Taking practice to policy
Dr Tamara Blakemore's framework for social work practice is grounded in an understanding of the complex and connected contexts that prompt, facilitate, and constrain the wellbeing of children, families and communities.
"I am interested in people's lives and the links between and within experience - children in families, families in communities, the ties that bind and the ties that break," Tamara explains.
"What keeps people in, what helps people get by and what helps people get ahead."
A social worker, Tamara sees her practice extending further into the three arms of teaching, research, and policy.
Tamara is a social work lecturer and, until recently, the coordinator of the social work field-education program at the University of Newcastle. She has received several awards for her innovative endeavours around work integrated teaching models.
As a member of the Families and Children Expert Panel and Industry provider list for the Federal Department of Social Services, Tamara's work for the Federal Government has informed national social policy including the Family Support Program, the Paid Parental Leave scheme and Child Support Policy reform.
She was closely involved in the design and development of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children and is acknowledged as a leading expert on its use to inform social policy initiatives.
CONTEXTUALISING ABUSE AND IMPACT
A conjoint researcher with the University of South Australia, Australian Centre for Child Protection, Tamara is working in collaboration with Professor Fiona Arney. They are currently engaged in research for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and recently submitted work regarding the context and impacts of abuse in institutional settings.
"Institutions can be schools, sporting organisations, the church, childcare or day care, out of home care, justice settings, detention or juvenile detention, so a range of institutional settings," Tamara conveys.
"This work is around exploring the contexts in which abuse occurs and how the contexts in and through which abuse occurs contributes to the impact."
To be published in the coming months, Tamara has submitted a review, identifying information gaps in the existing literature.
She explains that we know very little about peer on peer abuse in institutional settings, and that the bulk of existing literature around experiences of abuse in institutional settings is historic.
"There is a real need to be acknowledging contemporary experiences, by learning from the past but finding out what that looks like now," says Tamara.
"The Royal Commission has expressed great interest in continuing to build that evidence base for practice and for policy, which is encouraging."
OBSERVING LONG TERM OUTCOMES
Inspired by her clinical work, Tamara's doctoral thesis explored the occurrence and outcomes of child sexual abuse in a large scale, longitudinal study of mothers and children in Queensland.
"When looking at the impact of child sexual abuse, it is important to understand how the situations and settings in which abuse occurs influence the impact of abuse, and what that looks like," Tamara says.
Her study expertise was then called upon for Growing up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children.
Collected biannually, information on 10,000 children and their families will give Australian researchers and policy makers concrete insight into the contribution of children's social, economic and cultural environments to their adjustment and wellbeing.
"I'm a quantitative researcher; and while the social work discipline is heavily committed to the use and production of evidence – many social workers are more familiar with qualitative methods," Tamara notes.
"Survey design, longitudinal studies and quantitative assessment are therefore a bit unusual as a primary research method in our field. But those skills can be utilised to uncover need and ensure practice remains relevant."
During the first semester of 2016, Tamara will be transferring those skills to practitioners who are delivering federally funded social work programs across Australia, through her role on the Families and Children Expert Panel.
"This will involve going into practice and supporting practitioners around identifying the evidence base that can inform their practice; how to locate it, implement and articulate its value and relevance."
"How do you know if the program you chose is the right one to run where you are? And then how do you implement that? How do you know if you are achieving your aims? How do you evaluate that so that your service continues to work well?" Tamara questions.
"The Federal Government is investing in building up the service sector from within. It shows a real recognition of the importance of up skilling the sector in a way that will foster sustainable and better outcomes for children, families and communities."
CONNECTIONS TO COMMUNITY
Soon after returning to live in Newcastle for the first time since her primary school years, Tamara put up her hand to become Chair of KidSafe Hunter.
She also continues to practice social work alongside her teaching and research roles, maintaining a casual position with Hunter New England Area Health.
"Practice can be lots of things; practice can be policy, research, practice can also be teaching, training, mentoring and supervising. All of those things are still practice," Tamara affirms.
"But having the opportunity to work with clients is important to me, it helps me remain connected to the community and to my discipline, or trade, in an authentic way."
Since arriving at the University of Newcastle, Tamara has worked closely with Dr Amanda Howard on a suite of community focused local projects that have national impact and implications.
"The first project was about parents understanding and preparation for the National Disability Insurance Scheme when they had a very young child with a disability," Tamara explains.
"We then worked with another local organisation around the financial sustainability and service provision in the disability sector and the value of supported playgroups potentially at risk under the NDIS."
"We've also done some interesting research locally around preparation, planning and recovery around natural disasters."
Tamara's passion for community engagement and commitment to social justice has been recognised in her appointment to the role of University of Newcastle, Equity Ambassador for Community Wellbeing.
In 2016 Tamara herself will be the beneficiary of a University of Newcastle Faculty of Education and Arts Equity Scholarship redressing some of the barriers faced in her academic career as a single mother of two.
WORLD LEADING EXPERIENCE BASED LEARNING
Tamara's innovation in action-learning approaches has been recognised by Work Integrated Learning Staff Member of the year awards in 2014 and 2012 and a Highly Commended award for the same in 2013.
The social work program at the University of Newcastle has an evidence-based focus, and is unique in its employment of an experience-based model.
"It's all about that idea of bringing practice into the classroom and classroom into practice," Tamara says.
Looking at ways to extend this teaching model, Tamara and Dr Howard introduced a hands-on project to the research component of the undergraduate course.
"Amanda and I worked together to reshape that research course to become a course where students did research in the community for the community," Tamara says.
"It encourages students and new practitioners to have the confidence and know-how to use research as a way to tell the stories of the people and the places they work with."
Tamara is also vital to an innovative collaboration with the University of Newcastle Legal Centre. Working alongside law students, social work students gain valuable practical experience through supporting clients during summertime Law at the Beach clinics.
Noted by local MP Sharon Claydon in a speech in Federal Parliament and lauded at international conferences, this cross-disciplinary mode of problem solving is gaining traction as the way forward to address major social issues.
"We are leaders in teaching in a way that's likely to meet future job market needs much quicker than a textbook, but also addresses those big social demands."