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A year of community building and looking to the future

This year the Belonging to Family team at Kempsey have had a homecoming of sorts with the return of Karen Rhodes. Karen was one of the original creators of the Belonging to Family program just over ten years ago. This unique program is run for Aboriginal mums and dads in custody and their families and supports them throughout the six months pre-release and post-release, working with the whole family unit to strengthen bonds and prepare for loved ones returning home.

Karen joined SHINE with the purpose of building the first Belonging to Family (BTF) program together with Barbara Cohen in 2010 on a one year secondment from NSW Corrections where she worked as a Services and Programs Officer. But her love of working with SHINE grew and now, nine years later, we are so lucky to have the benefit of her extensive knowledge, gained from over 30 years working in many different roles in the justice space including at Mulawa and Silverwater prisons. Her immense passion for supporting people in the criminal justice system is such an asset to the team.

With COVID affecting the delivery of the BTF program this year, Karen and the team have turned their sights on expanding the post-release support network. This is an area Karen sees real value and need in with the current situation resulting in too many people facing challenges post-release and falling through the gaps. Recently, a young man was missing for days after he was released because of something as simple as missing his train. His mother called Karen in distress and eventually he was located. Karen says this is just one example of the many challenges people face on release and demonstrates the need for better support systems to be put into place.

Karen’s deep ties and connection to the Kempsey community, where she has lived for most of her life, have helped her build new partnerships and a large network of support services. She’s proud to have developed a new referral form for post-release services and says, “that’s where everyone needs to be involved, housing, the Department of Community Services, state debt, the NSW Police, juvenile justice, everyone is on board with the support … we’ve reengaged and made a committee and have been setting up all the groundwork.”

Part of the new post-release program will be focused on connecting people with a range of services on offer to them including health and mental health care assessments and financial counselors. Recently, we supported one of our BTF families by connecting them with The Salvation Army to pay for their electricity bill and sourced $500 in gift cards to help purchase household essentials during a tough time.

The new year is looking bright for the Kempsey team! “I love what I’m doing and am very passionate,” says Karen. The new post-release focus combined with the recommencement of BTF after lockdown with two new facilitators means more families will get full support now and into the future. Karen says, “The post-release project with Belonging to Family is needed in every jail.”

A year of community building and looking to the future

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