Freya, FACS caseworker
I knew so much about Tony before I even met him. Everything I read, or was told, painted a picture of an out of control 12 year old who was pushing all the boundaries. He would stay away from home for days at a time and refuse to go to school. He was in a lot of trouble, using drugs and hanging out with people who weren’t safe. What we had written on Tony’s file didn’t help much and only gave me glimpses of his life before he came into care. Everyone had a take on Tony, but nothing that helped me understand what life was really like for him.
I started my work with Tony by refusing to accept he was just a ‘bad kid’ – what he needed most was for someone to see him differently. I learned that he was very young when his mum and dad died and he started living with his grandparents, Margaret and Jack. They were grieving the loss of their daughter and trying to support their grandson; it was such a hard time for all of them. From day one,
I could sense this family loved and cared about each other deeply, but were close to breaking point.
Jack and Margaret were exhausted, frustrated and at their wits’ end. They’d spend nights driving around, looking for Tony when he was missing, calling the police, doing what they could. And they were angry with FACS because they felt so alone. Their stress made it impossible for them to think about what Tony really needed. This helped me to be clear about my own role – it was my job to stand up for Tony when no one else could.
At first, I couldn’t get Tony to meet with me. He eventually agreed after I told him we didn’t have to talk about anything if he didn’t want to – and especially when he found out that lunch was part of the deal! When I saw him for the first time, he didn’t match the picture I had in my mind. He’s a big fellow for his age, but he’s quiet, sweet, peaceful and gentle. I just couldn’t imagine him getting into any trouble.
We took baby steps at first. I needed to build his trust and help him understand my role. I remember asking him what he thought my job was. He saw me as one of the people who’d taken him away from his dad when he was little. I realised he resisted meeting me because he thought I was going to take him away again. I told him that was the last thing I wanted to do. I made sure he knew I was going to work hard for him and was on his side.
At first we’d just hang out and sit in comfortable silence. We talked about his favourite foods or computer games. I kept it light and we laughed lots. I worked to take the intensity out of our meetings and help him to feel relaxed around me.
There were definitely tensions – while we were getting to know each other, things were unravelling even more for Tony. He was still doing a lot of things that were making him unsafe. I needed to stay patient with him, while at the same time take calls from his worried grandparents, work with police and other services, and do whatever I could to keep him safe.
I think consistency helped him to start to trust me, or maybe he just realised I wasn’t going away! If I said I would do something, I always did it. I showed up when I said I would, and if he didn’t turn up I’d text and say, ‘Hey mate, I missed you today, see you next week.’ I knew it was working because he started talking more with me.
I always have a ‘no bullshit policy’ when I work with young people. I won’t take bullshit from them, so they shouldn’t take it from me. When we needed to start having some harder conversations, I would tell him straight. We once had an honest chat about a time when the police found him hanging out with an older man he didn’t know. We had lunch in the park and talked about sexual exploitation and grooming. I wanted him to have the language to talk about it if he needed to. I gave him a brochure to read. He was quiet and reflective and I could see him processing what I was saying. He folded the brochure and tucked it in his pocket.
I tried so many services to get support for Tony and his family, but I hit a brick wall at every turn. He was either too young, too old, didn’t live in the right place, too ‘behavioural’, needed a diagnosis or his behaviours weren’t serious enough. Sometimes I’d end the day in tears of frustration, I felt so stuck about what to do. The support Tony had just wasn’t enough to keep him safe.
I took a chance and applied to an outpatient clinical adolescent service for help. I wasn’t confident, as the service was in high demand. It was a great relief when Tony got in. And when Dr Brendan started working with him, everything started to change. He really understood what Tony needed and Tony trusted him straight away. Dr Brendan and I formed a team that was the beginning of
the help that Tony and his grandparents needed.
Then things suddenly got really hard again late last year. I got a call from Marg and Jack to say I needed to come and get Tony. They were trying their best to be strong for him, but they had lost hope that things would change. It was hard to accept that he needed to leave straight away but I knew that while Marg and Jack were heartbroken, they all needed some breathing space. I went to see Tony and said, ‘Mate, you can’t stay here for now.’ He flipped out. He was screaming, crying, kicking and smashing up the house. I’d never seen him like that.
