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Tiffany, 15 year old

No child should ever have to go to a FACS office to say that their mum and dad are using drugs and shouldn’t be caring for them. But that’s what I had to do. I was only 14.  I was scared and confused and needed help.

I grew up in a happy home. We were a tight family that did everything together. We spent our weekends fishing, hanging out and just doing family stuff. Life was pretty normal and easy. But last year it got hard. I couldn’t make sense of things at the start. Mum and dad started to change and I didn’t understand why. I soon realised that they were using drugs. My life started to unravel as theirs started to spiral out of control. Before I knew it we were homeless and dad was in jail.

Tiffany and woman

I had a new baby brother just about to come into the world. I already worried so much for my little sister Alicia and brother Daniel Jnr. I couldn’t imagine how we would care for a baby! I was the oldest in the family so I felt I had to take care of the little ones. I didn’t mind, but I couldn’t always be around to make sure they were okay. I worried about them all the time. And I worried about my parents. I couldn’t stop worrying.

So I went to a FACS office. I walked up to the counter and said I needed help. I didn’t know what I would say next or what help I would get. Eventually I found my words and started talking about what was going on at home, hoping, praying that someone could fix mum and dad. I said I was scared to be at home and that I wanted to stay somewhere else. When my parents used drugs it turned them into different people. Scary people – not the people I knew. So when Emma told me the only way to keep me safe was to take me away from them, I wasn’t surprised. Emma arranged for us kids to stay with our grandparents. That mattered because they love us. We were all together and were later joined by our new baby brother John – he is super cute!

I can’t put into words just how much I love my parents. Telling Emma about the bad things they were doing broke my heart. I felt so torn for ‘dobbing’ on them and I felt selfish for wanting to live somewhere else. I can’t think about it now without crying. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.

What I told Emma ended up in writing and before a court – the secrets of my family life splashed across papers for others to see. My words screaming back at me. It was awful. I had torn my family apart. Mum and dad keep telling me that it was the best and bravest thing I have ever done and that they are grateful. Emma tells me that too. But I still feel bad.

Emma listened to me, included me in everything and fought for me. When mum and dad got better I told Emma that I wanted to go back home. I told her about all of the good changes I could see and my hopes of returning to our old life. At first Emma and the court didn’t see the changes that I saw. But then Emma told me that she had listened to what I had to say and was going to try to get us all back home.

I can’t wait to go home. Mum and dad have a new house and they have asked me how I want my room decorated and what else I might need. I told them I want two llamas – you need two because if you just had one it would be lonely. I’m not sure if I will get the llamas, but I know I will be home soon and that’s all that really matters to me.

Last year was the worst year of my life but I just know that next year is going to be the best.

Emma, FACS caseworker

I’m not special; I’m a social worker who is just trying to do the right thing. My job is to advocate for kids and that’s just what I did.

I was impressed by Tiffany from the first time I met her. She was only 14 and full of courage. She did what lots of kids wouldn’t be able to do. Tiffany knew what safe parenting looked like – after all, she had a good upbringing – so when things changed at home she noticed and she didn’t like it. I could tell that Tiffany loved her parents, so it was hard for her to tell me that they were not looking after her and her brother and sister the way they once had. I remind her every chance I get how brave she was to tell me things, and how proud I am of her.

I’m not sure she believes me yet, but I hope one day she will.

I listened to everything that Tiffany had to say. When she told me that she didn’t feel safe at home I found her somewhere safe to stay. So when she told me that she thought it was safe to go back home I had to hear that and I had to find a way to make it happen. That part wasn’t easy but I couldn’t just listen and react to her worries, I had to listen and honour her by working towards her hopes too. Tiffany has always wanted to be with her mum and dad so she was on the look out for signs that this might be possible. But I couldn’t see what Tiffany saw straight away – I needed her help to see clearly.

For Daniel and Megan, like most parents in their position, the first month after taking their kids was a write-off. Their anger and grief was too raw. Expecting them to show signs so early on that they could turn their lives around seemed too big an ask. So initially I told the court that I didn’t think restoration was possible.

It’s never easy telling a parent that you don’t think they have what it takes to get their kids back. But for Megan and Daniel it was a conversation we needed to have. They now had a choice to make – the drugs or losing their kids forever. In the end the choice was simple. They were going to get their family back together again! By this time there was a new bundle of joy for Daniel and Megan to fight for – John, who had been born shortly after Tiffany, Daniel Jnr and Alicia had  been taken.

Daniel had got out of jail and it was like the penny had dropped – they started the hard work to get the kids back home. They stopped using drugs, found a new family home, and attended every course possible. But the real signs of change came in how they interacted with the kids during family  visits. When Megan started bringing homemade cakes Tiffany knew that her caring, nurturing mum was back. When Daniel started playing rough and tumble games with the kids, Tiffany knew that her playful, loving dad was back. And when Daniel and Megan were brave enough to talk to Tiffany about how they had let her down, and apologise for it, Tiffany knew that it was time to start planning to go home.

Tiffany helped me see that their change was real. With her guidance I started to think that it just might be possible for all the kids to go back home.

It wasn’t a view that was shared by others – I had to convince my manager Tracey and the court that there was hope. You start to doubt your judgement when the people around you see something different. I took one of my colleagues out with me – another set of eyes to help me see clearly. Just like me, she could see that Daniel and Megan had changed.

Knowing this made it easier for me to stand strong and advocate for the kids to go home. So off I went into Tracey’s office to state my case.

