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Woman standing in tall grass smiling

Jackie,  FACS caseworker

I first met Alison at a bus stop. She was 13 and homeless. It was my job to get her to safety. I had been told to expect a fair bit of yelling and swearing and possible violence. I was ready for it. Instead what I got was a chatty, giggly girl.

The picture that you develop about someone by reading their file or hearing from someone else is always interesting. The labels that are so easily given. You can’t help developing a picture but so often it just doesn’t fit.

I was told that Alison would be violent, but in all of my years of working with her I only saw it once.
She didn’t mean to hurt me. She was angry because I had made her ‘boyfriend’ leave the hospital where she had been admitted to keep her safe. ‘Boyfriend’ was her label for him; to me he was a predatory adult who was taking advantage of her. One of the hardest jobs of my career so far was to help Alison see this man, and the others like him, for what he really was. And the most important job. But it is a sad lesson to have to teach a 13 year old.

It was hard to keep Alison safe, really hard. She was desperate for a connection with someone who cared for her. Because she had not experienced safe relationships, she sought connection through sex. Sadly it seemed there was always someone willing. Alison didn’t see this as abuse. She called it love.

The first conversations I had with Alison were hard for us both, but soon enough ‘sex talks’ became our everyday experience. I had to talk to her about everything – I had to help her see that she was being abused. It was really important to me that I build her self-esteem. I wanted her to respect herself, to know that she didn’t have to have sex to feel loved. Self respect was the key to safety. But it was hard. From a very little girl, people who she should have been able to trust had hurt Alison. It’s hard work to get a child’s trust when other adults have betrayed them.

I’d like to say it turned around quickly but it didn’t. Life just got more and more dangerous for Alison. She craved connection so much that she would leave where she was staying, a safe residential place, and within an hour she had been abused. She would tell me she ‘had sex with her new boyfriend.’
Language became really important to us. I had to be really clear with her that she was being abused and exploited. I told her the men she met were paedophiles, not boyfriends. And I repeated these words over and over. It wasn’t what Alison wanted to hear, but I had to keep explaining to her that she was being abused and that she couldn't consent to sex because it wasn't sex - it was sexual assault quite frankly. There was no other word for it.

The men abusing her were persistent. The night that I dropped into the hospital and found one of them visiting her was a turning point in our relationship. Not just because Alison had lashed out at me, but because it was the first time she told me that she couldn’t keep herself safe, that she couldn't stop having sex with people, and that she needed my help to stop. The containment of a mental health unit was a safe option for her that night. That was a hard night for me. I remember standing in the hospital car park after visiting Alison. It was late and dark. I spoke to my manager Sally that night. I let out all my emotions: my sadness, my shock, my fear. That made all the difference – you need good support in tough times. The next day I went back to the hospital. I didn't know if I could but Sally said, 'Alison needs to see that you will be back again, she needs to know that you will keep coming back.' That became my mantra with Alison - no matter what she said or did, I just needed to keep turning up. I could not give up on her even when she pushed me away, literally.

Keeping Alison safe meant going to the Supreme Court. She was in the most intensive setting our system offered but it wasn’t enough. We had a choice to make - we could either accept that this was as safe as we could keep her, or we could stand up and say 'this isn't good enough, she deserves better.' We knew she needed more to keep her safe and start to heal, so we developed our own
program and placement for Alison that included physical containment.

My entire work with Alison has been filled with ethical dilemmas. The use of physical containment was one of the big ones. I knew she needed this but that didn't mean I liked it. And Alison didn't like it either. I knew I had to keep her safe but wasn’t I supposed to be her advocate, her voice? It challenged what I thought my role was when I had to do things she didn't want, but I just kept bringing it back to safety and healing. My role made sense when I brought it back to this.

We knew the program ran the risk of increasing Alison’s level of isolation. So we used this time to engage in family finding and therapeutic life story work to help her healing and create connections to safe adults. We constantly reviewed the program, continued to seek opinions from those around us and made hard choices for Alison.

We had a ‘reflections day’ when Alison graduated from the program. It was amazing to think back to the girl I first met, and then to see the girl I know today. She is so different, so mature. I'm so proud of Alison and I’m glad I got to be her caseworker. We had a disagreement once, and she made a power point presentation to say sorry. That just sums up the sweet and caring girl I know. I am happy to say she now has great self respect.

Alison

I don't remember meeting Jackie but I'm pretty sure I won't forget her. I was cutting myself quite a bit and hanging out with dangerous people when I met her. People used to tell me I was lost. I used to think I was useless and had nothing going on, but now I feel like I can achieve anything. I’m applying for jobs and starting a beauty course soon. That is something I always wanted to do - to make people feel good about themselves and understand their natural beauty.

