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Gemma would yell and scream and for many practitioners it would have been overwhelming and too hard. Joy, however, was able to empathise and see past this tough exterior. We should never forget that those kids who push and push us away are often the ones who deserve and need our investment and our care more than anyone.
Megan, Manager, Department of Family and Community Services.

‘Do you know you frighten people sometimes?’ I asked Gemma as we drove to the crisis refuge. ‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘it helps keep them away from me’.

We had this chat recently – Gemma is now 15 years old. After more than two years of working with her, through lots of anger and sadness, this comment was a breakthrough in our relationship.

Gemma had a horrible start to life living with her mum, Helen, and Helen’s boyfriend, Tim. They both had addictions and also suffered from severe mental illness and this contributed to the serious neglect Gemma experienced as a toddler. She had also watched Tim regularly and brutally beat up her mum. Her real dad committed suicide when she was little. It’s amazing how smart, creative and strong Gemma is given everything she’s been through.

Gemma had a new start in life when she came into care at age five and went to live with her foster carer, Alison, in a happy and loving home. As Gemma hit her teenage years though, the trauma and grief of her early experiences bubbled to the surface. She started taking lots of risks – wagging school, having violent outbursts and running away from home. She started running away from Alison’s home to stay with friends or her boyfriend. We also knew she was taking drugs and cutting herself.

Gemma was living with her boyfriend and his father when I took on her case. It took me three visits to get through the front door. Before this she refused to speak to me. I sat on the lounge room floor and listened to her. I had decided that engaging with Gemma was my top priority – if she could feel I was a safe person to be around it might be the beginning of some trust between us. Gemma agreed I could keep visiting her but she said she might not answer the door every time. If she broke all contact with FACS then she had no-one. She had tried to commit suicide in the past so it was a precarious situation.

Over the next little while, Gemma’s drug use increased and she continued to self-harm so we had to intervene for her own safety. We asked for help from the police and asked her boyfriend’s father not to encourage Gemma to stay at their house. What came next was intense. There was a siege, with Gemma threatening me and a co-worker with a knife. After several hours of frenzied activity, Gemma was exhausted and had to be taken to hospital in an ambulance for psychiatric assessment.

Practice First was being introduced to my office around this time. It inspired critical reflection with peers and my managers, Gaye and Megan. It gave us permission to acknowledge the importance of my relationship with Gemma above all else, even if it didn’t always fit within the normal boundaries of our work. Without a relationship with Gemma we knew we had nothing. Placing her views at the centre of our work, we took every opportunity to listen and learn about who she was and what was important to her.

It became obvious that Gemma was intelligent and could sense instantly when an adult was patronising her. I needed to be a person of action and not just words. I started out trying to be as useful to Gemma as I could be. I would listen to whatever was on her mind, drive her where she needed to go and make sure she had all the basics like food and toiletries. I had to take my time, be nurturing without being intrusive and be consistent. I made sure I asked Gemma for her perspective on lots of topics and came to appreciate her expertise in her own life.

Only Gemma knew the trauma she had experienced and the emotions she felt, so I was mindful to include her thoughts in any important decisions we made.

Gemma was now living between her mum’s house and friends’ places. Gaye and Megan courageously backed my unusual request to pay Gemma a weekly allowance. As the ‘parents’ of young people in care, it’s worth remembering that teenagers need money, it’s normal. So Gemma would come into the office twice a week to collect her allowance. This not only made sure she had a small amount of money for emergencies, and was not tempted to do anything dangerous to get it, but it gave me the chance to see her. Gemma got to know our office that way as well and little by little our whole team became invested in her care.

Gemma’s mental health was unstable – she would fly off the handle at small things lashing out at those around her. We brought in support from specialist doctors from the Alternate Care Clinic.

The clinic is a joint project between FACS and NSW Health that provides services to children and young people in out-of-home care with complex needs. Gemma, Helen and Gemma’s foster carer Alison, who was grieving the loss of the foster daughter she loved, all received couselling. Their expertise and guidance has been invaluable in understanding Gemma’s health needs and how I can best support her. On a practical level, we also established safe places Gemma could go to if she found herself in trouble, which included Alison’s. Alison told Gemma she could phone her to pick her up from anywhere.

Gemma continued to live between her mum’s house and friend’s places. Sadly Helen’s life with Tim hadn’t improved and Gemma found herself looking after them rather than the other way around. Now 14, Gemma could also look at her mum’s life with fresh eyes.

It was a big deal when Gemma asked me to help her and Helen get into a refuge so her mum could escape Tim’s violence. I was excited when I found them a place together in a women’s refuge. They were packed and ready to go when I went to pick them up.

As we pulled away from the curb, Helen started to panic and said ‘I can’t do this, I can’t go’ and made me drive her back home. When we got there she jumped out of the car saying, ‘I can’t leave him, I can’t leave him’.

Gemma was left sitting alone in the car, completely gutted. We needed to get away from the house so I drove up the street and parked. Gemma was so angry and disappointed that she threw herself on the side of the road. I sat down next to her. There wasn’t anything I could do to make this right.

