My First Quarterly Fellowship Report

Ever since I was little I always appreciated having a set routine in my life. As a reaction to surviving abuse and overcoming unhealthy relationships, I found safety and solace by maintaining a structured routine and plan. “To-do” lists littered my notebooks, my iCalendar was color-coordinated and expertly organized, and I easily maintained a mental list of every appointment and assignment. I was a planner who found security and stability in the form of having an organized and predictable routine.

I worked hard to overcome my experiences and I am proud of the life that I had created for myself. I recently graduated with overall high honors and departmental honors in Political Science and Psychology. I received full scholarship offers to seven different law schools. I was financially stable with side-jobs that I loved. I was making a difference in the lives of others as I spent several hours a week volunteering for causes close to my heart with mentors who I admired. I had an incredible support system of friends, family, and a partner with whom I could see having a serious relationship. I had structure, I had a routine, and I had stability.

On July 19, 2014 I left all of that behind for a year of independent, international travel.

When I landed in Sydney after over 30 hours of travel, I struggled to find my way around. After more than an hour of trying to navigate public transportation, I found my friend’s son’s home, brought my bags up to the guest room, sat on the bed, and stared blankly outside the window as tears filled my eyes.

In that moment I came to understand my new reality.

I was now on the other side of the world from my family, friends, and everything that was familiar to me. My project contacts had broken down and I didn’t know what I was going to do or where I was going to go during my time in Sydney. I didn’t have a routine and I didn’t have a plan.

Although I didn’t know this at the time, this was the best thing that could have happened to me.

By not having everything organized and planned I had the opportunity to explore, take chances, and really examine how I should approach my project and my year overall.

I came to realize that my original plan of living in hostels did not fit well with neither how I envisioned my project nor how I envisioned interacting with my new environment. With a project focused on children, I now understood that the best option for my own travel needs and project needs would be to live with a local family. Soon after arriving I found a wonderful home stay family with a single mum and her ten year old son in Hurstville, a southern suburb of Sydney.

After settling into my new home, I journeyed around Sydney on the search for contacts. I had great conversations with professors, social workers, attorneys, NGO workers, and Australians while exploring Sydney’s public transit system. I heard incredible commentary about the progression of social welfare services, the negative effects of “mission creep” that were a consequence of many organizations being funded by religious institutions, complaints about how the government approaches helping aboriginal families, and commentary on the current child detention crisis on Christmas Island where child refugees are detained in deplorable conditions.

I even met Australians who were completely unaware of the reality of child abuse in their own backyards as they remarked in response to my project description, “Child abuse? Child trauma? In Australia? Good luck finding that here.”

Little did I know, I would spend the next three months not only working with some of the worst cases of domestic violence and child abuse that I have ever encountered, but I would also experience some of the most incredible stories of survival, strength, and resilience.

My experiences have been nothing short of incredible as I spent time shadowing and observing the Children’s Court of Victoria, the Children’s Court of New South Whales, several Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Services (WDVCAS) around Sydney, and the Dubbo and Blacktown Department of Family and Community Services child protection agencies.

Every day I learned something new.

From my time with the Womens’ Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service I began to think about domestic violence and child protection in a way that I never have before.

As I attended domestic violence tracking meetings, talked to local court magistrates, observed court, shadowed court advocates, shadowed a duty solicitor, and attended an aboriginal women’s domestic violence support group called “Sista Girl Yarnz” I learned that there is a strong connection between domestic violence and child abuse to the point that some of my mentors have directly stated that “domestic violence is a form of child abuse”.

This idea that domestic violence is a form of family violence and child abuse permeated law, society, and culture in Australia. While in the Sydney area I learned that domestic violence is legally defined as enough of a risk factor within itself to warrant child protection agency intervention and even removal of children in the state of New South Whales. In fact, the most frequent problem for families involved in child protection matters in the states of New South Whales and Victoria is domestic violence.

Domestic violence is viewed as a significant enough problem to warrant a coordinated state and government response of intense intervention where the police file criminal charges and protection orders without victim consent and child protection agencies are notified about children who are viewed to be at risk through domestic violence tracking meetings and mandatory reporting procedures.

I saw firsthand how these policies directly impacted families. As domestic violence victims actively sought help or were forced to seek help through police intervention, they also simultaneously faced intervention by the child protection agencies.

I learned how these policies leave many women feeling lost, alone, and disempowered.

I met women every day who felt like their lives were falling apart as the state and the government intervened to try to end the family violence and ensure the protection of their children.

Even if these women didn’t have much support through their own relationships, the women at the WDVCAS passionately and diligently worked to help families through the domestic violence protection order process while also working with families to help with many other issues. It was wonderful to participate in a service that helped these survivors through such difficult times.

I appreciated how these supportive advocates also did all that they could to help with housing, child protection issues, financial issues, and safety concerns. Through hard work and many referrals the WDVCAS advocates approached every family as an individually unique case. For each family they created an individualized plan and they provided access to a wide variety of services such as a service called “Staying Home, Leaving Violence” and even a domestic violence support group for aboriginal women.

