Trauma-informed Learning and Practice in Remote Western Australia

This blog was co-authored by Verity Ashover and Dagney Hopp,
from Royal Far West – focusing on children’s health, country-wide.


Learnings from the Australian Childhood Trauma Conference 2016: Practice in Remote Western Australia in Partnership with Marninwarntikura Women’s Resource Centre.

Royal Far West (RFW) is a not-for-profit which has been providing health, medical and education services to children from rural and remote Australia for 94 years. Today, our integrated health, education and disability services for children aged 0-12 years are delivered through a combination of on-site, Telecare (aka Telehealth) and in-community programs across Australia. We see firsthand the need for improved access to allied health services in rural and remote areas. We are also continually evolving our services in order to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families.

Trauma Journey

We were seeing an increasing number of complex family dynamics in the families attending our services, and our Health Director recognised the importance of formally adopting trauma-informed practice by including it as a goal in our Strategic Plan 2016-20.

The first step for a group of lucky clinicians was to attend the 2016 2nd Biannual Childhood Trauma Conference in Melbourne. We each had our gurus with the Indigenous perspective covered by Michael Yellowbird and Judy Atkinson. The Occupational Therapists (OTs) were excited by Stephen Porges and Pat Ogden and the combination of the research of neuroscientists such as Vittorio Gallese. Learning how the interpretation of research is put in practice with people working on the ground was very inspiring.

With trauma-informed practice firmly in the Strategic Plan, and palpable inspiration from our journey south, our Trauma-Informed Working Party was born. Our learnings helped to reinforce the work we are doing in redesigning our service, as well as informing the design of the new building that is due for completion at the end of this year.


A Bunuba word meaning:
To embrace and adopt with love and care

Our learnings from the conference helped to shape our work with a remote, largely Aboriginal community in the West Kimberley region of WA. Marninwarntikura (Marnin) Women’s Resource Centre in Fitzroy Crossing, approached us in 2015.  Marnin knew that their community was experiencing intergenerational trauma and there were many developmental vulnerabilities in their children, including a high prevalence of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). However, their remoteness meant access to service support and treatment was very difficult.  A team from RFW was invited to Fitzroy Crossing.  The emphasis on the first visits was on relationship building, listening to stories and immersing ourselves in the community.  Judy Atkinson talked of the importance of listening, listening to stories, yarning, hearing what people want to tell you; “Dadirri” the process of ‘listening to one another in contemplative and reciprocal relationships’.

The stories of the people were amazing in their sadness and inspiration.  Many stories of children taken from their families in the Stolen Generation, many stories of children abandoned by their families in fear for being ‘too white’ and attracting the attention of the Kartiya (whitefellas) to their tribe. Stories of children walking hundreds of kilometres home. Many stories of sorry business.  Children as young as 10 committing suicide and deaths from alcohol-related accidents or violence.

Safety, security and access to therapeutic inputs was a common theme.  In October 2017 Marnin and Royal Far West hosted a camp for families who accessed the Marnin service. The camp was held in a fit for purpose facility in Broome, right on Cable Beach.  The most powerful therapy was for the families to be in a safe space for a week without the presence of violence, drug or alcohol use or humbugging (family members asking for food, money, etc.).  They were given access to a speech pathologist, looking at language development through play, and an OT whose capacity strengthening and direct therapy were informed directly by Stephen Porges’ work on Polyvagal Theory.

The mothers also held informal sessions with a social worker and speech pathologist where themes around parenting were discussed.  Judy Atkinson discussed having good conversations while doing something with your hands, so we set up a canvas in the middle and painted as we talked.  Sharing our experiences with the themes of Rock: we are our children’s rock, but sometimes rocks can be a barrier and there are things that get in the way of being our best self; Baby: what do we need to know about our developing children and when should we ask for help; Crocodile: We can be the mean, snappy, harsh saltwater crocodile or the strong, kind freshwater crocodile.

Our shared experiences have helped us to build trust and open the door to a relationship over distance.  Using computers, capacity strengthening sessions have already started to be delivered to the Yiyili Aboriginal Community School. The teachers and Aboriginal staff have all had sessions from the OT about regulation and safety, and from the Speechie about language and speech sound development.

Hearing from the professionals at the Childhood Trauma Conference was immensely helpful in giving us a framework, and we look forward to this next conference; however we learnt a lot more from our time on camp and in the community.

The people of Fitzroy Crossing have been sharing with us their knowledge so that we can fill the framework.  Our hope is that between us, we can find a community led model that works for remote Indigenous communities across Australia.

Verity Ashover is a Social Worker, who works for Royal Far West, a not for profit service working with children and families from rural and remote areas across Australia.  She works with parents to find their strengths and build strong relationships with their children.  She has a strong emphasis in building parent capacity through supportive parenting practices.

Dagney Hopp is an Occupational Therapist, who works for Royal Far West, a not for profit service working with children and families from rural and remote areas across Australia.  She works to strengthen kids’ ability to play, learn and feel happy and safe. She works with children and families face-to-face and via telecare and has authored and delivered numerous capacity building seminars for teachers and professionals.