Horace Wansbrough grew up following his father along on volunteer prison visits. He describes the experience as formative: seeing for the first time the disconnect people had from their own families and communities. Today, he works at VACRO’s Parents and Family Program as a family counsellor, working to strengthen relationships and reunite families.

Read on to learn more about Horace’s experience, career and motivation. 

Can you tell us a bit about your background and experience?

My father was a member of the community who visited people in prison in New South Wales; in the equivalent of Pentridge. He’d just bring us kids along. I was eight years old. I grew up with a little bit of insight into what people in custody were facing.

The disconnect they might have from their own family came through very early. Prisoners would be saving up money to buy us a soft drink, they’d appreciate that time to have the normality of an experience with a family, like a family visit.

I studied psychology at university, then moved into youth work. I did street outreach in Redfern, work with families in the inner-city of Sydney… and then I started specialising in drug and alcohol youth work after moving to Melbourne in 2005. I’ve always been attracted to complex and challenging environments.

You spent 15 years as a youth worker. Why did you move into family therapy?

As a youth worker we’re often told the young person is your primary client. You support them, no matter what. Back in those days you just sort of accepted there was family troubles, but they often remained in the background of our youth work practice I became more curious over time: what’s the story behind these troubles? Perhaps there’s someone in the family that is safe to connect with? What resources might be supported and activated that exist in the family, what and what support do parents and caregivers need?

I stopped just accepting that families were broken. I started to look for resources and resilience. That brought me to the Bouverie Centre’s Lighting Beacons program – bringing family work into drug and alcohol treatment. I was sold. I thought, this is the work. We’re not going to be here on this kid’s 21st birthday, wedding, Christmas in two years’ time; we’re not it. The family is going to be there, with all their troubles and complexity. It was about letting go of the youth work emphasis on our relationship with the young person and focusing on their relationships with family.

You finished a master’s degree in family therapy through the Bouverie Centre. How did you come to VACRO?

It goes back to the story of how to connect troubled young people who have complex histories, with an understanding of how disconnected prisoners are from their family members, and how those cycles can be interrupted to be much more positive and to create those crucial critical connections that are lifelong. It’s a dream job.

It’s a thrill to be working with VACRO. There’s a really big belief that family work should be at the forefront of reintegration. We know through research and prisoners’ own stories that what keeps them out of prison is having a partner, children or family members that they are connected to. That’s a really strong indictor of staying out of the prison system.

You’re usually based at Tarrengower Prison, working with imprisoned women. What does a day involve?

I do parent and family work for such a wide variety of issues and presentations. We can work on trying to make sense of past trauma, healing some relationships in families where there’s been a lot of cut-off and disconnect or child protection involvement. Many mums will be desperate to reconnect with their child; we work on reunification in custody, access to programs and support.

Another aspect of the program is parent education; exploring the latest thinking on effective parenting, which for me sits with an emotion focussed,  strength based approach, looking at ways parents can tap into their skills and instincts for warm, safe and secure attachment, where they often haven’t had these experiences of safe attachment modelled in their own childhood.

There are currently around half a dozen children in the prison with their mums, which is a lot of fun, it’s like each child has 60 aunties as everyone tries to pitch in and help out. There’s an extraordinary level of support and expertise around parenting in custody   in Tarrengower with their programs team, and I try to complement, not duplicate their work

What’s the difference between a psychologist and a family therapist?

Family therapy doesn’t look for a diagnosis or a symptom in the same way. Our framework is that we share the load of troubles across a system. If an individual comes to me and says they’re worried about their teenager who’s acting out and not going to school, I’ll avoid trying to pathologise that person. I’m not trying to find a diagnosis for the young person of being ‘conduct disordered’. I’m looking at and exploring with the family why those behaviours are happening. What need is it meeting for the young person. How do we share the responsibility for solutions across the family and other support systems – school, other peers and other parents.

What motivates you to do the work you do?

I don’t go to work to feel good about myself, or to feel like I’m making a difference.

The sense I have is that it’s very satisfying work and very challenging work. The demand for the work is huge. There’s a really long waitlist for the program as I’m only funded one day a week. It’s just helping to meet a need that’s there, and that taps into my values around social justice. It’s a great thing to find a workplace where you’re offering some hope to people and some of the time that’s received in a way that does provide some assistance and facilitates people’s own strength.

More information about VACRO's family support