Yorgum Aboriginal Family Counselling Service

Previously published in Family Relationships Quarterly No.17, 2010 - the Newsletter of the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse.

by Mark Lawrence

Services provided by organisations managed and staffed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with strong ties to the local community offer their clients an alternative to non-Indigenous services. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff are able to empathise with the experiences of their clients, who feel safe and accepted, and understand the complex connections between families and communities. In this article, Mark Lawrence describes an Aboriginal service that draws on a range of therapeutic approaches grounded in Aboriginal philosophies and the practice and personal wisdom of its staff to assist families and communities.

Yorgum Aboriginal Family Counselling Service is an Aboriginal community-controlled family counselling service supporting the Aboriginal communities of metropolitan Perth and parts of southwest Western Australia. The service receives both state and federal funding to offer a range of services, including:

  • specialist counselling to Aboriginal children who have experienced sexual abuse or witnessed family violence, including those in the child protection system;
  • family violence counselling;
  • community education and community development;
  • Link-Up services for members of Western Australia's Stolen Generations, throughout the midwest/Murchison, Bunbury southwest, Goldfields, Wheatbelt and Perth metropolitan regions; and
  • support for local Aboriginal grandmothers' groups.

All Yorgum staff are Aboriginal, and the majority are from the Nyoongar community of southwest WA, or have connections with that or other Aboriginal communities. The service employs trained and experienced counsellors, including an art therapist, working with the support and supervision of an Aboriginal registered psychologist.

The service was established when a number of Aboriginal people, primarily women, sat under a tree in 1991 to examine the crisis of abuse, violence, deaths and over-representation in the criminal justice system of children and young people in the community. After an initial period of service development, community education and counselling training for the core group of Aboriginal people who founded it, the service has grown into a counselling, therapy and healing centre strongly rooted in Aboriginal culture, philosophy, history and community. Yorgum is the Nyoongar word for a red-flowering gum tree native to southwest WA known for its healing properties. The tree is also a metaphor for the service's holistic approach to therapy and its contribution to the healing journeys of Aboriginal children, young people and adults.

Aboriginal community, Aboriginal organisation

A crucial ingredient in Yorgum's success is that it is an Aboriginal service with strong roots in the local community. According to Jade Maddox, Yorgum's CEO, being an Aboriginal community-controlled organisation with an Aboriginal committee of management and staff has been instrumental to clients feeling safe and a sense of belonging there. It is a non-judgemental, supportive environment, without the racism, prejudice and disadvantage that Aboriginal people may face in the wider community, or the negative connotations many Aboriginal people associate with non-Indigenous services - something essential for clients seeking assistance and support in healing significant life trauma. It is a space where they don't have to constantly explain themselves, their families or their culture. As an adult client reported to a counsellor, "There's no 'stop' sign or 'beware' sign at Yorgum. I always feel welcome".

Clients are welcome to get to know other staff at Yorgum and build a relationship with the service as a whole, not just with their counsellor. "Kids especially want to know who's who, and who's the boss - they seek me out", says Jade Maddox. Clients also learn who the counsellors are before any decision about which counsellor is assigned to them. This allows potential clients to indicate their preference for working with a counsellor who may have a connection to their extended family or who is unfamiliar with their family circumstances.

Language and culture are also essential aspects of the Yorgum community - Nyoongar language and words from Aboriginal English are incorporated into interactions between staff and clients, and between staff, helping to encourage rapport, ease communication and build connections.

However, while being an Aboriginal organisation with Aboriginal staff is essential to Yorgum's achievements, it is no guarantee of success on its own. According to two Yorgum practitioners who were among the organisation's founders, Yorgum had to earn the trust of the community over many years. One commented that "We didn't just walk in here and say we're going to do this [counselling service]". Yorgum continues working to earn the trust and respect of the community through the principled way it works with clients, its strong connectedness to the community and its contribution to healing in the Aboriginal community.

An understanding from life

As Aboriginal practitioners, Yorgum's staff share the lived experience of the Aboriginal community they work in and with, giving them an intimate understanding of, and ability to empathise with, their clients' difficulties and experiences. Understanding the impact of European colonisation, past government policies such as forced child removal, and of the continuing socio-economic disadvantage on Aboriginal communities, especially communities in southwest Western Australia, provides insight into the manifestations of often deep-seated and intergenerational trauma that clients present with. This is crucially relevant to Yorgum's work in providing Link-Up services to the Stolen Generations. It is also essential to the practitioners' understanding of the negative impact of these factors on family breakdown and parenting skills and capacity, and their repercussions in substance misuse, family violence and child abuse.