Every Friday while in Sydney I attended the Sista Girl Yarnz aboriginal women’s domestic violence support group. There I spoke to powerful, strong women who have been through very difficult circumstances where they currently are or had been in domestic violent relationships. Many of these women were also navigating the child protection system as their children have been removed by the Department of Family and Community Services.

As these women told me stories about their experiences fighting for their children in the legal system, I started to spend time in the Children’s Courts of New South Whales and Victoria.

There I learned about the unique and incredible specialized Children’s Court.

Australia’s court system was one of the first in the world to have a specialized court dedicated to children’s issues such as youth delinquency, child protection, family violence, youth probation, and youth parole.

By shadowing Magistrates, Children’s Court Registrars, Dispute Resolution Registrars, the President of the Children’s Court, conciliators, youth workers, and children’s court clinical therapists, I was able to learn firsthand how policy and law translates into practice and implementation.

I have learned that with a variety of legal options in child protection cases, a flexible legal structure, specialized aboriginal Koori court, a child protection Family Drug Treatment Court, and a more family-focused approach by both Magistrates and the Department of Human Services, Victoria’s Children Court experiences high rates of agreement among parties where only about 3 percent of cases are resolved through contested hearings. After a history of treating children in need of protection similar to children involved in criminal matters, the Children’s Court of Victoria in Melbourne now separates child legal matters by distinctly having half of the court building allocated to criminal matters and half allocated to family and protection matters. Similarly, there are days and separate courtrooms assigned specifically to different types of cases such as sexual assault criminal cases with child perpetrators, child sexual abuse protection matters, family violence matters, and more.

With laws in New South Whales that place a priority on establishing permanency as soon as possible, there is a much higher rate of contested child protection cases in their court since the policies result in child protection agencies not having the time, resources, nor the organizational mindset to work with families toward a realistic possibility of restoration.

I also learned that funding and power struggles can result in organizations losing sight of their purpose of helping children and families in need.

Victoria’s child protection system seems very controlled by the Department of Human Services (the government child protection agency) as they wield a shocking amount of power and influence in the system. I was surprised to hear that just a few years ago the Department of Human Services tried and failed to abolish the Children’s Court altogether and to instead have a panel of the department’s senior officers decide contested child protection matters.

I was also disappointed to discover that in Victoria children under the age of ten do not have automatic legal representation in child protection legal cases. Because of funding issues and the idea that the Department of Human Services is capable of advocating for the child’s best interests the Department argues that legal advocates are not needed for children under the age of ten.

As I am focusing my personal career on legal advocacy, I very much appreciated having the incredible opportunity to have an intimate look at the Children’s Court systems in Australia. Through direct court observation, reading case files, and having conversations with court staff I was able to understand the nuances of the child protection systems and laws in two different states. I was able to see how law is a living and breathing organism that changes over time, is affected by the cultural and societal environments, is able to grow, and is able to adapt.

I also learned that to truly help children in need of protection, we must help families.

Through direct observation and shadowing child protection agency caseworkers I was able to see how the same laws can lead to very different outcomes by how the laws are implemented in two areas of the same state of New South Whales.

I spent time attending family case meetings, home visits, and family placement assessments as I worked directly with the Department of Family and Community Service caseworkers in Blacktown and Dubbo, the areas of New South Whales that have the two highest rates of both child protection and domestic violence.

In Blacktown it was inspirational to see how much these caseworkers care about these families as a caseworker cried when seeing a particularly gruesome case of physical abuse and many caseworkers spoke passionately about their cases and the decisions that they had to make.

In Dubbo I learned how taking the time to include and work with families can have incredible outcomes for keeping children and families safe and together. In this small, rural, and mainly aboriginal town I worked with caseworkers who utilized a family and strengths based approach to child protection as they believed that in order to help children, they need to help families.

I have seen firsthand how difficult it can be to balance the need for children to have a safe, permanent placement and to also give parents and families the chance to improve their situations. The child protection workers in Dubbo have created a practice whereby they include families and work with families to help resolve the child protection concerns. Many workers have gone above and beyond to include families and work toward restoration while facing issues of bureaucratic red tape, limited services and resources, and policies that may inadvertently be biased toward removal of children and permanent placement with the state.

I have learned that despite these challenges, there are so many hardworking people who are everyday making a difference in the lives of children and families.

These experiences in the past three months have instilled in me a strong feeling of optimism and hope. Every day I see people at every stage of the child protection system, from social workers to Magistrates, do all that they can to help children despite all of the challenges that they face.

I have seen caseworkers spend nights away from their families and loved ones to watch over children overnight in a motel when there are not enough foster carers to care for the children when they are removed from their families in emergency situations.

I have discussed cases with Magistrates where they struggle to make decisions and truly are concerned about the future of every child that they come across in both the criminal and child protection proceedings.

