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As a youth worker, when guiding clients through challenging times, you will often take on the role of a helpful parent. Clients who are young parents rely on workers for support and direction when navigating the obstacles of pregnancy -– particularly those dealing with substance use – and the challenges that commonly present after the child is born.
Over time, strong therapeutic relationships are cultivated between you and your clients – the journey becomes shared.
Together, through a process of trial and error, you’ll discover what works best for the client and their child, bolster their sense of personal responsibility, strengthen their confidence to deal with challenges and improve their ability to communicate effectively with those around them.
Research has shown that the greater the number of people, services and institutions – community connections – in a young person’s life, the better their chance of experiencing positive outcomes for themselves and their child. As a worker, it’s imperative you guide clients in building strong networks of varied community connections.
In your guiding role, you might accompany clients to important appointments with community connections, and facilitate and establish new community connections. During these meetings and appointments, you’ll likely be relied upon to help absorb, digest and translate the information obtained for your client.
What are community connections?
Community connections are relationships, supports, services and institutions – ideally found locally – that are easily accessible to young parents to aid the progress and development of both parent and child.
In addition to the highly important connection of a youth-friendly GP who is comfortable with and accustomed to treating young people (or young parents) dealing with substance use, a young parent and their child can benefit immeasurably from living in convenient proximity to and being connected with services and supports such as:
- Health care professionals: midwife, child and maternal health nurse, paediatrician, GP
- Social centres/community centres
- Swim schools
- Mothers’ group/young mothers’ group
- Libraries that run groups such as story time, where parent and child can go and read together
- Local council offices (to uncover services available in the area)
- Craft groups (churches commonly run such groups, which provide invaluable opportunities for parent-child bonding as well as social interaction and connection with other young parents or people in the community.)
Some services might cost more than a client can afford. In these cases, it’s worth contacting the service on your client’s behalf, explaining the client’s circumstances and highlight the benefits of the service for both the client and their child. Mention your role in the client’s life and the purpose of engaging the service, and gauge whether free or discounted access is possible.
Why are community connections important?
A worker’s reach and ability to offer assistance is often constrained by time. You’ll likely have a brief window weekly, fortnightly or maybe even monthly to help and guide a young parent and to ensure their child is progressing at a satisfactory pace. To be as effective as possible, your therapeutic relationship must be supported by solid community connections – these services and supports will be there for clients to call on when assistance, guidance, or simply a break is needed.
How is a youth-friendly GP connection beneficial for workers?
Community connections such as a youth-friendly GP can serve as an information/check-in source for workers (with a client’s consent, of course). For example, a GP can let a worker know if key appointments (tests, vaccinations etc.) were made or missed, or (with client consent) pass information on to you so that you can discuss it with a client in language and terms easily understood.
GPs with which you have a solid relationship can also be relied upon to check in with clients themselves in efforts to keep client and child on track.
Why are GP connections important for young parents?
Strong relationships with substance-use friendly GPs are extremely important. With such doctors, clients are more likely to feel relaxed and comfortable about opening up. In this non-judgemental and intimidation-free environment, a client can share information without fear of invoking judgement or shaming. These open discussions pave the way for conversations about safe planning so that a client’s substance use can be addressed and its consequences for the baby are planned for.
What happens to clients without community connections?
BARRIERS AND RISK FACTORS
Without community connections, the barriers between health and progress for both client and child are bigger, more difficult and more challenging to negotiate.
The manifold risk factors that commonly present in a young parent’s life are also increased. These include:
- Social isolation and its negative psychological impacts
- Developmental delays for both parent and/or child
- Child’s health potentially placed at risk
- Negative psychological impacts for a young parent shamed by the stigma of being a young parent dealing with substance use
MISINFORMATION AND MISUNDERSTANDING
A young parent with too few community connections will be left with gaping holes in their knowledge about raising a child and many obstacles in their path.
Below are examples of common complications indicative of gaps in a young parent’s understanding.
- When it comes time for a young parent to enrol their child in school, it becomes apparent the child hasn’t been immunised.
- Similarly, when it comes time to enrol their child in school, the client will realise they have lost or disposed of their child’s birth certificate as it wasn’t something noted as important to keep at the time of birth.
