Social work: Janet Farrow OAM

Janet Farrow OAM (BSW 1988) came into her own upon entering the University. Her illustrious career since graduating has been defined by a ceaseless drive to alleviate distress and solve social problems.


What are your strongest memories of your time at the University of Melbourne?

  • Inspirational Teachers, in particular Professor Dorothy Scott, Professor Bruce Lagay, Stephanie Charlesworth and Emeritus Professor Len Tierney.
  • Extraordinary learning opportunities in field work placements and the research component of the Bachelor of Social Work.
  • Life enriching friendships with co-students.
  • A lovely, leafy campus with some architectural gems to match.

What goals did you set yourself when you finished University and did you stick to that plan?

After studying the theory of Human Service Organisations and Program Planning and Evaluation in the Bachelor of Social Work (now the qualifying Master Degree of Social Work) my direction in social work crystallised and I decided that my ambition was to lead a small- to medium-sized health or welfare organisation. I did adhere to that plan and enjoyed the many interesting positions I held on the path to realising that ambition.

What/who motivated you at University?

I don’t know that anyone motivated me, as I just seemed to have found my proper place in the world when I entered University. I have never lost sight of what a privilege and great investment a good education is. These insights have always been enough to motivate me.

What motivates you now?

The great joy of being a consultant is using all your skills and experience to help client organisations solve problems and enhance service delivery for the benefit of their clients. It is a similar source of professional pleasure when engaged in the duties of a Company Director. Teaching Social Work students in the qualifying Master of Social Work course at the University of Melbourne has turned out to be an abiding delight, so much so that I wonder, at times, that this might be my true vocation. Perhaps it is possible to have a number of vocations!

What drew you to your area of expertise and what do you love about it?

I come from a reasonably long line of midwives and people involved in business. They may inhabit different worlds vocationally speaking, but in my case they were all active in various forms of community service. This background made social work and, in particular, the management of health and welfare organisations a logical choice for me. What I love about my profession it that through it I have played my part in alleviating distress experienced by individuals and families in their private worlds and helped to solve social problems. It is the breadth of the social work profession that is one of its distinguishing marks and makes it both extremely challenging intellectually and practically to do well, but also incredibly rewarding.  

What is the greatest accomplishment of your life so far?

Without doubt raising my daughter, Alex, who is now an accomplished engineer, and along with her husband Nick, a wonderful parent of four beautiful girls, Phoebe, Emmeline, Frances and Thea. Every day I reflect on my good fortune in that regard.

What are some of the highlights of your career?

My first real management experience occurred whilst I was Chief Social Worker at Forensic Psychiatry Services (now Forensicare) where I was responsible for leading a highly skilled multidisciplinary team who delivered the community based services in this challenging clinical area. Every aspect of that experience was wonderful. It was nothing short of a privilege to be part of a high functioning and committed group at a time when there was relative freedom to respond to the many issues facing mentally disordered offenders and their families.

In 1995 Professor David Pennington chaired the Premier’s Drug Advisory Council, an inquiry into drug misuse in Victoria, commissioned by Premier Kennett. I served on the secretariat of that committee as a representative of the Department of Premier and Cabinet. The final report, among many other recommendations, called for the establishment of a statewide assessment and treatment brokerage service for drug affected offenders to overcome this group’s poor access to drug treatment. I was invited by the offender support agency that obtained the right to operate the service, to both establish and manage this service. The service processed approximately 5000 clients per annum and had service contracts with over one hundred specialist drug treatment agencies and programs.  To have contributed to and seen the case built for the service by the Premier Drug Advisory Council, and to have then led a very talented team who built the service from a Greenfields site, was an extraordinary experience.  

In 1999 I was appointed Executive Director of UnitingCare Moreland Hall (now ReGen) a specialist drug treatment agency of the Uniting Church in Australia. Here I led a comprehensive reform of the agency assisted,, as always, by some great and talented colleagues. Ultimately, through my work at Moreland Hall I became interested in the welfare of the children of drug users and was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to undertake study overseas to investigate promising programs addressing their needs. On my return, and with the support of the Board, colleagues, and the Ian Potter Foundation, we established a therapeutic playgroup for parents in treatment for drug misuse and their children. It was evaluated and found to be effective and has, I’m pleased to say, been replicated many times in different sites.

It is a career full of highlights, opportunities and wonderful colleagues both in the University and in the field.  

What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken in your life?

It was a calculated risk backing myself and investing in my education. At times it would have been a far easier road for me to bypass a university education, at least in the short term. By having faith in my abilities and in the university system to equip me with knowledge and skills I can see now that perhaps the risks weren’t as great as I perceived in those times.

What is good health to you?

Good health is a broader concept than physical wellbeing, although we should always be grateful to live in a country where we receive high quality treatment for physical illness and live in clean environments - the like of which our ancestors could only dream about. Our state of health encompasses both our inner and outer worlds. By taking this approach to understanding health it is possible to see that a state of good health means functioning well in many dimensions of life. These dimensions include experiences of physical, psychological and spiritual wellbeing, strong attachments to others, having a meaningful life, and the enjoyment of the natural and built environments and the humanities in their broadest possible conception.    

What led you to study at the University of Melbourne?

Well, this is a guilty confession! Social work at the University of Melbourne offered part-time study options (a rarity then) and a very elegant application form. The application process was so much easier than the other schools of social work at the time. Once I arrived though, I knew I’d come to the right place. It's been an enduring relationship that I continue to enjoy, all the while considering my good fortune that life’s path led to my secular Rome!