Ann Marie, Mother
My life with Peter was a nightmare. He could be so sweet and kind, and then the littlest thing would set him off. He’d slap and punch me every day. Over a year, he broke my jaw and ribs, and he punched my face so many times it would swell up like a balloon. One time he punched my eyes so badly I couldn’t see for days.
I didn’t realise he used drugs when we met, but I soon found out. Ice, alcohol – whatever he could get his hands on. When he was coming down it was the worst – his temper was out of control. I thought about leaving every day, but he’d threaten to kill me if I did. I felt trapped.
After hitting me, he’d tell me he was sorry and that he loved me. He was so convincing that I would believe the lies. Later I learnt from my counsellors that this is a classic domestic violence cycle.
I thought Chloe was gone for good
When Chloe was removed, my life was not worth living. I contemplated suicide as a way of dealing with the numbness, self-loathing and shock. I felt like I’d screwed up everything and I just couldn’t live with myself.
I have close family members who are victims of the Stolen Generation. Because of their experience – no courts, no appeals, no second opinions – I thought Chloe was taken and that was that. For the first three months, I lived in a blur of hopelessness. I didn’t understand I had the right to fight for her.
Once I learned I could seek to have Chloe back, I did everything FACS asked of me. There were times I lost heart and thought Chloe may be better off without me. Some days it felt like the goalposts kept moving and nothing I did was good enough. But things changed when I met a group of friends at my church. It was the first time in my life I was surrounded by good people, and their support gave me strength.
Then Emily came along. Emily is a fantastic caseworker with an open heart and mind. She never judged me like some of the other caseworkers I’ve known. Trust me, I was my own toughest critic – I didn’t need someone else looking down on me. Emily was different; she saw my potential even after I’d hit rock bottom. I’ll never forget the day when she rang and said, ‘Let’s get Chloe home to you’. I know she had some battles along the way, but she got my baby back.
Becoming a family again
Words cannot describe how I feel now Chloe and I are a family again. It’s just everything really. It’s the small things, like watching her dressing up as a teacher and playing schools, seeing her lose her baby teeth, and giving her hugs whenever I want. We still have lots of work to do together. Chloe has nightmares and flashbacks about what we both lived through, but even though it can be hard, I love being the person who can help her heal.
I’m now studying for my diploma in counselling so I can help other women living with violence. I know I’ll be able to help, because I understand how hard it is to walk away. I want to tell every woman trapped in a violent relationship that you are not a punching bag – you are so much better than that. You can rise up if you have the faith to reach out for help.
Emily, FACS caseworker
'Mum's eyes were always black. She tried to hide them with sunglasses, but I knew’. I will always remember Chloe telling me this. She was very protective of her mum and fretted when they weren’t together. Chloe had deep worries because Ann Marie’s ex-partner, Peter, used drugs, drank too much and would beat Ann Marie brutally almost daily. Ann Marie told me later that she was too terrified to leave him as he’d threaten to hunt her down and kill her. She was living with incredible stress, and life became so unsafe for Chloe that she came into care at age four.
Having Chloe taken was dreadful for Ann Marie. How she then found the courage to leave Peter and make a statement to police that led to his arrest and time in prison was amazing. Things were going so well that Chloe’s caseworkers at the time started the process of returning her to Ann Marie’s care. Then Peter got out of prison and Ann Marie went into hiding, fearing for her safety. Because they didn’t hear from Ann Marie for weeks, the caseworkers decided Chloe needed to stay in foster care.
I had to prove I was there to help Chloe
Two years later, Chloe was unravelling. Her foster carers reached out to us for help, as she was highly anxious, emotionally withdrawn and refusing to eat or speak. This is when I met Chloe. She was so guarded and seemed to be telling me what I wanted to hear, rather than what was really in her heart. Because she didn’t trust adults and was so shy, I needed to prove to her that I cared, if she was ever going to tell me how she was feeling. I started spending time with her at home and school. Chloe loves art so we’d draw pictures together and talk about school. It was slow, but Chloe started to trust me.
Over the coming weeks and months, Chloe opened up and told me how desperately sad she was without her mum and how she wanted to live with her again. She was terrified her mum would be hurt again and was worried she wasn’t there to protect her. As I began to understand Chloe, I knew she needed a network she could trust when she was feeling worried and frightened. I held meetings with Chloe’s foster carers and teachers, as well as Ann Marie, so we could support Chloe to feel safe.
