Spotlight on a therapeutic specialist in out-of-home care – Jess Wright
Foster Care Week 2023, celebrated from September 10-16, is an annual celebration of foster carers and their supporters for the contributions they make to the lives of children, young people, and families in our community.
Jess Wright, an occupational therapist with a background in psychology, recently received the Outstanding Support for Exceptional Circumstances Award for her dedicated work supporting foster carers over an 18-month period. Jess works with the Australian Childhood Foundation as a therapeutic specialist in the Circle Program, a partnership with OzChild and the Australian Childhood Foundation, offering intensive support to foster carers and the children in their care.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Jess to talk about the award, her work, and her passion for making a difference in the lives of children and carers.
Why did you become a therapeutic specialist?
I’ve always been interested in working with disadvantaged children. I started volunteering for holiday camps for kids in foster care when I was 16. This experience exposed me to some of the tough challenges that these kids have faced, and I began to see that I could make a difference in small ways in the lives of these children. I wanted to be part of helping these kids experience some joy and fun, and respite from the hardships they had experienced. I pursued training in psychology and eventually became qualified as an occupational therapist, focusing on children and young people who have experienced abuse and neglect. I began working in child protection in Victoria, and last year, I took my current role as a therapeutic specialist at the Australian Childhood Foundation, where I support foster carers and children in foster care.
How did you come to be nominated for the award?
A foster carer nominated me for the award! I was working with her intensively while she cared for a sibling group with plans for birth family reunification. These children had experienced significant abuse and neglect, and they were displaying significant behavioural and emotional indicators of distress and pain. My work involved supporting the carer to respond to the children in a way that helped them feel safe, advocating with child protection and the legal system to represent the voices of the children, and ensuring each child received the individual supports they needed.
How did you feel about being selected to receive the award?
While I am very proud of the award I received, I’m also mindful that I was able to carry out this important work so intensively for 18 months because I had additional space in my caseload at that time. My supervisor and manager supported me by allowing me the time it took to work with the carer and children on an almost daily basis, and to write thoughtful and sensitive reports to child protection and the court system representing the needs of the children. From a systemic perspective, documenting your concerns in writing and backing them up with evidence is often the most effective means of getting large bureaucracies and organisations to address those concerns. A full caseload would have made this task far more difficult to achieve, and I’m not sure I could have done such a thorough job.
What do you enjoy most about being a therapeutic specialist?
I enjoy the flexibility of the role. When I provide tailored support to individual children and carers, I can see the small ways in which that support provides hope and joy in the lives of children and young people. I can also work to influence the care context and systems around the child, by advocating for their needs and supporting them to have a voice in decision-making that affects their lives.
What are some of the challenges you face in your role?
The challenge I face is having a high caseload, in terms of the number of children and carers I support. A high caseload makes it difficult to adequately address the needs of children and young people with complex needs. There’s also a lot of admin paperwork to be completed, which can be onerous and frustrating… However, I know that there are currently efforts to reduce the amount of paperwork we need to do, and I look forward to a computer system that I can work to our advantage.
How do you look after yourself in this role?
The work I do is more than a job; it’s a vocation. I have the opportunity to work with hundreds of children in care and help create small moments of fun and hope in their lives. If I’m going to put my heart and soul in this work, I need to ensure I look after myself and take time to recover. I keep to a good routine each day after work and maintain strong boundaries between my work and personal life. I also have the support and love of my family, which helps to nourish me and allow me to continue to work effectively in my role.
Thank you Jess, for all your hard work and dedication!