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At one stage Cathy said to me, ‘I don’t know what I would have done without the plan’. It really helped her gradually learn about being a mum without feeling overwhelmed by trying to master everything in one go.
Sarah, Caseworker, Department of Family and Community Services

Sarah, caseworker

The first time I met Cathy, I was supervising her final drug-test. We had to be sure she wasn’t using drugs. The test confirmed Cathy was clean – she had been working to maintain a drug-free lifestyle for more than two years. Cathy had been getting professional help with her drug use, mental health and parenting skills in the hope her two-year-old son, Thomas, could be returned to her care.

When Thomas was born, the doctors found methamphetamines in his system because Cathy used ice during her pregnancy. At that time, knowing what an addictive substance ice is, the risk of Thomas being harmed or neglected was too high to leave him in her care. Cathy’s mum, Rose, stepped in to care for baby Thomas. Thanks to Rose’s love and commitment he is growing up to be a clever, healthy and lovely little boy. She went above and beyond to create a safe home for Thomas to live.

During the time away from her son, Cathy dedicated herself 100 per cent to rehabilitation, counselling, psychiatric support and attending parenting groups.

Two years later, and with the backing of FACS, the Children’s Court determined that Thomas could be restored back to her care. It was now my role as the caseworker to reunite them safely and to support Cathy to be Thomas’ mum.

I spent a long time preparing a restoration plan. Cathy had already taken such brave steps and now needed support and strategies for her to succeed. I worked closely with two FACS psychologists to write the plan and they encouraged me to consider the grief and loss Thomas may experience when his primary carer changed from grandma to mum. I also consulted with Thomas’ carers at daycare to help me monitor his progress and asked them to contact me at any time if Thomas began acting differently or if they had any concerns about his care.

Because of his age and attachment to Rose, Thomas was at a vulnerable time for such a dramatic change in his home life. He loves his grandma dearly and she was the only parent he knew. We planned for Cathy to move back to the family home with her mum and Thomas. I wanted to give Thomas time to build a positive relationship with his mum while she gradually took on parenting responsibilities in an environment he felt safe.

One of the balancing acts was helping Rose accept she had to gradually let go of caring for her grandson so her daughter could learn how to be a parent. Most first-time parents learn over time, through trial and error, how to care for their baby.

From feeding, bath time, play and routines, there is much to learn. Cathy had completely missed out on all these experiences and suddenly found herself with a walking, talking, clever, little toddler.

My plan was to take things slow and steady, giving Cathy parenting tasks at the same time as helping Rose step back. In the first two months of the restoration plan, Cathy would play in the house and backyard with Thomas, change his nappies and give him snacks. From two to four months into the plan, Cathy would get him up in the morning, clean his teeth, get him dressed for the day, read him stories, bath him and prepare all his meals.

This continued for a whole year, with incremental steps taken every few months. The plan was very detailed. It helped Cathy know exactly what she needed to master within a particular timeframe, which I could then monitor during home visits and chats on the phone.

At one stage Cathy said to me, ‘I don’t know what I would have done without the plan’. It really helped her gradually learn about being a mum without feeling overwhelmed by trying to learn everything in one go.

Each month I visited the family, I could see the attachment between Thomas and his mum growing stronger as they got to know one another. It was clear the home was a safe, loving and stable one and I could see Thomas approach his mum more and more when he needed something or a cuddle.

I always made sure the three members of the family were home when I visited. I took the time to chat with Thomas and observe him in the home to see how he was managing the new arrangements. It was useful to talk to both Cathy and Rose about how it was going and any issues that may have come up since we last spoke.

A major part of my support that year was navigating the relationship between Rose and Cathy, who had their ups and downs. Part of this was helping them understand their different styles of parenting. Rose was born in Hong Kong and Cathy in Australia. The cultural and generational differences meant they didn’t always see eye-to-eye on things like housework or meals. I remember helping them work through the fact that Rose would prepare a traditional Chinese meal for Thomas’ breakfast while Cathy would make toast. I had to help Rose understand that although Cathy had a more relaxed approach to parenting, it didn’t mean Thomas wasn’t cared for.

I encouraged Rose to role-model good parenting to Cathy, especially when Cathy was doing something for the first time. When Cathy had to take Thomas to the doctor I encouraged Rose to go along to help Cathy with the sorts of questions to ask the doctor. I also connected Cathy and Rose to Relationships Australia to help with their communication, so they could work through issues in their own relationship which had come to the surface as a result of living in such close quarters.

Rose said she felt ashamed of Cathy’s past and the family’s involvement with FACS. She identified their Chinese heritage as fuelling these feelings. Rose could be critical of her daughter because of Cathy’s past. I made a point of regularly talking to Rose about all of Cathy’s amazing achievements, strengths and determination in overcoming her drug addiction.

By drawing on strengths-based practice and focusing on Cathy’s positive attributes, it reminded Rose of Cathy’s progress and all the reasons to feel proud of her.

Cathy continued to become more confident and more competent. After the year-long transition plan, Cathy and Thomas took the big step of moving out to set up their own home with Cathy’s long term-partner Michael. They took up my suggestion to attend a Triple P parenting course together. Cathy is like a sponge. I watched as she used techniques she had learnt with Thomas, such as using the feelings face-chart so he could express how he was feeling, as well as making sure Thomas and her have one-onone time which she calls ‘chat time’. Cathy wanted to create a dedicated time in the day when Thomas could talk to her about anything he wanted without interference from chores or television.

Cathy and Michael recently got married. Michael is a wonderful male role-model for Thomas, particularly important as Thomas’ birth dad is not in his life right now. Thomas still visits his grandma every week and they continue to have a close relationship.

I feel lucky to be Thomas’ caseworker and to have gotten to know Cathy. She is definitely the most motivated parent I’ve worked with in my years as a caseworker.

This restoration needs to be credited to Cathy. The best gift she could have given Thomas was to face her problems and accept help from others. She is so focused on being the best mum she can be while juggling part-time work, her ongoing appointments and a new marriage. When I visit them now and see Thomas running around and smiling in their new home, I am so happy this family is together.

Reflection

Roderick Best

Acting Director Legal Services Community Services Department of Family and Community Services

Sarah credits the success of restoring Thomas completely to his mum Cathy but I don’t have to be so modest and believe Sarah did an incredible job. Sarah was able to walk in Thomas’ shoes and imagine what it would be like for him to have his mum back in his life, her careful planning kept him front and centre of her casework. She took her time, spoke to experts and other important people in Thomas’ life and set up a plan that did more than tick a box – it set this family up for triumph.

Underpinning Sarah’s good practice were the genuine relationships she built with each member of the family. From when he was just a tiny newborn, Thomas’ grandma Rose stepped up and raised him with such love and care. Rose deserved consideration and respect during this transition and Sarah’s insight that the process of Rose gradually letting go was just as important as Cathy learning to be a mum, underpinned the success of this restoration. Sarah knew it was essential to have everyone at home when she visited and took the time to really listen to Cathy and Rose’s perspectives, helping her to navigate any unexpected issues that cropped up along the way.

Sarah says, ‘The best gift Cathy could have given Thomas was to face her problems’. Well, I think the best gift Sarah gave this family was her time, professionalism and empathy. Cathy and Thomas deserve to be together and Sarah should be proud she was able to make this happen.

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Last updated: 08 Nov 2019