Ann Marie had changed a lot since Chloe came into care and hadn’t seen Peter in more than two years. She saw a counsellor, had found stable housing, was working two jobs, and had made new friends through her local church. Seeing the dramatic changes in Ann Marie gave me hope that we could increase her visits with Chloe and once again create a loving bond between them. To help them repair their relationship, I referred them to a family counselling service. I felt it was important that Ann Marie got some help in finding the right words and actions to help Chloe heal. I went along to some of the early sessions to help Chloe feel comfortable and trust the counsellor enough to open up.
Getting Chloe home with her mum
Everything was going so well that I started to explore the possibility of Chloe going home. We talked to the main people in Chloe’s life and there was a lot of nervousness. Everyone cared so much about her that they were frightened she’d be exposed to more trauma if it broke down. Chloe’s solicitor told me straight out, ‘We’ve been here before and it didn’t work’.
I had to balance these concerns with Chloe’s clear wish to live with her mum, and Ann Marie’s incredible transformation. A major turning point was when the counsellor told me that Ann Marie and Chloe’s relationship was blossoming and they ‘experienced great joy in one another’. Chloe’s foster carers were very protective of her but told me they knew ‘she needs to be with her mother’. I continued to speak to the other services supporting the family and regularly visited Ann Marie at home. I had to make sure the changes that she’d made were long term and that, even if she found a new partner, or something stressful came up in the future, she’d be able to stay on her current path.
There were some hard days. I needed to have the courage to fight for what I thought was best for Chloe and remain hopeful that this time Ann Marie had really changed. This little family has shown me that the road to change is not always a straight one. People need to make decisions in their own time, and just because they’ve failed in the past doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of great change in the future. As caseworkers, we must keep an open mind and be willing to carry the risk of failure if we believe it’s the right outcome for a child.
When the Children’s Court magistrate supported our recommendation, we all stood on the court steps, hugging each other – even the solicitors! It was incredibly emotional. To help Chloe prepare for the move home, we created a calendar that counted down the days. It started with weekend visits, then sleepovers, then eventually the big day arrived. Chloe’s foster carers hosted a party and gave her a photo album of their time together. She was home with her mum on 23 December – just in time for Christmas.
Ann Marie hosted a thank you celebration and invited everyone who’d supported her. She kept hugging me and thanking me for giving her a second chance. ‘Things are just beautiful now; Chloe and I couldn’t be happier’, she said.
Since going home, Chloe has completely come out of her shell – she dances around, sings and smiles all the time. She hopes to go on The Voice one day! The other day I asked her how everything was going. She said, ‘Emily, I feel 10 out of 10 for happiness. I wouldn’t change anything in the whole world’.
Ann Marie is such a strong, amazing woman, she’s even started speaking publically about her experience so she can help other women living with violence. I know Ann Marie’s courage to speak out will help lots of other women and children, and I really admire her.
District Director Nepean Blue Mountains, Department of Family and Community Services
This story is a beautiful example of courageous practice and a moving story of a family reunited against all odds. Emily showed great belief in Ann Marie and built a relationship of mutual trust and respect. Emily could see the possibility of Chloe returning home to her mum but was clear about what needed to happen to make this a reality. Emily did not judge Ann Marie and demonstrated true empathy while being realistic and attuned to the risks. It was clear her aim was to get the very best outcome for Chloe, and I loved the care and thought that went into making their reunion so successful.
There is no doubt that the empathy, courage and skills of this caseworker have changed the course of Ann Marie and Chloe’s lives forever. Emily should also take great pride that Ann Marie will now go on to change the lives of other women trapped in violent relationships and give hope to others that their lives too can be different – a true gift to ‘pay forward’ the support and compassion Ann Marie received from Emily.
It cannot help but make us all smile just thinking of Chloe as the happy little girl playing with her mum and auditioning for The Voice in the living room. This was a second chance when all was lost – a second chance nothing short of a miracle for this courageous mum and daughter.
I am so very proud of the inspirational work that happens in Family and Community Services and, just like Chloe, when reading this I feel 10 out of 10 for happiness!