A letter from my dad
Jessica, FACS caseworker
We do a lot of hard things in our work. For me, one of them has been supporting a 12 year old girl after her dad died. Our jobs put us right there, alongside families in the most real way. There is no manual to prepare you for all the conversations you need to have, and there is rarely one right way to be. It’s just about honesty and thinking about how I would like to be treated if it were me.
Lexi is an amazing girl. She is one of those young people who you just know you will never forget. Lexi and her little brother and sister had been taken from their mother’s care for a whole lot of sad reasons. They were living with their aunt and uncle, Jean and Jim, and their two kids. My job was to get to know Lexi and show her I was there to help in any way she needed.
I didn’t want to be another adult just asking her questions. I needed to put in the time to really get to know her. I showed her how to make friendship bracelets and took her out for sushi. I got to be interested in Justin Bieber because she loved him, and I listened to whatever she wanted to talk about. You can’t expect kids to tell you private stuff straight away – you have to listen to everything they’re saying and just be curious. That’s when Lexi started talking about her dad, who she had not seen since she was very little.
Lexi told me she was worried that the only memories she had of her dad were fading. He had been in and out of jail. She knew he had problems with drugs. I think because things had been so difficult with her mum, it was especially important to Lexi to find a positive connection with her dad, separate to the things she had heard from others.
I went looking in our records to see what I could find about Lexi’s dad. That led me to Corrective Services and the discovery that his name was Jay and he was in jail. Wasting no time I called the jail straight away. I told Jay who I was and why I was ringing. His response was so positive; he said he thought about Lexi every day. But for him to hear she was wondering about him was obviously unexpected. I remember him saying excitedly, ‘My baby girl’s asking about me?’ I was so glad I had made that call – it was about tapping into love.
I asked Jay to write Lexi a letter. I thought it would be a gentle way of bringing him back into her life. Lexi waited and waited for that letter, and at each home visit would ask if it had arrived. I was so happy for Lexi when it finally did. It was a beautiful letter. Jay had obviously taken so much care with it – he told Lexi how much he loved and missed her; he said he thought about her every day and he was sorry for the poor choices he had made. The letter was so important to Lexi. She wanted to write a letter back but didn’t know where to start, so we spoke about what things were important to her that she wanted to share with him.
I knew that Jay was soon to be released and Lexi was keen to meet him. I wanted that for her and I helped her get prepared. It was good to talk openly with her about her dad’s drug use – no judgement, just the facts. We talked about how difficult coming out of jail can be and that her dad might not adjust easily or be the way she wanted him to be.
When Jay was released from jail I couldn’t find him. As the days passed I grew increasingly worried but I also understood that it might take time for him to settle back into society. It was a month after his release that I was told that Jay had died from drug use. I was heartbroken for Lexi that the chance to reconnect with her dad was taken away so suddenly.
There was never going to be a good time to tell Lexi but the news could not have come at a worse time. In that same week, her mum had given birth to a new little brother and he needed to be brought into care. This little baby was Jay’s son and Lexi had to cope with all sorts of emotions. I spoke with Aunty Jean and we decided that she was the best person to tell Lexi the sad news.
Lexi was adamant that she wanted to go to the funeral. I knew her mother and older brother would be there. Things had been strained between Lexi and her mum and I was worried about what might happen at the funeral.
Together, Lexi and I worked on a safety plan for the funeral; or as she named it – ‘Lexi’s Plan’. Lexi knew her mum and brother, while I didn’t, so she was the best person to develop the plan. I think Lexi started to feel a little relieved after taking the time to think about what the funeral might be like. I asked her what she thought her family might think, feel and say at the funeral. Lexi is such an empathic young woman and was able to identify that they would also be hurting. She planned for all of the different reactions that her mum and brother might have when they saw her. We talked about the sadness of funerals and how they can be a tribute to a person’s life, that sadness and crying is normal and healthy and there isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to grieve.
Lexi wanted her aunt and uncle involved in ‘Lexi’s Plan’ so we invited them to join our conversations. I wanted Lexi to be the one explaining the plan, so she could have a sense of ownership. Everything else that was happening around Lexi was out of her control, so it was important that she feel empowered. It worked – as I watched Lexi step out her plan her whole body language changed. She went from looking flat and tired to sitting up straight and even smiling again.
Before I left, I spoke with Lexi about how I knew she had wanted to write back to her dad. I was worried that this might play on her heart and mind. I said that although her dad was no longer here, she could always write a letter back to him and express how she felt.
I decided not to go to the funeral. It was an important time for the family to show their love and support for Lexi. I checked in with Jean and Lexi regularly. After the funeral they told me that Lexi had arranged to have the letter her dad wrote her read aloud during the service. She did that because she wanted everyone to know the goodness that was inside him. It was a stance of loyalty, a correcting of the record books. And I really believe it helped Lexi in her grief. She is a smart girl; she knows that people are more than their actions or their labels.
