Daniela, FACS Caseworker
I met Elly early in her pregnancy. She’s a young Cook Islander woman with a positive outlook and a big happy smile that she flashes often. She had come to our attention because she was pregnant and had been stopped by police for drink driving.
Elly was a heavy drinker, sometimes three bottles of wine at a time, and she was also using ice. At that stage Elly wasn’t sure if she wanted to go ahead with the pregnancy. I explained to her if she wanted to keep the baby we could work together to make sure it would be safe.
I get goosebumps when I remember Elly’s reaction the day I told her how drinking and drugs could affect her baby. I gave it to her straight. As I talked about foetal alcohol syndrome, tears streamed down her face. She looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to do that to my baby.’ Elly knew the alcohol and drugs weren’t good for her but until that moment she hadn’t realised what they could do to her baby. It shows we shouldn’t assume parents make choices with the same knowledge of risk we have. It’s an important part of our role to guide and to educate, while also knowing when to let them take the lead. I think this conversation was one of the big steps in her recovery, it was at that moment I thought, ‘We can make this work’.
I believed in Elly. I could see she had the potential to do whatever it was she wanted. She was open, honest, smart and insightful. She really wanted to do the right thing by her baby. This was what motivated her, and I used it as our focus.
Reflecting back on all those wonderful qualities and strengths was really important in building Elly’s confidence, her sense of mastery and our relationship. I think she also appreciated me being honest and transparent. I couldn’t tell her what the outcome would be but I could tell her I would do everything to support her. I said, ‘There will be hard times but I’ll always be here to listen to you and support you.’ I would give her the different options but it was always up to Elly which option she chose.
We used Pregnancy Family Conferencing to help Elly. At the conference we would highlight all her strengths. Elly had heaps. She had maintained work, she had been clean for a long period of time, she had positive relationships with her aunty, some friends and cousins and she was very connected to her lands and culture. We spoke with her about our worries, past experiences of domestic violence, housing problems and of course, her drug and alcohol use.
Her aunt was a big part of our case plan and helped Elly a lot. Elly moved into her aunt’s home for some time and became part of her knitting group. That was a huge support for her because the women fussed over her pregnancy and how well Elly was doing. She had knitted a gorgeous pink blanket for the baby, and the other women made lots of baby clothes.
Robert, her partner, didn’t come to the first conference. Elly was so disappointed because she’d really been expecting he would. She was very emotional, but said she felt empowered. She felt the support services at the conference wanted her to do well.
Not long after the conference Elly relapsed. It was after an argument with Robert. She really wanted their relationship to work and he wasn’t so sure. It triggered Elly going to the pub. What she thought was a little drink turned into many, and then she used ice again.
That happened on a weekend and when I spoke with her during the week she was completely honest with me. She told me what she had done and that she was really scared. I asked what she thought that meant for her, was it going back to using regularly or a one off? She said she was really disappointed and wanted to continue with her treatment.
I didn’t give up on her, because even though I wasn’t sure if she could stay clean, I knew she would try really hard, and I knew that a relapse was common. I didn’t want to punish her. I talked to her about the process of recovery, and tried to normalise what had happened. I reminded her about all the time she had stayed clean, and all the positive things that were happening to her. I used her baby to motivate her once again. Together we talked about ways she could manage distress and sadness, and the people she could trust.
Soon after, I visited Elly at home and told her about another mother I worked with, who had relapsed but had then stopped using drugs. She smiled and cried at the same time and thanked me for sharing that story. She said she was going to change.
I was also working with Robert. He is a young, hard-working Cook Islander man. When I first met him, I wanted to learn about who he was, include him, explain our worries and hear his views. I told him I would respect whatever decision he made but that whatever happened to Elly, I wanted him to be involved in planning. Part of working with Robert was giving him space, he was younger than Elly and he really needed to decide for himself if he was ready for such a commitment.
When they first found out about the pregnancy, Robert would often stay late at work and go out with his friends. After our meeting he decided to be there for this baby and Elly. He would come home earlier, bring home dinner, things like that. They also saw a counsellor together. Robert was really worried that if he argued with Elly she would start using again. We worked on ways to talk to each other without using blaming language, and how to take the heat out of the moment.
Both Robert and Elly have worked really hard and Elly’s continued to stay clean. At the third Family Conference we told Elly and Robert the baby was safe to go home with them. It wasn’t a surprise, because we had been talking with them throughout this time, but they were really relieved when this became our final decision.
I came to the hospital shortly after Rose was born. Robert was holding her and it was just magic, this massive guy with this tiny little baby in a little pink hat. He was staring into her eyes with such love and had a big smile all over his face. Elly was next to him, looking exhausted but happy. Rose was a bouncing well baby. It was wonderful.
When I visited them the first time after they went home, Elly was breastfeeding and she was a natural. You could see the love. I just looked at her and felt so proud of all the things she had done for this baby. She has this smile and the baby was almost kissing her with her eyes, it was beautiful.
Deputy Secretary, Southern and Western Cluster of Districts and Housing Statewide Services
What most struck me about Daniela’s work with this family was that from the outset, her assumption was that we could help this family stay together. It seems to me that Daniela looked at the subsequent incidents through that lens. I think this it is right to have a starting point that we should be keeping a family together unless the risks are so clear or immediate that we have to remove children for reasons of immediate safety.
I was also struck by the way Daniela recognised Elly’s strengths, and that seems to have been an important factor in both Elly and Daniela’s relationship. But Daniela was also not naïve about Elly’s weaknesses – she pulled no punches in outlining the risks of excessive alcohol and drug intake.
I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Daniela, but I bet she is a really positive person and how great it is that she brings that part of herself to her work.