By compiling stories of real cases, the Department of Communities and Justice shines a light on what contemporary child protection practice is truly like. Here, three clients share their experiences.
Aneeka, mother, proud Wiradjuri woman
I call Azahlee my little miracle. If it wasn’t for her, I would be locked up or dead. I was in pretty deep trouble and I didn’t care because I had nothing to live for. I’d been arrested, charged and was facing jail time. That’s when I found out I was pregnant. I couldn’t believe it and did eight or nine pregnancy tests. The pregnancy changed everything for me. Suddenly there was a reason to live. I got help for my mental health, stopped drinking and taking drugs, started counselling. I did everything I could to take care of myself, so I could take care of my baby. It was tough, but I wanted a healthy baby even more than I wanted drugs.
I’ve smoked heaps of cannabis for way too long. I didn’t know any other way to be. My parents died when I was young, and I still miss them every day. Azahlee’s middle name is my mum’s, so her nanna will always be with her, keeping her safe. I felt like the drugs helped me cope, but they also made me careless. My mental health really suffered. I love my two older children more than anything, but things were hard there for a while and they were taken from me six years ago. I wanted it to be different this time.
I didn’t have a good relationship with DCJ, so I wasn’t expecting much from my caseworker, Caitlin. Then when we started talking, she apologised that I’d not had as much help as I needed when things had been hard in the past. She said sorry a few times actually. This was the first time I’d ever heard that word come out of the mouth of someone from the department. I was surprised. At first, I was like, “you’re all the same”, but Caitlin proved herself to be different. She is one of a kind.
Throughout the whole pregnancy my biggest fear and stress was that I wasn’t going to take Azahlee home with me. Caitlin reassured me over and over that that would be the last option. She told me she would do everything to give my baby a chance to be with me, but she was firm that we needed to be safe. That kept me on track and really motivated me to keep going.
I like that Caitlin is open and clear with me about everything. But what I will remember most is that she is kind. It wasn’t only Caitlin — I felt like I had a cheer squad around me. It makes me emotional to think about it now. I had the most beautiful Aboriginal midwife, Cheryl, who I clicked with from day one. We’d laugh looking at the ultrasounds because Azahlee had all this hair and we imagined her being born with a ‘fro. Azahlee’s dad and I are not together, and I don’t have family I can rely on, so it made me feel less alone that people were invested in our future.
Caitlin, Cheryl, my social worker, my drug and alcohol counsellor and my mental health worker all came together for a pregnancy family conference. I felt like everyone was willing me to stay strong for my baby. The hardest part was having to draw up a Plan B if it wasn’t safe for Azahlee to stay with me — who she could live with, what would happen at the hospital. I know it helps parents have a say and not get a shock when it happens, but it still felt awful. Everyone kept telling me we won’t need the backup plan because I was doing all the right things. I tried to believe them and believe in myself too. Even with all these amazing women around me, it was up to me to make the right choices every day I got up.
Caitlin kept her word and didn’t rock up to the hospital after the birth. I will always be grateful she gave me space with Azahlee and waited until I was home to visit. Cheryl knitted me a baby blanket and tiny Aboriginal socks in black, yellow and red and came to see us at home. She is crazy for Azahlee!
Azahlee has the most outrageous smile. She likes to try and get in on the chats when her dad or my friends come around by making these cute little noises. I love cuddling up and reading her stories. My favourite books are by Aboriginal authors because I want Azahlee to grow up proud of her people and her culture. I’m now working with my older children’s caseworker to connect them with their new baby sis. I would love to see the three of them together. That will be a miracle too.
Hope, 15 years old
I planned my escape carefully. Hiding clothes, books and things I wanted to take in the front yard where my parents wouldn’t find them. I even took coins from my little brother’s money box. I feel bad about that now, but I needed the money to run away and the abuse to stop. I snuck out of my house before the sun came up. I left a note on the kitchen table telling my parents I was tired of them hurting me. I told them I wanted more for my life. I even bargained — “If you don’t try to find me, I won’t report you to the police.”
My parents hurt me a lot — verbally, physically and emotionally. My stepmum told me I was useless and that my dad regrets having me. Dad agreed with everything she said. I felt unworthy and that I didn’t belong. The weird thing was that they never hurt my siblings, only me. Things got so awful I tried to end my life. More than once. I would always stop myself because of my baby sister — I couldn’t do that to her.
