Standing on my own
Kylie, FACS Caseworker
You can learn a lot from seeing things through other people’s eyes. Sam has had to deal with too much pain. Her partner Mark was very violent and using drugs. Sam felt she couldn’t leave the relationship.
While pregnant with her third child, her 18 month old daughter was seriously injured. We were told it wasn’t an accident, but no-one could explain how it happened. Sam was at hospital caring for her injured daughter when she went into labour. With no safety for the children at home, her two daughters and newborn son were taken into care.
After the children were taken, Mark assaulted Sam again. We got a report she was pregnant with her fourth child, homeless, and we believed she was using drugs. She was only 25 and her life had spiralled out of control.
Sam didn’t want to know me at first. She was about five months pregnant when we met. We spoke briefly about what was happening for her and her unborn baby, and she agreed to what she could, but it was fleeting. I tried very hard to connect with Sam, but she avoided all contact with me. I was worried. I put out what we call a high risk birth alert on our system, which informed all the hospitals about my worries. It all seemed so risky. Sam hadn’t worked with us and we hadn’t been able to see any change. What was most worrying was that we never got to the bottom of how her little girl had been injured. Everything was pointing to the likelihood that this new baby would need to come into care too.
I really wanted to get to know Sam, to find out what her life was like. I knew the research about outcomes for kids who enter care, and it wasn’t sitting well with me. I didn’t want to bring another baby into care, but I also didn’t know if we could be sure it would be safe not to. And then our legal advisor threw me a lifeline. He said we couldn’t just rely on history to take this baby – I needed to look at all options. I needed to give this mother a go.
Within a week or so, I got a phone call from a hospital to say that Sam had booked into deliver her baby the next day. I had finally found a way to speak to her.
When I arrived at the hospital Sam was in the labour ward. She burst into tears when she saw me. It seemed like a mixture of relief and worry. Her third baby had been taken from her at birth, and of course she was scared the same thing would happen. But I think she was also relieved she could stop running. After months of avoiding me, we finally had the chance to talk about her baby. With the legal ‘okay’ to reassess Sam’s situation, I reassured her that we were going to start fresh, that she would be given a chance. That was the first step for Sam and me, to begin this journey and make changes to keep this baby safe.
Later that night I got a message that Sam had a healthy baby boy. His name was Karym.
I went back the next day and we had a really honest chat about my worries. I was still wrestling with uncertainty about how Sam’s daughter had been so badly injured, whether she and Mark were really over, whether she understood that her kids were at risk before and whether she was serious about working with me.
And I knew that at some point, Sam had been able to look after her kids. There had been a relatively long time when she’d been doing okay. It was something to work with.
I couldn’t discount the history, but I also couldn’t let it define my assessment of Karym’s safety now. Together, Sam and I made a safety plan for baby Karym. We talked about her relationship with Mark, and what her experiences of violence would mean for Karym and her. She was adamant it was over, she had an AVO. Our safety plan was that she had to enforce it. Sam left the hospital with her brand new baby. I was hopeful, really hopeful, but goodness I was nervous.
I’ve reflected on that meeting a lot. Sam was alone at the hospital. She’d been dropped there by someone else, to bring a baby into an uncertain world. She’d had another baby taken in similar circumstances. As a mum myself, I’ve tried to imagine what it must have been like for her. I realised it’s a privilege to be able to take your baby home from hospital to a safe, supportive place.
From that meeting at the hospital, I worked hard to build trust with Sam. I tried not to judge and encouraged her to let me know how I could help. Initially she reached out just for a few little things for her and the baby, but I think even asking for that little bit of support was a huge thing for her.
Sam and baby Karym needed somewhere to live. I asked her to come up with some ideas and together we negotiated what would be safe and suitable. They went to stay with Karym’s paternal grandmother on her property. Mark was not welcome there, but the property was isolated and out of town, and Sam didn’t have a licence or a car. I was reluctant, but there were no other options, so we put plans in place to make it safe enough.
Over the course of the next few months, I visited a lot. With the Early Childhood Nurse, we shared visits two or three times a week. I talked a lot with Sam about our worries, about her, about the drugs, about the violence from Mark. The violence was probably the biggest issue. I needed to listen more than I talked. It was hard to hear how awful it had been. It made me admire her courage – how she had managed to get up every day, and how much it took for her to leave the relationship. Going back through her history, the violence and abuse increased dramatically each time she was pregnant.