Her mum was an adult and I couldn’t force her to go the refuge. Gemma let off some steam – swearing her head off and kicking things – then got a blanket from my car and told me she was going to sleep there for the night. Seeing her on her own, so young and so hurt, was incredibly sad. I stayed calm, sat with her and waited. This allowed her time to feel and express her pain. I wasn’t sure what would happen next. After a long while, she decided to get back in the car and let me take her to a youth refuge.

I was so relieved. It again gave me confidence in our trusting, strong relationship – if I stick by her and give her honesty and care, she will make good choices.

Despite this hurdle we didn’t give up on Helen. We believe Gemma’s future is bound by how we support her mum. It’s about being child-centred and family-focused in our approach. Helen may not be able to care for Gemma in any practical sense or make safe choices for her, but she can give her love which is what Gemma needs. We can do the other stuff but without her mother’s love she won’t be able to repair emotionally.

We continue to support Helen – it’s a social justice issue. She has been hurt and abused most of her life. Each week I take Gemma and Helen to lunch so they can see each other in a safe environment. One day I took Helen to see where Gemma was staying and meet some of the workers at the refuge. Helen loved Gemma’s room and this approval was like gold for Gemma. Her face lit up to have her mum interested in her new life.

After more than 10 years together, Helen eventually left Tim and moved into emergency accommodation. I guess I can’t know for sure but I believe Gemma’s steps to improve her own life empowered Helen to do the same. I like to think our work with Gemma also had a positive flow-on effect for Helen. Gemma is happy her mum isn’t living with violence now.

Gemma is still living in supported accommodation. She has begun to appreciate that her new-found freedom comes with responsibility to make good choices for now and for her future. Gemma has also made steps to reconnect with her former carer Alison who continues to be a positive and caring person in her life.

Working with young people is magic and being in their company is a privilege. I see my relationship with Gemma as a gift of great value.

Or, as Gemma says, I may just be an ‘old hippie who cares too much’. This might not be a typical story of success and it’s certainly a life in progress, but Gemma has gone from refusing to work with FACS to accepting our help and trusting us. She is living in a safe place and we now talk about her going to TAFE to complete her Higher School Certificate as the chaos of her life calms down. She talks about doing something creative at university when she is older and I Iove hearing her talk about her future with such hope.

Manager Megan

Joy is amazing. She really gets teenagers and has shifted the way our team thinks about working with adolescents.

Gemma was one of those kids – if we pushed her to work with us, she would push back twice as hard and we would lose any chance of supporting her to make positive changes. Gemma would yell and scream and for many practitioners it would have been overwhelming and too hard. Joy, however, was able to empathise and see past this tough exterior. We should never forget that those kids who push and push us away are often the ones who deserve and need our investment and our care more than anyone.

Practice First allowed us to understand that Joy’s relationship-building skills were a lot more important in this case than our statutory powers and my role was to support Joy to hold this risk together.

Joy brought this difficult case to group supervision many times and the whole team benefitted from her sharing it. It brought home the importance of building a relationship based on trust especially when a young person is carrying so much hurt and pain. We learnt together and have navigated through this really tough case without buckling under the stress. We have learnt how to be emotionally engaged with a young person but not lose ourselves in the emotional strain. These group discussions helped our office build a community around Gemma so she knew there were people she could call on if she needed to. Gemma went from being scared of any new relationship to seeking out time with our team and coming to our office to say hello.

I made sure I backed Joy all the way and was there to support her with late night phone calls, or allowing her to try something we’d never done before.

Gemma’s successes though are a testament to Joy who just kept plugging away and picking herself up after any setbacks. Joy could find the positive in any situation and promoted Gemma’s strengths every step of the way.

In the end I think it was Joy’s unconditional care for Gemma that really got through to her and helped her to heal.


Simone Walker

Executive Director Safe Home for Life Reform Department of Family and Community Services.

A number of times in Gemma’s story Joy talks about the relationship being the only thing that they had, the only thing that would connect Gemma to the people that could be there for her – when she needed them or when she felt she could ask for help. I get such a clear mental image of this relationship being the thin thread that anchors our young people in care.

Joy talks about the privilege of the relationship. But the skill that Joy showed in being prepared to sit with Gemma’s hurt and loneliness on the side of the road is incredibly moving. Just being with Gemma at that moment shows amazing empathy and understanding.

Joy’s humility, skill and courage confirms the value of the work we do. She sets an example for us all about the difference that is made when we can use our professional judgment in a supportive system. The permission given by Joy’s managers is striking, through support and group supervision Joy was able to do what she knew was needed.

This case also tells a powerful story about Gemma’s care experience. Joy’s ability to see the experience through Gemma’s eyes completely reframes her reputation as the ‘most difficult teenager’, instead we see the young woman repeatedly hurt and disappointed by those she desperately wants to trust.

There is also a powerful image at the end of the narrative, where we understand that young people in out-of-home care will have a combination of experiences. Joy is known and trusted by Gemma and her mother as their relationship is developing. But I also feel inspired knowing that there was a carer in the background, Alison, ready to be whatever it was that Gemma needed – it is this combined support system that will help create Gemma’s positive outcomes.

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Last updated: 22 Nov 2019