COVID-19 restrictions have the potential to multiply the disadvantages children face across rural and remote Australia. But the chair and CEO of Royal Far West are determined to bridge the city-country divide. For families with vulnerable children living outside the major cities, school shutdowns during the crisis are especially tough.
Country children are up to five times more likely to have developmental health challenges, according to the 2015 Australian Early Development Census National Report, while distance and isolation often mean they lack ready access to child health services. Royal Far West has worked to bring services to these communities for close to a century.
Last year, the organisation supported 9668 country children, parents, carers, educators and health professionals through multidisciplinary services provided by its Centre for Country Kids, based in Sydney. This was achieved through telecare into schools and homes and through community-based outreach programs. However, as schools closed, in-community programs were suspended. Treweeke and Cane rapidly shifted service delivery for the nation’s vulnerable country children by moving Royal Far West’s more than 200 staff into home-based working.
“We wanted to stay close to our young clients and families, and make sure that they were not losing the skills and progress they’d already made,” says Treweeke. This meant the organisation had to urgently upscale virtual services using technology.
Royal Far West was already well practised in trailblazing paths into hard-to-reach places — from White Cliffs to Bourke in NSW, to Western Australia’s remote Aboriginal community of Yiyili, the furthermost community currently serviced. Around 800 telehealth sessions are delivered each week across NSW, Queensland and WA.
The right fit
Trained as a physiotherapist, Cane initially came to Royal Far West nine years ago on a three-month contract. She was still relatively new to her role as CEO when she approached Treweeke to join the board after meeting her at the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association (ICPA) conference in 2014.
“She had such posture, was full of dignity, and when she spoke the conference just listened,” explains Cane.
At the time, only two of Royal Far West’s nine board members were women. After meeting Treweeke, the then chair agreed she would be a valuable asset. Becoming a director of an organisation that championed country children was a role that suited Treweeke’s background and values. As a young lawyer, her husband had convinced her to leave the city and move to the bush. “I did a little bit of practice in a local town, but travelling 115km over a dirt road to get to work lost its fascination,” says Treweeke. The couple still lives 50km north of Lightning Ridge, on the same property where they raised their five children and educated them using School of the Air services.
Treweeke also sits on the Royal Flying Doctor Service South East Section board, and the Western NSW Local Health District board, and has been involved in local NGOs focusing on women’s services and domestic and family violence. “I like being able to connect people who can partner together to the benefit of the people out here, because no one organisation can do everything we actually need,” says Treweeke.
Cane points out that the health and wellbeing of country children has far-reaching ramifications for the nation. “We need to protect and nurture our rural children to grow up to be strong and resilient, not vulnerable, to be able to make the food and fibre upon which we all rely,” she says.
Treweeke and Cane describe their communication with each other as “full and frank”. While they don’t schedule regular chats, they nevertheless talk regularly to ensure there are “no surprises”.
Cane says Treweeke is skilled at translating her management messages to the board, “although we have a highly skilled and intuitive board group, which is intensely focused on helping me and my executive management be successful”.
Treweeke says this openness extends to her, as chair, being granted direct “line of sight” into the organisation’s daily inner workings. “I’ve sat in on sessions with families’ permission, I stay where the families stay at our residential guest house, I talk to the kids and the parents — and that all helps me understand what our staff are doing, and how effective they are,” she says.
The executive team, in turn, attends board meetings. “[Board members] can ask questions of me, but they can also ask them of my executive team, and if they get dissonant answers, that’s often a good test and lets them drill in a little bit further,” says Cane.
In 2017, an external board review was undertaken to help the board refresh and reframe the organisation’s governance in line with contemporary standards. Cane describes the review as “tough, honest and objective”, noting it provided a clear roadmap for best practice governance and required changes to the makeup, membership and modus operandi of the board.
Treweeke says that ensuring a balance of city-based board members as well as people from the bush is also important. “Things do work differently in the bush,” she says. “You’ve got to think about how ideas will be implemented and whether there’s capacity to do things.”
Treweeke believes Cane’s ability to build relationships through “friendraising” rather than “fundraising” approach is one of her key strengths. Indeed, government, business and philanthropic partners all contribute to the work of Royal Far West. For example, corporate partners HP and Cisco donated $1.6m in technology goods and services, while advocacy with Charles Sturt University resulted in a $19.7m funding partnership with the federal government over seven years in order to double the organisation’s telehealth capacity and boost the number of children who can be supported through the relatively new Centre for Country Kids facility.
In line with the strengths-based focus of the organisation as a whole, governance at Royal Far West is not about “scrutiny for the sake of scrutiny” or “looking for holes”, says Cane. “These directors’ questions and oversight are always directed at adding value to the business and, ultimately, the country kids we serve,” she says.