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100 Women of Influence - preventing family violence

14 April 2015

Jo Cavanagh

Forty years of work in the community sector with vulnerable families, children and young people has left the CEO of Family Life, Jo Cavanagh (pictured above at the Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awards), in no doubt about the importance of “having fantastic personal relationships”.

Her success, she says, comes down to the support of her family.

“Relationships require work and to do the work in our sector you must be emotionally strong yourself. You need to know who you are and understand the impact of your past on your present. It’s important to have the space to be normal and ordinary, and the relationships that nurture and nourish you. You can’t keep giving without being nurtured and nourished.”

This year for International Women’s Day, Jo spent a significant part of the day on social media around women’s issues globally: “We’ve come a long way in Australia and for the majority we’re in charge of our own conversations as women. That is not the case for women in many other countries, and where they’re not even allowed to speak.

“I am learning a lot from Fair Agenda, a group of young women using social media to enhance women’s voice. I think the notion of the digital democracy is real and I want to be part of it.”

A 2014 Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awardee, Jo has been part of guiding Family Life’s growth to a medium-sized community agency with service centres, social enterprises, and community houses across the southern suburbs of Melbourne for almost 20 years. The 130-staff, 400-volunteer organisation has annual revenue of $10million and sets out to provide support as well as transformational change for vulnerable families, children and young people.

“When I began the CEO role in 1996, Family Life was my local community agency. I’d been a consultant and involved in a number of the amalgamations going on at the time to form large agencies. I think that strategy brought opportunities but it was at a loss of community engagement.”

Large organisations, Jo believes, run the risk of losing touch with the role of the community in helping each other promote well-being. Community connected organisations, like Family Life, support people to form the relationships that are key to providing a genuine sense of belonging.

Back in 1996, Jo also had four children in local schools. The Family Life role allowed her to integrate her life with her work.

As a medium-sized entrepreneurial organisation, Family Life prides itself on being close to the ground through its volunteers and through the very community support that defines it and while services remain essential and critical, the point is to “skill individuals up to be in charge of their own lives” and have the relationships to support that.

“People know what we do,” says Jo. “They trust us. They know the funds and services go to the people who need the help, although what we offer is not about the dollars. It’s the sense of wellbeing and belonging people ‘get’ through their interactions that are invaluable.”

The present political climate - cuts to budgets and programs by both the federal and state governments, and the dismantling of a whole lot of community services as part of “austerity measures” - makes no sense in the long term, according to Jo.

The Victorian state government, she notes, has actually paused the roll out of money to services in order to have a Royal Commission on family violence. But how she asks “can you keep drawing attention to an issue and then not provide for the pathways to solve it.

“The community, even those who might identify as not caring about the issues, understand you can’t ignore them. From an economic perspective one of our biggest budget costs is the welfare sector,” says Jo, pointing out that cutting the budget won’t make the problems go away.

“In the end, present government actions will make things worse because you will incur more costs.”

Jo has the history to remember how past actions and inactions have exacerbated community problems and through the research unit at Family Life the evidence to prove what can make a difference.

“Forty years ago I worked in institutions where girls were locked up because their fathers were abusing them. The human and financial cost of such actions was shocking.

“Our Community Bubs program, which is a small program funded by philanthropy, has been running for 10 years now.

“85 to 95 percent of children we’ve come into contact with through the program remain safely in the care of their families,” says Jo.

Preventing the removal of children from family - not at the expense of the child’s well-being – is critical. One of the most vulnerable group of children, says Jo, is those who grow up in out of home care. Their outcomes continue to be very poor and have changed little over the time of her career.

A mum in Family Life’s Community Bubs, she says, might require 12 months of assistance at a cost of about $10,000. The early support will allow her to remain caring for her children, to get a job and work. Without intervention the same children could very possibly end in residential care at a cost of up to $170,000 per year per child - and that’s just the base financial costs.

Positive outcomes like those of Community Bubs are not isolated occurrences and such solutions are beginning to attract interest from business in impact investing. Something that is “very exciting”.

Family Life’s new pilot program to help halt relationship breakdown, is another early intervention the organisation knows from the sweep of services it provides will pay dividends.

“We are aiming to catch couples early who are travelling through the separation experience where one party wants the separation and the other doesn’t. We know that scenario can lead to high conflict, often around children, leaving the children with life-lasting trauma.

“We know, and the research shows us, if we can get to the couples earlier there are strategies we can offer to help them resolve how they move forward either as a couple or through separation.”

The pilot coaches couples to identify what their problems are and helps them develop a plan for what to do next. There are three possible options: Couples get clarity around where they are now and how they can move on and work that out together.

Or, they choose to commit and have another go at the relationship, and Family Life will then facilitate them into couples counselling.

Or, couples know it’s over and want to separate, and then move to being facilitated through the separation process with reduced conflict.

Using research from the US to inform them, Jo says the program is most effective with couples with primary school children where lots of things change in family life and with school.

“Once we have results, we’ll go back to the government,” says Jo, whose guess is that the early investment will have high impact in terms of social returns and financial savings in the long term.

“It’s much cheaper than the family court,” she finishes.