Supporting the youngest victim-survivors

The period between conception and age two is a particularly important developmental period, setting a child up for success in education and achieving key milestones in the longer term.  

The trauma and disruption caused by family violence can significantly impact young children and adversely affect their early development and lifelong outcomes. 

“The intergenerational impacts of family violence need to be addressed early,” says McAuley’s CEO, Jocelyn Bignold OAM.  

“Bonding with the youngest family members and helping them achieve key developmental milestones can take a back seat as mothers shift their focus to accessing safety and dealing with legal, financial and housing issues, as well as the mental health concerns that usually result.”  

To improve early years outcomes for children who have fled family violence with their mother, McAuley is piloting a program that will introduce a Maternal and Child Health Nurse (MCH nurse) into our integrated suite of supports for women and children. The pilot is being funded by the Paul Ramsay Foundation’s (PRF) Strengthening Early Years program. 

The MCH nurse will be based at Heywood House, McAuley’s new crisis accommodation facility in Melbourne’s west, and will support pregnant women and mothers with children up to two years of age.  

The MCH nurse will work with families to enhance each mother-child relationship and support mothers with strategies for achieving their child’s early developmental milestones. This will include helping mothers to improve their child’s sleep and settling patterns, address behavioural problems, and support their child’s overall health and wellbeing.   

The MCH nurse will also run supported playgroups and help mothers understand the importance of having positive daily interactions with their children. They will learn a variety of ways to engage and promote healthy development, including creating routines, reading to children and actively supporting their child’s play.  

The aim is that when a mother leaves our crisis accommodation, she will have a framework to support her child’s ongoing learning and development and a renewed focus on helping her child achieve important developmental milestones. The MCH nurse will also connect each mother leaving our care with the local MCH service in their next location. 

It is anticipated that at least 100 young children and their mothers will be supported by the MCH nurse during the 18-month pilot program. 

This trial aims to demonstrate how a short, early intervention of this nature can significantly impact a child’s development and, over the longer term, build their individual resilience and readiness for school. This will help young families to heal and confidently move forward following violence.  

“The addition of a Maternal and Child Health Nurse to our integrated suite of supports will have a significant impact on the early childhood development and, ultimately, school readiness of very young children who arrive at our family violence crisis accommodation with their mothers,” Jocelyn says. 

McAuley is committed to identifying and developing programs that empower women and children to rebuild their lives after experiencing family violence and homelessness. Our focus on innovation relies on philanthropic funding to enable programs to be built, trialed, and evaluated, after which we seek ongoing government funding to sustain them in the longer term.  

McAuley is among the first recipients across Australia to be awarded a Strengthening Early Years grant funded by PRF and managed by the Australian Communities Foundation (ACF).  

PRF’s Head of Early Childhood and program lead, Hannah Barber, says the successful applicants are all dedicated to supporting parents, caregivers and children experiencing disadvantage in the crucial first one thousand days of a child’s life. This aligns with PRF’s mission to help break cycles of disadvantage in Australia. 

Ms Barber says PRF was impressed by the range of innovative approaches put forward by the chosen grant recipients. “We look forward to partnering with these organisations to help grow their impact,” she adds. 

ACF’s Grants Manager, Gabby Lam, says the calibre of the organisations applying for funding was incredibly high and the grant partners were “struck by the potential and innovation that exists in this sector”.