Brave and strong
Janay, FACS casework
As I walked up the stairs to meet Cassie for the first time, I stepped over a used syringe, heard neighbours yelling at each other and was surrounded by shattered windows. The block of flats was notorious for housing drug dealers, so I was pretty worried for Cassie, who was squatting there at a ‘friend of a friend’s’ place. She was 17 years old and five months pregnant. And she already had another baby who was being cared for by her parents.
When Cassie opened the door I couldn’t even tell she was pregnant. She was so tiny. Cassie invited me in, but could barely keep her eyes open. Right by her side was her boyfriend Patrick. Police had told me he could be violent so I trod lightly as I told them about my worries. I did not want to put her at further risk. I explained I was there because we’d been told Cassie was using drugs and we wanted to help her keep her baby safe.
Patrick tried to answer all the questions himself and got mad when I asked Cassie about her life. He didn’t let Cassie speak with me alone, or let her have much of a say about anything. He wasn’t the father of the baby and I could see he was very controlling. Despite this, Cassie managed to tell me about her little Archie, who was eight months old. She spoke with a lot of love, told me she missed him and was thrilled about the chance to be a mum again.
It struck me that while Cassie worried about Archie and wanted to be with him, she recognised that at the moment he was safer living with her parents. It spoke volumes about who she was as a mum. She could put her son first, though it broke her to be apart from him. Even still, I left that first meeting with a heavy heart. There wasn’t room in their tiny squat for a bassinet – and that was the least of it. I was worried about the drugs and I was worried about Patrick. At the same time there was something about the way Cassie spoke about Archie that made me feel like she wanted things to be different.
Cassie didn’t want to know me in the beginning, but that didn’t stop me showing up. Over and over. Cassie left home at 14 and had burnt a few bridges in the past. If we were to have any kind of relationship, I knew I had to be rock solid.
I started driving Cassie to her midwife appointments and took the time in the car and the waiting room to listen to her story. I learned early on that, like most 17 year olds, she hated being told what to do! So I tried a different tack. I started explaining all my worries in lots of detail. I didn’t say she couldn’t use drugs – I just stepped through what would happen to her growing baby if she did. I didn’t make her see the midwives, but went through how they could help her baby come into the world healthy and safe. In the end we never missed an appointment, Cassie and me. I think this is when she realised nothing she could say or do would make me give
up on her and her baby.
Cassie had once been close to her parents, Keith and Sandra, so I took the time to get to know them. Straight away I could see their deep love for Archie and Cassie. But I could also sense their raw grief and despair, worn down from years of worrying about her. They felt their daughter had become a stranger. They were doing a wonderful job caring for Archie and I hoped that by bringing them into our decisions about the new baby, I could help them reconnect with Cassie.
As I got to know Cassie, I began to understand just how much Patrick hurt, threatened and controlled her. I supported Cassie to take out an AVO against Patrick, but he broke it time and time again. The police were right on to him and they arranged a Safety Action Meeting with us, housing, health and other domestic violence services so we could all work together. The police told us that only women who were at risk of serious injury or death were part of this program. I knew things were bad, but hearing that was terrifying. I felt sick with worry for Cassie and her unborn baby.
We all had a role in keeping Cassie safe. Police would conduct random checks on Patrick, a local service provided Cassie with domestic violence support and
a place at a safe house and my housing colleagues looked at finding her a home. Cassie didn’t feel comfortable dealing with so many people, so I would take their calls and manage the appointments and meetings. Often it was hard to find her, but I always managed to track her down – by calling, texting or even driving around – and get her the help she needed. I knew I couldn’t keep her safe on my own.
The whole time I worked with Cassie I was terrified she wouldn’t make it. Mostly I was scared Patrick would kill her, or she would overdose. We had a lot of frank discussions about her drug use and I learned that Cassie turned to drugs when she was scared or anxious, and this was a frightening time for her. Every time I saw her I would ask when she had last felt the baby kicking; she would take my hand and hold it on her growing belly so I could feel him move. Getting that little kick against my hand was the best feeling in the world. It was also a tactile way of helping Cassie bond with her baby and motivate her in hard moments.
Cassie and I also had plenty of conversations about why I might need to bring her baby into care. I know how important it is to stay hopeful for parents, but I also needed to be real about what life was going to be like for the baby when he was born. I felt like I was struggling to just keep Cassie alive, and that there wasn’t the time and safety for her to prepare to be a mum too.
