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You are not what they say you are

Hope ran away at 14 to escape unimaginable cruelty. Her courage will blow you away. Learn about Hope’s journey thanks for the support of her DCJ caseworker Sarah.

Hope, 15 years old

I planned my escape carefully. Hiding clothes, books and things I wanted to take in the front yard where my parents wouldn’t find them. I even took coins from my little brother’s money box. I feel bad about that now, but I needed the money to run away and the abuse to stop.

I snuck out of my house before the sun came up. I left a note on the kitchen table telling my parents I was tired of them hurting me. I told them I wanted more for my life. I even bargained – ‘If you don’t try to find me, I won’t report you to the police’.

Hope and Sarah

My parents hurt me a lot – verbally, physically and emotionally. My stepmum told me I was useless and that my dad regrets having me. Dad agreed with everything she said. I felt unworthy and that I didn’t belong. The weird thing was that they never hurt my siblings, only me.

Things got so awful I tried to end my life. More than once. I would always stop myself because of my baby sister – I couldn’t do that to her.

Dad threatened that he would send me back to Korea to be locked up in a mental health facility. That’s when I knew I had to get away. I didn’t want to end up abandoned and forgotten overseas, never to return home to Australia.

I fled to Sydney where there is a big Korean community which I thought may take me in. I feel safest around people from my own culture. The first thing I did was ask shopkeepers for a job. Everyone was kind, but they got worried when they realised I was all alone at the age of 14 and called the police. That’s when I met my caseworker Sarah.

I was terrified I would have to go back to my parents. Thankfully Sarah believed me and reassured me she would keep me safe no matter what.

I like that Sarah listens to me and makes no judgements. After years of feeling helpless, it means a lot that Sarah cares about my opinion and includes me in decisions about my life. It helps me feel a sense of control. When I’m anxious she hears me out and I never feel ignored like I did at home. Sarah let me choose where I wanted to live and encouraged me to make the phone call to my new house parents to tell them I was coming to stay. I was feeling freedom for the first time in my life.

We hang out a lot. We’re both foodies so we go for bubble tea or cook something together. Sarah shares her experiences of being a woman from a different cultural background. We have that experience in common.  She tells me about some of the mistakes she made as a teenager which helps me feel less awkward talking about some of mine. When Sarah and I are together we chat about school, my friends and my future. I hope other kids have a caseworker like Sarah, who really got to know me for who I am. When she asks me what I feel like doing and what I want to talk about, I feel I can share the hard stuff too. It all comes pouring out. Sarah motivates me to try hard at school and value who I am by telling me to aim high and go for my dreams. I don’t feel useless anymore.

If you’re a kid reading this and are being hurt by someone who is meant to care for you, please tell someone you trust. Remember you are not what they say you are – you are so much more.

I’m so thankful to my friends and everyone who has helped me. I know that I have a generous heart. I work hard and will make something of myself – hopefully go to uni, get a car and one day buy a home. I want to prove to my parents I made it and I did it on my own. I am worthy.

Sarah, child protection caseworker

Hope is the bravest young person I know. Even before she ran away, Hope learned lots of ways to resist the abuse she endured daily from her mum and dad. As I got to know this remarkable young woman, I discovered that for every cruel taunt or assault, Hope found a way to survive. Getting to school as early as possible to evade her parents. Racing home the minute the bell rang to start her chores to avoid being screamed at and belted. Hope did all she could to protect herself.

Looking at the family’s history there were warning signs. Unusual injuries that didn’t match the explanation, worried teachers, the nurse who wondered why Hope’s parents didn’t pick her up from the hospital after a car accident.

The day I met Hope I didn’t take a pen and paper. I wanted her to see me as someone curious about who she was and what had happened to her.

Sometimes the best tool we have as a caseworker is a listening ear. As Hope was telling me her story, I asked her, ‘How did you know how to calm your stepmum down like that?’, ‘How did you protect yourself when your dad hit you?’ I wanted Hope to see her own acts of resistance. To see how clever and resourceful she had been to keep herself alive.

Hope and Sarah

Hope’s stepmum and dad denied all the abuse, just like Hope had warned me they would. The family was like a puzzle that didn’t fit together. On one hand the parents were raising their two younger children together without any concerns, yet they ostracised Hope and scapegoated her for anything that went wrong, doling out cruel punishments for the slightest of missteps.

I consulted with our casework specialist and my manager. We talked in Group Supervision and with the permanency panel. In the end it mattered less about landing on a single version of events, and more about understanding the impact on Hope.

One day Hope looked me straight in the eye and pleaded, ‘Sarah, if you make me go back there, I will kill myself’. I believed her. It really was a matter of life and death.

My colleagues had taken Hope’s lead about seeking safety in culture and found a beautiful Korean foster family for her to stay with while we dealt with some big things. She was safe for the time being, which gave me a chance to research her family. I learned that she had no relatives in Australia, so extended my search to Korea. I looked for Hope’s birth mum, who she hasn’t seen since she was two. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find the answers Hope was hoping for.

I saw Hope all the time to build our relationship and develop enough trust to help her feel safe and to share. Hope feels most comfortable in the digital world, so we set up a WhatsApp account where she can ask questions and stay in touch. We take loads of photos and selfies and film vlogs for Hope’s life story work, including her dreams for the future and what she would like to tell herself as an adult. Capturing Hope’s moments of strength helps her see she is a person of great value, after years of being told she had none. Two of my most important goals are to create hope in the incredible future I see for Hope and help her see it too.

Hope and Sarah

When Hope’s family relinquished care, I needed to find other ways to create a sense of belonging. School has always been a safe space for Hope, so we explored options until she chose to live in a suburb with a strong Korean community and a good school nearby. I saw Hope’s connection to her culture as critical to her sense of identity.

I may not have been able to find family, but community is a powerful safety net to catch young people if they stumble. As a multicultural caseworker, this resonates deeply in my heart.

I reached out to a Korean caseworker to support Hope’s cultural planning. The three of us shared a meal. We decided on Lebanese food because Hope enjoys different cuisines and she’d taught me so much about her culture, it was my turn to share some of mine. Together we ate and laughed and made a plan that outlined the important things that would set Hope up for a future where she felt confident in who she is and where she came from.

Wraparound services are helping Hope heal from the past and she remains very close to her foster carers. Hope wasn’t able to live with them forever, but they are now part of a strong network of people who love and care for her including close friends at work and youth group. She still drops by her old carers for her favourite Korean dishes, to speak Korean together and to share cultural celebrations with the family. I know how harmful loneliness can be for young people in care, so I love that I can hardly keep up with all the names of her friends now!

What I say and how I interact with Hope is important, but what I write will live forever on her records. When I make notes I have an audience of one in my mind – Hope. If one day she chooses to read them, I want Hope to know that I respect and care for her, that I did all I could to give her a voice and keep her safe.

When I include the challenges Hope faced, I always describe how she used her strengths to get through them. These accounts are a chronicle of her tenacity and a testament to her survival.

They are the story of what she has overcome. Now Hope can write the next chapters. I know they will be extraordinary, because she already is.

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Last updated: 14 Dec 2020