Often it is those most in need of a voice who are not heard. Caitlin Ganter spoke to Stella Conroy, Deputy CEO of Families Australia and ACU Masters of Human Services graduate, about speaking up for vulnerable Australians.
Stela Conroy, Master of Human Services
With all the stress of modern-day life, families are under mounting pressure. However, they are not alone and Stella Conroy, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of Families Australia, is among those working to ensure families in all their diversity, are supported to enjoy the greatest possible wellbeing, safety and security.
“Family is such a broad term, and it covers so many people and issues,” said Stella.
“Families Australia works across a wide range of family matters, however, we’ve concentrated significantly in strategies related to child wellbeing and safety, both current and historical. Our aim is to facilitate, to bring our diverse membership and sectors together.”
With around 500 member organisations across Australia, Families Australia is a national, peak, not-for-profit organisation which strives to improve the wellbeing of all Australian families.
It deals with issues such as child safety and wellbeing, supporting Forgotten Australians, mental health, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, grandparent and kinship carers, substance misuse, work and family, and family violence.
“My role is hugely varied and I am constantly engaging with a range of people and working on various tasks. One of my main duties is to consult across the non-government (NGO) family and community services sector. Essentially, Families Australia seeks feedback from these organisations, and I synthesise this information into advice for the Commonwealth Government.
“I operate within the NGO sector to promote the voice of those who are vulnerable in society, and encourage colleagues to contribute to the national agenda.”
One of Stella’s main areas of interest is child safety.
“Child wellbeing is a key concern of mine. I’m heavily involved in the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children and Families Australia are convenors for the non-government sector on the National Framework to bring family issues to the table.
“The National Framework is a long-term approach to promote the safety and wellbeing of Australia’s children. It is a first for Australia, and the Commonwealth Government has taken a national leadership role to bring the jurisdictions and the nongovernment organisation sector, including researchers and practitioners, to the table; to work through national policy, national strategy and improve implementation to help children and young people in care today.
“There was a NAPCAN survey in 2010 that showed that a large number of respondents did not know where to turn to or how to refer a family to further support. Not knowing where to turn with your concerns is really disturbing and can limit people’s desire to contribute to child wellbeing.”
However, children are not the only group of Stella’s agenda, and Forgotten Australians are also a priority. Forgotten Australians are the estimated 500,000 people who experienced institutional or other out-of-home care as children in the last century, many of whom suffered criminal physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
“I work with Forgotten Australians, who are the adult survivors of Australian childhood institutionalisation. Due to the management of those institutions, many experienced a great deal of harm.
“The Alliance for Forgotten Australians (AFA) brings together people from around the country who were raised in institutions; they bring their voice to the national policy level to help inform government about what it needs to do to adequately provide better support.
“I have worked on various national reference groups and produced conference presentations with the Caroline Carroll, Chair, AFA, so that AFA can raise the profile of Forgotten Australians’ issues, bringing the ‘voice’ of their experience and the adverse impacts of their childhoods to the national policy agenda.
“One particular concern regarding Forgotten Australians is ageing. We have anecdotal data that suggests they are ageing faster and experience high rates of chronic illness due to the challenges experienced in childhood. Many people have been affected across the whole of their lifespan and we need services to provide support.
“Having a dialogue with Forgotten Australians may be very valuable for children in care today. The voices of children and young people in current out-of-home care are inadequately represented at present, although the National Framework intends to address this deficit."
Stella has a long history of employment in the human services, and despite enjoying the field and the challenges it brings, she never planned this as her career path.
“To be honest, I fell into the industry in the early 1980s. It actually started when I went to live in Bourke, NSW with my family. I got involved with a local management committee, working to implement a toy library and although the role was unpaid, I discovered I loved it.
“In the end, we managed to turn the library into a mobile service so it could provide support for isolated families. The library staff would take resources to isolated families beyond the town, facilitate playgroups, talk to the families and identify if health checks were needed. It also gave families living and working in these communities access to a range of parenting information. This was first opportunity to work with families experiencing vulnerability. I was hooked.”