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Muriel sitting on seat looking at camera

Joyce and Elaine, Caseworkers and Klarika, Manager Casework

Our first memories of Muriel are of driving the six children back from Wilcannia. We had the heater up high as it was freezing and the children only had shorts and t-shirts on. It was very emotional, we were all crying - caseworkers and children. We’d just taken the children from their family and community. Muriel was the second eldest child. She was seven years old.

One of us was from Wilcannia and knew the children from around the community, not just through work. It was awful, taking children from your own land.

We knew they had to come into care. Muriel’s mum and dad loved the kids but their problems overwhelmed them and the children were not safe. We had been working with them for a long time but it wasn’t getting better.

At first the community was really angry. But having local caseworkers helped them understand it’s what we had to do. It was the only way we could keep the children safe.

We desperately wanted to keep the children together. At first they were with one carer but there were just too many of them to get the care they needed. We had to split them up.

Muriel and her brother Edward went to one carer and her four other siblings went to another. They had been there for ten years but Muriel and Edward’s carers couldn’t look after them anymore.

Muriel’s always been really determined. She knows what she wants and tells it to you straight. One time when she was ten she came to our office to speak with her caseworker. She had a little backpack filled up with clothes and her toothbrush. She had a map in the front pocket. She said she wanted a new carer and if we didn’t give her one she’d run away. She opened her backpack, unfolded the map and showed the caseworker all her plans for running away.

We’ve tried so hard to find the right place for Muriel to live, her caseworker and all of us together. She had lots of different carers while we fought and fought to get it right.
Five years ago we found Coralie. Coralie was supposed to be a respite carer. Muriel’s short stay has turned into five years and she is not moving out anytime soon. They have a great relationship. She’s not Aboriginal but Muriel’s on country. And Coralie loves her.

We’ve kept the siblings connected – even if they can’t live together. The children live locally so they see each other at school and on weekends. It’s not a strict regime. We make sure there’s lots of informal contact. We work hard at keeping good connections with the extended family. It’s not just a few visits each year – we regularly take them back and keep the relationship going.

Lots of us are Aboriginal. We were distressed we couldn’t find a suitable Aboriginal carer, but we made it through together. We’ve all worked with Coralie and Muriel so that she grows up knowing where she comes from and who she belongs to. She’s got good routines and Coralie’s helped her learn to fit in and commit to school.

We’ve been helping Muriel to leave care. We went with her to get her driver’s licence and we held a leaving care night for her. She made up a dream board of what she will be doing in three years’ time. It said she wanted to go to university.

Muriel doesn’t have many people in her family who got the opportunity to finish school and get a job. She is so bright. She’s finishing school. She’s going to be a nurse someday. Her parents are proud of Muriel. We’re all proud of Muriel.

Muriel, young woman

I was born in Broken Hill but lived in Wilcannia. I come from a large family with roots in the Barkindji and Wonkamarra tribes from Wilcannia and Bourke areas. I was taken into foster care along with five of my seven siblings.

I had about six carers all up in the 12 or 13 years of my foster care. My brother Edward and I would muck up so we would get moved all the time. Eventually, after the fifth carer, Edward and I got split up. I moved in with Coralie. I’m 18 now and still there.

I enjoyed being like an only child with Coralie, but I missed my brother and sisters. We all get together as a family about once a fortnight. We’d go to the park with Mum and family. We had so much fun; being rowdy, wrestling, climbing trees, fighting over everything.

I look back now and can see that after these visits I would come back to Coralie in a mood. I’d be upset about leaving and would be grumpy or sad and crying. I’d either not talk to her or yell at her. Especially if mum didn’t turn up for the visit. She wasn’t really reliable.

On Wednesdays after school, our local Thankakali Group would pick us all up to go and do painting, learn Aboriginal dancing and just do fun stuff.

I was a bit below average at primary school although eventually I tried harder and even did homework. And then I moved on to high school. The transition was hard. Coralie and FACS organised a private tutor for me. She contacted my teachers and found out what I needed to learn. Eventually she caught me up and helped me develop study skills.

As part of my HSC I’m studying to be a trainee nurse. Each Wednesday I actually get paid work at the hospital in the wards doing hands on training. I’ll finish Year 12 this year and hopefully I’ll already be a qualified Assistant in Nursing. Then I plan to become a Registered Nurse and eventually a Midwife. Last year I received an award for the best school based trainee.

I recently turned 18 so I’m out of care now. It’s quite scary. Although I have a good relationship with my mum and family, my home is with Coralie. It’s where I’ll stay.

Reflection

Maree Walk

Deputy Secretary, Program and Service Design

I am so inspired by Muriel, her carer, Joyce and Elaine and Klarika. They describe complex relationships, hard decisions, tough situations - pain, joy, love and loss - for Muriel, her brothers and sisters, her parents, her community and her carer.

How well they have negotiated these issues. Muriel also gives us her gift of honesty -- she tells us that she and Edward would muck up so they would get moved, she packed her bags and plotted her escape routes to get moved -- wanting to be involved in the decisions made about her and demanding to have a say.

How pleasing then they found someone -- not someone they thought would suit, but someone who sounds just right for Muriel. So Muriel gets to thrive, and we can feel this young woman's hard work, resilience and life force already at only 18.

The caseworkers and the family have been working together for a long time - they have seen the results of decisions they've made - sometimes good and bad, and it seems have never given up. They have critiqued and explained their decisions - to the children, the family and the community. It sounds also if they have made errors, they have gone back and fixed them. That's courageous casework too.

Muriel's story also defies the statistics - the number of placements, or her non-Aboriginal care experience -- the unique and inspiring story of her and Coralie reminds us to be open to all kinds of outcomes.

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Last updated: 25 Nov 2019