Shammurri means strong woman
Brian, caseworker, Birripi Aboriginal Service
I’d been warned about Shammurri. I think the words were, ‘She is a very angry young lady.’ She’d been in too many foster homes, given labels that were not hopeful and pills that were not helping. I was a new graduate and had just started a job at the Birripi Aboriginal Service. Shammurri was my first responsibility.
I was nervous as I knocked on the door of Shammurri’s foster home the day we first met. And there she was – seven years old and four foot nothing. What I saw just didn’t fit with what I had heard. She spoke as a very little girl, showing me lizards in the garden and telling me stories about those lizards and their families. It felt like a good start.
Later that week came the call from school. It was a Friday. When I got there Shammurri was sitting on top of a high cupboard in her classroom and hurling things at teachers – stationery, books, toys, anything she could get her hands on. They had called the police because they didn’t know what else to do. She seemed frightened and was fighting so hard. I got her down but not without a struggle. I barely felt the kicks and bites. They were nothing compared with that raw distress.
As I drove home that night I felt overwhelming despair. There is no other way to describe it. We had let Shammurri down – all of us. I kept turning it over in my mind, wondering how things could have become so bad for one little Aboriginal girl that the police had to be called. Nothing about it made sense, whatever way I looked at it. I walked in the door, burst into tears and told my wife I didn’t think I could stay in the job because I didn’t know how to help. While I was new to the work, I was far from fresh faced. For more than 20 years I had been a full-time foster parent of children with serious disabilities, and we had brought up a few children of our own as well. I thought I knew a thing or two. Shammurri made me question whether I knew anything at all.
I spent the weekend with my wife and our three foster kids. Shammurri was never far from my mind. By Monday morning I had made the single best and most defining decision of my career. I made a promise to work with Shammurri; that I was going to give everything I had to understand why such a little girl was so distressed. That is how I understood her behaviour, right from the beginning. Feisty like you wouldn’t believe, hurting like I have never seen. Not everyone shared that view. The words rage and anger might fit what others saw, but not me. I saw a little girl lost.
My boss asked me if I wanted someone else in the team to work with Shammurri. I told her about the commitment I had made. Saying it out loud was my first step. My second was to get in the car and get back to the school. Shammurri looked surprised to see me; I think she expected me to move on. I told her I wanted to understand what she needed me to do to help her. She looked me in the eye in her matter-of-fact way and said one thing and one thing only. It was the only thing she ever asked and it was always the same. She said she wanted her mum.
So I went looking. I read Shammurri’s story in the records we had. I found out that her mum Sheridan was only 15 when she had her first baby, a boy. A year later another boy and then she’d had Shammurri two years after that. And then the tragedy of a house fire and the middle boy, three years old, got caught in it and died. It was a story of poverty, loss and despair, with the odds stacked against her. Sheridan was full up with grief and being badly hurt by the children’s father. The words jarred as they told the stories about the violence Sheridan had survived. I felt sick reading those words and I knew what was coming next without having to turn the page. Shammurri and her brother were taken by FACS when she was only two. Then, a couple of years later their new little sister was taken straight from hospital. Those pages described a broken up family – three children growing up in three different homes, away from each other and their mum. I knew what I had to do.
My first thought when I met Sheridan was that it wasn’t hard to see where Shammurri got her determination. Sheridan had somehow managed to leave her partner and he was in prison. Once she was safe she was working with everything she had to get her children back. Sheridan had already done so much. She was healthy and strong, living on her own with an all-consuming longing for her children. I was bowled over by her courage.
Sheridan needed someone to believe in her, show her the way and break down the steps. It was good work; I respected her, was honest with her and I always asked her what she needed from me. We worked on her confidence and the case she wanted to put before the Children’s Court – to show all that had changed since she was a very young mother living in poverty and an unsafe relationship. Sheridan and I agreed that we would start on getting the girls home first. Shammurri and her four year old sister Ainslie were in the long-term care of FACS; they were in separate foster homes and neither was settled. Shammurri especially had been with too many families – it never worked because she was not where she wanted to be.
I remember saying to Sheridan that I was sorry she had to jump through so many hoops. She said, ‘Show me some more and I’ll jump through them too.’ She was incredible. One parenting course she did three times over – the exact same course with three of the exact same certificates stuck on her wall. No one asked her to do that, she was just determined to prove she could. I wanted to shout to the world to give this mother a second chance.
At the same time, I was spending more and more time with Shammurri. I used to joke that the school should have me on the payroll – there were patches where I was there every day, usually sitting in the corridor with Shammurri after she had been sent out of class. We also spent a lot of time in the car together, driving from school to her foster home or to visit her mum. I stuck by her no matter what she threw at me. I told her tantrums would not get rid of me. Talking like that really helped – she started to trust me.
