Dr Katinka van de Ven, Senior Lecturer at UNE, and her fellow researcher Erin Cunningham, Support Officer at Pinangba, are currently undertaking a research project aimed at assisting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination during rehabilitation as part of Pinangba.

Pinangba is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led service delivery arm of UnitingCare. Pinangba delivers innovative, culturally informed services to progress self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through holistic care, prioritising social justice to nurture healing.

Dr Katinka van de Ven has conducted numerous projects in the alcohol and other drug (AOD) treatment space, and her fellow researcher in this project, Erin Cunningham, is a Kalkadoon woman and an Enrolled Endorsed Nurse (EEN) who has worked with various health services prior to this project. Outside of her Post Graduate Certificate in Family Therapy from the Bouverie Centre and La Trobe University, this is Erin’s first foray into academic research. But what exactly is Dr Katinka van de Ven and Erin Cunningham’s part in this project? Speaking to Erin about the structure and research process, she noted that it all comes down to facilitating self-determination.

“Dr Katinka van de Ven and I will identify measures of success that matter to our clients,” said Erin regarding the project. “Then we will use those measures to evaluate our treatment model using those client identified outcome measures. At each of our sites about two thirds of our staff are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so this will mean we will have community voice informing service delivery, measuring the usefulness of the service delivery, and informing what needs to be improved in service delivery. Katinka will also mentor me and train me in the research and data analysis skills needed for this project.”

Discussing the implications and hopeful outcomes of this research, Erin and Katinka discussed how the research will potentially identify gaps in existing treatment models, and provide the opportunity to reflect on the current models and make changes to better meet individual’s needs.

“Our treatment model is built upon systemic principles. What that means is that we do not focus our work on individual people but instead we work with the relationships between people; not just in the family but also broader relationships with family, community and country. This research will provide insight into alternative ways of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients that makes sense to those clients.”

“As part of our project we have an Advisory Group comprising of both key experts in their respective fields and people with lived experience of AOD misuse and personal healing work, the majority of whom are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait people. In addition, we are setting up a Family Members Advisory Group comprising of family members of current and former clients in treatment to ensure that the voice of families are heard as well. This is particularly important as we are a family-based residential service.”

The project is slated to continue until 2023, but Erin and Katinka have already passed the milestone of receiving two separate ethics approvals, processes which have taken nearly a year to complete due to the sensitive nature of the research. In their own words, Erin and Katinka are happy to have passed this milestone, but are also “simply excited to finally get the project started”.

Being such a long term focus for Katinka and Erin, this project carries a great deal of weight for them both. When asked what this research meant to them, they each discussed its implications for the field, but also their motivations:

Erin Cunningham: “For me, this has been a fantastic opportunity in the research space. I am very fortunate to have the support and mentorship of Dr Katinka van de Ven, Prof Alison Ritter and my work colleague Joe Conway. I have been fortunate enough to take on a Support Role in my organisation which has given me the capacity to be a part of this research project. I have never had the opportunity to be a part of any research in the past and I feel very lucky to be in this position right now.”

Katinka van de Ven: “Personally this project is a wonderful opportunity to work with and learn from Erin and Joe who have years of experience working with people who have alcohol and other drug issues. Importantly, being part of this project gives me a better understanding of what it means to provide culturally respectful and holistic care, and how this can inform practice and policy within the AOD treatment sector. I am excited and honoured to work with such a wonderful service – and such great people! -, which progresses self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through their unique model of care.”