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The change I want to see

Imagine being 17, living in a tent and heavily pregnant. Be inspired by the strength of a young mum to create a safe home for her daughter with the support of her caseworker James

James, caseworker

‘The more I got to know Ella, the more I respected her. She is an advocate not just for her own rights, but her little sister and her parents.’

Our office was supporting a pregnant young woman in care. I work in a team that supports young people who need extra help and I’d heard worries about Ella. I asked my manager if I could step in. I wanted to stop history repeating itself with this family and give Ella’s baby a chance of safety with her mum.

I started my work with Ella like I do with all young people. I simply listened to her story and didn’t judge. I told her that I would do whatever I could to help and be honest when I couldn’t. I didn’t want to be another person in her life who let her down.

Picture of Ella, Violet and caseworker James.

Picture of Ella, Violet and caseworker James.

Picture of Ella holding Violet while caseworker James smiles at them.

Picture of Ella holding Violet while caseworker James smiles at them.

A fantastic worker from the Brighter Futures early intervention program was supporting the arrival of Violet, but Ella was still in care and needed someone to focus on her. Once a young person becomes a mum, we can forget they are still adolescents. I wanted Ella to see that I was there for her. She was scared that her baby would go into care, just like she had. I told her how unfair it would be to her and her baby if we didn’t give them a fighting chance to be together. So that’s what we did.

Whether it’s a good or bad experience, young people will remember their caseworker. It’s a huge responsibility. I try to remember that each interaction – small or large – leaves an impression. Knowing Ella had felt so let down by us, I carried this close to my heart. I was also ready to cop a bit of flak. Ella was testing whether I would hang in there, so I didn’t take it personally.

I focus on seeing the behaviours and actions of young people as their acts of resistance in the face of adversity. It is all fuelled by trauma. You can spend all your time trying to work out why they may have an outburst, or smash everything in their room, but it stops you seeing their hurt, fears and strengths. All the noise and fury can take you away from the relationship that sits at the heart of creating more safety.

With only a couple of months until Ella’s baby would arrive, we worked quickly to wrap supports around her with our government and community partners. I built trust with Ella by delivering on what I said and explaining why when I couldn’t.

Picture of caseworker James holding Violet.

Picture of caseworker James holding Violet.

‘Whether it’s a good or bad experience, young people will remember their caseworker. It’s a huge responsibility.’
Picture of Seagull on the deck.

Picture of Seagull on the deck.

I knew she felt safe when she could pick up the phone and let off a bit of steam to me. Soon we had a safe home for Ella, a medical action plan for the birth and a stronger family network around her. Everyone needs their family when a new baby comes along, but particularly young parents.

The more I got to know Ella, the more I respected her. She is an advocate not just for her own rights, but her little sister and her parents. Ella carries an enormous sense of responsibility for her family. The stories about how she protected, loved and cared for her younger sister showed me that Ella had great strength. The resistance she showed in the face of abuse over the years is incredible – she is a fighter. Now it was time for me to do the fighting on her behalf and for Ella to take a breather and focus on her baby.

‘As a male caseworker, I also wanted to role-model how a man should act.’

It was awesome to be at the hospital for Violet’s arrival and even more important that Ella’s mum was right by her side the whole time. After the birth, we had time to create a really solid after-care plan for Ella. It was important that Ella had the right support to live independently. I made sure she knew all of her rights and together we wrote a plan that includes medical care, housing, driving lessons and support for Violet. We hadn’t always done the right thing by Ella, so I am determined to give her the building blocks for success as she leaves care.

My biggest worry was when Ella told me her partner Chris hit her with his fists and was abusive in lots of other ways too. Their relationship was on and off and I had to choose my words really carefully. Young people don’t respond to adults telling them what to do, and Ella was no different. I had to gently help her see that she was worth more, and Violet was too, and I had to understand her fear.

Picture of rainbow in the outback.

Picture of rainbow in the outback.

Picture of Ella holding Violet near a lake.

Picture of Ella holding Violet near a lake.

I was deliberate in showing her that men could be respectful, calm and gentle. Masculinity doesn’t give blokes a free pass to be aggressive or controlling. This helped to start some interesting conversations about Chris’ behaviour and whether it felt right to Ella.

I picked my moment and gave Ella information about domestic violence to read in her own time. She is super smart and I knew she would take it all in and think about it. We spoke about it later and Ella said, ‘James, Chris does all of these things!’ It opened her eyes to all the ways he was controlling and abusing her.

I also kept reinforcing the amazing work Ella was doing as a mum. I pointed out all of the things she did to create a safe home for Violet and asked her to think about what Chris was contributing. I tried to work with Chris of course, he was the one using violence. I never wanted Ella to feel like she was responsible for his actions. But Chris wasn’t ready to own his use of violence and Ella made the big decision to leave him.

To witness all of the milestones in the first year of Violet’s life has been an honour. I met Violet when she was 10 minutes old and now to see her at 15 months, walking and talking and full of personality, is incredible. I know Ella has it in her to create a safe and happy life for Violet forever.

As a caseworker we have a lot of power and I believe it should be used to advocate and agitate for young people to have a better life. I hope I made Ella feel like she mattered, so she could see her own strengths. Most of all I am glad Violet is growing up with the person who knows and loves her the best.

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Last updated: 19 Nov 2019