- When it is necessary to put the child in childcare, a young parent does not know where to turn or where to begin the enrolment process.
How do we assess and address barriers?
When building community connections, barriers present themselves in many forms.
- Assumptions might hinder communication between clients and service providers.
- Family culture can impede a client’s openness or ability to discuss their situation with family members.
- Lack of confidence and feeling uncomfortable opening up to a new service or person can serve as enormous barriers. For example, a client mightn’t feel comfortable discussing their situation or substance use with their family GP or the local GP in a small town (this is common in rural areas).
- A client’s indifference towards or misunderstanding of the importance of maintaining community connections by keeping appointments, being cordial with service providers etc.
- Societal barriers – i.e. stigma – often steer clients to silence or can make them feel deeply uncomfortable about opening up to service providers and being transparent about their situation and/or substance use.
In these cases, the strength of your therapeutic relationship provides a foundation to ask the client difficult or seemingly taboo questions that might help progress their situation.
For example, a young substance-using mother who was clearly struggling to juggle her life with caring for her child was asked by a worker if she still wanted to be a mother. The client responded, ‘no’, and steps were taken with Child Protection to arrange care for the child. In the months since, the mother has begun to regroup and re-established contact with the child. The process allowed her to admit her thoughts and feelings honestly without fear of being shamed. With her worker advocating on her behalf, issues with DHS are being smoothly negotiated and an eventual positive outcome for both mother and child is looking more likely.
The importance of strong therapeutic relationships
A young person with substance use issues, who has sought assistance from a youth service in the past, will often return if she becomes pregnant. In these instances, the young person is usually aware that non-judgmental support and advice is available, and that she can open about her substance use with her worker as well as whoever her worker connects her with. This openness stems from carefully built therapeutic relationships – the basis of all community connections.
Solid therapeutic relationships are absolutely essential to safeguard the development of the child and the progress of the young parent.
With a sound foundation of trust established and strengthened during the pregnancy journey and post-birth, you, the worker, are granted the privileged position of opportunistic intervention; for example, if you notice down the line that a child is displaying delayed speech development, you are in a position to raise your concern with the parent and create a community connection – a paediatrician, speech pathologist etc. – to help address the issue. It’s common for workers to accompany clients to important appointments knowing it may be difficult for a client to attend the appointment without assistance.
Young parents engaged with Child Protection (Victoria) can utilise 13-week at-risk funding for childcare and apply for extensions if need be [where available]. As a community connection, childcare is hugely important not only for a child’s development but also to provide respite for a parent who may seize the opportunity to sleep, grocery shop, socialise, visit a counsellor etc.
Finding community connections in new locations
Establishing community connections in new areas often begins with cold calling. Clients can also provide valuable leads if they know of services in the area or have friends who can recommend supports they’ve used.
You may also need to call on your own personal connections, professional networks or colleagues’ connections to unearth services and supports across the state or even interstate, as clients are often transient and require linking up with new services in different parts of the country. In these instances, it’s best to call the local municipality’s youth services and ask about what’s available in the area to suit your client’s needs.
Google is also a solid reference that can lead to a wealth of fresh discoveries in new areas.
HOW TO DISCOVER AND ESTABLISH NEW COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS
If you’ve cold-called a new service, introduce yourself and explain your client’s situation and the standard approach of your service. It’s important to get a feel for whether the service is open to the relationship on an ongoing basis; for example, will they be available for follow-up discussions with you to touch base on your client’s progress? Is it likely you and your client will be able to build relationships with individuals at this new service provider?
REACHING OUT TO ESTABLISH NEW CONNECTIONS DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK...
It’s often immediately obvious if attempts to establish a new community connection are likely to fail. When contacting a new connection, you might detect hesitation; for example, you might be told there’s a wait list etc., which can be telling of a judgemental approach to the client’s circumstances and therefore may not be worth pursuing. In these instances, it’s often best to explore other options.
Clients may also be quick to burn bridges, that is, compromise or terminate community connections. In these cases, it’s best to discuss the potential consequences and highlight for the client how this might compound their difficulties. Encouraging the client to revisit the connection and talk through the issues should be the first action.
How do you repair connections between workers and services?
