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School is where the heart is

Belinda, FACS caseworker

There are some things kids say that stick with you. You’d think the stories about the really awful stuff that’s happened to them would be the hardest to hear, but often it’s the simplest of lines that get you the most. For me, those lines are why I really love my work. They are an invitation to make a difference.

With Harry it was when he told me that what he wanted, more than anything in the world, was for someone to pick him up from school. And, he didn’t mean every day. He wanted to come out of class one day and see someone who was there waiting just for him. It was about mattering enough to someone that they are there just because. It said a lot about what he hadn’t had.

Harry’s early life

At FACS we first heard about Harry when he was a baby and was moved to his uncle and aunt’s to live. His parents said they didn’t really want him and they weren’t coping. The next time we heard anything about Harry, he was eight and sadder than any boy should be. He was with his parents again – it hadn’t worked out with his uncle and aunt and they’d given him back. His teacher was worried about him because he was coming to school with a bleeding nose or bad bruises, was causing havoc and was easily upset. He’d told her that his parents called him a ‘spastic’ and an ‘Indian dog’.

So I went out to the school to meet Harry and talk to him. His teacher, Mrs Chaulk, sat in. Harry didn’t hold back – telling me how he had been hit and hurt and how his family didn’t like him. He was brave, and what he said was so raw and so real. When he finished and left the classroom we sat together, Mrs Chaulk and me, one of those moments you share with good people who do this work – where there’s not much to say but so much to do.

A sad realisation

I rang Harry’s parents and told them I was really worried about him. They said ‘don’t bring him home’. Just like that. They really meant it – his stuff was left at their door that night and they wouldn’t see him.

I rang his aunt and they didn’t want him either. My next job was to talk to Harry and tell him he wasn’t going home that day. I was pretty worried about how he would react. I started by saying that we cared about him and that it wasn’t okay that he’d been hurt. It was a ‘spiel’ I’d said before – one that stays with children for the rest of their lives, however well you say it. I was going on and I was getting nervous about the next part but I didn’t finish because Harry jumped up and threw his arms around me. ‘Thank you, thank you’, he kept saying. ‘Thank you that I don’t have to go home’.

It was the first time I have ever had a child thank me for taking them from their family. I hope it’s the last. And it was the first time parents have told me to take their child. It’s pretty rare actually – however hard it is for most of our families, they really want to be together. It’s what I work for and it’s what I tried to do with Harry’s family. In the end, though, he taught me that there are some families that just should not stay together.

Mrs Chaulk’s unwavering support

The only carer I could find that first day was a woman who could only have Harry for one night – she needed to leave for work by 7am the next morning. It would have to do. When I told Mrs Chaulk she said, ‘I’ll just get my bag’. I shouldn’t have been surprised – she is the real deal when it comes to her students. So we set off – me driving and Harry and Mrs Chaulk in the back. They held hands the whole way there. The way she keeps Harry calm is something to see.

So we got to the carer’s and there was Mrs Chaulk taking the lead – she wanted to show Harry where he’d be sleeping and I think she wanted to see it for herself too. She also wanted the carer to know how to help Harry feel safe. You see, Harry has microdeletion syndrome – it’s to do with his genetics and it means he has some problems with learning and how he manages emotions. Certain things set him off and send him spinning – like the word ‘mum’ – and Mrs Chaulk wanted to prepare the carer.

The next morning I picked Harry up so the carer could go to work. I took him out to breakfast and we went and bought playdough – lots of it – because when Harry gets anxious he likes something to occupy his hands with. I then handed him over to Mrs Chaulk. When I saw her take him in her arms and heard her ask him how his night had been, I felt grateful and so relieved. Harry didn’t have much, and I didn’t know where he’d be sleeping that night, but he did have the two of us and he was front and centre in both our minds.

The long search for stability

Then it all started again. While Harry was at school that day I managed to find him another carer, and when I picked him up and set off to his next home, Mrs Chaulk was back there again in the car with him. She told Harry she wanted to meet his new family. I’d been to Harry’s parents’ place and collected all his belongings. It was interesting how he dealt with that. When I went to unpack the boxes from the car he said not to, that he wanted them to stay with me. Over the coming weeks, every time I visited Harry he’d check that his things were still in the car. It meant a bit of organising back at my office, but my colleagues understood. I always had to drive the same car and Harry’s stuff always had to be in it. It was as simple as that.