Dad threatened that he would send me back to Korea to be locked up in a mental-health facility. That’s when I knew I had to get away. I didn’t want to end up abandoned and forgotten overseas, never to return home to Australia. I fled to Sydney where there is a big Korean community, which I thought may take me in. I feel safest around people from my own culture. The first thing I did was ask shopkeepers for a job. Everyone was kind, but they got worried when they realised I was all alone at the age of 14 and called the police. That’s when I met my caseworker, Sarah. I was terrified I would have to go back to my parents. Thankfully, Sarah believed me and reassured me she would keep me safe no matter what.
I like that Sarah listens to me and makes no judgements. After years of feeling helpless, it means a lot that Sarah cares about my opinion and includes me in decisions about my life. It helps me feel a sense of control. When I’m anxious she hears me out and I never feel ignored like I did at home. Sarah let me choose where I wanted to live and encouraged me to make the phone call to my new house parents to tell them I was coming to stay. I was feeling freedom for the first time in my life.
We hang out a lot. Sarah shares her experiences of being a woman from a different cultural background. We have that experience in common. She tells me about some of the mistakes she made as a teenager, which helps me feel less awkward talking about some of mine. When Sarah and I are together we chat about school, my friends and my future. I hope other kids have a caseworker like Sarah, who really got to know me for who I am. When she asks me what I feel like doing and what I want to talk about, I feel I can share the hard stuff too. It all comes pouring out. Sarah motivates me to try hard at school and value who I am by telling me to aim high and go for my dreams. I don’t feel useless anymore.
If you’re a kid reading this and are being hurt by someone who is meant to care for you, please tell someone you trust. Remember you are not what they say you are — you are so much more. I’m so thankful to my friends and everyone who has helped me. I know that I have a generous heart. I work hard and will make something of myself — hopefully go to uni, get a car and one day buy a home. I want to prove to my parents I made it and I did it on my own. I am worthy.
I hit my lowest point when I was homeless and sleeping in my car. I wasn’t safe. Even worse, my five kids weren’t either. But I never gave up. I was determined to get them back and not let anyone hurt them again. I hope my story helps other people get the support they need.
It all started with my ex-partner, who was violent towards me. He controlled me, abused me, and wouldn’t let me have friends or money. He would tell me I wasn’t good enough. He threatened to call DCJ to take my kids away if I left him. I was terrified and trapped. I didn’t know where to go for help. I became depressed and wasn’t able to care for my children the way I wanted. That’s when my mum and dad started looking after them. It was also when things went from bad to worse. My parents hurt my children with their mean words and harsh punishments, just like they did me when I was little. It was like my nightmare starting all over again.
I tried everything to get people to listen. I told police and DCJ that my kids were in danger, but no one believed me. Instead I was told I couldn’t stay in the same home as them. I felt like my intellectual disability was used against me. People kept saying I was making up stories. Heightened. But if your kids were taken away from you, wouldn’t you be upset? After years of only seeing my kids once a week I was desperate. That is when our caseworker Clarinda came into our lives — she created a path of hope to bring my family home to me.
Clarinda took the time to learn about me. She understood that I sometimes struggle to get my message across or follow conversations. She changed her way of talking for me. Clarinda explains things a few times and repeats back to me what I’ve said, to check that she has understood me. She doesn’t cut me off halfway through what I want to say. For the first time ever I felt heard. I slowly opened up to Clarinda about what life was like for my kids living with their grandparents. She always says, “Katherine, thank you for telling me,” even when I share hard things. If I’m worried or have questions, I know I can call Clarinda and she reassures me I’m doing a good job or suggests a new approach. It can be daunting when DCJ is in your life, but Clarinda always makes me safe enough to trust her and be honest.
Clarinda recognised all the work I had already done to be the best mum I could be. I had completed parenting courses, and counselling was helping me to deal with the ongoing trauma from being abused by my ex. Even better, Clarinda listened to my kids. She gave them the gift of time and advocated for their rights.
I will always be grateful that Clarinda fought hard for us to get a house and it happened right before Christmas, can you believe it?! I don’t even have the words to explain how it felt to have my kids with me — just us. It was the first time I was made to feel like I was their mother and that I could do it on my own.
Clarinda never judges me on my disability, but rather on my love for my kids and my capacity to be a mum. I think people with a disability need their rights protected even more than other people. I’m studying community services at TAFE and want to advocate for other people in my situation. The first thing I will ask is how I can help them. It’s a good place to start — we all need a little bit of help sometimes.