeldre in Norway. This is a national parents interests group, funded annually to represent parents in the child protection system. This highly respected group provides advice to government and other stakeholders. 

Me with Merethe and Renate from the Organisasjon for Barnevernsforeldre in Norway. This is a national parents interests group, funded annually to represent parents in the child protection system. This highly respected group provides advice to government and other stakeholders. 

Norway has a child protection system with very different laws and structures to Australia. It has more of a family support orientation and about half of the children in care are there voluntarily.  I went to Norway because I heard about the work of this group - Organisasjon for Barnevernsforeldre. It grew from group work processes that were supported by social workers and action researchers from the VID university in Oslo who wanted to learn from parents experiences. Merethe Loland is the leader of Organisasjon for Barnevernsforeldre and is a parent with lived experience of children being removed. Like our FISH parent leaders she continues to work with the system as a parent and as a leader and advocate. Merethe and other parents and workers I spoke to all relied on the power of groupwork and parents connecting to one another. For some parents this was mostly about emotional support to help them get through the hardest of times and for others, like Merethe, it is about parent led change and improving things for other parents and children. The Organisasjon for Barnevernsforeldre meets regularly with the Minister and other senior leaders, participates on working groups and is a key part of the Norway child protection policy discourse. This is an extraordinary achievement and one I have learnt so much from. 

As well as groupwork, parents in Stavanger have been working with child protection services for many years to deliver workshops with social workers. This involvement has seen the workforce in Stavanger and elsewhere learn from parent experiences. FISH parents also regularly train caseworkers in New South Wales but there are opportunities to improve this and build it into induction for all new staff and carers and to undergraduate courses.

Elisabeth from Heggeli Family Services and Tor from VID University.

Elisabeth from Heggeli Family Services and Tor from VID University.

Elisabeth is one of a team of family consultants at Heggeli childrens home, run by the Oslo City Mission. We would call this a group home in Australia. Heggeli provides a caring home for children while matching them to permanent foster care - they have very little staff turnover - imagine that! Once in foster care, children are still part of Heggeli as their carers are all supported here. Elisabeth and her colleagues could see the connection between children's well being and their parents. They knew that building relationships with and working with parents was good for children. So they have been running parent's groups for many years. Group work in Norway is always combined with food and Elisabeth talked about a planned Christmas gathering where parents would eat food cooked for them at Heggeli. Other groups did this too and this is a real learning for me. Food is a great way to show caring and that parents are welcome. But how often do services in Australia do this? Heggeli has plans for ongoing groups that are specifically for the parents of children they care for both in the group home and in foster care. Along with many other people working with parents in Norway, Elisabeth and colleagues from Heggeli have been working with Professor Tor Slettebo at VID university. Tor has recently been commissioned by the Ministry for children and families to map and explore all the groupwork activities for parents with children in care in the whole country. Again, this would be a valuable activity in Australia where services of any kind for parents are hard to find and understand. 

Me with Tor, Kirsti and Vilde from the government run Enerhaugen Family Service and the NGO - Oslo City mission. These agencies collaborate to run parenting programs especially for parents from migrant and refugee backgrounds who have had children removed. 

Me with Tor, Kirsti and Vilde from the government run Enerhaugen Family Service and the NGO - Oslo City mission. These agencies collaborate to run parenting programs especially for parents from migrant and refugee backgrounds who have had children removed. 

The family counselling services or Bufetat in Norway are universally available family counselling and therapy services - anyone can access them for free. They have a particular mandate from government to develop expertise and provide specialist services with parents with children in care. This is government policy and again, an amazing achievement of parent leaders and their supporters. I met people from several Bufetat services in Oslo, Askim and Stavanger - a special thanks to Tor who took me around everywhere and connected me to so many people. 

In Enerhaugen Kirsti and Vilde are regularly running the evidence based International Child Development Program (ICDP) with parents with children in care. This has between 10 and 12 weekly sessions and has been slightly modified by these workers to suit the needs of this parent group. Referrals come from child welfare services, from Bufetat and from parents themselves via community organisations. The collaboration with government and non government organisations has been crucial to success. The team have seen a number of parents get their children restored home and are now planning to run an ongoing group to support these families as they know restoration transitions can be hard. The group work they do is incredibly innovative and can involve up to 5 interpreters as languages and cultures are so diverse. They are also getting great involvement from Dads. Anyone who thinks parents with kids in care are hard to engage can learn a thing or two from this groupwork!

As usual there is way too much to include in this one blog. I also met with the Ministry of family and children's services who were really inspired by the FISH website. It is great to be able to give back as I have learned so much from them and all the people I met on this trip to Norway. 

Angela and me at the Family Rights Group in London. Angela is on the Board and is also co chair of the Your Family Your Voice Alliance  - an alliance of parents, social workers, educators and other stakeholders in London. 

Angela and me at the Family Rights Group in London. Angela is on the Board and is also co chair of the Your Family Your Voice Alliance  - an alliance of parents, social workers, educators and other stakeholders in London. 

Last stop - England in the UK. I met with people from the Family Rights Group - www.frg.org.uk - including Angela, a parent leader. Angela's two boys have both been adopted from care some years ago. She doesn't know where they live but she knows they have emigrated. She has "letterbox" contact only which is the most contact that any child gets with their parents once they have been adopted in the UK. Many children do not even get this. Angela is a great leader and mother of another daughter at home and is determined to keep promoting family voices in the interests of children. She and other parents are on a parent panel with the FRG which regularly trains workers and provides workshops to help increase learning from the lived experience. Angela and other parents at the FRG will also participate in the care crisis review, a review of the child protection system in the UK which is still in crisis despite years and years of attempted improvements. With parent leaders like Angela and others taking part there is a far greater hope that the review will reveal positive solutions.

Angela is co chair of the your family your voice alliance. They have developed a charter to help build better relationships between parents and workers. Find out more about the charter at: https://www.frg.org.uk/involving-families/your-family-your-voice/mutual-expectations-a-charter-for-parents-and-local-authority-children-s-services

My last meeting was with two social work researchers and leaders in Sheffield, Kate Morris and Brid Featherstone who have researched and written about parent and family experiences in child welfare for many years. Check their book re imagining child protection at https://policypress.co.uk/re-imagining-child-protection. It was a fantastic opportunity to discuss their research and ours and practical ways we can build a better and more ethical system and have parents lead this work. 

Well that's it from me! It has been an amazing journey and I have learned so much. On my return to Australia I will finish writing my report and this will be published on the Churchill Trust website, the Life Without Barriers website and of course, on the FISH website.  It will be ready by mid March, 2018. Like our Facebook page to find out first when it is ready. Please get in touch if you want to know more and if you would like to discuss my findings. My email address is jessica.cocks@lwb.org.au.