I understood why Tracey wasn’t sure straight away – she had seen what had been written about the family. Unlike me though, she hadn’t spent time with Daniel and Megan to see how far they had come. It’s hard to capture in writing all of the little things, the things your instinct tells you. Tracey is a good manager; she encourages debate and is open to us having different views. It is these different views that help us make the best decisions for children. They need us to consider everything from every angle, and if it takes a good tussle behind the scenes to give them what they need then so be it. I’m up for that!

Tracey was easier to convince than the court. But with a lot of persistence and a change of tack in how I put my evidence forward, everyone agreed that the best place for the kids was back at home. They will all soon be together again, back where they belong with their mum and dad, under the one roof. Forever.

Tiffany will be 18 when I stop working with her. I am full of hope when I imagine what she can do as a young adult. She guided her family through really tough times and she guided me to make the best decision for her and her family.

What an inspiring young woman!

Daniel, father

I don’t think I would be alive if Tiffany hadn’t gone to FACS. That’s the honest truth. She saved me. I can’t even bear to think what life would be like today if Tiffany hadn’t been so brave. I am so proud of her for doing what she did.

I was a good dad before the drugs. I’m a good dad now that I’m off them, but I wasn’t a good dad while I was using. I feel ashamed for what I have put Tiffany and the other kids through. Megan and I were supposed to be the adults, the ones looking after everyone, but it took a teenager to keep our family safe.

Drugs totally change who you are. I became so selfish. Everything that really mattered to me – Megan, our children, our home – they just weren’t as important as the drugs. It wasn’t until the kids were taken and we were homeless that I realised things had to change. Once I realised this there was no stopping me.

When the love of your kids is your driving force, you can do anything. I’ll never touch drugs again. I’m on the right track now. I have lots of good people around me, including Emma. She has helped me understand that it is okay to ask for help. I hope to be able to help others in the future by being a mentor at our local church. I can’t undo the mistakes I’ve made, but maybe, just maybe, I can share the lessons I’ve learnt to help someone else.

I’ll be thankful to Tiffany for the rest of my life. I’ve been to a few parenting courses now but none of them taught me as much as Tiffany did, and none of them teach you how to say thank you to your kid for saving your life. I’ll be learning how to say thanks to her for all of my days.

Megan, mother

I shook the children’s solicitor’s hand on the day the magistrate told us that the kids could come home. She had fought us most of the way. At court we sat on opposite sides – me asking for my kids to come home and her telling the court that our home wasn’t good enough. I’m thankful to her now. She really pushed us to step up and do the right thing. The day I stopped fighting her and just said ‘Tell me what I have to do to bring my kids home’ was the day we started to be on the same side. No one ever intends to get addicted to drugs. You think you’re just trying something out and then boom, before you know it, they have a grip on you.

Life got out of control so quickly. If you had told me a year ago that my kids would be taken from me I wouldn’t have believed you. Daniel and I have been together since I was 15. He’s the love of my life, my best friend, and together we had a great life. We didn’t always have much but we had a close family and a lot of love to give.

My heart broke every time I saw my children. I got to see them a fair bit, thanks  to them being with family, but no amount of visits can make up for not having them by your side all the time. We cried so much at the end of our time together and my littlest one thought I had abandoned her, that I had a choice in not seeing her every day. That crushed me. Seeing the hurt in them made me determined to get my life back and with that, my kids. Tiffany made the wake-up call that I needed. I’ve never been more proud of her. She fought harder than all of us to get our family back on track. I’ll be thankful to her for the rest of my life.

I know that I also have Emma to thank for how things turned out. I feel bad that I gave her a mouthful on more than one occasion at the start. How quickly things change – now she is on my speed dial, my go-to-person for help. I feel comforted knowing that Emma is looking over my children, keeping them safe until they are back home. I’m not scared to tell her anything, I know she will help, she has proven that to me in spades.

Emma fought really hard for us when no one else was fighting. Court was tough and I could see that she was standing on her own. She was Tiffany’s voice at court, so when Tiffany started to see a change in us and wanted to come home, Emma told the court and did all that she could to get them to listen. It took a while for them to hear and Daniel and I didn’t always make it easy. When Emma called us in for a meeting one day and pulled us into line it was a bit of a surprise. She basically told us off! I remember walking out of that meeting with a smile on my face. It was exactly what I needed from her. I did as I was told after that!

My kids had to be taken from me. I wouldn’t be where I am today if that hadn’t happened. Emma and Tiffany were smart enough to know that long before I did.  I am so lucky to have them in my life.

Reflection

Simone Walker

Deputy  Secretary  Operations,  Northern  Cluster NSW Department of Family and Community Services

I needed to read Tiffany’s story more than once, just to take in how momentous it was. Tiffany, at 14, showed more courage and tenacity that most of us might show across a lifetime.

For me it was hard not to ask the question, ‘Would I have been that brave?’

Through Tiffany’s eyes, you experience the weight of the world, but also the love, the care and the concern for the parents she needed and the family she needed to protect.

But there is ever-present hope shown by Tiffany, her caseworker – Emma and her parents – Megan and Daniel.

The hope is real and palpable; you can feel everyone physically grabbing hold of it, using it to bring them back together.

Tiffany stood on the doorstep of FACS and the statutory child protection system did what it is there to do, to make Tiffany and her sister and her brothers safe. But it is the relationships that Emma fostered with this family and then the skills she used to support and encourage change that are the real deal.
In the NSW Practice Framework the principle of Ethics and Values recognises our ability to form authentic relationships and demonstrate skilful practice is as useful to children as our statutory powers.

This principle has never been more important than in Tiffany’s story.

Thank you Tiffany for your bravery, thank you Emma for doing the work that only you could do.

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Last updated: 24 Sep 2019
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