Aboriginal staff also bring with them an understanding of the strengths and resiliencies that family, community, culture and spirituality offer to members of the Aboriginal community. Knowledge of the extended families and kinship connections within Perth and southwest WA's Aboriginal communities, and where clients fit in these networks, is also essential. This knowledge stems from being part of the community, and living those experiences, rather than from a theoretical basis. According to Karen Strachan, Yorgum's Clinical Supervisor, "It is not what we have learnt through mainstream education - though valuable for building our skill base - it's who we are and where we've come from that is just as important and adds to our ability to engage and assist in the healing of our people".

Therapeutic approaches

Yorgum's practitioners draw on a range of therapeutic approaches to work with various clients, including:

  • sand-play therapy (particularly with children);
  • art therapy (adults and children);
  • yarning therapy;
  • one-on-one counselling;
  • group work and education workshops; and
  • offering clients practical support and referral to other services in ways that empower the client to "take control and do for themselves".

Sand-play therapy and art therapy are used extensively by Yorgum's art therapist/counsellor as effective techniques for allowing clients who have difficulty identifying and expressing feelings and thoughts verbally to articulate themselves creatively. This is especially the case with young children. Art therapy is also effective in group work and workshop settings.

Yarning therapy is based on the principle that telling the story is part of the therapeutic process, where enabling the client to share their story validates their experiences. While resonating with narrative and other talking therapies, "yarning" is also strongly rooted in Aboriginal cultural practice and oral traditions.

Yorgum's therapeutic approaches are tailored to clients' individual needs, rather than a generic formula for case management. For instance, while counsellors develop a plan to work with clients over a number of sessions, this is only a guide. Flexibility here is crucial, as clients may require longer periods of counselling or may return to counselling after an extended period away - often in response to further experiences of trauma, memories and other triggers.

The practitioners are also prepared to offer a little of themselves to clients to build rapport and trust by allowing clients an insight, however small, into who they are - where they are from, what their life's journey has been like, and how they may be connected to the client's family.

What is common across all of Yorgum's therapeutic practice is the holistic approach taken to a client's needs and issues, and the use of techniques grounded in Aboriginal, particularly Nyoongar, culture and philosophies. This holistic, culturally embedded approach manifests in a number of ways, including:

  • A "whole person/whole-of-circumstances" approach - Stemming from the Aboriginal concept of health and wellbeing, this recognises the individual's interrelated physical, emotional, spiritual and cultural health and wellbeing, including their connection to land, family and community. While the client may demonstrate a number of negative behaviours that are identified as needing to be addressed, practitioners can explore the cause of the behaviour with them, looking at past trauma or current stresses.
  • A "whole-of-family" approach - Yorgum staff acknowledge that an individual client's family members may also be experiencing distress and difficulties related to the individual's situation, and that the family also needs support. For example, where a child is receiving counselling due to their experience of abuse, their carers - in most cases their mother, grandparents or other carers - may also need counselling to deal with these issues and to be supported in managing the child's needs.
  • A "whole-of-community" approach - A holistic approach also recognises the role of the community, including how the issues and difficulties facing the Aboriginal community of metropolitan Perth and southwest WA affect individual members of that community, and how the individual has an impact on the rest of their community.

A crucial contribution to healing

Yorgum plays an essential role in supporting and enabling the healing of generations of Aboriginal people in southwestern WA. Through its example and sharing of knowledge with other Aboriginal practitioners, as well as those interested in learning to work more effectively and respectfully with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Yorgum is also helping to shape the development of therapeutic practices that are culturally appropriate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The service draws on a rich tapestry of approaches and techniques, as well as the personal experiences and expertise of staff, to support children and adults undergoing healing from abuse, family violence, family separation and other lingering effects of colonisation. But Yorgum's staff don't lose sight of the client and what suits them best. As one of their senior practitioners reports, "Sometimes, the simple ways of working actually work".

© SNAICC 2010
Republished with permission

Mark Lawrence, SNAICC's Coordinator, Social and Emotional Wellbeing Projects, interviewed Jade Maddox, CEO of Yorgum Aboriginal Family Counselling Service, Clinical Coordinator Karen Strachan, and counsellors Millie Penny and Lorna Alone, as part of SNAICC's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Practices Documentation Project. Mark's visit to Yorgum in Perth, WA, was made possible through an Education, Learning Events, Visits and Exchanges grant from Oxfam Australia through its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples' Program.