Come to the river
Kristy, FACS caseworker
It was hard moving Chloe, 11 and Sam, nine from their nan, Barb. They had lived with her for nine years, but she was having some health problems and wasn’t able to care for them anymore. Her health issues had meant the kids had lost contact with their dad’s side of the family, and with it, their Aboriginal culture.
Coming in new to the family, I could see what needed to change.
The kids went to stay with a lovely foster carer while I started finding family. I asked Chloe and Sam about who they loved and wanted to live with and they begged me to call their parents. I reached out to their mum Rochelle and organised to meet her. I was hopeful that in the years the kids had been with their nan, Rochelle may have got to a better place. Rochelle managed one visit with her children, but sadly she wasn’t able to commit to anything further. This was a blow to Chloe and Sam, but at least they felt like they had been listened to and I’d tried. I told them that it didn’t mean their mum didn’t love them and the door would always been open for her when she is ready.
At the same time I was looking for their dad and his family, but I kept hitting dead ends. As an Aboriginal person, I found it strange I couldn’t find anyone in their family willing to even have a chat. If something happened with my kids, I just know there would be an aunty or an uncle, or someone who would take them in. I had to keep looking.
Often the best way to find people is to keep talking to everyone in your network. Someone may know someone, who knows someone, who knows just who you are looking for! One of my Aboriginal colleagues, Kylie, had a cousin who worked at Burrun Dalai – an Aboriginal out-of-home care service in the area where the children were born. Kylie made some calls for me and from this connection, Burrun Dalai told us they knew the kids’ dad Ray and their other grandma, Patty and put us in touch. Ray and Patty were so excited to hear from me; they hadn’t seen the kids in years. Ray now had six more children with a new partner. We talked about Chloe and Sam coming to live with him. It wasn’t an option for now, but he wanted to see them so we made a plan to travel north to get them together.
Kylie and I drove the kids up and on the way Chloe got pretty upset. She was worried about not fitting in. I remember her saying, ‘I just don’t know how to be Aboriginal.’ I told her that we were going to her family and she only had to be herself. But I also gave her a few suggestions to help ease her worries. Simple things like how in Aboriginal culture it’s best not to interrupt or talk over Elders.
As we entered Dunghutti land, Sam and Chloe started to get more energised. I know whenever I am On Country I feel more alive and I could see it in them; they seemed liked different kids to the ones that got in the car a few hours earlier.
The original plan was to meet Ray and Patty at the Aboriginal Medical Service, so we were taken aback when 10 people showed up to welcome the children. There were lots of tears and hugs and I just stood back and cried alongside them all, thrilled to see how many relatives had come to show their support for Chloe and Sam. There were so many people that we decided to move down to the Macleay River. The river weaves through the country of the Dunghutti people, so it was symbolic that the kids reconnected with their family on its banks. I couldn’t believe it when five more car loads of family arrived to join in. Everyone was thanking Kylie and me for returning their children, and I knew right then that they would find love and a good home here.
I spoke with some of the family off to the side about how Chloe was nervous on the drive up. Her Aunty Nadia said, ‘She doesn’t have to worry with us, we’ll teach her everything she needs to know.’ I said that I thought she needed to hear this from her, and Nadia went straight over and gave Chloe a hug.
I could hear her tell Chloe that she never needed to worry with family by her side. It was a special moment. I sat back and watched Chloe and Sam carefully to make sure they felt safe – it was obvious they loved every minute of it. As a small thank you to the family for making such an effort to welcome the kids, we organised lunch for everyone. Chloe and Sam are such great kids, and I was so happy to see them smiling and laughing for the first time in so long. It was the best day of my career.
Throughout the day I chatted to the family and asked them to have a think overnight about who would be able to care for Chloe and Sam. After having no say for many years, I wanted them to have a voice about what happened next for the children. We had a good yarn about how the assessment process worked and I took them through the types of questions we’d cover. I wanted them to feel prepared and relaxed about the next steps and why it was important we made sure the children lived with the best possible family.
The following day the whole family gathered at the beach and Aunty Nadia and Uncle Michael said they would be honoured to take in Chloe and Sam. I had asked them to choose the family that could give the best home for the children. And they did.
So we sat there by the waves and the sand and did the assessment together. The family really opened up and were completely honest, all chiming in on how they could each help the children and what their worries were. This wasn’t the typical way I’d do an assessment, but it was the right way for this family. Making everyone feel comfortable created the space to get our relationship off to a strong start. Being in the fresh air with the kids running around and laughing helped the family let their guard down and gave us time to have a proper chat. I was able to answer all their questions, calm their worries and speed up the process to get Chloe and Sam out of foster care and back to family quickly. There was no time to lose.
