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Madeline and Jessica with a woman standing in a grassy park

Shannon, FACS Caseworker

Madeline and Jessica are twin girls who have had some big challenges in their lives. Their mum had significant mental health problems, she and their dad were both drug users and he was in out and of gaol. Madeline and Jessica came into care as tiny babies and had to be moved a bit before they went to live with Debbie, a wonderful carer who loved them to bits. She was happy to keep the girls for life but the plan was to find care with someone in their family.

When Jessica and Madeline were almost two they went to live with their aunt Rosemary, who put up her hand to care for them. It was going well until Rosemary had a stroke. After that, her son Charles, who was already living in the home, took over looking after Madeline and Jessica. They all lived together and made it work but then Rosemary developed brain cancer. It was horrible when she died. The girls were only nine years old. It was such a tough time for them all understandably. Charles was grieving for his mother. He struggled to give the girls what they needed.

I started working with the family around this time. My first job was to help Charles get back on his feet. We had a really frank talk and agreed on a plan so he could be there in a true sense for the girls – he was their only parent figure now and they needed him. Because there was so much for Charles to do we organised for the girls to stay with another family member for a short time, and we told them it was to get Charles strong so he could be strong for the girls. We gave Charles a lot of help and he really did step up. He wanted the girls back, and they were adamant that they belonged with him – he was their family. I could see there was a really genuine and natural bond. After a couple of months of living away, they moved back in.

Madeline and Jessica wearing identical clothes sitting in a grassy park

Madeline and Jessica have lovely gentle natures, although in the beginning it was hard to get to know them. They were reserved and quite closed off when we first met. Earning their trust and building a connection has really been about just constantly plugging away at it. Turning up when I said I was going to, taking them out, following up when I said I would.

As the girls got older, I started to worry about them not having a strong mother figure. They had recently turned 12, and I felt sad to be taking them shopping for personal girl things instead of someone in their family. I tried different approaches, like setting them up with an aunt, but she just had too much on her plate. I also found them a female counsellor, but it wasn’t the same.

When we were doing life story work they wanted to know who their early carers were. I got a list of all the different carers’ names and where they had lived when the girls stayed with them. They specifically asked about Debbie but I thought they just remembered her name. Later, they said they wanted to know where she was. They said she used to sometimes visit and send Christmas cards, but they hadn’t heard from her since Rosemary died.

Once I realised how important Debbie was to them, I tracked her down. I kept going back through all her different addresses. It took a bit of digging but eventually I found a number. It didn’t turn out to be the right one, she didn’t live there anymore but the person gave me what they thought was her number. I tried quite a few different combinations but eventually I got lucky and found out she was a carer in Queensland.

When I rang Debbie she was so happy to hear from me. She had lost touch with the girls when Charles moved house. She said she always knew they would come back into her life. She told me she had pictures of them on her wall and was delighted that I contacted her. After checking with Charles, I passed on Debbie’s number. The girls were so excited. It was the most animated I had ever seen them. They would tell me about the conversations they had with Debbie – like one of her daughters having a baby. Debbie was connecting the girls back to her family, it was wonderful to see them coming to life.

We organised for Charles to take the girls up to see Debbie during the school holidays. They stayed for a week. It was a time for the girls to reconnect to someone who loved and had cared for them – their first secure relationship. Debbie had kept some of their cute little baby clothes and gave them to the girls. It was a precious gift, to get back a bit of their history, and the clothes are now beautifully framed on the girl’s bedroom walls. We’re organising another trip with Debbie for the next school holidays – everyone is excited about it.

I really believe that filling in those missing pieces was so important in helping Jessica and Madeline come into their own. Charles said the school called him to say how much Jessica has changed after the holiday and was doing so well. The teacher was curious about what had made such a big difference. I think it’s all about the connection and identity the girls needed. To come back to all that early love and safety – to be back in the heart of someone who had loved them as her own and who could show them that they had never been forgotten. Debbie has stepped straight back into that role of giving mother love, and the timing couldn’t be better. It has also been a wonderful support for Charles – and he could see what it meant to the girls. In Charles they have deep family love and care and in Debbie a cherished connection with their earliest memories.

I think back to how hard it was for the girls to talk and the things I worried about for them. They have moved into high school seamlessly, and are both getting some great marks for their work. They know they are loved. Charles is so proud of them, and I have such hope for the young women they will become. It’s pretty hard to think of work that could be more rewarding.

Reflection

How powerfully does this story remind us of the importance of attachment?. However, it also illustrates that with the loss of the attachment figures there is sadness and grief. What does this mean for our practice as children move from one placement to another?

Congratulations to Shannon for her persistence in seeking to find Jessica and Madeline’s early carer. The story highlights the sadness that must have been compounded for the twins with the death of their aunt Rosemary and the joy that has come back into Jessica and Madeline’s lives with their re-connection to Debbie, their early carer.

Reflecting on the out-of-home care standards reminds us that children and young people must be supported to maintain family and other important relationships, that case plans should include strategies to maintain meaningful connections and that active life story work (as was the case in this story) is means by which this can be achieved.

Jill Herbert
Executive Director, Illawarra Shoalhaven and Southern NSW Districts

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Last updated: 16 Dec 2020