Tarnia Parker is a Team Leader with Centacare’s Young Family Support Program at Louise Place. The service provides 24-hour accommodation and support to help young mothers nurture their baby and build independence.
Parenting is difficult at any age, but try being a mother when you are still a child.
That’s the challenge facing the brave and often incredibly capable young women who come to Louise Place.
Nearly all of them have fled domestic or sexual violence, often at the hands of much older men, and are living homeless with a baby on the way, or a child in their care, when they meet Tarnia Parker.
The social worker is a Team Leader with Centacare’s Young Family Support Program, which operates across four metropolitan sites at Fullarton, Findon, Blair Athol and Morphett Vale.
Collectively in 2019/20, the sites supported 173 mothers, aged 19 or under, and 189 children.
Five young women aged 15 to 18 years who are pregnant or parenting are currently living at Louise Place.
“These women are survivors, I tell you,’’ says Tarnia, who has worked at Louise Place for the past five years.
“It’s clear that some of them have parented themselves from a very young age.
“Many of them have slept rough, or they’ve couch surfed, and some have done it all with no money, which is a vulnerability in itself.
“Their ability to navigate the complexities of systems and to defend themselves is truly admirable.’’
Girls as young as 12 have sought safety at Louise Place, which can house eight families at a time in independent living units. Outreach support and transitional housing is also provided. Tarnia’s youngest client was just 13.
“They are children themselves, yet they’re young families too,’’ she says.
“We’ve got a duty of care to the mother and a duty of care to the child, so there’s a lot of responsibility.’’
In addition to domestic violence, common presenting factors include family breakdown and overcrowding.
“Often the complexity of the work lies in the circles they operate in,’’ explains Tarnia.
“They have an ability to minimise what we would see as absolute risk because they’ve never had much stability.
“They are young and vulnerable and that’s what perpetrators rely on because, for the young women, the honeymoon period in a dysfunctional relationship far outweighs being alone.
“For some, the child fills the gap left by what they’ve missed out on, so they thrive on their mothering role. For others, once the baby is here, it can trigger their own trauma, especially for the mums who have grown up in and out of the child protection system.’’
Tarnia says the fear of having their own children removed from their care weighs heavily on young shoulders.
“I try and educate them that child protection is actually just about working together to create safety, because no one wants to break up a family,’’ she says.
“But it’s sad how that umbrella can overshadow what they share because, if they’re not able to be vulnerable and open about things, then it can all unravel again quite quickly.
“I always say to the women who are experiencing child protection intervention, that they will always be that child’s mother – no one can take that away from them.
“That child will one day be an adult and may want to return to their biological connections. I try and help them see that narrative.’’
The YFSP provides emotional and pregnancy support to prepare each client for labour and help nurture attachment with their baby. Then comes parenting and education support, and access to specialised services to address complexities in their lives and build independent living skills.
When Tarnia meets a new client for the first time, she emphasizes the importance of healthy relationships, and addresses the stigma that comes with parenting in your teens.
“They often share stories of going out in public and being stared at and judged, but I tell them, there are a lot of positives about being a young mum; they have strengths that maybe other mums don’t have,’’ she says.
“I try and help them feel strong in themselves so they can be proud of what they’re choosing to do in raising a child.’’
While Tarnia remembers certain stories and faces long after they’ve left Louise Place, it’s the small steps they take with their young children along the way that resonate the most.
“What I really appreciate is when the mum is doing well and you set them off on their own journey,’’ she says.
“That’s the purpose of the service – to help that mum fly on her own successfully and be the best parent she can be.
“It’s pretty thrilling. That’s not every single case, but they definitely make up a percentage.’’
National Child Protection Week (September 6-12) is celebrating 30 years with the theme `Putting children first’. This means prioritising the safety and wellbeing of children. To grow up well, children need to feel safe and loved, have a chance to play and explore, have a say in decisions that affect them, and have access to essential things such as food, shelter and healthcare