"People are crying out for new ways to do things because the old ways just aren't working. Numbers in child protection are through the roof, numbers in care are through the roof and kids affected by family violence are too many - we need to turn it around. That's why the farm is here, because it's a different approach."

Since its official opening, Cafs has been developing a range of hands-on programs in a unique approach to attempt to break the cycle of the systemic problems it has always faced as an organisation.

With rising numbers of young people in vulnerable situations, Cafs is preparing to launch a plethora of needs-based programs at its care farm this month in an extension of its already established services. 

The 153-year-old organisation, which once operated an orphanage with associated farms to teach children work skills, is going back to its roots by incorporating nature, agricultural practices and animal-assisted therapies in an effort to improve the outcomes for young people living in residential care, with statistics indicating that the likelihood of their ending up in the justice system, and of taking their own lives, is high.

In the Victorian Youth Parole Board's 2015 Annual Report, for example, it was revealed that 43 per cent of young people in youth justice centres were previously involved in child protection, with the report stating that child protection and youth justice services must work together to assist young people to cope with trauma from their early life. 

A month ago Cafs hosted a number of international experts from Austin, Texas, who went through all the practicalities of how a care farm for at-risk and vulnerable young people works. 

What it looks like

Cafs has invested $1.5 million into what it estimates to be a $5 million redevelopment project of the former Tangled Maze tourist centre at Springmount.

The next step of the project is to build the psychiatric services clinic and then, Cafs will build accommodation on site to be used for short-term interventions. 

Down the track, the farm will also include what is known as a sensory forest - with inclusions young visitors can see, touch, feel and smell - a workshop, therapeutic wetlands and plenty of animals.

Therapy

Trauma - whether it be neglect, family violence or child abuse - can have dire physiological and psychological effects on a young, developing brain.

Cafs will incorporate the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT), developed by Dr. Bruce Perry from the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, to assess the needs of each young person. 

The practice of NMT maps the brains of young people who have experienced trauma so specialists can draw up a plan of assessments and treatments specifically designed for each individual while taking into account their personal situations and personalities. 

With a growing body of evidence indicating that animal-assisted therapies and being in a natural environment have a positive impact on wellness, Cafs has based its therapeutic model on extensive research, including visiting more than a dozen international care farms, and its own experiences.

At the Cafs farm, interventions will include counselling, working with therapy dogs and horses, art therapy, exercise and growing and nurturing plants.

"A lot of people have a farm and animals, others do NMT, but nobody is putting it all together in a package like we are doing here. We are aiming to be leaders here with what we're doing - it will be fantastic what we're offering and we hope we will be supported by philanthropists, corporations and government," Mr Joy said.

Better outcomes

For Cafs' coordinator of youth services, Susie Meadows, the farm is a holistic approach to wellness - emotional and physical health as well as relationships - to assist with reaching better outcomes for those in out-of-home care. 

"Everything outside isn't just an activity, it comes with the sensory experience which NMT shows is a really important way of developing the brain," she said.

This is urgent. We need change because what is happening at the moment with young people and families isn't good enough. We are at a critical stage for the community with what is happening with young people who are not engaged in school and who have really poor outcomes.

Susie Meadows

Cafs expects around 400 young people and their families will benefit from the farm each year and Ms Meadows said the opportunities around the organisation's new pathway were "huge".

It is unique in that it will provide therapeutic benefits in a different manner than traditional face-to-face counselling. 

"While they're having fun and doing all of these activities, brain development and self-regulation is improving, and they're building skills," Ms Meadows said.

"[And] there are beautiful opportunities when [a young person] connects with an animal, around empathy and compassion."

One of the outcomes Cafs really hopes will be reaped from the farm is keeping young people in school while simultaneously decreasing the number of run-ins they have with police. By helping young people see they have options for their future that are different from what they have grown up with, it hopes to break the cycle of learned behaviour from parent to child.

Ms Meadows said by having a child return home, armed with new skills and a vast amount of support from Cafs, it is hoped that over a period of time a family will be able to increase their skills and the organisation can slowly pull the supports out so the family can be a stronger family unit.

Cafs will primarily be focusing on the Central Highlands region to begin with but is open to the idea of expanding if demand is there. 

It believes the $3.5 million it is looking for to complete the next stages of its farm is a short term investment for a long term benefit to improve outcomes for at-risk young people.

Published May 5, 2019

(Ballarat Courier)