The Caroline Chisholm Society (CCS) describes its purpose as ‘building adult capability’. Founded in the 1960s as a network of volunteers providing aid to vulnerable pregnant women, it was built on the intuition that these women needed more than just doctors. There were so many other supports women lacked, but CSS believed that, with enough generosity and networking, they could provide them. One of these crucial supports was assistance with ‘skill-building’, allowing women to develop enough independence to provide for their children.

More than fifty years later, the Society’s work is still going strong, and CEO Dr Jennifer Weber says the needs of vulnerable pregnant women are only increasing.

Working across the western suburbs of Melbourne and in Shepparton, CCS focuses on three program areas: home visitation, specialist housing services and material aid (also providing consultations with women at the time of providing this aid).

The Society takes inspiration from their founders and the work of Caroline Chisholm, the great 19th-century social reformer. Drawing on this strong heritage and tradition, Dr Weber says, ‘the Society continues to provide a range of programs and services for some of the most complex and vulnerable families in Victoria.’

In this work, Dr Weber says, the Society remains ‘apolitical’. ‘It’s important in our purpose that we respect life and, as a “post-choice” organisation, that we are a safe space for women,’ she says. ‘The women who come to us seeking services and programs have already made their decision. They want to have their baby.’

Dr Weber’s personal expertise lies in childhood development, and in translating research and policy into the nitty-gritty, practical details of the Society’s work. ‘It’s a privilege to lead a team of specialists and practitioners focussed on shifting outcomes for some of our most vulnerable and at-risk families, and especially for those women faced with the potential removal of their babies from their care,’ she says. ‘This for me is the culmination of over 30 years’ experience across the university, government and NFP sectors.’

The Caroline Chisholm Society: a brief history

Founded by the late Dr Philomena Joshua (nee Tenni) in the 1960s, the Caroline Chisholm Society began by offering material aid, emergency housing and pregnancy counselling services. It was from Dr Joshua’s family home in Box Hill that a group of volunteers set up the first pregnancy-support phone service, determined to support vulnerable pregnant women and mothers with babies.

A few years later, Mrs Pat Coffey OA, living in Shepparton at the time, established a volunteer service also responding to the needs of pregnant women, mothers and their families. Within a decade, the two networks would come together and, with the support of the Chisholm family, took inspiration from Caroline Chisholm to become the incorporated, accredited and registered community service that it is today.

In her own time, Chisholm was a staunch advocate for women and children, working tirelessly to improve their living conditions.

‘The first 1000 days’

A key area of focus for CCS is ‘the first 1000 days’ of life. When it comes to the scientific literature on how important a strong attachment to the mother is in the first two years of life, ‘the evidence is in’, Dr Weber says. Nurturing a strong attachment between mother and child is vital to the child’s development. This isn’t 1000 days from birth, either; it’s from conception. Research from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute demonstrates that even before birth, the child is responding to changes in its environment. The mental and physical states of the mother provide cues that help the child ‘predict’ the kind of world they will be born into, and this can affect the child either positively or negatively, depending on those states.

This research has yet to be reflected in substantive government policy, though, putting some mothers at risk of not receiving critical services, she says. There are cases of pregnant women being turned away from family services when self-referring because there is no ‘client’ (that is, the baby hasn’t been born yet).

Advocacy for mothers prior to giving birth is an emerging area of need, Dr Weber says. A recent policy initiative in Victoria has allowed for ‘unborn child reports’, which means that although Child Protection’s statutory powers don’t apply until after a child’s birth, reports may be made on unborn babies, identifying and sharing information regarding risks. This puts young mothers at greater risk of having Child Protection involved when giving birth.

Dr Weber explains that there have been cases where Child Protection has been called to the delivery suite and has made a report. ‘If the report is made at that time—and we know of cases where this has happened—Child Protection says, “You can’t take the baby home,” or “You need to stop breastfeeding because we’re taking the baby now.”’ The trauma of this situation can be avoided if appropriate intervention takes place prior to the mother giving birth and she has adequate housing and resources.

