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When I started working with the family, not speaking the same language brought up many challenges for communication and establishing trust. However, when you get creative and surround yourself with good people all working towards the same goal, anything is possible.
Rose, Caseworker, Department of Family and Community Services.

Raising 12 children would be a challenge for anyone. For Obi and his wife, Sanaa, it was nearly impossible with all the hurdles their big family faced.

They arrived in Australia on a humanitarian visa after spending years in an African refugee camp. Obi has vision impairment and neither of them had ever attended school. They had no family here, couldn’t speak English and two of their children had special needs. The children, aged two to 28, were grieving the loss of three other siblings who had died in the refugee camp. To say life in Australia was challenging was an understatement.

FACS had supported the family through its early intervention program, Brighter Futures, as best they could, as had other support services. Despite this, we continued to receive reports to the Child Protection Helpline for serious abuse and neglect, including violence and alcohol misuse.

I started working with the family after their eight youngest children were placed in foster care. My role was to work with them to understand their strengths, find services to help, and determine if the children could return home safely. Although it was traumatic for the family to be separated, the situation at home was too dangerous for us to work through the problems with the children still under their roof.

I was lucky to bring on board an amazing African sessional worker Peter. These sessional workers are African community members who are trained in child protection work and also act as translators.

Peter not only spoke the family’s language, but was also a kind and compassionate practitioner. He gave me great insight into the family’s culture and even changed some of our programs to make them more culturally appropriate.

Building rapport with Sanaa and Obi took time. They had strong views on parenting so we had lots of discussions via Peter about the changes they needed to make to ensure the children would be safe when they moved home. We also took on board their views on family life and what was important to them.

I connected the family with specialist services. Catholic Care intensive family based support services worked closely with the family. So did the Child Protection Counselling Service, an occupational therapist, an autism behaviour specialist and the Migrant Resource Centre. The youngest children were connected with childcare and a supported playgroup.

It was a lot of work to coordinate all the services. We had to make sure we were all giving the family consistent advice and focused on the goal of restoring the children to their parents. We held regular teleconferences and meetings, and agreed to share emails among the group. When it came to home visits, we limited the number of people to five at any one time. After all, we were there to help, not intimidate.

Looking back, one of the toughest things was helping the family accept and understand autism. Culturally, they didn’t accept that their five-year-old son, Khari, had a medical condition. They were hopeful that once Khari was home, he would learn to talk like all his brothers and sisters.

I worked creatively with the family’s therapists to use pictures and slide shows to explain autism via the translator and teach them therapies they could use with Khari during their contact visits.

To help them see the therapy in action, we filmed Khari’s teachers using the techniques with him at school. This showed Obi and Sanaa how quickly it helped Khari to calm down when he got upset about something.

After seeing the footage the family started using picture communication at their next visit which was a big leap forward for us all.

I also arranged for Obi and Sanaa to take English lessons. My family didn’t speak English when I was growing up and I still remember starting kindergarten not understanding what was being said around me. I remember feeling scared and alone and imagined Obi and Sanaa were feeling the same way. It’s great to hear them using some English words now.

Working with such a large family was tricky. We organised for the whole family to get together in our office for contact visits, but it just didn’t work. The family was big and busy and it was clear they weren’t relaxed meeting in an office.

I did a risk assessment on the family’s home and we made a decision to have contact there. This was a lot better for everyone but most importantly the kids. The family could connect like a normal family, not in a stale office environment under florescent lighting. We had the same worker supervising the contact each time. This made it predictable for the little ones and the whole family felt more comfortable not having different people in their home all the time.

After lots of ongoing support from all of the services, Sanaa and Obi could see we were all in it for the long haul. We genuinely wanted to help them create a safe home for their children. It was a long road – I worked with the family for two years. Over this time the parents made the changes needed for them to be a family again.

The time came when the children could return to the family home. The restoration happened gradually starting with the eldest children. We made colourful calendars and countdowns with pictures for each child so they understood they were leaving their foster carers and going home.

During the countdown, the Catholic Care caseworker and I helped the family organise the children’s bedrooms. We took the girl’s shopping for lovely new bedspreads for their rooms.

I wanted to give the kids a fresh start with their mum and dad and make the home more cheerful and welcoming when they arrived.

I also went shopping with the family to buy new school uniforms, shoes and school bags. As Sanaa and Obi had never been to school, they were worried about what they needed to buy. I helped make sure the children got what they needed, without spending too much of the family’s limited budget.

It was wonderful to see the family back together under the one roof. There were lots of hugs, kisses and laughter when they returned and I was happy that everyone’s hard work had made this possible. Sanaa and Obi thanked me for all my help and this meant a lot to me.

When the children were home, the Catholic Care caseworker and I popped by the house each morning in the first week to give them a hand with breakfast, packing school lunches and getting everyone out of the door on time. It had been a while since they were all under the same roof and we didn’t want a new routine to put stress on the family.

Soon after they were all back together, I found out the children were refusing to eat the traditional African food Sanaa was cooking and she was buying them fast food instead. Sanaa said to me she thought this was what Aussie kids ate and she wanted her children to fit in. They also worried that FACS would think they weren’t feeding their children properly. I’m glad they trusted me enough to tell me.

It made me sad to think they thought they had to buy junk food to be good parents. Fortunately, I found out while talking to the staff at the younger children’s playgroup, they were holding sessions on healthy eating. Sanaa and Obi went along and learnt about the healthy eating pyramid and got other good advice. They realised their home cooking was much better for the kids than pizza.

The family is doing well now. Khari is learning to talk thanks to Sanaa and Obi’s new parenting skills, support from his health professionals and of course the love of all his brothers and sisters.

When I started working with the family, not speaking the same language brought up many challenges in terms of communication and establishing trust. However, when you get creative and surround yourself with good people all working towards the same goal, anything is possible.


Dr Sandra Heriot

Director Child Protection, Department of Family and Community Services

While we might not all speak the same language, the language of child safety and care for families is universal and is so wonderfully demonstrated in this story. I think there was an understatement in the story though when Rose said that ‘Working with such a large family was tricky’ but what was so evident was, that even though the situation was complex and the family structure and concerns were numerous, there was little sense of the worker being overwhelmed. In practice, we can often feel overwhelmed by the plight of our clients, by the enormous issues facing them and the difficult decisions we may have to make. For this situation though, Rose broke down what needed to be done and built a sense of mastery and achievement in the family over time.

This story illustrates so many practice highlights for me, such as:

  • focusing on safety and not being afraid to make difficult decisions or having important conversations when needed
  • listening well
  • working with others to help support the family
  • developing positive relationships
  • understanding culture and being proactive about what that means
  • being consistent and being someone the family can trust
  • persevering.

There was certainly a strong sense of hopefulness right from the start which gave the family and others working with them hope for a better future. It might have been a full house to start with but I reckon it’s a fuller home now.

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Last updated: 19 Nov 2019