Hello everyone, thank you for having me here today. I would like to speak to you all about a topic I believe is vital to the lives of the children and young people we work with. I would like to speak to you today about the importance of hope. To do this, I am going to share with you a little bit of my story and how I came to stand here today.
I entered the out of home care system when I was just ten weeks old and spent the next eighteen years of my life in the care of the state. During my time in care I experienced many different types of placements, from short term emergency foster care that lasted a couple of days. to longer term permanent care placements that lasted many years.
By the time I turned eighteen, I had been moved from house to house over seventy times.
The only constant in my early life was change, everything and everyone around me was temporary. I’m sure as most of you know, just one experience of moving house can be stressful. Imagine yourself as a child, with no input into their placement and little to no warning prior to a move, being carted from house to house all over Melbourne.
There were no parents by my side, holding my hand as I learned to navigate life’s obstacles, no consistent adult figure to model what life was meant to be like. I had to teach myself about morals, values and the integrity I wanted to uphold. I had to teach myself not only about the kind of life I wanted but also how to build it from the ground up.
Due to the constant moves, I quickly became distrustful of the adults around me. What was the point in building a relationship, when it was just a matter of time before the placement ended and I was moved on yet again?
Organisational policy also came into play here, I found a rule perpetuated across most of the care sector, that workers were discouraged from building relationships with the kids they were working with, due to some tenuous reasoning about the potential for boundaries to be crossed, or the pain the severance of that relationship would cause when the child was moved on again.
Knowing what we now know about attachment theory, early childhood brain development and the link to life outcomes that depend on these crucial relationships during a child’s formative years. I say this is an absolute injustice. An essential part of the care we provide to these children, needs to be built from the foundation of nurturing healthy attachments to safe adults.
If you want to learn more about this I highly recommend reading Dr Bruce Perrys book “Born For Love”
My experiences in the care system taught me to walk through these ever-changing houses with my hands in my pockets and my eyes on my shoes. I had been taken into the system in order to be kept safe from the life I would have otherwise experienced but ended up being placed with a series of carers who seemed to be experts at cruelty and neglect.
What are we doing? If we take a child into the system to protect them and then due to housing shortages and caseloads, we can’t even keep them safe from further trauma in the houses we place them into? It is imperative we do better for these children.
At the age of eight I got the opportunity to go into permanent care for four years, I believe this opportunity for stability, consistency and a family who wouldn’t give up on me, played a key part in me being able to develop resilience and understand there was another side to life.
For a number of different reasons, including lack of support from the department after being placed and little education about the effects of trauma, the placement broke down by the time I was twelve. Though I am still in contact with my permanent carers to this day and consider them to be family.
When I was fourteen, I was one of the very first young people in the country to live at Hurstbridge farm. The Farm was one of the very first Therapeutic care pilots in the country, the program written by the brilliant Adela Homes who is sitting here in the audience today.
I lived at Hurstbridge for almost three years, I believe the farm was another crucial building block in my development, during my time there I was surrounded by carers who were educated in not only trauma informed practice but also put that into action with a therapeutic model of care.
I was finally being supported by carers who were encouraged to develop relational rapport with me and who understood trauma and all the pervasive effects of it. The Farm staff helped me begin understanding how my past had shaped me and my responses and that it was actually possible, to re-wire my brain to heal from the effects of complex trauma.
Until that point I thought my brain was completely broken by my past, that I was beyond repair and destined to lead the same short, incredibly painful and chaotic life my parents had. I had zero hope that I would live past the age of 14, let alone actually recover from my trauma and live a happy, stable life and do the work I am doing today.
My time at the Farm was crucial, I cannot stress enough the importance of the work they did there. Working from a model, that has been reviewed and evaluated, proven successful in raising life outcomes for young people, when compared to a control group of young people who remained in standard Residential care. Who were showed to be either doing the same or worse.
For more information about this evaluation, you can google “Verso Evaluation 2011” and the report is in the first search results.
Some advice I would offer you as professionals working with traumatised kids, would be that all behaviour is truly communication, whether this is violence, self-harm, self-medication, or even what appears to be no behaviour at all, such as avoidance or dissociation. It is up to you as the professional, to pick up on what these children are saying with their behaviour and use their history to make sense of it.
Keep looking, keep asking questions.
I am currently working as a writer, consultant and speaker, for several organisations connected to out of home care and child welfare. I am using my experiences to raise understanding and make change to the system so that one day, no child has to heal from being placed into it.
We can express futility at the system and how powerless we feel to make change within it but the system is made up of individual people. Every single one of you has the chance to take action and make positive change within your role and in your lives. It is up to you to find the resilience within yourself to uphold your values and continue to hold hope for the children whose lives and recovery depend on you doing so. If I can do it, I’m certain you all can too.