Lexi did write her own letter to her dad and she placed it on his coffin. I was so taken by her courage and maturity.
Since losing her dad, Lexi’s relationship with Jean and Jim has become even stronger. Lexi has also become closer with her dad’s family – spending time with her grandmother and uncle, even visiting them interstate. Lexi’s grandmother worked with Jean to give keepsakes and baby photos of Jay to Lexi. She even sent her a beautiful silver necklace with a pendant containing some of his ashes. Lexi wears it all the time, saying she is keeping her dad close to her heart.
I wish Lexi and Jay had had more time together but I’m so grateful about the letters. Lexi will always have Jay’s, and she can take heart from it in knowing she was loved. And writing to him was important for her – to put her feelings down and know she did her best to let him know those feelings.
Lexi and I have talked about how grief isn’t a straight line and can come in waves. She understands there will be ups and downs and she knows that I’m here to support her. I am so proud of Lexi; she has so much strength and a big heart. I am privileged to work with her, she is inspiring.
Lexi, young girl
When Jess became my caseworker I thought she was really nice and easy to talk to. I don’t know what it was exactly, but she just seemed really warm and kind. I felt like I could talk to her about anything. She made visits fun and would bring all this colour-coordinated stuff so we could make bracelets. It made it easier to talk to her.
I really wanted to find my dad, as just after I came to live with my aunty and uncle, my nanna died. She was like my second mum, she was my safe space. I felt like I was losing everyone and wanted my dad back. So when my dad passed away, it was horrible. Jess came over and we talked about the funeral. I really wanted to go but wasn’t sure what it would be like. She just asked me what I wanted and I told her and she wrote it down and we planned it all out.
I felt better after doing the plan; it helped because it makes you think about how the day is going to go.
Losing my dad was a really hard time for me. I love Justin Bieber and my favourite song is ‘Purpose’. The song is about losing someone you love and that they are always there to talk to, even if you can’t hear their answer.
I organised for dad’s letter to me to be read out at the service. It was important that everyone knew he was a good person and heard the things that he wrote to me. It meant a lot that he said sorry to me in the letter for some of the choices he made. I also took the letter I wrote back to him and put it on his coffin. That really helped me.
If other kids out there lose someone close, I would say to them to not hold it in; talk about it and know it’s okay to be upset and ask for help. Your caseworker or carer can help by being there to listen and by helping write a letter or sharing photos. My nanny gave me a necklace with some of my dad’s ashes so I can remember him. I wear it all the time. I’ve had a lot of sad times, but I’m lucky I’ve got such a great family.
Having keepsakes has been so important. Lexi’s nanny sent her photos of her dad and now she has a small life story book of his life as well. We can look through the photos together and talk about what a cute baby he was and what a lovely person he became.
I think the fact that Jess looked for Jay and found him, gave him the opportunity to express how he felt for Lexi – which is something he may never have been able to do if it wasn’t for Jess’ hard work. Jay had a big heart, so I’m so grateful for the amount of effort that Jess put in to achieve this. Jess was able to access information that I couldn’t and this led to her finding him.
I think that it is really important for caseworkers to go those extra miles. Jay and Lexi’s story shows that you have to seize the moment – you can’t wait to reconnect families. It’s made all the difference in the world to Lexi, because she’s going to have that letter forever. For one of her parents to be brave enough to admit they made mistakes took the responsibility off Lexi’s shoulders. She could now understand that none of what happened had been her fault. Without it she may never have known how much her dad loved her. It also means that Lexi will be able share this letter with her baby brother when he grows up, so he knows the type of person his dad was. I know Jay would have been so proud of Lexi’s bravery after his death and at the funeral.
It’s important for kids to know that no matter what their parents do in life, people make mistakes and it doesn’t mean that they are bad or that they cannot love or be loved. I always tell Lexi she has gotten all the good things from her dad and all the good things from her mum and what she does with that now is her choice.
Executive District Director, Murrumbidgee Far West and Western NSW, NSW Department of Family and Community Services
As I read Lexi’s story I admired how Jessica continuously worked from a basis of strength, trust and non-judgement with Lexi and her family. This allowed Lexi to gain a positive understanding about her father Jay and enabled her to turn her grief into a sense of power, healing and self-discovery.
What also shines through in this wonderfully strong and courageous young girl’s story is how Jessica always put the wishes and best interests of Lexi first. Jessica’s level of astuteness about when to be involved and when to step back empowered Lexi to gain the strength she needed to attend her father’s funeral and to see her mother, through the planning they had worked on together.
Lexi’s story shows the fundamental importance of family in a child or young person’s life and about how time is of the essence when it comes to finding family. In having the letter from her father, Lexi was freed from the confusion, guilt and self-blame that many children and young people in care wrongly feel.
I passionately believe that it is part of our job to support every child and young person on their journey of discovering who they are and where they come from. As Jean, clearly a wise woman herself, put it ever so beautifully, to help them realise they can take the good from both mum and dad and choose what they do with it in their own lives.