“You must be the change that you wish to see in the world” –Ghandi
It is very easy to become overwhelmed, pessimistic, and cynical when working in the child protection field.
Trying to help children and families through unbelievably difficult circumstances every day can incite several different negative and emotional reactions.
Some cases can inspire feelings of disgust and outrage as I wonder how parents could expose their children to such violence and abuse. I struggle wondering how parents can let something so horrific happen to their children.
I see cases where the file is overflowing with pictures of children with swollen lips, red marks, scrapes, and large colorful bruises. I have heard caseworkers testify that Family and Community Services (FaCS) conducted a home visit and found the children playing in absolute squalor: feces littering the floor, urine spots, uneaten moldy food, and garbage everywhere. I have heard domestic violence victims lie saying that their partner hadn’t assaulted them, deny that their partners punched and kicked at their stomachs while they were pregnant, and refuse to acknowledge that their partners have even attacked them while holding their infant children.
Other cases can incite feelings of frustration as I struggle to understand why parents have not been able to work towards addressing their challenges.
I see parents deny drug problems despite testing positive for “ICE” on 8 out of 10 recent urinalyses. I hear parents lie about having ended a domestic violence relationship while they walk into court hand-in-hand with their “ex-partner”. I listen to parents who blame FaCS and say that FaCS has a vendetta against them while declaring that there is nothing wrong with their parenting nor their relationships. I hear parents deny or minimize how their actions have affected their children as they refuse to acknowledge why their children are in care. I have also seen parents who are simply not able to understand the circumstances surrounding the removal of their children and why their actions or lack of actions have consequently compromised their children’s wellbeing, welfare, and safety.
It is also easy to become discouraged by problems that I see in how the child protection services function.
I see FaCS workers roll their eyes at parents, laugh at some of their statements, and treat parents with disdain and disgust. I hear complaints from child advocate solicitors who do not understand why their client with aboriginal heritage does not have a cultural aspect of their care plan. I have listened to parents complain that they have not received resource referrals and are having difficulty getting into contact with caseworkers which consequently makes it difficult for the parents to access different services and comply with contact visits. I have heard women in the aboriginal women domestic violence support group declare that they feel that a “lost generation” is still occurring because they believe that FaCS would rather take away their children than work together with aboriginal families to help improve a family’s situation and prevent removal.
Rather than becoming overwhelmed by all of the negative emotions, I use these experiences to fuel my passion to help children and families.
I see that there is a need for improvement and I see that there is the potential for meaningful and positive change.
I hear reports of children thriving in their foster care placements. I have seen parents make great strides in their journey of getting help. I witnessed a mother decline FaCS’s recommendation for restoring the children to her care because she acknowledged that she still needed time to make more progress in order to appropriately provide for her children.
I meet passionate, compassionate, and hardworking people trying to make a difference every day.
I have seen FaCS workers attend child criminal court matters where they are the only form of familiar support that the children have in court. I have seen magistrates take the time to talk to children in criminal court so that children have the opportunity to have their voice directly be heard. I have seen magistrates try to inspire children to improve their criminal behavior as they lecture these children about the dangerous path that they are heading toward. I have seen Children’s Court Registrars kindly and compassionately try to help parents realize that they need to start taking action if they want to have their children returned to their care. I see advocates help survivors access numerous services so that families can start to rebuild their lives. I see court support workers do all that they can to help children who struggle with their crime proceedings and who are unaware of how to address their problems. I see solicitors give impassioned submissions before the magistrates as they have become so invested in trying to fight for what they believe is in the children’s best interests.
In these moments I find myself feeling proud, reassured, and hopeful. I feel proud of the many advantages of Australia’s system, reassured that there are many positive outcomes and passionate individuals who genuinely try to help, and hopeful that we can create change.
But we must remain cautious. We must fight against being overwhelmed by where the system or where a family has gone wrong. I believe that change begins with a change in attitude, perspective, and approach.
By recognizing the strengths and benefits of the system in light of the disadvantages and negatives, we can continue to improve how we help children in need.
Instead of focusing on condemning parents for their faults, mistakes, what they have done wrong and what they are still doing wrong, I have seen how we can encourage parents to trust and work with the system. We can acknowledge the positive attributes of each parent and focus on utilizing those strengths to address the aspects of each parent that need to be improved. We can approach parents without judgement and with compassion so that they can be open to understanding, acknowledging, and accepting why their children were in need of care and protection. We can provide the support that many parents do not have so that they are able to rise above whatever is holding them back from beginning the journey of changing their lives.
We can support each other through the process of helping children in need. By supporting each other we can help minimize burnout and help prevent workers from being judgmental, hostile and developing an unhelpful or inappropriate attitude.
We can work with the child protection system to address what isn’t working well. We can share stories and ideas so that we can create better policies for how to approach issues of family contact visits, recognizing and incorporating a child’s birth family culture into his/her life with foster carers, and doing the best that we can to help children in need despite limited time and resources.
As a respected magistrate told me, “it is a measure of a community how we help our most vulnerable.” I am even more inspired to work with the system and with the community to create the change that we need.
I am also learning to embrace change on a personal level. I am learning to find opportunities among challenges.
Recently I experienced heartbreak. This heartbreak is currently forcing me to alter how I envision my future and my return home.
I am a person who values my relationships to the point that all of my relationships, whether they be romantic, familial or platonic, largely impact how I define myself and how I establish my identity. I also value security and stability. And because I work so hard for what I have in my life, I am often challenged and feel lost and vulnerable when things do not go my way.
All of these aspects combine to make it particularly difficult for me to deal with my recent unexpected heartbreak, especially as I am currently on the other side of the world from my biggest support system.
However, rather than focusing on the disappointment, frustration, and hurt, I have chosen to take this personal challenge as a moment for me to recognize the many positives in my life.
I have been reminded that I have so many incredible people in my life, both here in Australia and at home. My home stay mom has been supportive, compassionate, and understanding as she comforted me and helped guide me through processing this major change. My friends from home, especially Serena, Alex, Danielle, Katie, Christina, Betsy, Sam, and Devin have shown me that even though we are miles apart and may not regularly speak, they are here for me. My family has also continued to provide unconditional support and love.
I believe that this situation can help inspire larger, positive changes for me. I view this difficult experience as an opportunity for me to learn and grow. I am learning how to utilize my strength, self awareness, and experiences to help me address my lifelong battles of settling for less than I deserve, dealing with disappointment, allowing people to take advantage of me, and allowing people to treat me less than how I deserve to be treated.
This challenge is also an opportunity for me to be able to commit more fully to my fellowship experience. While I still feel the hurt and the pain, I know that these feelings will fade. Ultimately, I believe that I am now more free and more open to explore and to embrace more of this journey over the next ten months and beyond.
I trust that there are bigger and better things for me with every step forward that I take. And if I can embrace these changes and overcome my challenges, I can become the change that I personally need and the change that can help to really make a difference in the lives of others.