Now look where we are
When my daughter Tanya was born I had been clean for about four years. But her father was still a very heavy pot smoker, with huge mood swings. He was very violent. The violence got worse when I was pregnant. We were together another six years after that, on and off. We came on the child protection radar when I ended up in hospital. I was in hospital for weeks because he shattered my elbow and broke my arm in six places. All up I think I had seven operations.
The pain and recovery took its toll. I got addicted to OxyContin. All day, every day I would abuse drugs. The doctors stopped giving them to me and I started shoplifting and buying them off other people. In 2011 I went to gaol. Tanya was seven and Mum and Dad took her for me.
I went to rehab and after I came out I met Tim. He wasn’t at his best at that time. I ended up renting a house and things were going well. I thought I could save him too, but instead I joined him.
I was devastated when FACS took Tanya. I hated Jess then. Of course you’re going to hate the person who takes your child. I was looking for someone to blame, and I wasn’t going to look in the mirror and blame the person who was really responsible.
Tanya was taken just before Christmas, 2011. Once she was taken I thought there was no point anymore. I went downhill real quick. My relationship with Tim wasn’t good, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, didn’t want to talk to him, to me it was his fault because I was alright until he came along.
Then Tim said, ‘What are we going to do? We can sit here and wallow or we do something and get her back.’ So we decided that’s it, we went and got stable on methadone, and then I found out I was pregnant. That’s when we really knuckled down, we both did relapse prevention courses and other addiction programs. We had drug and alcohol counselling separately and together. I did urines every week.
And then when Jack was five months old I ran into Tanya’s father and flipped out. I was scared and went back to what I knew would make me feel good. It turned into a four day binge. Tim stood by me but after the fourth day he said, ‘Either pack your bags and get out or it stops now’. So I stopped and we’ve had nothing since.
After I had my third child, we focused on living closer to Tanya. She was coming up for weekends. At the end of every weekend I would be in tears, she would be in tears. She didn’t want to go, I didn’t want her to go, but neither of us wanted her to move back to where we were. There were alcoholics, drug addicts, drug dealers, criminals - that’s all we lived around and all we knew. We had people knocking on the door offering us free drugs, to try and get us back in. People say you need to cut yourself off from those people but if you are ready to do it you can do it anywhere. I didn’t want Tanya in that sort of place. So we kept plugging away until we got a good rental.
FACS told the court that Tanya should live with us. I was told, ‘From where you were to where you are now, is like night and day.’
The court process went on forever. Every time we went, we were told next time would be it, and sure enough we went back and it wasn’t. Tanya was worried. The judge assured her, ‘Don’t be upset, I promise I will have a present for you in the next month.’ We went back and the judge said ‘We will rescind all orders’. I thought it would be more gradual. It was surreal. It was like, what do we do now, do we go home? We were smiling and cuddling and crying – it was weird.
As for our caseworker Jess, I love her now. Once she realised we were both changing our lives, she couldn’t do enough for me. Our life is normal. We have three children and a dog in a four bedroom house. We were living in Houso, doing nothing, using drugs. Now look where we are.
Tracey, FACS Manager, Casework
Tanya is a total crack up. At first she was a bit shy but she became personality plus. She has such confidence and loves singing. We would visit and after the talking was done she would stand up and sing enthusiastically. She wants to go on ’The Voice’ and has a good voice, so we supported her to have singing lessons. It was important for her confidence and sense of self-worth. And it was another way for us to connect with Tanya, and build a relationship of trust and respect.
At the same time it was obvious she had experienced quite significant neglect, she was hoarding food - stuff like that. Tanya had obvious signs of trauma, but in the time with her grandparents she started to heal. She is very resilient, and opinionated, but that was good because she would tell you what she wanted.
We did lots of work with Belinda to get Tanya home. But we didn’t forget about her dad. It was important for her to have a relationship with both her parents. Her dad really wanted to have a relationship with her, and so he met with Jess and me. But then he went to gaol. He would often write her heartfelt letters. Jess would take them to her and ask if she wanted to read or keep them. She said she didn’t want to reply but did want him to keep sending them. It was important to follow Tanya’s lead on how she wanted to connect with her dad. Tanya and her dad now have a connection that we will continue to build, at her pace.
Today Tanya is a beautiful, intelligent young woman with a bright future. She has shown Jess and me that kids have an important voice, if only we listen.
Jessica, FACS Caseworker
Tanya was the first child I ever interviewed, the first child I brought into care and so many more firsts. I remember being scared and upset for her.
It was a Friday afternoon and we received a report about Tanya, in a car with her mum Belinda and mum’s partner Tim, driving all over the road. Tanya was described as being terrified. She was eight years old. I was worried sick. Nobody knew where they were. I wondered, ‘How much worse will it get?’
