I was fortunate enough to work with and learn from Rudy during my years at Lighthouse Foundation. As Director of Care Services, Rudy was responsible for the wellbeing of not only the young people that we worked with, but the incredible staff that supported them. His role came with immense responsibility, so I was in awe of Rudy’s calm approach and humble nature. His gentle character even remained when I wrote-off his work car in a three car pile up. Holding no grudges, Rudy agreed to feature on this blog. It was fascinating to learn about his personal motivations for doing the often confronting work that he has dedicated his life to.
“I moved to Australia with my family when I was four years old. I came from Uruguay, where there was a military dictatorship and a great deal of political turmoil. When dictatorial regimes take over, there is a focus on silencing young people as an attempt to either indoctrinate them into the regime or to wipe them out – they are seen as a threat by those in power. And Uruguay was no different – a lot of teenagers were disappearing and there was an attempt to stamp out any form creativity, thoughtfulness, freedom of thought and sense of hope for the future.
My sisters were in their teenage years, as was my brother who was being harassed by authorities because he was involved in student protests. My father, who was in the trade union, had been investigated and spent some time in custody after participating in a strike. He knew that as kids, we were in danger. As a welder by trade, he took the opportunity to come to Australia as a skilled migrant.
Coming from a migrant background, I experienced a lot of overt racism growing up, and issues around identity. My Uruguayan family and friends would call me Australian because I was so young when I arrived, but Australians would call me a “wog” or South American. I was in constant conflict about my identity and never felt as though I completely belonged. My life had been here so I felt Australian, but I was constantly reminded that I wasn’t. I really struggled with my identity and because of that got myself into a bit of trouble in my teenage years. Seeking a sense of belonging, I got involved in gang culture from a young age.
Growing up in a low socioeconomic area I saw families under a lot of pressure. I saw my friends experience levels of neglect and deprivation, and I saw plenty of social isolation. As I tried to understand myself and the anger that I felt, issues of identity, isolation and social behaviour became of great interest. I think psychology was always going to be my destiny – not that I knew at the time.
My practice over the years has largely been trauma-informed. When you’re working with people who have experienced a lot of trauma, you learn that they have not only been let down by figures who were entrusted to care for them, but the whole system has abused and neglected them and subsequently been part of their trauma. So, interventions and the process of recovery needs to involve the whole system. I remember being taught in my early years of psychology training that, as an expert, I could lead people to recovery. I have since learnt that my role is to facilitate recovery – it takes a whole system to heal people.
When trauma is inflicted deliberately – as is the case with torture – when it’s inflicted by a social institution or a group of people in power, you can lose trust in everything. It has a significant impact on how you see yourself, your relationships and the world. So, treatment approaches need to consider the individual’s personal well-being, their relationships (relational wellness) and their links with the community (collective wellness). And there needs to be parallel support processes in place for staff who are supporting these groups, so that they have the resilience to be able to undertake this challenging work.
And this is essentially what I’m doing now. As Principal Practice Leader at Foundation House, my role is to provide a system of support and care for practitioners to do their work. At Foundation House, we work with refugees and asylum seekers who are survivors of torture and trauma by providing counselling, advocacy and community capacity building. It’s obviously really challenging work in and of itself, and then there’s the socio-political context around it which also has an impact on clients and practitioners.
The people we work with at Foundation House may have experienced trauma in their country of origin, on their journey here or in Australia, where they are likely to experience racism and difficulty adjusting to a new culture and environment. Because of my own experiences of racism, these injustices can at times trigger something for me. But rather than getting angry about it, I use it as motivation to continue the work that I’m doing.
I’ve always worked with marginalized and misunderstood groups. My first role during my provisional psychology placement was with family services. Working with families with complex needs in the western suburbs (where I lived) was a real baptism of fire. But, the organisation took a chance on me and I worked there for about five years.
Then, when a new correctional facility opened, I jumped at the opportunity. It wasn’t just a prison, but a treatment facility and therapeutic community for violent offenders. Because many of the friends that I had grown up with had gone through prison, I was really interested in supporting people to get out of the system. I worked with high risk violent offenders and prisoners diagnosed with psychopathy by providing individual therapy, group therapy and psychoeducation. We also did activities as a community to support their reintegration into society.
People often ask how I managed working with such “dangerous” people. I don’t mind working with people who are aggressive, because I see aggression as an attempt to communicate. I try to understand what lies behind that behavior and what that the behavior is communicating. There is a saying, “it is the child that cries the loudest that gets fed.” When I see someone acting out, when I see crime, and when I see expressions of hate, I see a cry for help. And if we punish people, they just cry louder. I know because I’ve been there. I have had moments in my life, when I did not have the words to express how I felt, and it came out through inappropriate behaviour.
While there are a lot of different reasons people end up in prison, many of them haven’t experienced appropriate love from a family member or been shown empathy. So, they don’t learn empathy – they learn anger, they learn violence, or they learn to run away.
I always remember, that this could have been me, if my circumstances were different. The difference between my experience – getting an education, becoming a psychologist and having a successful career, versus a number of my friends who ended up dead or in prison – was that I was shown empathy. I was shown love. Even through my mistakes, there were people holding me, telling me I was loved and reassuring me that I could come back. Having that safety net is critical.
So, safety is the first stage of recovery. In the instance of therapy, it is so important that a client feels comfortable with you and trusts that you are not going to let them down. They need to know that if they show a side that they’re not proud of, you won’t judge or punish them. When you’re doing recovery work, whether it’s drug and alcohol recovery or trauma recovery, there will be lapses and relapses. But, if you have a program that supports people when things fall apart, there can be success at the end of it all. When work is short term, and you don’t have the ability to hold them through the time it takes, then you can lose people.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great organisations who work with people for long periods of time so I have seen change. Sometimes it can take years, but if you do proper trauma recovery work and you’ve got the right systems in place, people can recover from the most horrible things.
And this was also true at Lighthouse Foundation where I worked with young people experiencing homelessness who came from backgrounds of long term trauma, abuse and neglect. I was working with violent offenders, when Lighthouse sparked my interest because it was one of few organisations working from an attachment perspective as well as having a trauma informed approach. The organisation recognised that our ability to trust and relate to others develops in infancy through our attachment to our primary caregiver. This influences and shapes our behavior later in life. This was missing for many of the kids we worked with. So, we worked to create an environment that promotes personal, relational and community wellness. We had an ‘on for life’ motto that meant the organisation would always be there as a safety net for the young people, even beyond their stay in our homes.
At Lighthouse Foundation I saw people breaking the cycle of abuse and homelessness and contributing to their community. We did a study that showed that for every $1 invested in the program there was a social return of $12. With a bit of investment, people can actually recover and contribute to improving social cohesion and better economic outcomes.
My work is challenging. I have seen a lot of trauma in my life. But I have also seen good things. I see moments of hope. I see people change. I see the best in people. I see that people can experience such horrible injustice yet come out the other side hopeful and still contribute to the world in a positive way. The relationships, the amazing, heroic and powerful stories from survivors and my family – they all keep me going.”
Photography: SharmaRose photography