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Strong Fathers, Strong Families: The Possum Cloaks Project

Project Added:
23 February 2016
Last updated:
9 March 2016

Strong Fathers, Strong Families: The Possum Cloaks Project

Summary

An eight-week parenting program was developed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fathers, which included lessons on carving culturally and personally significant artworks onto possum cloaks for their babies and children. The program was fully funded by the Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health.

Cloak made from possum skin decorated with traditional motifs

Cloak made from possum skin decorated with traditional motifs

Two possum skin cloaks created during the program.

"The program offered a beneficial and culturally enriching opportunity for these young men and it was wonderful to meet with them and learn how their culture develops the importance of family and family values through this amazing project."

This project was a finalist in the 2015 NSW Health Awards, Patients as Partners category. Watch a video on this project (opens in new window).

Aim

To improve participation rates in Aboriginal men’s parenting groups and empower participants to play an active role in the development of their children.

Benefits

  • Builds long-term relationships of trust, respect and honesty as well as accessible, ongoing communication and information for Aboriginal fathers.
  • Increases Aboriginal fathers’ awareness of the importance of cultural connections using both traditional and contemporary methods.
  • Empowers Aboriginal men to be an important role model and play an active part in the physical, social and cultural development of their children.
  • Provides a safe, inclusive and culturally sensitive environment for participants and facilitators.
  • Provides health information and parenting education that highlights the role of fathers in the development of babies and children.
  • Enables an appreciation of the cultural skills and knowledge of community organisations and Indigenous people.
  • Provides cultural, professional and mentoring support for Aboriginal people.
  • Enhances collaboration between community health services.
  • Aligns to the NSW Health Plan and NBMLHD Strategic Plan 2012-2017.

Background

NBMLHD Primary Care & Community Health (PC&CH) offers a range of cultural activities to highlight the role of Aboriginal men in the lives of their children. Most activities have good attendance and involvement, however when two Aboriginal men’s parenting groups were offered in community health centres, the uptake was poor with only one Aboriginal father in attendance.

This result prompted the need for a more culturally acceptable and innovative Aboriginal men’s parenting group to be held in a mutually agreed venue. Collaboration with the Aboriginal Cultural Resource Centre led to the identification of common goals, which fostered a shared sense of commitment to help Aboriginal men learn about parenting and cultural practices.

Gundungurra people were historically known to make possum cloaks, using a shell to incise the leathery side of the pelt with artwork of creation stories, song lines and clan groups. Possum cloaks were one of the most sacred expressions of Aboriginal people and served many purposes, including cradling new babies. However, they disappeared from use with the introduction of government blankets at the end of the 20th Century and the protection of possums as part of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.

To engage Aboriginal men during challenging antenatal and postnatal periods, it was determined that a possum cloaks project would provide a culturally appropriate way to improve attendance of men in the Aboriginal men’s parenting group.

Implementation

  • Consultation took place with Aboriginal Cultural Resource Centre and the Elders Committee, to determine the objectives of the project.
  • The project was launched at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre on July 12, 2014 during NAIDOC week.
  • 15 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fathers completed the eight-week cultural education program.
  • The program helped Aboriginal fathers learn about parenting, while giving them the opportunity to carve culturally and personally significant artworks onto possum cloaks for their babies and children.
  • A local Aboriginal artist was engaged to teach the men how to engrave the possum cloaks, which were imported from New Zealand. Kangaroo pelts were also available and sourced locally.
  • The cultural content, parenting information and face-to-face workshop details were presented in plain English and aligned to Gundungurra culture, heritage and language.
  • Child and Family Health nurses and a social worker from PC&CH attended each week, to provide parenting information.
  • Participants had the opportunity to showcase their artwork when the possum cloaks were put on display at Nepean Hospital for two weeks, following completion of the program.

Project status

Implementation - the initiative is ready for implementation or is currently being implemented, piloted or tested.

Key dates

July 2013 – June 2014.

Implementation site

Aboriginal Cultural Resource Centre, NBMLHD

Partnerships

  • NBMLHD Aboriginal Cultural Resource Centre
  • NBMLHD Primary Care & Community Health
  • The Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health

Results

  • Participation increased from one Aboriginal father in the traditional men’s parenting group, to 15 in the possum cloaks project.
  • The project delivered positive outcomes for participants and partner agencies, helping community health organisations rebuild cultural identity and strengthen the role of men in Aboriginal families.
  • Feedback indicated that the revival of possum cloak-making and associated ceremonies helped heal communities negatively affected by intergenerational grief, loss and trauma.
  • Participants expressed an increased knowledge of parenting, including the importance of their role, improved access to information and an ‘open door’ approach to community health services.
  • The cultural competency of health workers was improved, with feedback such as: “The program offered a beneficial and culturally enriching opportunity for these young men and it was wonderful to meet with them and learn how their culture develops the importance of family and family values through this amazing project.”
  • The consultative approach resulted in more efficient use of resources and improved working relationships between community health services. Total costs of materials and teaching resources for the project was $5000, with subsequent projects dependent on additional funding.

Awards

  • 2015 NSW Health Awards Finalist – Patients as Partners
  • 2015 NBMLHD Quality Awards Winner – Patients as Partners

Lessons learnt

  • This project highlighted the potential for partnerships when health services are delivered within culturally appropriate contexts.
  • The project promoted engagement between the Aboriginal community and community health services, with positive relationships becoming increasingly embedded in the community.
  • The primary principles of the possum cloak project are highly transferable to other community health services.
  • The ‘Closing the Gap’ strategy guided the communication and planning of this project, with the team applying recommendations for successful engagement.
  • Stakeholders agreed that the project was unique as it focused on fathers within a cultural context whereas most parenting programs traditionally focus on mothers.

Further reading

  • Binmarra Arts Inc.
  • Hunt J. Engaging with Indigenous Australia: exploring the conditions for effective relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Closing the Gap Clearinghouse 2013: Issues Paper No. 5.
  • NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. Possum Management Policy. NSW Parks and Wildlife Service; 2011.
  • NSW Government. National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.
  • Kurti L, Holloway L, Hudson S. Descriptive analysis of the Strong Fathers, Strong Families program - Final Report. December 2013.

Contact

Bronwyn Warne
Acting Operations Manager, Child and Family Health
Primary Care and Community Health
Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District
Phone: 02 4734 4702
bronwyn.warne@health.nsw.gov.au

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