If your relationship with a community connection such as a GP is damaged by a client’s behaviour, it’s always best to contact the connection and discuss what happened. Often GPs will go out on a limb to assist and can feel disappointed when things go wrong and consequently opposed to assisting further with that client or future clients. By empathising and discussing, a connection can be rebuilt; however, if it’s clear the connection has been damaged irreparably, it’s best to move on quickly and find a new connection for the client.
How can community connections strengthen a client's communication skills?
Are the community connections your client has established robust enough to withstand challenges? For example, have clients been guided on how to open a dialogue when there are issues or will they default to a confrontational approach and risk losing the connection altogether?
For example, if the client experiences a problem with a childcare worker and is ready to pull their child out of care, it’s important to open a discussion and highlight the negative consequences of ending such a connection: if a child is pulled out of childcare, which DHS is funding, what will happen next? Is there an alternative childcare facility in the local area or will moving the child require a lengthy daily and impractical commute?
Drawing a client’s attention such potential consequences and encouraging them to mend fractured relationships through dialogue will over time improve their communication skills across the board.
Strong connections can speed up assistance and positive outcomes
YSAS has built strong relationships in Frankston with a handful of on-site GPs who often go above and beyond the call of duty to assist. For example, some have been known to go with workers in an emergency situation to tend to a client, or will phone ahead to notify a worker that a client is due to visit and invite them to attend.
On-site (as well as off-site) doctors present varying degrees of flexibility and familiarity with common substance use behaviours, therefore, it’s often beneficial to prepare a doctor for the circumstances of a visiting client and serve as a translator of sorts to ensure a level of understanding between doctor and client.
It’s not uncommon to encounter inflexible community connections.
For example, an experienced maternal health nurse may be inclined to notify Child Protection as an automatic response – you may need to open discussions about how notification can be avoided by demonstrating the strength of the client’s community connection network and their strong relationship with you.
It is also worthwhile for workers to establish connections with local members of parliament. While not called upon very often, these connections can become useful in extreme cases such as when a client is unable to find housing. A past case revealed that when a worker contacted a local member of parliament to query the extreme difficulty of connecting a client with public housing, a positive outcome came about more speedily than it might otherwise have done. This can be considered tactful application of pressure on parties that have the ability to expedite positive outcomes.
The importance of persistent communication, checking-in, and maintaining relationships
A worker is tasked with maintaining what can be described as ‘hyper-communication’. That is, checking-in relentlessly with the client and their community connections. To ensure both client and child are progressing, thorough, open and constant communication with many stakeholders is vital.
You serve as the go-between and are often relied upon to translate information in both directions: to illuminate a client’s situation and behaviours for service providers and institutions, and to interpret, break down and translate the information received (next steps, medical systems, medical risks, pregnancy jargon, prescriptions, test results etc.) and feed it back to the client in relatable and easily absorbed language.
What can a young person do to establish and maintain their community connections?
When it comes to identifying which community connections are important for a young parent, it’s best to sit down with them and discuss goals and plans with achievable short-term timelines.
For example, establish what the client would like for their child and set a week-long window in which to reach out and establish a community connection related to their goal. If it’s a parent’s wish to enrol their child in childcare, encourage them to explore their options and reach out to potential providers in the coming week. When next catching-up, discuss how effective the plan was and if things didn’t go to plan, discuss why, assess the barriers and explore how you can work as a team to overcome them.
Constant reassessment, and trial and error, is part of the process. And while you, the worker, will guide clients on their journey, it’s important to encourage and cultivate personal responsibility and self-motivation so that you aren’t relied upon to solve every problem or deal with every challenge your client encounters.
Sharing knoweldge and experience with your team
It’s important to inform colleagues when a new and notable community connection is made. A simple team email detailing a new contact or experience – good or bad – can suffice; or, when searching for a new connection in an area, an email to your team requesting suggestions can be helpful as each worker holds a wealth of knowledge.
To prevent workers taking all their knowledge of connections and experiences with them when they move on from their workplace or into new positions, creating a central directory listing community connections is advisable. Although connections become outdated over time, they’re still valuable in providing leads for new connections.
For example, monthly, the YSAS Young Parents Program workers meet for Reflective Practice to share a case and discuss its progress and outcomes. During sessions like this, information about community connections and experiences is shared for the benefit of other workers and to ensure each worker is generally across his/her colleagues’ caseloads.