Today I was honoured to be able to share my story here at Parliament House in Canberra. I just wanted to write this to clarify my stance on the issues surrounding the adoption laws that are being implemented.
The topic of permanency and adoption is rightly controversial and desperately frightening for some people, especially the aboriginal community given their recent traumatic history with the stolen generation and the overwhelming ratio of aboriginal children in the care system at that is ever increasing.
What I’m here to do is share my story, stating what worked and might have worked for me, I cannot and will not speak for anyone else or advocate for sweeping changes, I will always push for each child to be treated as an individual, with their own individual best interests considered. I will always advocate that aboriginal people be at the centre of all the decision making and legislative change that effects them.
But I am also a huge advocate for permanency in placements for children who cannot return home, after real reunification attempts and intensive support for the family to get back on their feet again. The kids of our community must not suffer further trauma and chaos at the hands of the systems incompetence at making timely decisions that are in the child’s best interests.
Here is my speech in full:
“I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which meet today, and pay deep respect to all elders, past, present and emerging. I would also like to acknowledge that given the over-representation of aboriginal children in care, it is imperative that aboriginal voices are at the centre of the decisions that so greatly affect their communities, families and culture.
Today I am going to be sharing a very small part of my story, growing up in the Victorian out-of-home care system. I can only speak from my experiences, about what I believe would have worked for me.
Most people in our community are like leaves cradled by the loving branches of their family trees. When I was born, though my family loved me, they just didn’t have the skills or support to hold on and so I slipped from their grasp and landed in a care system that looked like a rapid, ever flowing river. I hit the water and was tumbled from house to house, carer to carer for eighteen long years.
I bounced between emergency foster homes that lasted just a few days, permanent care that lasted a number of years and also residential care placements that were usually only a few months in duration but each felt like a lifetime due to the substandard care that was provided.
By the time I was eighteen years old, I had been moved from house to house over seventy times. The longest I had ever lived in a single home was just four years. 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 home and little to no warning prior to a move, being carted from house to house, all over Melbourne.
I remember a day when I was just seven years old, I came home from primary school to find all my possessions packed in black garbage bags, stacked on the couch by the front door. My foster carer unceremoniously informed me that my case worker was on their way to take me to my new house.
At the age of eight I got the opportunity to go into permanent care for four years. For the first time in my life I had finally been given the chance to live somewhere for a long period of time, with loving parents and a chance at what most would consider a normal life. 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. Until that point, all I had known was the cycle of chaos and disadvantage I’d grown up in, these experiences had shaped the way in which I viewed the world and the people I met.
Living with my new family, I experienced for the first time, the routine of attending school everyday, the stability of being in one home for a long period of time, and having parents who were consistent in their love for me. These positive experiences began to shape and heal my eight year old brain, building new neural pathways that came from experiencing safe, loving care.
Healing didn’t happen right away though. The trauma, grief and constant upheaval of the first eight years of my life, had shaped the way my brain and responses had developed up until that point. Imagine for a moment, that life before this time had been a cold winters night and the new family environment was a bathtub filled with hot water, even just dipping a toe in can be an excruciatingly painful transition. These things take time, and it is understandable that kids can flinch back from this painful warmth they may never have experienced before.
It took a long time for me to develop trust in my parents, that their intentions were good and that they weren’t going to move me on like everyone else had. It was four years of three steps forward, two and a half steps back. For a number of different reasons though, including lack of support after moving in, and little education for my new parents about the effects of trauma, I was moved on again by the time I was twelve. Though I am still in contact with my parents to this day and see them as family. This extended stay with a stable, consistent family laid a foundation for me to begin healing from the chaos and trauma of my earlier life.
When I was fourteen, I was one of the first young people to live at Hurstbridge farm. The Farm was one of the very first Therapeutic residential care pilots in the country. I lived at Hurstbridge for almost three years, and 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 who also put that into action with a therapeutic model of care. Not only were the staff educated in the theory of trauma but they also had strategies to work with the kids in a way that wasn’t re-traumatising and gave us the best chance to begin to heal and trust again. 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.
Though I had been unconsciously starting to build a foundation of healing at the permanent care placement that began when I was eight, during my time at the farm I began actively working on my healing journey, understanding that it was actually possible to shape my future and eventually live the life I dreamed of.
What I’ve shared with you today have been just a fraction of my experiences. Each of the 40,000 children in the out-of-home care system at this very moment has their own individual story, their own individual needs and strategies that will support them to survive and to thrive. It is important we treat these children as individuals and make decisions that are tailored to suit the best interests of each of them.
We can express futility at the complexity of the care 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.