Aneeka speaks openly and honestly about how DCJ can work differently and supported her to care safely for her newborn baby.
Caitlin, prenatal caseworker
There aren’t too many jobs where the first time you talk to someone they cannot stop their tears from falling. It was heartbreaking.
Aneeka was five months pregnant when we spoke for first time. I could feel how scared she was of me, even over the phone. Prenatal work can be filled with incredible hope because there is a sense of new beginnings that all parents feel, no matter how hard things may be. But for parents who have had children taken into care, there is also a sense of dread that there is more grief and loss to come. I see my role as steering them out of the shame that can immobilise them, into a place of change.
I hold all of this in my head and my heart when I talk to pregnant mums and their partners. I also do my homework. I read all of Aneeka’s notes on our files. It is a respectful place to start. I learned that Aneeka was an Aboriginal woman of the Darkinjung people. I remembered her children’s names, where they were living, and why they had been brought into care. I wanted Aneeka to see that her children were not lost to the system and that I saw her as whole person, not just a new report on my desk.
As I read, I asked myself – who was around to help this family on their hardest days? Did our department do enough? I learn about a family’s story not only so I know what happened, but what a family has had to overcome to survive.
Notes on a computer screen don’t tell the whole story. I stayed open to hearing about Aneeka’s experiences in her words, when she was ready to tell me. I met Aneeka and I started by asking where she was at. I knew diving into Aneeka’s history would be painful – so I focused on the future to allow us to move into a place of trust, to be able talk about the hard times. Understanding why children haven’t been safe in the past helps to create safety into the future.
My job as a prenatal caseworker is to stay focused on the vulnerability of a tiny newborn, assess risk and safety and build a genuine relationship with parents to motivate and sustain change.
It’s a delicate balance. As with all the expecting parents I work with, there was far more connecting Aneeka and me than there was dividing us. We both wanted this baby to be safe and loved.
To help Aneeka trust me I focused on fostering this common ground with honesty and encouragement, and constantly reinforcing the goal we wanted to reach.
Aneeka needed people around her to support the pregnancy, and when the baby arrived, as a way of creating a lifelong network of safety. Aneeka had lost many people she loved, but spoke about her chosen family of two close girlfriends. We brought them into our prenatal planning and it worked a treat. Aneeka even moved closer to where they lived while she was pregnant.
I partnered with Aboriginal services as part of my practice. Tapping into culture is more than simply showing respect, it’s the best way to create safety for children. I organised an Aboriginal consultation with my DCJ colleague, and worked with the Aboriginal Medical Service and Close the Gap. It was obvious Aneeka felt more comfortable with Aboriginal professionals than me. I was glad she had a team of people to share her worries, ask questions of and even talk to about me if she wanted! In my mind I could see Aneeka and her baby in the middle of a big, strong circle of women, with me one small part of it. It was powerful.
The past did come up slowly. Aneeka was very young when she had her first two children. She didn’t have any help and was still grieving the loss of her parents, who she loved deeply. Aneeka told me that no one spoke to her at her lowest moments, asked about her story or offered help. It was hard to listen to this, but it mattered that I heard it. I tried to be everything Aneeka hadn’t experienced before. I also paid close attention to the power imbalance between us. I would name it, talk about it, and show it in my everyday actions. Simple things like always checking in before I visited, asking where Aneeka wanted to meet, creating choices for her to make about her own life whenever I could. In order to make sure Azahlee was going to be safe, we needed to work together and it was my job to make that happen.
I remember I cried at the Pregnancy Family Conference. I shared my hope that Aneeka could one day see our department not as a frightening beast that had ruined her life, but as something that had helped her baby grow up safe with the person who loves her most in the world. I said sorry that we hadn’t done more to support her older children to know her love.
The Aboriginal midwife was shocked and told me later that she had never heard a child protection worker apologise.
Sorry is the most human word; I don’t think we should be frightened to use it more often.
I had arranged with the hospital to let me know when the baby arrived, but I explained to Aneeka and health staff that unless they had concerns, I had no reason to visit the hospital. Aneeka had shown me in a hundred ways that she was ready to care for Azahlee. I wanted her to feel trusted and have the time to bond.
When I did have the privilege of meeting Azahlee, I watched how tenderly Aneeka held her. I knew then that there was no place else for this beautiful baby – Azahlee is exactly where she needs to be.