Norma and Dana from Burrun Dalai were so helpful with the paperwork and checks and immediately offered to take over supporting the children when they moved north. Everything was falling into place.
When we left, I looked back and all the family were in tears waving at the kids. We started crying too as it felt wrong to be taking them away from their family again. I promised Chloe and Sam that even though last time they said goodbye they hadn’t seen their family in years, this time it wouldn’t be long at all. And thankfully I could stick to my word.
Chloe and Sam have now been living with their Aunty Nadia and Uncle Michael for most of the year and they are there to stay. When I explained this to the kids, they told me, ‘Kristy, this is where we want to be now.’
Chloe and Sam are thriving. Sam is school captain and into lots of sports; Chloe loves art and spending time with her brothers and sisters. They have loads of friends already and there is always something going on.
Chloe created an amazing Aboriginal painting and got the highest marks in her class. She was so proud and told me, ‘Uncle Michael taught me how to do this.’ Michael also taught the kids about their family’s symbols and the Dunghutti totem, which is the praying mantis. Chloe is now painting an artwork for my office. I can’t wait to hang it on the wall.
Barb isn’t able to see Chloe and Sam at the moment, but I took photos of them and showed her. She could see the smiles on their faces and I think it helped her to see they are safe and happy. I hope it gave her some comfort. The family have told me if Barb wants to move closer they would welcome her into their mob.
When Kristy asked our family if there was anyone who could take care of Chloe and Sam, Michael and I jumped on it. We knew straight away we could give them the life they deserved. We don’t have children of our own and we were over the moon that the kids were back home; we couldn’t think of a better opportunity.
It has been a big change for us – we all had to adjust – but we it did together. Watching Chloe and Sam reconnect with their brothers and sisters has been amazing. There are eight of them here now and the older ones all go to school together. Chloe is particularly close to her little sister Nadine; they even like to dress the same!
Chloe still misses her nan and there have been times when I’ve had to lie with her in bed to help her get to sleep. We talk about her nan and I tell her that I’m always here if she needs to talk, and not to keep things bottled up. We have girl time together, shopping or painting our nails.
I know Chloe was a bit nervous at first because she didn’t know much about her Aboriginal culture. But I told her, you don’t need to know anything, being Aboriginal is inside of you, it is just who you are.
I was a bit freaked out at first, having an instant family, but now I’m so happy. Chloe and Sam are the best kids. Sam and I have really bonded. He is a magnet to me; I can’t get him off my side! He’s always asking, ‘What are you doing, Uncle Michael?’ Wherever I’m going he jumps in the car with me. He is like my battery – he gives me energy. I have a mate for life.
When he first came, he was straight up with me; he told me he needed man time. So now we play golf every Saturday. We say we are going to do nine holes and then Sam says, ‘C’mon uncle, let’s do 18!’ After golf he plays football – he never slows down. We just got him a cut-down set of golf clubs for his birthday; it was his favourite present.
Sam and I are making an Aboriginal spear together, shaving it down and I’m teaching him how to throw it. He also helps me make didgeridoos – this is our special men’s business.
To be honest, before the kids, I would spend a lot of time playing video games, just hanging around. But now my life has completely changed. Me and the kids go downtown, for a run with the dog or practice golf in the yard. All their energy makes me feel more alive and want to get out and do more too. Everything is better now.
Director Practice, Support Northern Cluster Office of the Senior Practitioner, NSW Department of Family and Community Services
After I read this beautiful story, I kept imagining the line of cars arriving at the river – each one filled with family – running out to see Sam and Chloe. What a graphic picture of unconditional love as these children were literally welcomed with open arms by their family.
Sadly, we now know that loneliness is lethal. It can ravage the physical and emotional wellbeing, self worth, happiness and stability of children in care. Children need the emotional security, sense of identity and belonging that family can bring. Kristy knew this and acted with the urgency and energy that all children in care need from us. In her own words – ‘There was no time to lose.’
Kristy searched for family and when she hit road blocks, she looked for a new path. She creatively used networks to find family connections that changed the course of the children’s lives forever. Great practice is never one size-fits-all and Kristy’s commitment to finding family and her agility in tailoring the assessment process teaches us all the power of being flexible and intuitive in our work with families.
But the real heroes in this story are the family who were there all along and in particular Uncle Michael and Aunty Nadia, who embraced and welcomed Sam and Chloe with such love. It was wonderful to hear how much the children have enriched their lives. The children are obviously flourishing and I will leave the last word to Sam, who tells us everything we need to know, ‘Kirsty, this is where we want to be now.