We had been receiving lots of reports about Tanya and they were becoming more serious. Mum struggled with an addiction and so did her partner. They weren’t looking after Tanya properly and there were lots of fights.
Being a relatively new caseworker I was like, ‘Let’s go, get in the car and look for her.’ My manager helped calm me down. We got the police to do a check on them and called the grandparents, Pam and Peter, to check they were okay for Tanya to go to them.
Over the weekend the police took Tanya to her grandparents. They had found her wandering a large housing complex, wearing somebody else’s undies and a t-shirt. She had been locked in her bedroom because Belinda didn’t want her to see them using, and she hadn’t been able to wait for the toilet. They passed out, so Tanya went looking for something to eat. She was hungry and there was no food in the house.
When I talked to Tanya she wanted to protect her mum. I asked her about what she ate at home and I’ll never forget what she said. Breakfast was ‘very nice toast’. Lunch was ‘a very nice salad sandwich’. I just listened – I wasn’t going to say I knew she hadn’t eaten. It would have felt like I was asking her to betray her loyalty to her mum. But she was really clear in saying she wanted to stay with nan and pop.
When I spoke to Belinda she was really angry and very loud on the phone. It was my first conversation with a parent after taking their child. There was lots of swearing and she said her piece and hung up. I was a bit scared of her. I also felt frustrated. She didn’t understand why Tanya wasn’t safe.
For a long time, Belinda didn’t see Tanya and avoided us. But when she fell pregnant she called us and said, ‘I’m pregnant, what’s going to happen?’ Here was the opportunity to do some very real work.
Belinda started seeing Tanya and it was really good. I remember when they started spending time together on their own. I stayed with them at the beginning of one visit at a park so I could see everything was okay. Even though she had a new baby, Belinda made Tanya the focus of the day. It was like she had thought about it beforehand and prepared for what she was going to say. ‘Remember when we used to go and do this and this was your favourite? Let’s go and do that.’ When they walked past some older ladies, they all peered into the pram and made a fuss of the baby. But Belinda diverted them back to Tanya, and Tanya loved that. It made her feel special. Loved.
Belinda wanted Tanya to start staying overnight. Belinda and Tim were still living in the same house Tanya had been taken from, so I went to make sure it was okay. Belinda took me in to the bedroom and told me what it looked like when Tanya was taken. She talked about broken glass, no curtains and just a mattress on the ground. I put myself in Tanya’s shoes and realised it would have been really scary for her. Belinda had real insight and she didn’t try and protect herself. She told me they had really tried to make it different, so it didn’t feel like Tanya was coming back to the same place. I was pleased to see how much she was anticipating Tanya’s needs.
Belinda is an intelligent, well-resourced woman. When she is clean she is a force to be reckoned with. She was really proactive in getting her life together and getting Tanya back. She had advice from us and she did it all.
Just before Christmas Tanya came to me and said, ‘I might be going back to mum for Christmas.’ Tanya was still living with her grandparents and she was 12 by then. I asked her if that’s what she wanted and she said it would be the best Christmas present in the world. After they got the final court orders they came in saying, ‘Look what we have done! We did it!’
Belinda’s taught me that no matter how bad it looks in the beginning, people can change. You just have to give them a chance. She has worked so hard and she and Tim have really done it on their own. I’m so proud of her and I’m so proud of Tanya.
I keep a message from Belinda. She wrote it at Christmas, just after Tanya came back to live with her. ‘Thank you so much for all your support and everything you have done because if it wasn’t for you and what you did I wouldn’t be here where I am now.’ I’ve kept it because sometimes you just need to remember that.
This is a story about relationships.
Relationships are where caseworkers do their heart work.
Jess building a relationship with Tanya, gave her “an important voice”. I loved how Tracey talked about following Tanya’s lead in building connection with her dad, at her pace.
Jess also waited for that perfect moment when Belinda was ready to not “protect herself” and was able to engage. Trust takes time, especially when people have experienced trauma. People need to be “ready for perfect”.
Tim and Jess ‘sticking by’ Belinda, allowed her relapse to not be seen as an irreversible failure. Relapse is a normal part of the rehabilitation process – plan for it.
This story is also about feelings. Expect a whole lot of uncomfortable feelings when you’re walking on the sacred ground of working with vulnerable families. Jess spoke of feeling scared, proud, worried, upset, frustrated - big feelings. With the support of Tracey, Jess was able to ‘calm down’ and manage these so she could be fully present with this family’s needs.
Moving from “all we knew” to “life is normal” sometimes just takes one present caseworker and a determined parent “plugging away”.