For these reasons, CSS policy is, where possible, to ‘prevent’ the involvement of Child Protection Services. ‘Sometimes Child Protection does need to be involved and we make that assessment,’ she says, ‘but ultimately what we want to be able to do is redirect mum, because [involving Child Protection] is the most intrusive and expensive model and doesn’t necessarily get you the outcome you want.’

CCS recognises the importance of working with the mother prior to birth to ensure both mother and child have a healthy environment in which to nurture the mother–child attachment as early as possible. They call this part of their work the ‘maternal wraparound’. ‘We work with mum prior to birth, and if you can work with mum post-birth you can make sure mum has a strong attachment with the baby.’

Dr Weber says they are doing their best to advocate for a change in government policy in this area, especially since the number of unborn reports is increasing. They’re frequently seeing girls aged 14, 15 and 16 seeking assistance. The youngest pregnant girl CCS provided aid for last year was 13 years old.

‘We’re saying, get us involved, because then we can work with mum,’ she says. ‘If mum comes to us even at 16 or 18 weeks and she’s asking for a pram or clothing, we want to know how we can support her.’

With maternal healthcare workers stretched thin, more and more women are not getting the intervention they need, she says.

Research into family violence is uncovering more reasons why it’s important to get involved early. ‘When a woman is expecting a baby, she is at her greatest risk of abuse in a family violence situation,’ Dr Weber explains. ‘We want to be able to connect sooner rather than later with women and support them through that.’

The dignity of motherhood

‘Coercive practices are insidious,’ Dr Weber says, and many women feel the pressure of them. In their work, they encounter women all the time who express what it’s like to feel judged and to be told their parenting isn’t good enough. Many women have come to them despite friends and family telling them that it might not be in their best interests to have a baby.

‘We’ve had a woman who once said to us, “Sometimes I think it’s about poor women having babies.”’ She wonders whether there is something to this. ‘This is about women who are doing it hard, and maybe we as a society place certain expectations on being a mother, including [in relation to] the socioeconomic circumstances women find themselves in when having children.’

CCS has worked with mothers who don’t want to attend playgroups, for instance, because they feel they’ll never measure up to the other mums, which only drives them further into social isolation and depression.

Dr Weber sees their work in this regard as supporting the dignity of motherhood, regardless of a mother’s socioeconomic status. ‘To support women to get a better outcome about their self-esteem and self-worth as mothers, we have a really important role in that.’

To do this, they try to ascertain the specific needs of the women they care for, she explains. Through their Every Child Program, consultations with a qualified practitioner are offered when providing material aid; these consults are key to uncovering some of the other needs of mothers that often go unspoken.

This brief consult or a single session is often a critical time in assessing what might be impacting mum’s ability to provide for her children. For instance, we have had cases where mum is in need of some clothing for her children, and in assessing her situation, it is discovered she and the children are sleeping in their car.

While the Society’s family services are funded by the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing, the Society’s outreach and Every Child Program are dependent on corporate sponsorship, grants and donations.

‘One Day in May’

Volunteering is still a big part of what they do though. Whether they are sorting and packing clothes or being someone who young, ‘out-of-home’ mums can connect with, volunteers are crucial to the Society’s work. Community-connection volunteers play a big role, Dr Weber says. ‘Having a volunteer connection to community makes such an impact for mum, to show her and be able to help her navigate those community resources.’

To help meet growing demand for services, the Society is launching an initiative called ‘One Day in May’. As a way of fundraising and of elevating their profile in the community, CSS will be ‘asking people in the community for different ways they might want to look at hosting an event on behalf of the Society to raise funds to support our work,’ Dr Weber says.

This might be as simple as hosting a morning tea and inviting people over to donate funds or material resources, or hosting a ‘baby shower’ where guests donate what they might normally gift someone for their baby shower—there are a few options to choose from.

Every day, the Caroline Chisholm Society works with young mothers who are struggling to find the help and resources they need, and they would love more people to get involved in supporting this important work.

If any women are interested in becoming members of the Caroline Chisholm Society, or becoming members of the board, please contact the Society’s President, Dr Michael Christie: