On the Homestretch | Pro Bono
Paul McDonald is the CEO of Anglicare Victoria, which delivers out of home care and family support to vulnerable children, young people and families. He is this week’s Changemaker.
From an early age McDonald dedicated his life to helping those less fortunate.
As a teenager he worked alongside Mother Teresa in Calcutta in her founding House for the Dying, and went on to become the first youth worker for Katherine in the Northern Territory.
His other roles include being the deputy secretary in the Department of Human Services responsible for the leadership and management of Victoria’s Child Protection Services and Youth Justice Program.
And he led the government’s response to Melbourne’s heroin overdose crisis from the late 1990’s to early 2000, receiving the Prime Minister’s Award on behalf of the Department of Human Services for work in harm minimisation during that time.
For the past seven years McDonald, who is also state chair of the Reform of the Out of Home Care System for the Victorian government and the current president of the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare, has led Anglicare Victoria.
During that time he founded the Home Stretch Campaign, a national campaign which seeks to extend the option of state care to 21 and stop young people becoming homeless, unemployed or imprisoned when they have their care terminated at 18 years.
In recognition of his work, he was awarded the Robin Clark Leadership Award at the Victorian Protecting Children Awards last week, for his efforts to improve the lives of young Victorians.
Anglicare Victoria chairperson Stephen Newton said McDonald, who also plays tenor saxophone, keyboards and lead sings in the rock band The Flares, was a leader “who really walks the talk”.
“In addition to his big picture advocacy, he regularly visits our residential units to have dinner with young people and staff,” Newton said.
“I’ve often heard Paul say it’s important that he never loses touch with the most vulnerable children and young people that we work with. It’s a sentiment that makes him a most deserving winner, and has contributed so much to what makes Anglicare Victoria a great organisation.’’
In this week’s Changemaker McDonald talks about sector reform, why you shouldn’t make a life decision based on a date on the calendar and why he is a mini goal man.
What attracted you to the not for profit sector?
I think if I went back, I was always interested in seeing what I could do to assist others. I always considered myself as having a very fortunate upbringing and I thought I could use that, I suppose my fortunate upbringing, as a way of influencing other less fortunate situations to improve. Originally, when I thought about it, I was drawn to youth work because I always saw young people and was sort of attracted by their energy and their sense of optimism and they do get themselves into some ordinary circumstances and I often think they are misunderstood most of the time. I think what I loved also about them is the way they can bounce back if you give them the right belief in themselves and the right approach towards them, they really repay you in spades. So I wasn’t attracted overtly to the whole welfare bit but to in particular young people and assisting them through.
What does a typical day look like for you as CEO?
My approach is that, even though the organisation you are responsible for as CEO maybe large, I think you’ve got to stay very grounded. I don’t have a typical day but it would involve closely overseeing and guiding our new initiatives that government or others have shown faith in us to deliver. And so I’d be maybe involved in leading or assisting with the development of our businesses, new intensive support service, or the development of the roll out or the application towards evidence based approaches that could work for our client group or I’m involved at the moment with negotiating with the government for a social impact bond, so part of my typical day would be about the new developments and commitments we’ve taken on.
The second part of my day would be grounded in operational [tasks], and overseeing the things the organisation needs to do in order to meet its operational responsibilities. I think you have got to have one foot in the future, but certainly one foot in the present in a human services organisation. So another part of my day would be about that.
And the third part is I think making sure you are connected to the organisation in different ways. Whether that is a core staff group, whether that’s creating some moments for the organisation to celebrate or reflect on, or whether that’s with a bunch of clients. I try and get to have dinner, about once a month on a Monday night at a different residential unit and that’s important I think. At the end of the day we are a service delivery organisation, for me anyway, I find a CEO needs to be in touch with the client group about the experience they receive from the organisation.
What are the organisation’s current priorities?
We’re a large hands on child, youth and family welfare organisation, and I think if I put it into priorities, one is to make sure that we’re bringing the best service to date to our client group. But at the end of the day the changes that you’ve seen in the sector won’t happen necessarily on a large scale but it will more happen case by case, client by client. It is important that we’re a hands on, practical, energetic and reliable organisation but our priorities at the moment are really pushing the organisation to be a leading edge provider in new and effective ways our clients can actually experience a better life. And that may mean looking at models that have been done internationally or that may mean us developing our own and we have developed some very good products that are very much related to having our group of families or group of young people achieving, such as we now employ about 25 qualified teachers across the organisation, just working inside foster care change, across residential units, lifting our young people’s education or our parenting program.
