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Most Vulnerable At Risk of Being Left Behind

17 June 2014 at 10:00 am
Staff Reporter
Sector reform and its impact on disadvantaged community members was on the agenda at a recent symposium attended by more than 20 faith-based organisations, writes Julie Edwards, CEO of Jesuit Social Services.

Staff Reporter | 17 June 2014 at 10:00 am


Most Vulnerable At Risk of Being Left Behind
17 June 2014 at 10:00 am


Julie Edwards

Sector reform and its impact on disadvantaged community members was on the agenda at a recent symposium attended by more than 20 faith-based organisations, writes Julie Edwards, CEO of Jesuit Social Services.

Community organisations throughout Australia are being buffeted by the whirlwinds of change. The recent Federal Budget will severely impact on the people and communities we work with and increase demand for our services.

At the same, a range of reforms underway at both Federal and State levels are altering our relationship to Governments and the nature of the services that we provide. Organisations are being pitted against each other in competition for ever-decreasing funds, and we are witnessing people being talked about as commodities. There are also wider demographic, technological and cultural changes that have the potential to impact upon our relationship to the communities where we work.

Against this backdrop, Jesuit Social Services recently convened a symposium of leaders representing a number of leading faith-based organisations to discuss how we respond to these challenges and work towards building a society that realises our shared common values including mercy, justice, charity, and human dignity.

Those present all shared concern that Australia’s social fabric has been chipped away to the point where its very existence is under threat and that many of the most vulnerable people in our community risk being left behind.

It was clear to us that now, more than ever, our organisations have to play a role, not only in accompanying people who miss out and those on the margins of our society, but in speaking out and challenging entrenched injustices and a new-look market. Change in our sector has been rapid and our organisations have been caught up in responding to this. It is critical that we take stock and affirm our identity including our community members whom we stand in solidarity with.

Moving forward, there is a need for us to renew our mission, values and the connections to community from which we draw our strength.

We need to re-examine the role of Government and the community sector in building a just society. Many of the organisations present at the symposium were established to meet unmet needs in society in areas that are now the province of universal state services including health and welfare.

However, since reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, in line with the public service theory of new public management, community organisations have increasingly developed into providers of services for Government, under contract.

Community service organisations have a strong track record in and are committed to seeing people as the focus. We are able to add value to public services by drawing down on philanthropy and our links to community. By utilising disparate sources of funding, we are able to tailor services to the people we work with, holistically and individually. Moving forward, it is imperative that we keep our focus on remembering our roots and identity and don’t get seduced into chasing contracts.

At the gathering of faith-based community organisations, it was clear that the sector has shared concerns about the direction Government is taking with its unpicking of the social fabric of our community. Too often we hear rhetoric about co-design and person-centred integrated service delivery – all things our sector has rich histories in providing – but the reality on the ground is rationalisation over links to community and ideology trumping experience.

A sad consequence of this is that it is the most vulnerable members of our community, the primary focus of everything we do, who suffer the most.

Much of this is evident in the recent experience of reforms to community mental health services in Victoria. This reform process has seen what was admittedly a complex service system radically simplified, to the point that many established specialist services, including those with decades of experience working with homeless people (St Mary’s House of Welcome) and young people with mental illness and alcohol and drug problems (Jesuit Social Services’ Artful Dodgers Studios and Connexions), have had funding pulled.

It has become clear that missing from the reform process were key elements that might have been considered in a genuine co-design process including utilising the local profile and community connections of small organisations, the need to develop expert capacity for working with particular groups of people, and how partnerships between organisations could be promoted.

A major concern moving forward is how these reforms will impact upon people who access community mental health services, particularly those who are most vulnerable or who have challenging behaviours. Many of these people – who do not recognise they have mental health problems – simply aren’t equipped with the capabilities to engage with appointment-based services and programs like Artful Dodgers Studios and Connexions serve vital roles as a ‘soft entry’ point where young people can feel safe and welcomed. Over their lifespan, these programs have literally saved hundreds of young lives.

Recent experiences in Victoria demonstrate the challenges community organisations face in negotiating and realising a more effective relationship with government. As the winds of change continue to buffet our communities and organisations we must learn from these experiences to ensure that we are able to more effectively live up to our mission and support the people and communities we stand in solidarity with.

In recognition of the shortcomings of the process and outcomes of the community mental health reforms, the Government has called a halt to new recommissions until results from the current round of funding shifts are known. But in the meantime, what happens to the vulnerable people we work with?

About the Author: Julie Edwards joined Jesuit Social Services in 2001 and was appointed as CEO in 2004. She has more than 35 years experience engaging with marginalised people and families experiencing breakdown and trauma. Edwards has a Masters in Social Work and in 2010 became a Graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. As a member of a number of national and international Jesuit commissions and working groups, Edwards has expertise across areas of justice, education, social ministry and ecology.

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