Claire's Journey Back to Wellness
It is an under-statement to say things were not going well for Claire when CYPS came into the lives of her and her children. As her caseworker Kate will tell you, Claire is a very impressive woman, incredibly strong and resilient. However, many years of unimaginable childhood trauma, domestic violence and untreated mental health issues were taking a toll. On top of this, Claire had been dealing with unstable accommodation, as a result of having to move house frequently for safety issues. After a prolonged period of being very unwell, Claire had also come to believe that substance use was a way to treat her illness.
Claire knew she needed support to address her mental health and come to terms with the trauma that she had experienced, so when she put her hand up to spend some time in hospital to get he help she needed, CYPS stepped in to provide care for her three daughters temporarily. Claire was experiencing severe psychotic episodes and using drugs to self-medicate. Things became a bit more complex when it became clear that Claire’s recovery was going to be a long and difficult road.
Initially, Claire’s younger children went into the care of a family member. This was a defining moment for Claire. Alone in a hotel room without her three daughters, it crossed Claire’s mind that it would be easiest to up and move interstate.
But ultimately this is not who Claire is. In that moment, Claire also recognised that if she was going to get her kids back she needed to make some tough decisions. While returning children to their birth parents is the first priority for CYPS, no one except Claire could take responsibility for overcoming her problems.
Facing this reality, Claire booked herself in to a range of support services to address her mental health and substance use. She particularly benefitted from the programs at Toora such as Marzenna House and their Day Program.
It wasn’t always straightforward, and there were some difficult periods in which Claire sometimes felt she was going backwards rather than forwards.
It is always important to remember, however, that recovery is rarely linear, and most people experience relapses along the way. Even through the tough times, Claire remained focused on the goal of getting her kids back and stuck with it.
Something that Claire would like to impart to other parents who have contact with the child protection system is the importance of open communication with caseworkers. While the safety of children has to be everyone’s priority, sometimes this can lead to birth parents feeling out of the loop. Claire was very proactive and established strong lines of communication with her CYPS caseworker, keeping her informed of her progress. In their conversations, Claire made sure to detail the range of supports she had organised for herself, and how focused she was on recovery.
The open and trusting relationship between Kate and Claire came in handy when challenges cropped up. For example, in a tough period Claire experienced a relapse, but Kate was able to reassure her that this was not the end of the road. Rather, it was just an obstacle that they had to work through together. Claire was also incredibly proactive, and when she came to Kate with a problem she also brought a solution, leaving Kate to remark there was nothing left she could suggest. Kate was also able to assist Claire in meeting her obligations, such as drug testing, by finding a pathology collection centre where the workers were female, which made the experience less anxiety-provoking.
To assist Claire to prepare for regaining the care of her children, CYPS linked Claire up with Uniting Children and Families ACT. Claire attended both their intensive family support program and Newpin program.
In January 2018, Claire’s children returned to her care. Due to circumstances beyond everybody’s control, this happened a bit sooner than expected, but Claire took it in her stride. In the week leading up to the kids arriving home, she was a bit like an air traffic controller, busy arranging for furniture to be delivered to their new house, getting a fridge and food to fill it, and getting everything ready for the new school year. This was another significant milestone for Claire, as it demonstrated the safety net that she had established around her, and that she could coordinate her support network when she needed to.
Today, Claire’s life is on a more even keel. She is now studying for a Certificate in Business Administration. She enjoys spending time one-on-one with each of her daughters, but the most important thing of all is seeing the impact that being a healthy and well mum has on her children. Claire recognises that she is a much better parent now that she is getting the help she needs.
The girls are loving their new home environment and being back with their mum, and are no longer displaying signs of stress. Instead, they enjoy being able to play outside together, relaxing at home after school and forming new traditions as a family. Claire is proud of achieving this for her children, as it had been one of her goals for a very long time. At the end of 2017, Claire’s eldest daughter looked her in the eye and said, “the most important thing you’ve done this year is repair your relationship with me.”
In addition to her personal achievements and recovery, Claire was also asked by the programs she attended to be a peer support worker. While Claire has not yet taken this step, she has spoken to many other mothers who are experiencing involvement with CYPS and has shared the lessons she has learnt. Looking back, Claire remembers the shock of realising how difficult things had gotten for her family and that CYPS did need to step into the picture, and is grateful for the support and linkages to services that came out of it.
One of the most important messages Claire has taken out of her experience is that CYPS understands that parents who experience mental illness can still be great parents, as long as they have supports in place for their health. A major aspect of Claire’s recovery was learning to recognise the signs of illness, and be able to identify supports to call on if an episode of illness were to occur in the future.
By Ms Janise Mitchell,
Australian Childhood Foundation
The story of Claire and her family highlights so many critical themes that are important reminders for a system that can be problem focused and lose the ability to work in partnership with families.
Hope and courage are strong messages in this story. Despite overwhelming adversity in her own past, Claire did not give up on herself or her children, wanting better for her family than life may have dealt her during her own experience of growing up.
This story also reminds us of why the intergenerational impacts of trauma and profound disadvantage are so important for systems of support to understand when working with families. Without such meaning-making, parents and children are at risk of being defined by what they do, not what has happened to them and what they need. Clearly in this case the system was able to acknowledge this and work actively to resource and support the family in the achievement of their own hopes for themselves, providing the support that was needed and able to recognise and work with the non-linear nature of change.
Illustrated beautifully in this story is an example of the true essence of partnership between support services, statutory services and families. Despite her challenges, Claire was able to actively participate in the development of the support plan that her family needed. The relationships described in the story are characterised by honesty, respect and strength – within which they were able to have the hard conversations when required, without undermining the collective effort to support the family to achieve their goals. These relationships take time, investment and effort but are essential in the achievement of good outcomes for families and children.
Claire’s sensitivity to her own and her children’s needs enabled her to be a strong advocate for herself and her family. In response, the ‘system’ was prepared to listen to and collaborate with her in a way that was meaningful, enabling and further empowering of her. These experiences provide a strong foundation for the family to meet any challenges that may arise in the future.