Patrick ended up in prison for breaching the AVO, but Cassie was still using drugs when little Jackson was born. She loved him at first sight. Even though she knew in her heart she couldn’t care for him, it was still the hardest day of my career to tell Cassie that Jackson needed to go and live with his grandparents along with Archie. We had both wanted her to be able to take her baby home so badly. I was gutted that it had come to this.
Three months later it all came to a head when Cassie came to the office in a terrible way. She was crying and yelling and so broken. She missed her boys and her parents, and was desperately alone. She was finally honest with me about how much ice and cannabis she was using. I was so scared for her when she told me she’d just tried heroin for the first time. Something had to give. I was able to use this moment of honesty to convince Cassie she needed to detox.
Incredibly, she went, right then and there, and stayed for the full 10 days. I was so proud of her, and even more so when she agreed to take the next step and go to rehab in Sydney.
Every time I visited, I reminded Cassie that her time in rehab was only a tiny fraction of her son’s lives, but could change her family forever. I’ll never forget my second visit. She told me straight up that she and Jackson would not be alive if it wasn’t for me – it was without doubt the most rewarding feedback I’ve ever received.
I took Jackson and Archie to visit Cassie in rehab each month and talked to her about what life could be like when she had her boys with her. I wanted her to know that I believed it was possible. We documented their blossoming relationship and the amazing changes she’d made by taking a selfie each time. I wanted her to have a record of this time, proof of all her hard work and love for her boys.
Eight months later and Cassie is still in rehab. She wants to do it once and do it right. Now that she is clean, I feel like I’ve met her all over again. She is an amazing young woman. It was obvious to me, and eventually the court, that she was ready to take back the care of Archie and Jackson.
Because of the relationship I made with Keith and Sandra, I was able to talk to them about how I would love to see Cassie come home to them and Cassie’s grandma June, and take over the care of her boys with their gentle guidance and support. Thankfully the family and Cassie are completely on board. In time, when she is ready, Cassie will be able to care for the boys on her own with help from her family.
Cassie deserves all the credit for her journey. I have to remind myself she is still only 18, because she has been through so much and is just so brave and strong. Cassie always wanted to be a good mum, far more than she wanted the drugs. She just needed someone to believe in her.
In the beginning I was pretty rude to Janay. I called her every name under the sun. Janay was always hounding me and no matter how hard I tried to hide, she managed to find me. And she always knew when I was lying, especially when I was trying to convince her that I was okay, even when I wasn’t.
I eventually realised that she was just trying to help. She never judged me for the things I said or did; she would sit and listen if that was what I needed and she always knew what to say.
When my boys were taken into care it absolutely crushed me and made me feel horrible. That feeling stuck with me for quite a while, but it ended up being a huge motivator for change. Janay wrote me a beautiful note about my boys and whenever I was having a hard day in rehab, I would look at it and the photos of Archie and Jackson as a reminder about why I was there. The boys kept me going.
The day I received the news Archie and Jackson were coming back to me was one of the best days ever, equal only to when they were born. I cried out of happiness and sheer exhaustion. The court process had taken forever and it felt like it was never going to end. My mum was with me and it was so wonderful to see her cry out of happiness, rather than sadness. Mum and dad were so amazing and I’m so grateful they were willing and able to look after Archie and Jackson when I couldn’t.
The most important thing for me was having a caseworker who listened, was supportive and persevered despite my protests. If it was not for Janay I definitely wouldn’t have gone through rehab and I certainly wouldn’t be getting my boys back. She changed my life.
Executive District Director, Hunter New England NSW Department of Family and Community Services
What an uplifting and inspiring story and one that gives me great hope for the families of the future. Every caseworker has the amazing potential to be the ‘Janay’ for every ‘Cassie’ who needs the gentle persistence, belief, courage and honesty that Janay has shown. From a scary and delicate first meeting where many would have lost hope, Janay was able to see something in Cassie that allowed her to dream of the best outcome for Cassie and her babies.
The path was tricky and there were many times where it could have gone a different way. What I see is a caseworker adjusting and negotiating and staying with the end dream, while constantly balancing all the risks in this story.
Cassie’s honest description of her relationship with Janay and the impact this had over time helps us understand what we need to be for the families we work with. Such a wonderful outcome in this story; Cassie, still a child herself, reconnected with her own parents and also able to be a mum to her beautiful boys Archie and Jackson.
Well done Cassie and Janay; may this great result continue and give this family the chance to rear two happy and healthy boys.