Click the article title to be taken to the full story.
It was the first parent-teacher interview at his new school. And 12-year-old Dan Whelan rotated his chair away from the table, pulled his jumper hood over his head and would not look at the teacher.
“We just thought oh my God, this child is so rude,” says his foster carer Meagan Taylor, chuckling at the memory.
Six years ago, Dan and his younger brother arrived at the Yarra Glen home of Meagan and her husband Dale, because their mum was unable to look after them. They had endured numerous foster placements and a miserable stint in a residential care unit, where they had lived alongside deeply troubled young people and feared for their own safety.
As a result, 12-year-old Dan was very reserved, didn’t interact much with his new foster family, hated school and described himself as “dumb”.
“I wasn’t confident in coming to a new place and didn’t know what to expect,” says Dan, now 19. “My mindset was all over the place.”
But luckily, Meagan Taylor knew how to respond. She’d had training from a pioneering Victorian program that helps foster carers understand the way early trauma affects the neurobiological development of children and can lead to challenging behaviour.
And the TrACK program – an initiative of the Australian Childhood Foundation and Anglicare – also gives long-term support to foster carers in their day-to-day lives with these young people.
The program began 18 years ago as an attempt to find a viable alternative to residential units for children whose behaviour and history made them difficult to place. And the results have been overwhelmingly positive, with “tangible and lasting results” for the 48 children that have taken part, according to a new (and glowing) evaluation from Southern Cross University.
Many of the young people in the program have been deeply traumatised. Some have witnessed murders, tried to take their own lives, endured torture – including severe sexual exploitation at the hand of paedophile rings – and experienced extreme and inhumane deprivation.
But in the program, most blossomed. “Children who had experienced many placements and years of threat and deprivation before they entered TrACK were almost always able to achieve stability as a result of it,” the evaluation found.
For the first time these children had hopes, dreams and aspirations for the future without concerns or fears about basic survival. It's a stark contrast to the usual trajectory for children coming out of foster care, who are at higher risk of homelessness, unemployment, poor social skills and low literacy.
Meagan did the TrACK training before Dan and his brother came to live with her family.
“They teach you a lot about how the brain works, that really stayed with me,” she says. “You go OK, that’s why this kid is doing this, it makes sense.”
Meagan also had weekly meetings with a social worker from the Australian Childhood Foundation and Anglicare. And she still speaks to them two or three times a week on the phone.
Research about the neuropsychological effects of early trauma is still underdeveloped but there is growing consensus about how it affects neural structure and function. Trauma can affect the function of the brain, including the release of neurotransmitters like adrenaline and dopamine. These have an effect on motivation and attention, as well as mood.
Meagan says the biggest issue was Daniel thought he was “dumb” and didn’t like reading. But he loved sport. The social worker suggested giving him the sports section from the newspaper to spark his interest.
“We’d sit and read together. I’d read a chapter of a book and then he’d read me a chapter. He knew that I was caring enough to sit there and do it with him,” says Meagan.
The nature and quality of the relationships with carers was what was critical for change and healing, the TrACK evaluation found.
And for Dan and his brother, it worked. They still live with Meagan and are very much part of her family. And they have a good relationship with their mum, who they see fortnightly.
As well as being highly effective, the TrACK program is cost-effective because it teaches foster carers how to be the primary provider of therapeutic support, rather than relying on expensive outside specialists, says Joe Tucci, the head of the Australian Childhood Foundation.
“We also think it’s the right way to do it, because it’s the relationships [between foster carer and young person] that heal,” he says. “We teach carers how to meet the needs behind the behaviour, rather than only addressing the behaviour.”
The TrACK program currently only covers Melbourne’s eastern region. Mr Tucci would like to see an expansion of funding so that it could be used across the state.
By Miki Perkins
8 July 2018