A safe house
Lynelle, young woman
I want to share my story. It is pretty horrible but important for other people to hear. When I was 14 my dad killed my mum.
FACS got involved and me and my sister went to live with a woman who had known mum, Karen. My sister got on well with Karen, but I didn’t. Growing up I didn’t trust any adults, and that was the same for Karen. Living with fear puts a stop to trust. I felt her heart wasn’t in it, that she was always about the money. But from the start, my caseworker Andro was just great. He was always about me, and I felt it wasn’t just a job. I could tell his heart was in it, and I think that’s what made me trust him quickly.
It took me a long time to find my place in the world. When I was 16 I left Karen and my sister and moved around a fair bit, searching for somewhere to belong. I was certain I didn’t want to be with Karen, or any other carer. Each time I moved Andro would come out and check that I was in a safe place. When I was 17, I decided I wanted to live on my own. I didn’t know how to make this happen. I just knew I wanted it, that it was the right thing for me. Andro helped me get set up. I think he had to fight a bit to get me a special payment, but he did and I was able to get a home of my own.
Of course, I was only 17 and in my own house - no rules and no nagging adult telling me to turn the music down. Pretty much straight away my place became a party house. I learnt quickly that my friends were taking advantage of me. I was working two jobs to keep that house. None of my friends worked. They all had parents and safe homes. My safe home had become their party house. I didn’t have any family around. At the end of the day Andro was the only person I could rely on. He was always there for me. Andro always checked in on me, making sure I was okay, asking about my sister. And if he missed a call from me he would instantly return it. Andro helped me make my home safe again.
Fast forward a few years I am 25 and happily married with two little girls. A lot had happened and if it wasn’t for Andro I wouldn’t be who I am now. When I became pregnant at 19 I decided I did not want to drink or touch drugs again. I didn’t want to be my parents. I wanted my kids to have the life I didn’t have. After I had my daughter, I bumped into Andro at the shops. He held my daughter and said, ‘I am so proud of you. She is perfect’.
Not long after my daughter was born, I got the courage to read my file. What would it say about me? Would it help me join the dots and make sense of my past? I called Andro and told him I wanted to read my file. He was very supportive, organised a counsellor and made sure I had good support around me. I got it and read it over a few days. It was weird. A lot of it was boring. Some of it hurt and made me angry. But when I read what Andro had written I realised he really cared right from the start. It was his job but his heart was in it. Andro always made FACS seem less scary. To this day he is one of the few adults I trust.
Andro, FACS Caseworker
I had just finished the Caseworker Development Program when I met Lynelle. One year earlier Lynelle’s father had killed her mother. In the blink of an eye, Lynelle lost both her parents, and her life was never going to be the same again.
I remember being told that I would become Lynelle’s caseworker. I wondered if I was the right person. Did I have the skills? Maybe someone else would be better? I guess it was time to really learn what it takes to be a good caseworker.
I was nervous when we first met. Pairing a big bloke like me with a teenage girl felt a bit like mixing oil and water. I knew some of Lynelle’s story; what had happened to her mother; about her father’s violence. I knew I would have to work hard to build a relationship and gain her trust. Even knowing her story I struggled to understand what life with her family must have been like. How could I make a difference? But from the very beginning, Lynelle was articulate and determined to succeed in life. She told me she was good at school and was going to be a lawyer. It became my job to get to know and understand Lynelle and help her realise her goals.
Finding a stable home is hard to achieve when you enter care as a teenager. Lynelle’s time in care with Karen and her younger sister had been filled with challenges. Lynelle let me know pretty quickly that she wasn’t happy. Lynelle left school in year 11, and moved in and out of Karen’s care.
Building a relationship with Lynelle took time, as trusting adults in her life had not been easy. I had been working with Lynelle on her leaving care planning, however for a period of time all I could do was stay in contact, keep checking she was safe, and advocate on her behalf when she needed a safe place to stay. By 17 Lynelle was certain she needed to live on her own. I had been Lynelle’s caseworker long enough to know I needed to help her make this happen.
I advocated for Lynelle with Centrelink and housing and she got a home. It took some time and some challenging conversations before Lynelle found her feet. Together we set some boundaries for her and her friends. She came to see this new place as her home and not a party house for all her friends. Together we made it safe.
Trust between a young person and a caseworker is critical to leaving care planning. While it can be a task oriented process, it’s really all about a relationship. You need to be open, and be there for someone while they explore who they are and who they want to be. With Lynelle, I spent a lot of time just listening to her talk about her life and what she wanted. Sometimes I would prompt her to think about different things or challenge her, in a respectful way. Because we had developed trust Lynelle would open up, share her ideas, and listen when I reflected on what she had said.
Seeing Lynelle through some tough times gave me confidence that I was helping to make a difference in her life, in a good way.
Three years later when Lynelle asked to read her file, I made sure she had the support she needed. Afterwards she told me the case notes I had made captured everything she remembered feeling at the time. She said the notes were right, and she liked the way I had recorded some of her experiences.
As a caseworker you often hear about the importance of telling a child’s story in their file. It’s about how we need to capture their experiences, and the decisions that are made during their time in care. Hearing from Lynelle after she read her file really brought this message to life for me.
Everybody who works for Community Services comes to work each day because they genuinely believe in the work they do. They have faith that with the right support, lives that have been disrupted and damaged by family violence, substance abuse or mental illness can be repaired.
Sometimes that means kids can stay with or go back home to their parents, and sometimes this is not possible and foster care is their only option. Whatever the outcome, kids tell us all the time that what makes the difference is the relationship they have with their caseworker.
Unconditional respect, honesty, good humour, warmth and genuine commitment to hang in there through all the ups and downs makes the difference. For Lynelle, Andro was all of that and more. Lynelle and Andro’s story warms my heart.
This is just how it needs to be for any child that finds themselves, through no fault of their own, in the scary position of not being safe at home. For those of us who have not experienced abuse and neglect it is difficult to imagine the fear and uncertainty experienced by some children. To have a stable, reliable and compassionate worker to help you through is so very important.
I wish Lynelle nothing but good things. I wish her love that sustains her. I wish her safety and happiness.
Executive Director, Program and Service Improvement
This reflection has been adapted from an email Janet sent to Lynelle. It was in reply to an email Lynelle had written to FACS letting us know how much she appreciated the support of Andro.