We found a place for him but I knew it wasn’t right – Marg and Jack knew it too. He ran away with his older brother before I could even get him there. They stayed with a friend for about a week and Tony refused to talk to me. I was devastated for him. I had done what I said I wouldn’t – took him away from his home. I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s it, the trust we’ve built is gone.’ I cared deeply for him and it was gut-wrenching to feel like I’d let him down.
With support from Dr Brendan we were able to work with Marg, Jack and Tony to get Tony back home. We had so many conversations but the key was Marg and Jack – deep down they knew the best place for Tony was with them. With the help of Dr Brendan and me, they laid down the law and told Tony exactly what they expected from him. This was a turning point. Tony began to see how worried everyone was, and how much they loved him. He started to realise things needed to change if he was to stay at home, and he had to be a part of that change.
The next hurdle was finding a school. Tony was enrolled at a local school, but he wasn’t going at all. After talking to school staff, I saw how many labels he was carrying in that environment. The staff seemed to have little hope for Tony, and
I think he knew it. They didn’t see what I saw.
I started looking at a smaller school that I knew had a holistic and academic focus. Some people laughed and told me I was being unrealistic. But I refused to give in – he needed a fresh start. We applied and the school loved him! He was offered a place with a bursary.
I remember his first day in his new school uniform. I could have cried – he was in this big, scary environment but he was doing it with a huge smile on his face. I was so proud of him, and how far he’d come.
The school has lived up to my big expectations. They are 100 per cent on board. Tony has been there every day this year, which is a massive change. There’s also been a huge turnaround in other things in Tony’s life. He is working so hard; he’s not hurting himself or taking risks.
We still have ups and downs, and we’ve got a lot more work to do, but I’d never have dreamt we’d come so far. All I wanted a year ago was to keep him alive, safe and out of hospital. Tony now has this amazing circle of support with strong connections to different people – his family, school and helpers like me and Dr Brendan. These are people who show they value and love Tony every day, even when they’re stressed or frustrated. Everyone in Tony’s circle is deeply connected; we’re all in it together. We’ll never stop dreaming big to help Tony get where he needs to be.
Tony and his grandparents have never had the kind of support they’ve been given over the past year. The changes in Tony’s life show how powerful a bit of extra help, care and persistence can be for a family. But most of all, these changes are a credit to Tony’s strength and resilience – he amazes and inspires me every day. He has incredible insight for such a young man and he’s used this to make better decisions for himself.
Tony, young person
I can’t put my finger on the first time I met Freya but I definitely remember not liking her! She always caught me at the wrong time and would ask me too many questions. ‘What are you doing? Who are you hanging with?’ It was annoying.
But that started to change when I realised I couldn’t get rid of her. We got to know each other and I started to find good things about talking to her.
Freya was smart enough to know to chuck in free food so I’d turn up and talk to her. She has me to thank for her new love of KFC chips!
We now hang out every couple of weeks. We have a feed and a laugh and she’s not as annoying as she used to be. We talk about school and I can whinge to her about stuff.
It’s been a big year. Freya helped me get into a new school and I’m happy there. Compared to my old school, I feel like people care about me. I didn’t go to school much last year. Since I started at the new school, I haven’t missed a day.
I like being at home with grandma and granddad – with my brother too. They’re family, it’s always been that way. Freya always asks me, ‘What do you want?’ My answer is always same – I want to be with my family. There’s been times when I’ve had to move away but Freya’s made sure I go back. Because that’s where I’m happiest.
Executive District Director Northern NSW and Mid North Coast, NSW Department of Family and Community Services
What’s fantastic about Freya’s practice is that she was absolutely committed to getting to know Tony and his family for who they are, what they needed and how to achieve that. Freya’s ability to see the family for their strengths, and to understand what would benefit Tony, was critical.
Freya also didn’t let the file tell the whole story or shape her view, which is a strong reminder about the importance of what and how we write about our kids and families. Record keeping is critical, critical that the whole story is reflected about children and families’ strengths and connection as much as anything else. Great work, Freya.