On the day a frustrated father protested on the Sydney Harbour Bridge over access to his children, I finished a nearly nine month stint as a Community Services caseworker.
Although Mick Fox’s grievance centred on custody arrangements after divorce, Community Services, forever to be known as DoCS, was also a target of his outrage.
A former girlfriend said, ‘I was with him for a lot of the time when he was trying to get in contact with DOCS [the Department of Community Services] and the police, purely because his kids were in danger every day.’
However the police and even the Minister for Family and Community Services Pru Goward denied it was a case in which Community Services were involved.
Without commenting on this particular case, it is sometimes one of the less attractive strategies of battling partners in divorce and custody cases to ring the child protection Helpline to accuse the other party of harming the children.
For a child protection system already stretched to the limit, these calls are always investigated thoroughly but soak up the precious time of caseworkers.
And so the day began on that dramatic note and proceeded to by a relatively typical day for my final one as a caseworker.
I sat with a middle-aged ex-ward of the state who requested copies of her mainly handwritten and typewriter produced files.
Her mother had relinquished her as a child after being beaten by her drunken husband and finding herself homeless. The child grew up in several placements (one carer collapsed due to illness, another committed suicide, others just gave up) as well as institutions and as if that was not enough, she had a congenital skull deformity which required numerous operations, and was partially deaf.
When I asked how the experience had affected her, she replied that her life would make a great book; that she was a born again Christian and had forgiven everyone; and her philosophy of life was, ‘keep your chin up.’
As the day unfolded and I completed feverish updates of files for each case I had been responsible for, I responded numerous times to the calls of an indigenous carer whose allowance had dropped off the system.
Despite the best efforts of various caseworkers, it took over a week to get back on track and by Friday, the carer was beyond caring for our explanations. (Unless you are involved in the child protection or foster care system, you would not realise that caseworkers do not only have to be experts on child development, signs of abuse and neglect; experts in relating to people and cultural sensitivity; they are also hounded by the relentless need to be accountable – recording everything that happens – and financial administrators.
After various rounds of abuse, for which I could not blame the carer and did not resent, we provided some interim assistance with hopeful assurances that the allowance for caring the grandchild would be in the account overnight.
At times of emotion such as this, old wounds open and the carer told me, among other things, ‘You come into families and tear them apart and now I’m being punished all over again.’
It was hard to hear knowing that whatever the sins of the past, the approach now is to intervene only where there is a risk of serious harm to the child and only after trying all kinds of other support. And there would not be another organisation attempting to be as culturally sensitive, especially to indigenous people, as Community Services.
Again, there was no blame to apportion and they were comments that simply had to be accepted.
An older sibling caring for a younger teenage sibling after the death of their mother was pleased to hear financial support had been approved…
Another grandparent updated me on the court efforts to bring two young brothers together from different sides of a warring family.
A father who had not seen his son, and for good reason, for many years, told me he was looking forward to a half hour visit with the child which we had painstakingly negotiated with the protective carers over many months.
‘Keep calm, keep it simple and be focused on the child. Enjoy your hour and there will be more time in the future,’ I told him.
And finally, as the frantic day (I’ve left a lot out) drew to a close I supervised contact between parents and their child who is cared for by a grandparent.
‘??’s birthday is Friday the 13th too,’ the father said referring to that day’s date. ‘Of course it would be me that would have a child born on a date like that,’ he said, revealing his sense of shame and failure.
‘It’s just another date, a day like any other,’ I replied as he played with the small child.
‘That’s right,’ he agreed. Looking at the beautiful child playing before him he said, ‘Actually I think 13 is a lucky number for me.’
‘It’s what you make of it that counts,’ I said. ‘Like most things in life’.
He nodded in agreement and I could tell that he was trying to make more of it than he had in the past.
Of course families don’t become disjointed like this for no reason, and the separation between the grandparent and the parents of the child was a sign of this. As they quietly tested the water with each other, I felt like an intruder in a very private moment – something that is all too common, but mostly necessary, in the work of child protection, out of home care or early intervention caseworkers.
And so as myself and my colleagues cringed at being highlighted in the media by a desperate father – the never-ending task of trying to keep children safe, keep families together, and give children and young people a chance for a healthy life, continued.
For me, as I wrote my final reports and send of the last email, the day and the job came to an end… only to resume in my head at about 4.30am as I thought of things, on the conveyor belt of need, that I had not quite finished, knowing they would haunt me until I could finally let them go.