A little bit of help
Learn about Katherine’s remarkable story of resistance to create safety for her five children with the support of her DCJ caseworker Clarinda.
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.
I love having my family together. The kids play with our pet dogs, jump on the trampoline and build Lego – we all love doing that. The ones who have their own special needs are getting extra help. I think I’m really good at helping them too, because I know what it’s like to need understanding and extra patience.
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.
My kids absolutely adore Clarinda. They ask her why she doesn’t come around as much anymore. Clarinda tells them, ‘Because mummy doesn’t need me like she used to’. I know I’m going to miss Clarinda a lot, but she is right – I can do this.
Clarinda, child protection caseworker
One of the first things Katherine’s 10 year old daughter Annalee said to me was, ‘You’re not taking mummy away from me are you?’ The children hadn’t felt safe in a long time and blamed us for making her leave before. She told me, ‘I am only going to give you one chance’. Children have a way of keeping you accountable. It made me determined to do things differently.
Katherine had been disempowered by the ways she had been treated. But what I noticed was that she had such a fire in her belly to fight for her children.
She had been labelled as difficult and aggressive for years, so I wanted to look at Katherine and assess the family from a different point of view. I chose to see Katherine’s anger as her determination to be given respect and treated with dignity. Instead of angry, I saw Katherine as passionate and motivated to get the best outcomes for her kids. Once you change the words you use, it completely shifts the way you think and work with families forever.
I learnt from Katherine that she needs space to talk, share worries and ask questions. She needs to be heard, and given time to process information and ask questions later to make sure she understands. For me, I needed to demonstrate action, stick to what I said I would do and have patience.
Once we established a relationship where Katherine could trust me, felt her abilities were recognised and that I cared about her children, she was less anxious. From here we had the foundations to focus on what she needed to do to create safety for her children. Slowly I watched Katherine’s confidence grow. She became more and more vocal about the physical abuse her children had endured and how powerless she was to stop it. More than anything she wanted her children to be safe.
I believed Katherine, but I wanted to hear from Annalee, Nicholas, Logan, Zavier and Isaiah. I needed to know what life was like for them. In the beginning I would play, chat and get down on the floor to get to know these five beautiful children. They would build blocks and colour-in, and later show me cool tricks on their bikes. They were the bosses and led our play. I wanted them to feel a sense of control and have some fun first – not just talk to me about the serious stuff. They got to know and trust me enough to share what was happening and what they wanted to be different. I used the Three Houses tool to help them share their feelings through art.
The children’s message was clear: they were miserable and desperately wanted to live with their mum.
I became the biggest advocate for keeping the children’s wishes at the heart of our decisions and I was committed to keeping them together. They had been through so much and had a beautiful bond. The risks of staying with their grandparents were escalating, not reducing. I made sure everyone saw how Katherine had demonstrated time and time again that her motivation and commitment was strong and consistent. Even in her darkest days, alone and without anyone on her side, she persisted. Imagine the mother she could be with a little bit of hope and a little bit of help? We just had to listen to what she and the children were saying.
I consulted with psychologists and specialists and practice leaders. I discussed the family in Group Supervision and spoke to Katherine every day. This was not a straightforward restoration and I never sugar-coated. Katherine would need help and it would be hard to be a single parent to five children, some with special needs of their own. I wanted everyone who was working with Katherine to be able to sit with some risk and be open to the idea that we could support her to care for her children safely. I needed to unpack some of the assumptions and biases our department had held on to. Katherine had demonstrated in many ways that she had addressed the risks we had been worried about in the past. I wanted to make sure others saw this too.
Just before Christmas, the children went home to live with their mum. They were so excited to be together.
Katherine and I knew that it wouldn’t be easy. This was the first time in nearly four years that she had parented on her own and the children would need time to settle into their new home. We connected with a fantastic coordinator from the National Disability Insurance Scheme, who organised some in-home help. Workers now support Katherine to create a family routine, giving her an extra set of hands before and after school and supporting the individual needs of the children.
Katherine has grown in confidence and resilience. Over the time I have worked with her and the children, she hasn’t been running as much on fear and adrenaline. Katherine is making decisions to keep her family safe and doesn’t need validation that she is doing the right thing. Importantly this newfound confidence means Katherine feels comfortable to lean on her supports for advice and help.
Katherine loves her children unconditionally. She understands their trauma and strives to help them heal. A mother’s love is a wonderful balm for children who have had to endure more than they ever should.
Working with this family has been a lifelong lesson about what a family can achieve when we see their potential, not just their challenges.
When I visit the home now, there is the happy chaos of a big, busy family – pets, toys, kids. And plenty of love. Katherine is working hard to bring routine and calm. There are posters on the walls of family rules and chores to share. Cottage pie in the slow cooker and a cat on the kitchen sill watching it all. Best of all the kids are safe, and they aren’t scared that I am going to take their mum away anymore. They say hi, tell me something about their day and then run off to play. I hear them laugh and wrestle and sing – it is the best sound in the world.