“Children are real people and they need real relationships – it’s that simple,” says youth worker and newly anointed 2019 NSW Young Australian of the Year Jarrod Wheatley. “We can’t leave it to institutional environments to care for our kids. Peoplehave to care for our kids. We need to put those relational practices at the heart of how we care for children.”
Jarrod’s belief that there is a better, more compassionate way to care for high-risk Australian kids, plus his determination to clear bureaucratic hurdles and introduce the new system, have brought him widespread recognition in recent months. Managing a youth centre in the Blue Mountains when he was only a teenager, and then working with young refugees in Germany, convinced him that the policy of “professional distance” in group homes was failing Aussie kids. So Jarrod, now 30, founded the not-for-profit organisation Professional Individualised Care (PIC) in an attempt to change the system.
At present, the vast majority of Australian foster children with high needs live in what’s known as the out-of-home care system: a network of institutions or group homes staffed by shift workers rather than foster parents. In line with mainstream thinking, those shift workers are instructed not to form close personal bonds with the kids or to have any physical contact with them. “But for children in group homes, if we just surround them with adults who are all keeping their distance, far from it being helpful, I think it’s incredibly damaging,” Jarrod says. “What they need is someone in their life who’s saying, ‘You’re doing really well’ or ‘I’m proud of you.’ These things can mean 100 times more than any kind of program you can write.”
PIC offers an alternative. “We place one young person with a professional therapeutic carer, and we pay the carer a full-time wage to care for that child in their home,” Jarrod explains. It can be hugely transformative for a child “who’s come from a group home environment, where he might be living with six other young people, with shift workers coming in and out. Going from that to, say, a one-on-one setting in a beautiful environment, with someone to advocate for you around health, at school … just trying to find better outcomes for that young person.”
Jarrod, who grew up in Katoomba, decided early on that he wanted to work in the social sector. “It’s something that I wanted to do intuitively – it’s something that I felt taken by, engaged by,” he says.
Aged 17, he took a job at the fledgling Katoomba Youth Centre – now part of the Mountains Youth Services Team (MYST) – and helped turn it into a significant provider of drop-in care for 12-to-18-year-olds in the Blue Mountains. “When we started, it was only one or two young people, but within a short period of time we’d have 50 or 60 young people coming in after school and all eating a healthy meal,” he remembers.
Although he’d been trained to keep “professional distance”, working with Katoomba’s at-risk young people convinced Jarrod of the importance of close relationships between children and carers. Then, in his early 20s, he moved to Germany to work with young refugees, some of whom were being cared for under the PIC system. “What I saw in Germany was what I already knew to be true and in many ways what I was already doing when I was running the Katoomba Youth Centre,” he says.
In Germany, Jarrod spent a week living with Linda, a carer who was operating the PIC model at her home with a young person. “This young person rested her head on Linda’s shoulder as they were watching TV one night,” Jarrod says – a major taboo in the Australian sector. The next morning, Jarrod asked Linda whether she felt compelled to keep professional distance. She told him: “Jarrod, you don’t get it. It’s not about professional distance – it’s about professional nearness.
“That was a lightbulb moment for me.”
Back in NSW, it took Jarrod almost three years to navigate social-sector bureaucracy and win both the approval of the NSW Office of the Children’s Guardian and the support of NSW Department of Family and Community Services. But he finally prevailed, establishing the organisation – also called PIC – as a partnership between Mountains Youth Services Team and a long-standing German provider called IJS. A small number of children have already been paired with carers.
“Yes, we’re up and running, and it’s fantastic for those young people and those carers, but there’s a larger culture shift that needs to take place,” Jarrod says. He knows that many people within the social-services sector remain resistant to his progressive ideas. “And I’m very careful not to present the PIC model as some magic solution or a silver bullet that makes all the problems that these children are experiencing go away.”
But Jarrod remains convinced that, for the most at-risk kids, it’s a definite improvement. “One young person was nine years old and had gone through 50 different foster homes and had never really been anywhere longer than three months,” he says. “The security he has now in his life is allowing him for the first time to address many things, to have a childhood.”
Asked to describe the boy’s new circumstances, Jarrod says: “It looks like normal life. I spoke to him recently and we just had a normal conversation. He told me he was going for a bush walk the next day … that he was looking forward to seeing some friends. It’s just everyday life, but that normality is what we need. It looks like exactly what I would wish for my own son.”
“And it’s really that simple. It’s about saying, ‘What would a good parent do?’ and can we put that in place for young people who are incredibly vulnerable? We’ve created environments for these young kids that work for our paperwork trail, but you need to ask, If I was a parent, would I want my child to live there? What would it feel like to sleep overnight in that home?”
To find our more about PIC click here