There were plenty of hard days. I was supporting Sheridan to get both girls back. Shammurri found this difficult and there were many times when she was very angry with her sister. It made sense – she had desperately wanted her mother for so long that she didn’t want to share. There were long car trips with her screaming at Ainslie the whole way. One time it got so bad that I pulled over at McDonald’s for a break. We went inside but then something set Shammurri off again. It was all too much for her. She kicked up an almighty storm right in the middle of the joint with everyone watching. There was a woman working there who came and helped me calm her down. She said her grandson is autistic; she had the skills to help and the compassion to not turn away from a distressed child. I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t been there.
We did a lot of talking on visits with Sheridan – her relationship with the girls was lovely to watch and we would sit together and chat about what everyone thought it would be like when they moved home. I was always struck by the difference in Shammurri when she saw her mum – the tension and distress in those car trips just disappeared when they were together. It was the only evidence I needed.
In the end it wasn’t hard to convince the Children’s Court – everyone could see how far Sheridan had come and how much her daughters needed her. The worries about the children in the past were just not relevant anymore. The best day was when I picked Shammurri up from school and told her she was going home for good. She absolutely squealed and a grin took over her whole face. There was no turning back.
Getting the girls home, taking them up to their front door and then leaving them there – that’s not a day I’ll forget in a hurry. They are the best type of sisters now; they don’t have to compete because there is plenty of love to go round.
Shammurri has stepped up as a big sister with grace. I see it in the way she looks out for Ainslie, and in her maturity. Sheridan told me once that she knew nothing about mother–daughter relationships because she hadn’t had one. I know it will be different for her girls. There will be bumps in the road ahead but I am hopeful they’ll face them together. The next generation of women in their family will reap the rewards.
We are now working with FACS to better connect Sheridan’s oldest boy with her and his sisters. They haven’t seen enough of each other over the years and that needs to change. I am confident it will and that Sheridan can be the mother she wants to be for him and the girls.
Shammurri has just turned 10 and we had a big cake to celebrate that she and Ainslie have been home for a year. No legal orders left, no calls from school, no need for my service to be involved. You cannot believe the difference in Shammurri. She is completely transformed. She goes to school every day and she is whip-smart. She is off all the pills and we’ve discarded all the labels. We have new ones now – like clever and safe and loved. Sheridan did all that and so much more. She knew her girl and she did not accept that she needed medicine to get better.
I asked Sheridan if it would be okay if I kept in touch with them now that our work has finished. She said, ‘Shammurri will be very cranky if you don’t.’ I knew that getting her home was the right thing to do but not in my best hopes could I have seen such a change. She taught me the most real lesson about understanding that grief and loneliness can make children behave in ways that frighten others. Shammurri showed us the way to the most obvious answer – she needed to be with the person who loves her best in the world. My job was just to make that happen. The rest is their story; the healing is in mother love and daughter need. It’s been an honour to watch.
I am a team leader now – the first white person to ever work at Birripi. They took a vote on me and said I work the way they like. I no longer doubt my career choice. I have Shammurri to thank for that. Sometimes on long drives I stop at the same McDonald’s, and that woman who works there always asks after the ‘beautiful little girl’. She could see through the behaviour to the girl beneath. I’m glad I could too.
The first night the girls came home I let them sleep in the lounge room on the couches. I sat up all night and watched them. I couldn’t stop watching them. Their beds were ready and made but we stayed that first night together, the three of us on the couches. The next night they went to their beds and I was in and out every 10 minutes, checking them, not able to believe I had them back. I have had four kids taken. It’s the hardest thing in the world. With Ainslie I knew the deal – they said they would take her when she was three days old. I walked out the door of that hospital the night before and didn’t say goodbye to anyone. I left my baby there because I could not watch another one carried away. My mum was no mum to me; their dad was no dad to them. I’ve had to work it out myself.
That’s where Brian came in. He believed in me right from the beginning. He saw my girl was hurting and he was open to the idea that I could be the answer. We talked a lot and he was always straight with me. I respected that and him. And that went both ways. If he didn’t respect me it would not have worked.
When I got her back, Shammurri was often afraid; she needed all the lights on and she would get very upset. But now every day I see her getting more secure. She loves school – she is up with the sun and dressed in her uniform, neat as neat, waiting hours before we have to leave. She can read like a champion and she is a good sister. I am the proudest mum in town. She is where she belongs and I am not letting her go.