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Serah, Marist Youth Care Family Preservation Service, Caseworker

Karly married her high school sweetheart Leon and they had two gorgeous children. Leon had a good job and the family owned a home in a Sydney suburb. This wasn’t a family that I would have expected to work with, but when Leon’s company restructured, they cut back his shifts and their life as they knew it changed. Leon couldn’t pay the mortgage, lost his job, his house and turned to drugs to mask the shame. He ended up in gaol, and lost his family. Karly also started using drugs. It had all unravelled so quickly. FACS stepped in and placed their two children with Karly’s mother, Rose.

Shortly after, Karly became pregnant and stopped using drugs. I came into her life when this baby, Adam, was a toddler. My job was to return the older children, Tom, 13 and Katlyn, 9 to their mum.

Karly was living with her mother at the time. Altogether there were three adults and six children in the house. At our first meeting there were groceries all over the kitchen bench, Adam was running around the house, Katlyn was home sick, and the dryer was on because one of the kids had wet the bed the night before. Karly was a busy mum in a busy house. She was focused, but at the same time anxious about all that was going on. I could see she loved her children and there was a strong bond, but boy their life was chaotic.

I noticed that Rose was exhausted. Her home was crowded and she wanted it back to normal. I waited around one afternoon so I could talk to Rose. I acknowledged just how hard she was working to keep everything together. I said to her, ‘You must be really proud of Karly and how far she’s come.’ I wanted her to know how important she was in Karly and the kids’ lives, and just how much Karly was achieving with her support.

The next day Karly contacted me in disbelief, her mother had hugged her after I left and said, ‘I am proud of you.’ Karly’s mum had not hugged her in a long time.

I used to talk to Karly about what her family was like before Leon lost his job. We also talked about her hopes for the future. I think it really helped our relationship having those talks – it was like it gave her dignity to describe herself in a better place and a better time. Leon was always a part of those discussions. She wanted him back with her, to be there for the kids, and to have a relationship with Adam that wasn’t one built in a prison. The kids missed him too. Tom told me he missed hugging his dad and Katlyn chimed in that she missed the wrestles. That tugged at my heart.

After I had spoken to Leon on the phone a few times I arranged to go and see him. There were lots of approvals from Corrective Services before we could meet him in person. I just called the prison and started from there. I wasn’t sure if they would let me see him but I was going to see how far I could get. I made my first call and just kept following up with the next thing and the next.

I had never visited a prison before. It was pretty scary. There was barbed wire, security everywhere and we had to wear security alarms. But Leon wasn’t a scary guy. He was just a person, a dad, whose life had taken a very rough turn. He’d made mistakes but that didn’t change how he felt about his family or they him.

It was tough trying to help the children have a relationship with their dad while he was behind bars. They were able to call him, but only saw him once a month, and even then they weren’t allowed to touch him. I pushed really hard to let the kids and Leon have physical contact but the prison just wouldn’t allow it.

Until I spoke to Leon myself, I didn’t understand just how hard it was to build a relationship over the phone. No wonder they just said ‘hi, okay, bye’ when Leon called. It’s difficult to have a conversation on a prison phone because every six seconds it beeps and it sounds like you are dropping out. The kids desperately needed more than a six second distant connection.

I thought about what would be meaningful for the kids and came up with the idea of daddy craft and diaries. They could write or draw in a diary what they had got up to during the week. They could also express how much they missed their dad, and how sad it was that they couldn’t cuddle him and wrestle with him.

Leon wasn’t part of the plan to return the children to Karly. To me that wasn’t okay because the prison was saying he was doing everything right, and the family were all telling me he was a wonderful father. I brought everyone together to talk about it, and then we all met at the prison. The wall was covered with butcher’s paper of all the workshops Leon had completed. When we suggested he do a parenting course in prison he was a bit hesitant. I told him Karly was about to start a similar course, and we talked about how important it was for them to be on the same page with their parenting. He agreed to do the course.

But if Leon was going to end up living with his family there had to be a connection between him and the family’s current life. And so with their permission I built a three way relationship through the prison psychologist. I would talk to the psychologist about some of the kids’ behaviours Karly needed support with, stuff Leon couldn’t understand in quick phone calls.

After that when Karly and Leon spoke on the phone he could help her with ideas, or speak to the children directly. He would say to them things like, ‘hey mate, I know what you have been doing, I know things are tough but you need to help your mum.’ Karly really appreciated this support. She felt like some of the discipline had been lifted from her shoulders.

One of the lovely moments of working with this family was Karly and Katlyn’s entry into our art show. Katlyn painted all the family lying on a towel on the beach. There’s a shovel and a bag and a sandcastle so it’s a playful experience too. Mum and dad are holding hands and dad has these big biceps. Her painting won first prize and was snapped up before the show even opened. It was a memory she had but also a dream for the future. Karly’s painting was full of her dreams too but she wanted to keep it for herself.

Leon is out of prison now. He stays overnight with his family and FACS has included him as part of the restoration plan. It’s been a long road for them but this family is coming through together. I admire them and I have been reminded in the best way that if there is love and connection, with a bit of tenacious help, hope can flourish and dreams can become a reality.

Reflection

Dreams can come true

This story demonstrates the power of families to make changes and overcome hardship. It highlights the important role staff play in supporting families in making these changes. Serah’s belief in the family’s ability is never faltering. Although the family had gone through tough times their strength, determination and support received from Serah assisted the family in working towards restoration. The support and determination that Serah provided in uniting the family is a testament of the great work of our NGO partners. Serah believed that the family had the capacity to rebuild their family and supported Karly in remaining focused on her hopes for the future.

Serah, advocated strongly for the children and the family to ensure relationships were maintained regardless of Leon’s incarceration. She listened and heard the children’s wishes to see their father and sought support to ensure that quality contact occurred between the children and their father. Serah supported Karly in engaging in activities to support her and enhance her self esteem. The long road the family had travelled was acknowledged by Serah and although Leon was not back with the family full time there was a plan around making this an eventuality and ensure that dreams can come true.

Gary Groves
Executive Director, South Eastern, Northern Sydney and Sydney Districts

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Last updated: 19 Nov 2019