Debra Hunter-McCormick – Journey into Social Work

DebraDebra Hunter-McCormick is a 59-year-old Nykina woman with connections to Bardi, NyulNyul, DjabbaDjabba and Mungala people in the Western Kimberley region of Western Australia.  She has four children and ten grandchildren.  Although Debra was born and raised in Darwin, Northern Territory, her family originates from the Kimberley’s.

“During my younger years, I worked as a Secretary/Receptionist and often at family gatherings, I would listen to stories being shared between my brothers and sisters about Aboriginal politics,” said Debra. “I was inspired by my brother (Dr Puggy (Arnold) Hunter-) who was at that time, the Chairperson of NACCHO (National Aboriginal Community Control Health Organisation) because he had passion and dedication for Aboriginal people’s health and wellbeing.”

“This made me think that there was more to life than being someone’s gofer,” said Debra. “I got an opportunity to study, and I enrolled in the Bachelor of Applied Science Indigenous Community Health and an Associate Degree in Aboriginal Health at Curtin University in Perth, WA.  It was a three-year course, and I was excited to open a new world of studying.  I was a single mum with two teenage children at home, an adult learner, and I found it difficult at times to balance my studies and home life. There were many times I wanted to throw it all in, but I had a very supportive family, and this encouraged me to go on.”

“In my second year of studies, I lost my brother.  I was going to defer, and my mother encouraged me to return to block because he would have wanted me to keep going, and so with her approval and support, I continued,” said Debra.

Debra remarried and moved from Darwin to Western Australia, where her studies opened up a whole new world for her.  She had a passion for Mental Health and got a job as the Aboriginal Mental Health Worker for the Pilbara region.

After she graduated, Debra moved from WA to Queensland, where she continued to work in the Mental Health field as a Mental Health Worker.

“I found that in Queensland, Aboriginal Mental Health Workers co-cased managed, and you worked with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients, assisting case managers with cultural input,” said Debra. “On one particular occasion, I was assisting in a case involving an Aboriginal man. Without going into details, I changed the plans regarding his accommodation because I could see that he would have been set up to fail.  The Team Leader called me into the office and advised me that I could not make decisions for any Aboriginal clients because that was only the role of case managers.  It was then I decided that I would continue to study so that I too could sit at the table and make decisions for Aboriginal people.”

Debra enrolled at James Cook University to study externally in a Bachelor of Social Work.  She recognised prior learning, which required her to study for a further two years instead of 4 years.

Debra continued to work full time and study full time. “I was working on the Acute Mental Health Unit with the Social Worker, and there were times I didn’t get home till late in the evenings, and I would get straight into my studies,” said Debra. “I would sit up late at night reading, researching and writing assignments.  This was a whole new study, and there were many times I found it hard to balance my world and understand the literature, but I was determined to do it.”

“I can honestly say that I never watched the news or listened to what was happening around the world because my life for so many years revolved around my own survival with my kids,” said Debra. “Studying opened up a whole new world for me, especially the subject of globalisation. It opened my eyes to a whole new world with social issues and the environment. I already knew the struggles of Aboriginal people in Australia. However, this gave me a good insight into how other Indigenous people lived overseas and the social issues they had.  With the help of my husband and a tutor, I graduated with my Bachelor of Social Work Degree.”

“My husband and my family were very proud of me when I graduated, and I felt proud of my own achievements because I knew the effort I put into my studies, the stress I felt, the late nights sitting up and struggling to get to work, it paid off with a few high distinctions in my results, which I was proud of,” said Debra.

Debra encourages other Aboriginal women and lets them know that they are never too old to study and learn.  “I tell my story about my struggles because when you are working with people, they can be very judgemental, and I had heard these words so often when I was a Child Protection Officer, ‘you don’t know’, ‘you have no idea’, ‘you wouldn’t understand.’”

“Becoming a Social Worker changed my life, my thinking, and I began seeing the world differently, and I took more interest in the environment around me,” said Debra. “It also changed my life financially, professionally, socially, and it opened employment opportunities because I found I had more choices and there was a high need for Aboriginal Social Workers.”

Debra moved from Mental Health to case working in the Youth Detention Centre with young males for about two years until she moved from Queensland back to WA to the Kimberley’s.

She worked for about four years as a Child Protection Officer in Broome, where she currently lives. Debra then applied for a 12-month secondment back to Mental Health, where she is today, as the Aboriginal Mental Health Coordinator for the Kimberley region in the Statewide Specialist Aboriginal Mental Health Services.

“I love being a Social Worker,” said Debra. “I am passionate about my role and the work I do in helping people in the community.  There are so many social issues involving Aboriginal people, and I feel that I have a lot to offer through my own life experience and profession. I enjoy sharing my skills, knowledge and expertise with people at a professional and community level.  I continually encourage young people to stay at school and learn because education is a way out of poverty, and education gives you better opportunities in life.”

So what does the future hold for Debra Hunter-McCormick? “I want to continue working for the next three years and maybe do some consultancy work,” said Debra. “But most importantly, I want to plan my retirement and enjoy the rest of my life, travelling and spending time with my family.”