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A New Kind of Care

In Focus
NAME:Robyn Miller
COMPANY:MacKillop Family Services
LOCATION:Melbourne, Australia
In a drive to provide quality services for vulnerable youngsters, MacKillop Family Services has evolved and expanded its foster care homes, evidence-based programs and specialist schools – growing fourfold under the leadership of CEO Robyn Miller.

In a world where digital technology is increasingly accessible, children are at an all-time high risk in terms of their susceptibility to online predators. This acceleration of potential abuse, however, warrants more than an acknowledgment. That’s why Robyn Miller, CEO of MacKillop Family Services, is doing everything in her power to prevent the exploitation before it starts.

Miller has extensively explored the issue having worked in family services since 1980, including a long-term position at the Department of Human Services. In 2015, she joined the Royal Commission of Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which she describes as a valuable milestone. This experience with the Commission equipped her with the opportunity to deepen her understanding of trauma and sexual abuse and their implications.

With her next career move, taking up the role of MacKillop’s CEO in 2016, Miller saw the potential to put the Commission’s recommendations into practice and on a broader scale, ‘closing the gap’ between the worlds of research, policy and frontline practice.

“It was an opportunity to use what I’d learned to improve what we are doing here; to help the most vulnerable families and children in out-of-home care and to prevent new ones from coming in,” she says.

“I really resonated with the values of MacKillop so that was a drawing card and here I am, seven years later.”

Frontline Shift

One of the initiatives MacKillop has introduced under Miller’s watch is the Power to Kids program, which began its roll out into residential care providers across Australia in March 2022.

“That came directly from the work I was doing in the department and at the Royal Commission after we found that there was no evidence-based program for the prevention of sexual exploitation of in-care children,” she explains.

“We knew the evidence was substantial as to the risk children in residential care face; many of whom have sexual exploitation in their history.”

Miller explains how it’s easy for predators to get online and groom vulnerable kids through their mobile devices.

“We have to do everything we can to prevent it. It’s not enough to just respond properly; we have to prevent it,” she says.

“We knew the evidence was substantial as to the risk children in residential care face; many of whom have sexual exploitation in their history.”

The education-based program involved working with MacKillop staff and frontline carers to carry out substantial training – more than triple that of former levels – alongside regular clinical supervision.

“I’m very hands-on with the kids too,” Miller continues. “I do reviews and direct work with the care teams for some of the most complex young people. So really, modeling that highly visible leadership has been important.”

Through strategic development, MacKillop as an organization has grown fourfold.

“We were around US$42 million turnover when I started. Now we’re at north of US$195 million,” she says.

It’s important to note that this growth encompasses the entire organization and, while philanthropic donations played a role, they aren’t the sole driver of this expansion.

Expanding Reach

All that said, Miller is quick to stress that the goal was never growth. Instead, there was a consistent focus on the quality and safety of services.

“That growth has come because we focused on the quality and that’s our credibility,” she states.

Under Miller’s leadership, MacKillop has achieved remarkable growth, now overseeing 613 foster carer households with 925 foster carers. While this surge isn’t directly proportional to service delivery, it does highlight the organization’s resilience in overcoming challenges in volunteer recruitment, particularly in the face of factors like COVID-19 and rising living costs.

“Our family work is more than 10 times what we used to do,” she notes, adding that, more than ever before, more foster carers are needed and from all walks of life.

The organization also runs three specialist schools – all in Victoria – with its fourth opening in Sydney in 2024, welcoming kids excluded from mainstream education due to a range of factors including behavior, trauma, disability and mental health challenges.

It is in this area that another initiative, Paw Pals, is making a huge difference by bringing in therapy dogs to help the children feel at ease, building student engagement and improving confidence through animal assisted educational-based activities and individualized learning sessions.

“There’s a much stronger emphasis on helping kids to feel a ‘normal’ part of the world, not like they’re stuck in some institution.”

There are now 12 therapy dogs in the program that also make appearances in mainstream schools as well as residential care homes.

“In addition to community fundraising, corporate sponsorship makes a huge difference; I cannot tell you the life-changing impact it has already made,” Miller says, highlighting the Petstock Foundation as the main corporate sponsor.

These initiatives are just one small sign of the way the child welfare sector is evolving which Miller describes as a process of deinstitutionalization, moving away from the orphanages of old.

“There’s a much stronger emphasis on helping kids to feel a ‘normal’ part of the world, not like they’re stuck in some institution,” she says.

Working proactively with families to make them a safe place for their children rather than simply removing those at risk is another significant development.

“If you can get in early, many people are willing to grow and change. I’m happy to say that there’s been a much stronger building of the skill base in how to do that now,” she says.

It’s a shift away from the traditional charity approach towards empowerment and rights-based practice, she explains.

“I tell all our workers at MacKillop, they’re human rights workers; they’re advocates. All families and their children have the right to quality care, the right to their safety and a right to good education, no matter what.”

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