PIFA Comes to Penrith and a Mothers’ Group Begins


What is PIFA?

Parent Infant Family Australia (PIFA) is an independent, not for profit organisation working in association with Catholic Community Services (Catholic Care). It was established in 1998 to enhance the lives of children by supporting vulnerable families during pregnancy and in their child’s early years. This is accomplished via direct clinical work, support and training of those who work with distressed families e.g. early childhood nurses.


In 2005, in partnership with Aboriginal agencies in Redfern we developed our 'Keeping Families Together Project.' This project provides early intervention, viatherapeutic group work, home based support and partnerships with Aboriginal pre-schools and various community agencies. The aim is to support Aboriginal families in their parenting and work towards keeping Aboriginal children in their families. The project was expanded to Penrith and surrounds in 2009.

The people who work for PIFA

PIFA’s work is carried out by a group of professionals who have many years of experience in parent child relationships with clients who would normally be unable to access such a resource. PIFA workers must have:

  • At least 10 years experience working with families and children under 3 years of age
  • Degree in Social Work, Psychology or other relevant discipline
  • Relevant post graduate training e.g.: Diploma / Masters of Infant Mental Health, Psychotherapy Training·
  • Experience of at least three years personal psychotherapy/analysis

These professionals are supported by an Executive Director and the Board of Management which is made up of appropriate professionals.

(Find out more about PIFA at www.pifa.org.au)

How did Mothers’ Groups begin?

In July 2006 with the assistance of an Aboriginal woman, who was an early intervention worker, PIFA established a mother’s psychotherapy group in partnership with the Aboriginal Children’s Service, Redfern (ACS). I was asked to facilitate it. It was neither a discussion group nor a parenting group. Mothers were invited to join the group where the task was defined: to support each other as you share and think about your lives and your infants, your strengths, your past experiences, your struggles and what it is like for you to be a mother.

What did the young Aboriginal mothers teach us about what they needed?

This group continued weekly for 18 months and had a big impact upon a number of young women. We didn’t know how it was going to go. However we did learn that a number of young mothers were coming to Aboriginal Children’s Service carrying a lot of pain, despair, frustration and anger. Some were taking brave steps to overcome alcohol and drug struggles; others were worried about unresolved personal issues which had impacted upon their relationships with their infants. There were mothers who had tremendous fear and anxiety about losing their children while for other mothers their children had been in the care of DOCs in the past or were currently in foster care. Sadly most of the mothers felt they had failed to live up to what they expected of themselves.

How did PIFA respond?

PIFA offered a professional therapeutic service that could touch the mother’s underlying pain and distress and aimed to support her in responding to those aspects which were intruding upon her mothering and her life.

Mothers said they felt more secure than in an individual session where the focus upon themselves was too overwhelming. They became aware that they were opened up to their own inner world as they listened to others. It also provided a space where their thoughts, fears, feelings and behaviour could be held and thought about. The group had a strong caring atmosphere and was able to hold the horrific experiences which mothers shared, often for the first time. The mothers learned that they were not alone and most importantly that they had something good to offer each other. For many of them this was a new experience.

A Mothers’ Group begins at ACSS Penrith

In November 2009 Otto Henfling Executive Director, Centacare Catholic Social Services Parramatta, suggested that PIFA Director Judith Krahe Edwards meet up with ACSS and explore the possibility of establishing a mother’s group at Penrith. Consequently last November we were invited to begin a group for young mothers who felt they would like the opportunity to be supported in their mothering of their infants.

We have had twenty meetings and ten mothers have continued to show interest in being involved. We meet each Tuesday morning at 11-00 am until 12.30 pm and finish with sharing lunch with everyone who happens to be in the agency at that time.

What happens in the Mothers’ Group

The group meetings are not directed and there is no specific agenda or topic. What the mothers bring of their experience is the focus. It is not a group to instruct mothers in techniques and strategies for parenting but one which will offer:

  • a space to think about how their individual experiences might impact on their ability to care for their child
  • support to come to terms with past traumas or struggles and manage the effects of them, so that these are less likely to effect their relationship with their children

In this sharing something much deeper can occur and it is difficult to find words which can clearly communicate the process. As the group grows, trust deepens and the mothers feel more supported, valued and cared for by the group. A process can begin in which the unspeakable becoming speakable, the unthinkable becoming thinkable and eventually the unbearable becoming bearable.

Consequently the mother can develop new inner strength. Initially this takes place by sensitively listening to the depth of each other’s story which might be an event which occurred in the past or today. The group gets to know about responding with understanding, not with “fixing.” The story teller hopefully is able to feel the acceptance, care and understanding within the group and slowly it can become part of them. A person’s story can awaken another member’s own story and the pain and insight is shared. Perhaps I can explain this process with this moving story.

Eva (not her real name) was a woman in her early twenties. Her baby had been in care for a year and she feared that she would never get him back. Unfortunately Eva had experienced much trauma and distress in life and had been in a psychiatric hospital when she was 18. She tended to be angry in her dealings with authority and carried much despair.

At a group session she asked: “Do you think I am schizophrenic?” I replied, “I haven’t seen anything that looks like schizophrenia.” The group responded quickly “No we haven’t either.” Her next question was “Do you think I am mad?” Again I responded “I haven’t seen anything that looks like madness here.” The group again said they didn’t see her as being mad.

With tears in her eyes she looked up and said “Does that mean that I might be all right?”Eva then began to change. It seemed she began to understand that the struggles she had were not based on badness or madness and now there was hope. She slowly began to feel that she could be a good mother to her son and in her dealings with DOCs she was able to present herself positively and the restoration process began.

In my work with young mothers I have been aware that some carry very strong feelings that they are not good enough. Sometimes there have been drug problems or confrontations with the law and painful experiences of being judged harshly. Often they have judged themselves with extreme harshness. I have learnt that if a young person can be supported in the group to move from a belief that they are not good enough to a place of being able to connect with their inner pain then transformation and healing can occur. It frequently seems to me that the movement can be from shame and dislike for oneself to that of understanding and compassion. Compassion brings hope, a gift that is possible to share with each other within the group.

After attending the group many young women have commented, “I feel lighter.” One day I said that when we reached a certain number we would not have any more new members. I was told, “You can’t do that. There is nowhere else to go where we are able to feel safe to let go of what worries us. There are girls out there that need to be able to come.”

I knew they were right because it reminded me that a few years ago, a young Aboriginal mother knocked on the door of the Redfern group holding a three week old baby in her arms. She said “I have been told that this is where you can come when you are feeling upset.” She came and shared her pain that it was the first anniversary of the stillbirth of her daughter. She was feeling very afraid and vulnerable. She desperately needed to find a door that was open for her.

It is not only the group door that is opened because Aboriginal Catholic Social Services is the first door. ACSS opened the door to PIFA and welcomed us when our director Judith Krahe Edwards knocked. The young mothers come to the group because it is at ACSS and they are invited by ACSS to come.

PIFA is grateful for the support that we are given by Sister Naomi, Sister Frances and Judy Curry: the elders Janice Brown, Janice Kennedy and Rhonda Randall who are there to support the mothers; Cherie, Kerry and Cassandra who mind the children and prepare the lunch. The group could not happen without them.


Tags: PIFA   Penrith   Mothers Group

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