I have heard children’s legal representatives emotionally advocate for their clients. I will always remember how one adamantly stated that it would be only “over [his] dead body” that he would allow the children to be returned to the mother’s care after unexplained, serious physical abuse that resulted in one child having a substantial limp and the other spending weeks in the hospital.

I have also learned that despite devastating experiences, there is always hope for children and families to be strong and resilient.

I have met women in the Sista Girl Yarnz group who are doing all that they can to get their children back. One mother was taking any parenting class that she could to ensure that Family and Community Services would let her soon-to-be born baby remain in her care.

I met a young aboriginal man who just turned 18, had been in and out of youth detention centers, and was asking the Children’s Court Magistrate to sentence him to stay in youth detention for the rest of his probation so that he can get the mental health treatment that he believes that he desperately needs.

I have seen children removed from their parents who are thriving in foster care, overcoming their anxiety, getting help for their speech and learning issues, and are happy and safe.

It is in these moments that I find inspiration to continue doing the work that I am doing to make a difference in the lives of children and families. It is also in these moments that I find the hope and optimism to know that there is even more that we can do to help children who are experiencing abuse or trauma.

As I continue along this journey and directly work with children and families through many different services and organizations, I am also learning that I have already and will continue to make a difference in the lives of children and abuse victims.

It means a lot to me to hear from my mentors throughout this journey that not only am I learning so much from them, but that they are also learning from me. During a year where I am being given so much and experiencing so much kindness and generosity from others I feel blessed that I have the opportunity to give back by helping others as I work with different organizations around the world.

Through this experience I have also been learning more about myself. I am learning to trust myself, my abilities, and to be proud of the person that I am today.

After years of unhealthy relationships, I have been left struggling with low confidence and insecurities. I am learning that these issues have and may continue to hold me back in many ways unless I work to diminish their influence in my life.

I have learned that only within myself will I find the power to overcome these struggles and only within myself can I make the choice to be happy. Although this may be something that I may struggle with throughout my life, I am confident that I can and will continue to grow, learn from my experiences, and overcome any challenge that I may face.

I am also learning that I am capable of more than I could ever imagine.

I have journeyed far out of my comfort zone. I have pushed myself physically and emotionally. I have overcome fears of being alone, fears of instability, fears of failure, and fears of the unknown.

I have also learned to embrace spontaneity and take chances.

Some of my favorite memories of my journey so far have been a result of embracing last minute opportunities. For example, one night walking home from the train station turned into a full night out where I was treated by a group of older Australians to a Sydney Swans Australian Rules Football semi-grand final match in the Olympic Stadium. I have checked an item off of my bucket list as I scuba dove the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef. I have spent days out with different Australian families where I have learned about Lebanese-Muslim culture in Australia, explored the local zoos, and eaten minced meat on a Popsicle stick which is called chicken legs”.

I have learned that there are so many incredible people in the world.

Every day of my journey I experience the generosity and compassion of people who are at first complete strangers to me. Even in very short periods of time I have developed incredible relationships with strangers who I now feel privileged to call my mentors, friends, and family.

My Campbelltown mums from the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service welcomed me with open arms and helped me gain the confidence that I needed to continue my journey. The Children’s Court staff in both Melbourne and Sydney have been incredibly hospitable, open, supportive, and honest about the realities of their legal system and child protection system.

I have shared many laughs, meals, memories, and adventures with incredible people who every day make a difference in the lives of children and families. I truly appreciate the random acts of kindness, compassion, and everything both big and small that so many people have done to make my journey so incredible.

The Falzon family made my week in Melbourne unforgettable as they welcomed me into their home, showed me all around the city, and embraced me as a part of their family.

I had an incredible dinner and conversations with Elisa, an lovely woman who works in Children’s Court. She is a wonderful mentor and I know that she will continue to be someone who helps to improve Melbourne’s Children Court.

Semone and Allyn showed me incredible generosity, compassion, and kindness as they made my time in Dubbo one that I will never forget with wonderful stories, new experiences like learning how to care for chickens, and incredible conversations.

In Sydney I found family in my home stay where we shared incredible moments of helping each other through difficult times and getting to know each other. I loved getting to know Angie and her son as we went on adventures around Sydney, started a tradition of watching Australia’s Bachelor every Wednesday and Thursday night, and would spend time joking around and sharing special moments together.

I am not sure how I would have been able to overcome some personal challenges that I faced in Sydney without Angie’s love and support. She helped support me through difficult times when I became sick, had my heart broken, and she was always there when I needed someone to talk to or needed a warm hug.

I believe that everyone is placed in your life for a reason and that everything happens for a reason. I know that I was meant to meet every single one of these incredible people. With their help, support, and mentoring, my time in Australia has truly changed me. These experiences and these people have left an imprint on my journey and my life as I am developing into an even stronger person. As I embark on a new journey in the United Kingdom, I now feel more prepared and even more excited for everything that I will continue to learn about myself, my project, and the world.

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One comment

  1. Ashley, I am mesmerized by your blog and finally out of my own growth and acceptance to learn an appreciate from your experiences. As I always knew, you are amazing!

    Like

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