Catherine Villa safe haven for young mums


Catherine Villa support team members
On the support team at Catherine Villa are (from left): Louise Masters – Co-ordinator, Catherine Villa; Cathy Tracey – Senior Manager for Family and Community Support portfolio; Frances Pegrem – Family Support Worker; and Lyndall Appiah Brenyah – Case Worker. Photo: Virginia Knight
Catherine Villa in Sydney’s west provides 24/7 support to some of the most vulnerable young mothers in our community, helping them to gain the confidence and the competence necessary to not only care for their child, but, as this assurance grows, to enjoy being such an essential part of their child’s development.

Catherine Villa was established in 1992 as an initiative of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd who identified a need for assistance for the increasing numbers of young pregnant women in the area.

The centre was built using Crisis Accommodation Funds from the Department of Housing on land owned by the Catholic Church in Quakers Hill.

For many years, Catherine Villa operated as part of the Solo Parent Ministry of the Diocese of Parramatta, but with the recent amalgamation of social welfare agencies within the Diocese, Catherine Villa's Supported Accommodation Service is now a part of Centacare Catholic Social Services (CCSS) Family Support Programs.

Catherine Villa's Supported Accommodation Service provides medium-to-long-term (three-to-12 months) accommodation for young women under 25 years of age who are pregnant or parenting.

Parenting and living skills

It can accommodate up to five mothers and their children at any one time; and it offers assistance during their stay with parenting and living skills.

There are a number of reasons why these girls present at Catherine Villa, all of which will have led to the breakdown of their family unit, resulting in homelessness.

Many may be struggling with parenting or financial issues as a result of that family breakdown. Some may be escaping domestic violence or have disabilities, mental health or drug and alcohol issues.

Cathy Tracey, Senior Manager at Centacare Catholic Social Services, said at Catherine Villa the aim was to provide a positive and supportive environment.

Generally, these young women have no permanent accommodation and will have been ‘couch surfing’ or staying with extended family. “They are a particularly vulnerable group in that they may be open to accepting lodging from anyone, including an abusive partner,” Cathy said. “Most have no connections to the community or their family and in many cases are really in need of support at this time in their lives.”

The centre assists the women in seeking medical services, in particular pre and post natal care, and mental health services if required. Each resident is assigned a caseworker, who works closely with the young woman to assess her individual needs and design a program to meet these needs.

Leaning by experience

Staff facilitate programs that encourage living and parenting skills. The aim is to offer modelling of mothering and family skills, with a ‘learn by experience’ approach.

This includes basic domestic abilities that most of us would take for granted as having been learnt during our formative years such as cooking, budgeting and housekeeping.

However, for many of the girls now living in the safe and stable environment of Catherine Villa, this may be their first real experience of what constitutes a secure family relationship.

“Many are disengaged from their school, work and family,” Cathy said. Catherine Villa embraces the principles of early intervention as it is well documented that intervening and supporting young mums early in their pregnancy, and then for as long as is necessary, leads to better outcomes for themselves and their children.

The young mothers are encouraged to build on their strengths, consolidate their attachment with their children, and develop a network of support, which may include reconnection to family, friends and community resources.

“Catherine Villa is vital in our community, offering the opportunity for young families to increase and strengthen their skills, creating successful parents who are able to maintain the care of their children,” Cathy said.

With State and Federal Government funding via the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program and Community Services Grants Program and the generous support of the Diocese the Catherine Villa program has been able to expand to offer a ‘transition’ house in the community; Outreach Family Support and groups in the community.


A playgroup that operates once a week is attended by a mix of current residents, ex-residents, outreach mums and other families from the local community. These young mothers are operating at different levels of family life, e.g. some have part-time work and others have their own homes.

The group is a great example of what can be achieved and provides peer support to the young parents at the centre. They are able to connect with other mothers with young families who are in the ‘same boat’ and develop positive friendships.

Louise Masters, Co-ordinator of Catherine Villa, said playgroup provided the residents with great peer support. “Many have not experienced this sort of friendship before,” she said. “Learning by experience from other young mums is great. It also assists in trying to strengthen that attachment bond of the young mothers to their babies and increase their knowledge of child development.”

Staff encourage the young women to begin looking for alternative accommodation as soon as they take up residence at Catherine Villa, in preparation for when they are ready to leave.

For younger mums this may take the form of semi-supported housing, which can take up to 12 months to find. For some of the older mothers, private rental accommodation may be an option when they are able to work but, generally, this is the exception rather than the rule.

In the meantime, the program offers ex-residents support for as long as it is needed and an ‘exit’ house is available for one family at a time when they leave the centre to help them to make the transition to private accommodation.

Cathy Tracey said one of the main aims of the program was to find safe, secure and affordable housing for the young families as they moved on from Catherine Villa or to support them to maintain their existing accommodation.

“We have a network of western Sydney agencies that we refer on to but the accommodation available does not meet the numbers of families requiring accommodation. We would like to increase our number of ‘transition’ houses but need funding for additional support staff.”

At any one time, staff at Catherine Villa will be working with a minimum of at least 25 ex-resident and outreach families and can accommodate up to 15 mothers and their young families per year at the centre itself.

Generally, they handle more than 200 referrals each year. Many of these referrals come from the Department of Human Services but, increasingly, more referrals are from family or other local community service areas such as doctors, hospitals, schools, government agencies and departments, charitable organisations and, occasionally, self referral.

The centre accepts referrals for accommodation from Western Sydney and referrals for Outreach Family Support from across Blacktown and Hills Shire Councils and local government departments. Cases are accepted following an assessment criteria to determine who has the highest need.

Increased need

The increase in the cost and lack of availability of private rentals has seen a parallel increase in a need for the type of services that Catherine Villa provides.

In addition, with many families struggling to meet rental increases, there is a huge need for them to access material aid. Catherine Villa helps to set up long-term links with organisations that can assist young families setting out from the centre into private accommodation.

While Catherine Villa happily accepts donations of pamper packs for new babies or young mothers, other material donations, e.g. second-hand goods are encouraged to be made at charitable organisations such as St Vincent de Paul centres and the Salvation Army stores.

If the staff at Catherine Villa could identify one thing above all the others on their ‘wishlist’ it would be, in many cases, earlier intervention. “A lot of referrals are made when the crisis is happening and things are going wrong,” Cathy said.

Catherine Villa is a hive of activity, with young children running around and young mothers caring for their babies. Despite the background presence of troubled young lives, there is much joy and hope rebounding within the walls of the centre.

Staff and residents welcomed another new arrival into the house when one of the girls gave birth recently. “Catherine Villa has changed my life for the better,” the young mum said. “The staff are great and they have helped me learn to cook and how to settle my baby when she cries.”

She is grateful for the opportunity to learn more at Catherine Villa before eventually getting her own home. One day, she would like to follow her dream of a career in graphic design.

One feels her time at Catherine Villa will equip her with the skills to build a new life for herself and her child, and instil in her the confidence to achieve these goals.

By Virginia Knight (Catholic Outlook, June 2010)

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