This time Sam was sure the relationship with Mark was over, but she seemed resigned to the violence. This type of relationship had become ‘normal’ for her. She didn’t seem to know it could be different. She found it hard to believe that she deserved better.
With Mark out of the picture I worked hard to build Sam’s confidence and self esteem. I knew Sam couldn’t stay at the property indefinitely, so we got working on more permanent housing plans. We have a housing officer at our office, so I advocated for Sam every day. Literally I was stalking that worker, in the hallway, even in the kitchen.
When Karym was about 12 weeks old, Sam was offered a house of her own. It was the first real test of whether she could manage by herself. She picked up the keys and I helped her make some arrangements. When I visited her a few days later it looked like Sam had lived there for years. She was unpacked and, despite being a woman who kept her feelings tightly checked, beaming from ear to ear. It was the biggest smile I’ve seen.
Sam has had challenges since Karym was born but she faces them every time. One day Mark broke into her house while she was out. He left her a note on the table to make sure she knew he had been there. I think she’d had enough. She was determined to keep Karym safe and she wasn’t going to let Mark risk that. She called the police and enforced the AVO. He was charged, and this time, for the first time, she went to court and gave evidence against him. Mark was convicted and sent to gaol. Talk about courage – she has it in spades.
I’ve had to work through a lot of uncertainty and worry about this mum and baby. At first, I spent a lot of time wondering about how Sam’s little girl got injured - it’s always easier to work with the risk if we understand what’s happened. But over time, I realised I was never going to know that story. That child was hurt in a family led by a very violent man, and where drugs were a way for Sam to cope. So I moved my focus to the here and now – to give Sam the chance to be able to love this baby in a home of safety.
Karym is now 18 months old and Sam is doing really well. She’s a great mum to him and he’s thriving. He’s a beautiful, happy, energetic little boy who busily explores his world from the safety of his mum’s side. For him to grow up with his mum is such a huge reward, and I’m proud I was able to help foster that.
For Sam, I’m most proud of what she’s been able to do. I’m amazed at her strength, how her confidence has grown, and her determination to be the best mum she can for Karym. I don’t know if Sam sees herself as brave and courageous for making these changes. I hope she does. And I hope that one day Karym will be able to understand how hard she fought to be his mum.
Being a good mother to Karym is now the driving force for Sam to work to get her other three kids returned to her care. This is another big challenge, but with her new sense of confidence and the determination she has shown so far, I’m really hopeful.
I didn’t trust Kylie at the beginning. I’d had a lot of caseworkers already, and in my mind, she wasn’t going to be any different. After that first meeting at the office, I just stopped talking to her. When she walked into the hospital four months later, I was worried; really worried.
When she told me that I’d get a chance to take Karym home, I was surprised and relieved. It felt like a miracle. I knew I’d have to work with her if I was going to get to keep Karym with me, so I tried to be open minded.
Kylie showed me time and again she would do what she said. She didn’t beat around the bush, if she had something to say, she said it. She doesn’t just talk in words that are ‘up there’, she talks about what it means to me. And she listened. She spent time getting to know me. She’s been there for support and encouraged me when I needed it. She’s told me I need to get it right for Karym. For me, he’s the key to getting my other three kids back. That’s been a big motivator.
I’m proud of being able to keep Karym with me. I’ve made decisions that show I can keep him safe, but it’s hard to not have my other three kids. Ending the relationship with Mark and standing on my own has been the biggest change, but being able to meet Karym’s needs, and give him a place that is his home is really special. I’ve learnt that I’m stronger than I thought.
Executive Director, Community Services Statewide Services
There are so many wonderful parts to this story and to me it is fundamentally about two things - persistence and optimism. Two of the best attributes you can have when working with vulnerable children and families.
Without Kylie’s persistence in engaging Sam, I doubt we would have seen Karym be able to stay in Sam’s care.
And the same goes for her optimism. Too often we think we need to understand the past before we can move into future work with our clients. While the past is often the prelude Kylie’s ability to let go of the past (about what happened to Sam’s older daughter) meant that she was able to move on and work with Sam in the here and now.
Kylie’s persistence with Sam and her optimism and belief that people can and do change meant that she was able to unlock Sam’s courage, so she could stand up to her violent partner, change her life circumstances and be able to care for Karym full time. It is a wonderful outcome for all and here’s hoping that Kylie’s work will continue with Sam in having all her four children together, with her.
Well done Kylie, there is nothing better in our work than to build relationships with our clients and walk alongside them as we create hope and help build a better future for children and families – together.