You know I think parenting is underrated, yet parenting is what many of our families rise and fall on when it comes to being involved in statutory services or avoiding being involved in the statutory services, so we’ve got now 11 informing parents based solutions. So our priorities are pushing ourselves as an organisation to present and trial new ways that will affect or change the trajectory of our client group and that’s our priority and if we can continue to be honest to that objective, I think we’ll be relevant, and it is very important to be relevant, for our children.
You are the chair of the Home Stretch campaign, which is advocating to extend the age of leaving care to 21 across Australia. What difference would extending the age make?
I started the Home Stretch campaign because I suppose in the continuum of services for vulnerable children and young people, this was still the missing bit in the lego construct or in the continuum for people coming through from disadvantage. And that was, if we’re going to be raising these children in care, and that’s what I see us doing, not managing them but raising them, then we need to finish the job off. So I started to ask the question: Why don’t we continue to offer the opportunity or the option to continue the care for a child through to 21 like we do with our own children in our natural families? Why is it that as for our corporate parent responsibilities we think that 18, or kicking them out even before they turn 18, is a good way of raising a child. Well it isn’t.
I think my role has been asking that question: It this reasonable? Sometimes I think the system tends to convince itself that what we’ve got here is what we’ve got and we just work within it. So what we did was we looked at where overseas had gone and what overseas have found was that when you do extend care, you can halve the homeless rates of those who live in care – by half, 50 per cent. Double their education and employment engagement and you actually find you reduce pregnancy in the 17 to 19 year old group by 40 per cent and that’s because women are making better choices because they are still being cared for. You can reduce juvenile justice because they’re still a part of family life, by about a third. So not only do you get these social outcomes but also, as I said to the minister, all that money that you’ve invested in the child in care, these are the years, 18 to 21, where hopefully you can start to reap the benefit from that investment. You pull the rug from underneath them at 17, one day they fall into further calamity and disadvantage. We’re not seeing the fruits of our investment start to accrue, so there’s a good social and economic case to extend the option. And it is not for all children or young people, it is only for those who aren’t ready to go at around 14 or 15 and we say “look, we’re here until you’re ready to go” rather than we make a decision as a result of a date in the calendar, I mean who does that? Well you have a birthday party as a date in a calendar but you don’t make life decisions because of a date in the calendar.
How close are you to achieving that goal?
I am very optimistic. I believe we’ll have extended care as an option for children in out of home care in every state in Australia within three years. We’ve been at it for a couple. But I’m very optimistic.
I think governments get it, they’re just wondering how they could do it. I think the community is shocked that we don’t do it. I know a number of actual parents who go “what?”. And now we’re seeing a lot of countries go before us who have shown the benefits of doing this. So I think with welfare reform, we do have to stay focused on the objectives and stay in a way that continues to build and feed it.
Governments aren’t going to just take it: “Oh by the way you should do this,” “Oh right, thanks Paul, I’ll go and do that”. No, governments have to see you on the journey persistently, in a good way, showing them new information about why this reform would be good. And eventually you get there. It never happens overnight and some people are often too impatient with policy reform, I take the long lane approach. But I think we’ll see it in every state in Australia.
One of the challenges is that you’re dealing with and talking to seven different state governments and territories, it is a state based legislation but I still feel confident about that objective.
Through your work, what is your ultimate goal?
I don’t go for one big goal, I’m a mini goal man. I go for mini goals and whether it is changing the kids’ situation for the better and enabling the organisation to do that, whether it is doing something specific in a program, or trialling something new, I have a set of mini goals. And I tell you where I get them from. I get them from talking to people, spending that night around the residential dinner table listening to what they’ve got to say, from the frontline staff, when I ask them about their day they tell me what are the obstacles in their way. I think it is my job to see if I can do something about the obstacles my frontline staff are experiencing or the kids in our care experience. There is no one goal of achievement for me.
How do you find time for yourself?
I think that is important, because it is interesting what enters your mind when you’re actually doing something different, you get a different perspective on a problem you are wrestling with, you do need time to reflect from this because the business and the expectations and the responsibilities are very constant in caring for children. I am aware of the privilege but also the responsibility that goes with that, so it is important that we get that time. You have to make sure also as well as CEO, you’re a dad of two teenage children, and a husband and you’ve got to make sure you are those roles as well. And then you’ve got to have an outlet, I play in a band, and you have to remain reasonably physically well to deal with the day, I think that is important, to be physically well to sort of manage the responsibilities you have as a CEO.
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