A Passion for Practice, Policy and Research to Help the Disadvantaged
11 August 2017 at 11:00 am
For MacKillop Family Services, 2017 marks 20 years since the catholic not-for-profit organisation was formed by the Sisters of Mercy, the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Saint Joseph to promote justice and provide assistance to disadvantaged children and families.
CEO Dr Robyn Miller PhD joined MacKillop Family Services in 2016. Her extensive work in child protection and family violence sees her leading the organisation through the current changes facing child protection services, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales.
Miller is a mother of five, a social worker and a family therapist with over thirty years’ experience in the community sector, local government and child protection. She was the recipient of the inaugural Robin Clark memorial PhD scholarship in 2004 and received the statewide award for inspirational leadership in Victoria in 2010. From 2006 -15 she was the chief practitioner within the Department of Human Services in Victoria and has also worked as a consultant with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Miller is this week’s changemaker.
What does your working day look like?
Well, I start early and generally pretty finish late, but that’s not to say I don’t have a work life balance. I have been in the role of CEO for a year and it is very much about working on the quality of our services.
We are very committed to providing quality services and being as effective as we can and when we are dealing with families and children that have been hurt there is enormous grief and loss so we need to have the best staff we can find. We need to find people that are sensitive and have that emotional intelligence to be able to be warmly responding, even when kids are pushing us away and really acting out – which is understandable given what they have been through – so we see ourselves as needing to earn their trust.
For me I have a strong practice and theaurupedic background so my leadership is really about staying with the heart of what we do.
We have multiple [work] sites, I am very much out and about, because we are not a business, we are about people and healing. To have a culture that is very family and children centred is what motivates and inspires me everyday to get out of bed and do what I can to engage with the families, the staff and our partner agencies, especially the Aboriginal agencies, we have a real commitment to addressing the atrocities that have happened to the stolen generation.
What attracted you to the role at MacKillop?
One of our core values is social justice and it is one of the things that drew me to come work at MacKillop – so that commitment to advocating for families and to get the services they need.
One thing that I really like about my job is the ability to advocate for longer term solutions for the most vulnerable families and we have won a lot of opportunities to run programs and partner with like-minded organisations.
The knock on my door about MacKillop was unexpected really. What drew me to Mackillop was the fact that I had respected the integrity of the agency for a long time and I had worked with all of the agencies in my previous role in the department and I always had a soft spot for MacKillop.
I was drawn by the ethos and the values and the culture of partnership that MacKillop is known for and I also knew there was a really good business manager.
You have quite extensive experience working on the frontline as a social worker and a therapist, why make the transition across to management?
My great love is working with children and families. I have always been motivated to keep learning. In the early years of my career I studied social work and psychology and went to work in the inner city of Melbourne in family supports and family counselling roles in the high rise flats in Fitzroy and Carlton.
I could see there was a need for more systemic approaches where services could be planned to outreach to the most vulnerable families. Rather than letting people fall off a cliff, I wanted to help them much earlier. I loved the direct work so in 1990 I did family therapy post-grad. I loved that approach, and I worked very closely with families who had experienced abuse and family violence and other forms of trauma.
I stayed there for 14 years because it was such a rich culture. I also lectured and taught others. I then got the opportunity to work with the Department of Human Services in 2006 as a principal practitioner. In 2014, I was also asked to be a consultant for the Royal Commission. Whilst I have transitioned into a different role, that passion for improving service has been the motivating factor.
What I have done as a CEO has been really to drive the readiness of MacKillop for the second wave of reform the current reforms that we are in. In Victoria it is called the ‘roadmap to reform’ but also there is reform in NSW and in WA. So all around Australia there is a huge climate to improve outcomes for children to be more outcome focused, to reduce the number of children who are going into out-of-home-care and to infuse practice from the evidence from research.
To sum up my passion, it is running the gauntlet between practice, policy and research and leadership. My drive is to be part of that systemic improvement and strengthening outcomes for kids. You can’t do that by being a stand alone agent. You have to work systemically and in partnership with others.
This work is not for the feint hearted.
What drives you?
I am very passionate about the training supervision and the quality of the care for staff and other practitioners. We need really smart capable people so the support ethos and the culture of the agency is really important.
My joy in the work is getting a team together that can sustain the slings and arrows and all the rough patches that you go to to get to the point the enormous joy. We don’t talk enough about the joy in work and I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t love it, love the work.
That’s because you have the unique privilege of being part of a child or family’s journey to overcome… those cases that make your hair curl. What they go through is heartbreaking so when you see these kids, with the help and nurturing we provide and the skill of our workforce, do well it is a joy.
Are you still an optimist?
My friends would say I am a pathological optimist! I think you need a sense of humour and the kids ground you all the time. I go into a house and one thing I would love to say is that kids lives do change, do turn around.
One young man who was completely addicted to ice when he first came into care, I met him this week, he is back at school doing VCAL, and he had a suit on going to a job interview in hospitality. I have enormous satisfaction in witnessing and being part of that. I think in terms of the meaning of life, if you can make a difference like that, I don’t think there is any better work.
We do achieve extraordinary results. One of the myths is that these families are ‘hopeless’. I have worked in youth justice most of my career and most of them we help and most of them we turn around.
Where do you sit around the concept of “live to work or work to live” ?
I think my living and my working are inextricably linked. I do what I love. I also love other things. My own family. I have five children and I love theatre and travelling. I have a large extended family and friends so I have got lots of other interests. So I love to dance and sing and do a whole lot of other things and I think you need to and I love to keep fit.
I have always had a commitment to that – the importance of balance in your life. You can’t have perfect balance every week but over time if you make sure you exercise and eat well and sleep well, you can work long hours and still have a good life. The other thing I would add to that is having a very supportive partner.
I am a calm person, and I am resilient and I have lots of energy and that comes from keeping fit and having a good sense of humour and having people around that you can really laugh with.
The thing that I am sure has kept me balanced has been the commitment to ongoing post graduate learning. So I did a graduate diploma in family therapy and then I did a masters in family therapy, then I have done a PhD. That commitment to the reading and research and my own development has been really important. I just got back from Harvard where I went to CEO school – an intensive leadership course for not for profits. It was a fantastic experience.