One day when he’d been at the new carer’s house for a couple of months, Harry suddenly said he wanted to unpack the car and get his stuff. I didn’t push him to tell me why, but I think it was his way of making me stay connected to him. Or maybe it was about keeping his options open.

There were some rough days ahead, but why wouldn’t there be? You don’t get rejected and moved and hurt and not try and test adults to see if they’ll let you down like others before. There was the day Harry bit a boy’s ear at school and I dropped everything to go and sit with him. Or the days he’d get angry and Mrs Chaulk would take him to her reading corner to work with his playdough (what he can do with his hands is amazing). Little by little we – his carer, Mrs Chaulk and me – saw signs of Harry starting to believe he was loved.

Harry stayed with that family for eight months. You can’t believe the change in him – he just blossomed. You show a kid that you care and you make them feel safe, and it usually works. We often talk about how complex it can be, the job of protecting children, but when it works it’s actually pretty basic.

Finding a family for life

The hard bit was finding Harry a family for life. I was like a dog with a bone because I just would not let go of one thing – he could not change schools. Come hell or high water I was not compromising. School had been the one place where he felt safe, and Mrs Chaulk had been the one person who’d stuck with him and not let him down.

Bloody hell, she’d even moved classes with him – teaching him in kindy and then right through to Year 3!

At last, perseverance paid off. Mackillop Family Services came through with a carer. And better still, Harry didn’t have to leave good relationships behind – we had a plan that he’d go back to his first foster family for respite and they’d always keep in touch with him. For one last time we made that journey – the mighty trio of Harry, Mrs Chaulk and me – and we settled Harry in for the last time. They wait for him in the playground and they think he’s wonderful.

A complete transformation

Harry didn’t have to change schools, but how he has changed at school. He used to be in the principal’s office daily and on every medication under the sun – he had as many pills as he had labels. But now he’s learning, he’s calm, he stays in the classroom all lesson and doesn’t need his pills. And for the first time Mrs Chaulk doesn’t need to teach him anymore – she went back to the kindy kids.

Some days you need to shed tears in this job, but not always sad ones. The other day Harry dropped in at the office to see me. He’s 10 years old now and pretty chuffed. He wanted me to see his new haircut and his new clothes. He looked so good! I got a glimpse of confidence breaking through, and it filled my heart. Recently he got an award in assembly. Mrs Chaulk and I were there bursting with pride, and the best thing is that Harry knew it. He was beaming at us and we were beaming right back at him.

Harry is the bravest person I know. His joy is contagious and his warmth is so genuine. It’s been an honour to have listened to him and a privilege to have fought for him. I’m proud that I didn’t give up. And I am lucky to have worked alongside a fantastic teacher and amazing foster carers. It’s pretty straightforward when we all care about the same thing.


Michael Coutts-Trotter

Secretary, Department of Family and Community Services

This story brings to life that abstract and bloodless phrase ‘cross- agency collaboration’. It shows what can be achieved for children when great people in government and beyond it come together to work to a common goal.

At the centre of the story, with Harry every step of the way, are his teacher, Mrs Chaulk, and his caseworker Belinda.

They resolutely create as much predictability and continuity for Harry as possible, amid the destructive volatility created by the problems in his family.

Whether it’s Mrs Chaulk changing classes each year so she can keep on teaching Harry as he moved from Kindy through to Year Three. Or her insisting on travelling with Harry and Belinda to two over-night placements, holding his hand, checking out his new bedroom with him and helping the carers to understand Harry and how to sooth him.

Or Belinda doggedly waiting for a permanent family for Harry to make sure he could stay at school with Mrs Chaulk, and then ensuring that Harry’s first foster family stayed in his life by providing respite care.

And despite the many things happening in Harry’s life that he couldn’t control, Belinda found ways to give him some control.

Harry wanted Belinda to hold on to his things, and keep them packed up in their boxes. And he wanted to see those boxes every time Belinda visited him in his foster placement. It would have been easy – and convenient – to say no but Belinda’s empathy and insight compelled her to do what Harry needed.

This is such an uplifting story and an example of the power of great collaboration – cracking child protection casework, brilliant teaching and wonderful care-giving.

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Last updated: 25 Nov 2019