Home by the sea
Rebecca, FACS caseworker
Alison’s first words to me were ‘Oh why can’t you just leave me alone?’ She was standing at the door of her caravan and made it very clear I was the last person she wanted to see.
Alison looked bedraggled and I could see straight away that she had been using drugs. She was fired up and all over the place. She was yelling at Jane, who was three at the time, and feeding eight month old Josie sunshine milk powder because she had run out of formula.
It was our first meeting, but my colleagues had been working with Alison for a while. Our team knew about her ice habit, and we were really concerned that she couldn’t take care of the girls when she was using. My visit was to check in on the family and sadly things weren’t going well. I talked to Alison for a little while and then rang my manager to tell her my worries. My manager and I agreed it was just too unsafe to leave the girls there with Alison behaving so erratically.
Alison really lost it when I told her I had to take the girls away. The police came down, and Alison asked them if she could have five minutes alone with me. You can imagine what she had in mind! I totally understood her reaction. She was hurting and helpless and terrified that this was it – she would never have Jane and Josie home again. I had a social work student with me that day, and I told her, ‘When we write down what happened here this morning, put it into context – we can’t use labels or hold it against Alison later on.’
So this is how our story begins. There’s me, a complete stranger, wrenching her daughters away – and there is Alison – a young Aboriginal woman, crying on the steps of her caravan. You never get used to these moments, but Jane and Josie needed to be somewhere safe, and sadly on this day, it wasn’t with their mum.
I told Alison that while it may feel like the end, it could also be a new beginning. I promised she would see her daughters soon and I would call her the next day. I doubt she heard me, but it was important I said the words, and even more important that I stuck to them.
I had trouble finding family for the girls. Alison’s mum lives in another state and I knew getting the girls back home would be much harder if they settled so far away, and couldn’t see their mum easily. I took Jane and Josie to the doctor for a check-up and found a local foster carer, Joanna, to take good care of them, so that Alison had the space to take care of herself. I always start from the belief that children belong with their parents. My job is to help find the right path home.
The early days were hard. What I had to say was difficult to hear, and Alison wasn’t ready to listen. Our worries were clear; she had to stop using ice, or her daughters couldn’t be safe with her. She was so caught up raging against me and the system that she couldn’t get in to the headspace to take in what I was saying. She asked for a new caseworker every time we spoke, but every day I’d still call. The first challenge was, how do I work with someone who won’t stop yelling at me?
As I waited for Alison to be ready, I took the time to read all the information we had on her life so far. As is often the case, she’d had her own experiences with us as a child. It was easy to see why Alison had tried to escape her sadness by using drugs. But I’d already caught glimpses of her true character shining out of all her bravado – I knew she had it in her to stop history repeating itself. She was strong and resilient, and I could hear in her voice how much she loved her girls and yearned for them.
There were no light bulb moments, but slowly over time, Alison realised that every decision I made, every action I took, was aimed at bringing her girls home and that my belief in her never wavered. I stayed optimistic that Alison could get clean, even if she kept telling me she wasn’t sure she could. I wanted to be a positive voice in her head to help drown out her own doubts.
Finding the right rehab was tricky. Together we made a list of places that might suit and I helped her ring them, go through the assessment processes, visit doctors and fill out forms. It was an emotional time for her. A big part of my role was to hold her hand through this period; it was Alison who had to do all the hard work. There is no quick fix to long-term drug use.
It was frustrating for Alison to have to wait for a spot in rehab, so I decided to use this time in limbo to simply talk and listen to whatever she needed to say. It took a long time for her to share with me moments from her life. We would talk a little bit and she would get really upset, so I’d say, let’s park that over there for now. She had lived with a lot of sadness and hard times, and I learned more and more about her, not just what was in our notes.
I made sure Jane and Josie saw Alison all the time. We should never underestimate how distressing it is for children to be apart from their parents, even when it’s for a short time. This little family needed one another and I needed to stick to my word that Alison would see them; it was a way to help her start to trust the process. Josie was at a crucial time in her attachment to her mum and Jane was old enough to really pine for Alison. Seeing her mum a lot helped Jane to stay connected and be at peace with their time apart. Returning children to their families means we need to make sure their attachment never breaks.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. There was the day Alison called me, breathless and upset. ‘I’ve run away with the girls,’ she told me. Alison was having a visit with Jane and Josie under the supervision of an NGO worker. She told me the worker kept telling her what to do, so she ‘got the shits and bolted’. But she didn’t really run. She just went to the end of the street and called me. I ran out of the office and met her just as the police arrived. The NGO had called them after Alison took off. Thankfully I was able to diffuse the situation. It would have been devastating for the girls if Alison ended up in trouble. She could have done a lot of things that day, but she didn’t. The fact she called me straight away showed me how far we’d come.
The whole experience made me reflect on the way we manage visits between parents and their children. Families need to feel trusted with their kids, or else how can they step up when they get them home? Alison felt the arrangements were unnatural and she was being watched. Is it any wonder she ran when she got the chance?
In the end, Alison did many months in rehab. This time apart was tough on Josie and Jane, but together with their carer, we worked hard to keep the family connected. Every week I would visit the girls at Joanna’s home and we would ring their mum together.
Joanna was amazing and so respectful of the girl’s bond with their mum. She kept photos of Alison in their room and each night they would ‘blow kisses to mummy’ before going to bed. Alison sent the girls little presents, and in return, I made sure that she had plenty of photos and posted bundles of their drawings and paintings to help keep her spirit strong.
