Julie, FACS Caseworker
The first words I heard about Amelia were all bad ones. It was in a handover meeting from another office. I had been given the job of writing a report for court to keep her baby son Oliver in the care of his paternal grandmother, Mary. The thing is Amelia was only 17 years old. She was in FACS care and she had done it tough.
Parenting is hard even when you are an adult who has had great family support, so it was no surprise Amelia struggled to parent. She was given so many labels in that meeting it made me uneasy. One was that she had no ’parenting capacity’, another was that she had ‘an intellectual delay’. The problem was I didn’t think we really knew enough about Amelia as a mum, and why Oliver wasn’t with her.
I didn’t know Amelia at this point, but I had read her file before the meeting. Everything in me said we weren’t giving Oliver a chance to be with his mum. I felt like decisions had been made about Amelia’s ability to parent based on the suffering she herself had experienced as a child. It seemed as if assumptions were made that her trauma meant she couldn’t be a good enough parent. I felt so opposed to what was planned. I even thought I would rather leave my job than lodge that care application. I was just hoping there was another way.
Oliver had been separated from Amelia for seven months, and they hadn’t seen each other nearly enough. I was determined to put this right, and to make the best possible decisions for this family.
Thankfully my manager Vicky, backed me. She was open to looking at Oliver and Amelia with fresh eyes.
We met Amelia a week later. I was told she wouldn’t turn up. But she did and she was early. She had travelled four hours on public transport to meet me. She was done up very smartly and was taking the meeting seriously. She talked about Oliver and was really open. She looked me in the eye when she spoke, and I was left with no doubt that this young woman was going to put up the fight of her life to get her baby back.
Amelia has an amazing ability to come through tough situations. Her parents were both heavy drug users and she had lived with really awful violence. Amelia didn’t remember this so when FACS said to her she wasn’t protecting Oliver because she was living with her mum, she didn’t understand.
The first time we saw Amelia with Oliver it was just amazing. Oliver went straight to her without hesitation and sat on her lap. They sat on the floor playing a clapping game. There were lots of cuddles and tickling and crawling around the floor. They were really connected. During their time together Amelia would ask us if what she was doing was okay. She was just great with him. If she was my daughter I would be really proud.
Working with Amelia reinforced what I always believed, to not let something sit unquestioned if you feel something is wrong. You always have to make sure your voice is heard. I think that if you’re going to do this job, you have to have that strength. You just have to dig deep.
Vicky, FACS Manager, Casework
Before the handover meeting I read every single one of Amelia’s records. The assessments were a mess. When we had the meeting two things struck me. The manager said, ‘Because of her trauma history there is no way she could parent’. The other was that Amelia had a history of violence which we needed to understand. We found out that when she was 12 she had run away from residential care. When they tried to get her back she had kicked a staff member. That was her history of violence.
Early on I told Amelia I didn’t think the past assessment was fair. I said sorry for what FACS had done. I felt I needed to be honest with her. I told her I was going to review everything. I explained the whole process very clearly. I said sorry again.
We talked about Amelia and Oliver a lot. We looked at it from so many angles and got legal advice, always trying to keep Oliver at the centre of our thinking and decisions. Each time we kept coming back to the same conclusion – Oliver should be with Amelia. We knew we needed to back Amelia, so she could be the parent we knew she could be.
Amelia filed a recovery order with the Family Court to get Oliver back. The day of the hearing I picked her up early. She got in the car and the first thing she said was, ‘Are you sure what I am wearing is okay, are they going to think I look stupid?’ She looked fabulous and I told her.
On the way up she asked about why she was in care. She told me she felt she needed to know so that if the court asked her about it she wouldn’t look like an idiot. Even though my instinct was to tell her later, I felt I had to share it in that moment. When I told her about her past she said, ‘Okay, now I know why people thought I would be a bad parent.’
As soon as we went into the court the judge said, ‘I have read everything and this mum will be getting her child back today.’ Just like that. I have never heard of a judge making a decision so quickly. Amelia was over the moon. She was the happiest person in the world when she heard those words.
Amelia now has a job cleaning hotels. She also got her licence and her own car. She has moved into her own place with her new partner, who is really good to her and Oliver. They are doing so well. It’s about Amelia’s resilience more than anything. After everything she has been through the way she loves that little boy is so beautiful.
When I first got pregnant I had lots of emotions; I cried and I was really scared. Once I had him it was amazing. Mum came and stayed for two weeks and we would be up together at night, feeding him and helping him settle.
Oliver’s dad Tyrone treated me like garbage. If I asked him to change a nappy because I was exhausted it was a no. If I asked Mary, his mum, it was a no. After about two months he threw all my stuff out on the lawn. I waited until he went to his friend’s house and went down to the shop. The lady working at the shop gave me $20. She knew what I was going through because I used to go down there with black eyes and a bleeding nose after he bashed me. I got on the bus, didn’t look back and Oliver and me went to live with mum.
Oliver was taken one night when my sister was looking after him – when I was visiting my mum in hospital. It was the worst thing in the world. I had no idea who had taken him or where he was. I called the police to get help finding Oliver. I was freaking out. It turned out one of Tyrone’s relatives was hiding him at their house. He was there for three nights, then Tyrone’s mum Mary came and got him.
A couple of days later FACS told me I couldn’t get Oliver back, that he would be staying with Tyrone and Mary. They told me where I was living wasn’t safe. I tried to convince them everything was fine but they weren’t budging. I got a bad vibe; they didn’t seem to want to help. FACS, Tyrone and Mary seemed to be on the one side, and then there was me.
I moved into my new boyfriend’s home. His mum used to work with foster kids, and she said we could move into the bottom half of her house and try and get Oliver back.
When I lived there I would go to Mary’s to try and see Oliver. But she would make any excuse under the sun for me not to see him. I would get the train for four hours and I would be told, ‘Can you come back tomorrow morning?’ All I wanted to do was see him for half an hour. I had no right to him, no right at all. It was her decision, she had all the rights.
The day of court I was so nervous. I was shaking, my heart was pounding out of my chest. I was excited, I was scared. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I went to sleep about 3.00am in the morning and woke well before sun up. I had everything ready for him to come home; I had clothes and toys. When the judge said he was coming back that day I couldn’t believe it. It was the best thing ever. I couldn’t thank Vicky enough; I was hugging her and telling her I loved her.
Oliver is a great kid, he is so well behaved. I love doing everything with him. He makes everything fun, even just eating dinner is fun. I love giving him a bath, he loves baths. It’s just fun to go out the back and play. He’s a very good boy.
I can’t thank Julie and Vicky enough. They fought for me, they got to know me and saw me for me, and not just a file of sad stories. I know without them my life wouldn’t be as good. They brought Oliver back to me.
The grit and commitment shown by Julie is actually exhilarating to me, I literally wanted to applaud the final outcome!
When the right thing to do is really hard the personal and professional challenge is huge. Julie was ready for the challenge and used the support of Vicky, her manager, to really create life long change for Oliver and Amelia.
Huge credit to Vicky, in the face of labels, assumptions and judgements she challenged the myths that had evolved about Amelia’s abilities. Vicky showed amazing accountability and responsibility.
“I said sorry…. I said sorry again”.
The power of the apology and the leadership demonstrated by Vicky is the type of tenacity our staff need to make child protection practice meaningful.
This story about the courage to challenge the system makes me think about what else we can do in FACS to support staff personally and professionally when they need to take a stand.
Executive Director, Service System Reform