I didn't like being locked up. At the start I felt trapped but now I know it saved me. It's pretty much a blessing that I came into care. I was in a shitty situation. Now I've learnt how to be safe and how to look after myself. I know what safe looks like. This morning I saw this old guy staring and whistling at a young girl. I was like, ‘That kid has feelings. Why would you want to take advantage of her?’

Court was a pretty big deal for me. I'd never spoken to a judge before but I got up and spoke to a high judge and put my voice across. It felt good to say what I needed to say. I’m glad I got to do that.
Jackie has a strong personality like me. She’s bossy like me but I like that. She told me the truth all the time, even when I didn't like it, and she put my thoughts and opinions forward when I couldn’t. When I was in the program she would tell me to stick it out, it will all be over soon. She reassured me that I could succeed ... and I did. She is a really good woman.

I used to tell Jackie she was only in the job for the money. Now I know that you don't put up with kids like me just for the money. Trust me I made it hard for Jackie! I regret the stuff I used to say to her. I can see now that she never gave up on me. She stuck by my side and was there for me everyday. You don't do that if you’re just in it for the money. She really cares about me, it really shows.

From who I was before to who I am now is a big achievement. I know that the rules and restrictions, and Jackie’s bossiness, made me who I am today. Without her and Sally, people would still be disrespecting me. Lots of people treated me with disrespect before. I’ve now got self respect. No one will get to disrespect me again. Life is actually looking good for me. I’m pretty happy.

Sally, FACS Manager Casework

There was never the perfect solution for Alison. Every decision we made felt like the lesser of two evils. Building a program that restricted her in a house was our last resort. We did it because the risk to Alison’s safety was too frightening and too real. She could not heal while men kept hurting her. We needed to keep her still to take care of her.

We were creating something new for Alison so we had no road map to follow – we were driving blind. I often asked myself what would happen if it didn't work? Would we have done more harm than good? Having the oversight of the Supreme Court offered some comfort. Its approval and understanding of Alison’s needs reassured me in those difficult times.

The program wasn't just about containment. We developed a really strong therapeutic plan. Day by day Alison started to see what we could see - that she had been sexually abused and it was not okay. Over time, Alison’s self-esteem blossomed. The final day in the Supreme Court she stood up and spoke directly to the judge. It was such a proud moment.

Taking care of Jackie was so important to helping Alison. Jackie was having tough conversations on a daily basis, and I needed to help her deal with them. Often that was just about letting Jackie explore her feelings about how worried she was. One day she came in and said, ’Can we just have one day where we don’t talk about sex. I just want a day of ‘normal’ talk.’ So we did, not a word about sexual abuse was spoken. We had a one day break from it in the many years we worked with Alison.

There was one time, and only one time, when Alison hit Jackie. Jackie rang me; she was so upset and completely exhausted. I just listened while she let it all out. In these moments the best you can do is be a compassionate ear and a caring confidant. The next day Jackie was still shaky but I talked with her about how much Alison needed her, now more than ever.

And Jackie is strong. No matter what Alison threw at her she kept going back, and it’s made all the difference for this young woman.

We fought hard for Alison. We are now working with her to build safe connections that will stay with her when we are no longer around. Alison didn't have many people in her corner when we met her. We tried to reconnect her with her mum and nan, but for all sort of reasons that just led to disappointment.

One of our goals for Alison was for her to get a birthday card from someone who wasn't a professional. And so we set about to find someone who could send that card. We mapped out all the people she knew who were safe and supportive, but all we came across were workers. It was so sad.

Alison just turned 16. And at last she got a birthday card from someone that wasn’t a professional. It is nice to see her making safe connections. I have no doubt she’ll make friends at her beauty course – she is so easy to like.

Reflection

Deidre Mulkerin

Deputy Secretary, Northern Cluster Operations

This is what extraordinary practice looks like. It shows us how lives can be turned around with tenacious casework and a caseworker who never gives up.

Jackie was there to guide Alison through the tough times, sit with her through the sad times and now, to celebrate with her through the good times. Sally shows us the critical role managers play in keeping good caseworkers strong – she trusts in her staff, gives them autonomy, but stands up as a leader, helper and defender of both her caseworkers and children. Together Jackie and Sally worked as a team. They looked past the destructive labels our young people can carry with them to see a vulnerable young girl who desperately needed help, safety and connection.

It took remarkable courage for Jackie and Sally to create the type of safety that Alison needed. And it took so much more than courage for Alison to see that she was being hurt by people she thought cared for her.

Alison sounds like an incredible young woman. ‘Bossy’ or not, Jackie has helped Alison to learn how to make respectful connections with safe people, and start the journey of healing. She has transformed from within – her sense of new found self respect fills my heart.

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Last updated: 25 Nov 2019