Sadly the first rehab centre didn’t work out. Alison was doing really well, but the workers weren’t able to support her with some of the pain that came up during therapy and group work. Her final rehab centre allowed the girls to come and stay a few nights and that was a huge deal in her recovery. Having them with her was the best form of medicine. I learnt a lot about making sure parents find a place that fits their clinical needs, as well as their cultural and emotional ones. You can’t have one without the other.
Alison’s true character shone through when she got clean; she had always been smart and kind and a great mum, but now it wasn’t hidden by the drugs. It was time Jane and Josie went home for good.
Alison’s hard work saw her girls back where they belonged. And she was determined to not let old friends and habits derail her new life. So she has started afresh in a lovely town by the coast, far away from here. It took a lot of courage to go it alone and I admire her resolve.
After she moved, my manager and I made the decision not to tell Jane’s new school that she was still in care. There were only a few weeks left of the court orders and we made the call to not ‘tick the policy box’, and instead, restore Alison’s dignity and her right to be seen for the mother she is today. We knew it would be a big deal for Alison to hold her head high in the playground and be a ‘canteen mum’ just like everyone else.
I’d been involved in every aspect of her life for so long, it was time to let go. I still get texts from her now and then; I love to hear how they’re going. Jane started kinder this year and is loving it and Josie is now a little three year old dynamo, giggling and bouncing about.
On my final visit to the family, I joked with Alison that she better have a rainbow cake for me after my long drive over – just being cheeky you know. Well, when I got there she had actually made one! I said, ‘Alison, how did you know how to make this?’ And she said, ‘Oh, didn’t I tell you Bec, my nan used to make wedding cakes and I helped her.’ You see, she has all these hidden talents; she just got a bit lost for a while.
I had been using ice for around five years when I started working with Rebecca. All of my family were on it too, so it was just normal to me. When I was in deep my partner left me; he didn’t take drugs and couldn’t stand me using anymore. I was always putting the girls in the car, driving around chasing ice; it was miserable.
When Rebecca took the girls, I lost it for a bit. I got worse actually. I was using drugs to try and not think about what was happening. I kept remembering Jane clinging to me and saying, ‘I don’t want to go, mummy.’ We’d never spent a single day apart and she couldn’t understand what was happening.
I didn’t have any family to care for the girls except my mum, who lived in another state. It was hard for me to accept when Rebecca told me they were going to foster care instead. She told me that if they were with my mum, the distance would mean I would never see them, and I might not work hard enough knowing they were okay with their grandma. This was really difficult to understand, but she was absolutely right. I’d seen it happen with my own sisters and they still don’t have their kids back. The fear gave me fight.
Bec just pushed and pushed me and I’m so grateful she did. I eventually opened up to her and I think she could see there was something good inside me that wanted to get my girls home. It took someone special like Bec to see past all the noise and fury to who I really was.
Something that really stuck with me was when Bec looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Jane and Josie are your girls – they are your responsibility – and it isn’t anyone else’s job to raise them.’ I thought about this a lot when I was in rehab. It was a turning point for me. The other one was during a visit when Jane asked me, ‘Why don’t you love me anymore, mummy?’ It took my breath away, I literally couldn’t breathe. She thought the reason we weren’t living together was because I didn’t love her. It still makes me cry a year later. But it made me think that I can’t do this to her anymore, I can’t waste another day away. As hard as it was, and always will be, it was exactly what I needed to hear. I know that I will never touch drugs again.
Bec also made me laugh when I didn’t think it was possible. I remember she was driving me to my detox and said, ‘Don’t go stressing out and swearing at everyone or you will be kicked out. Just call me up and tell me I’m a fucking idiot instead, you can never be kicked out by me.’ That made me laugh, but it was true. She is so thick-skinned and strong, I felt like she was a force of nature by my side and she could handle me when everyone else couldn’t.
There are moments I will always be grateful for. Like on Jane’s fourth and Josie’s first birthdays, Bec went above and beyond to make sure they could sleep over with me at the rehab centre. I think it would have broken me to not have them near on their special days.
Bec also stuck by me when I did the wrong thing, like take the girls from our visit. I remember being so mad at the support worker. No one loves my kids like I do and it was just the worst feeling to have someone telling me how to be a mum to my own children. Bec calmed everyone down and even let me finish the visit with the girls. She understood how much it would break my heart if I lost my time with them, even though I’d messed up by running.
When I knew I was moving and had to change caseworker, I asked Bec if she could move here too! She is like a second mum to me. I don’t know if she realises that I’ve never even offered other caseworkers a cup of tea before, but she gets a whole rainbow cake. If it wasn’t for Rebecca I don’t think I would be where I am today. I can never thank her enough.
Life is beautiful now. We love fishing by the lake, swimming and playing at the park. All of the normal things we weren’t doing before. Right now I’m happy to just be a mum and make up for lost time, but I’ve always wanted to be a nurse and one day I will achieve that dream.
Director, Aboriginal Care Review Team Office of the Senior PractitionerNSW Department of Family and Community Services
This is a beautiful story of great practice that is embedded in deeply held and virtuous principles. The principle that family comes first, and when circumstances make this impossible, helping children return home safely, is at the heart of high-quality practice.
I was moved by Rebecca’s resolve to help Alison get her children back, her empathy for how Alison came to this dark period in her life and the conviction that she had the ability to stop history repeating itself.
It was wonderful to see Rebecca keeping the connection to family strong and ensuring the cultural and emotional needs were met, but also keep Alison motivated to achieve a better life for herself and little Josie and Jane.
What also shone through was Rebecca and Alison’s connection. Alison felt respected even when she made mistakes and at her lowest moments. She was buoyed by Rebecca’s unwavering faith in her to overcome great adversity and achieve amazing things now and have hope for a better future.