“I got a phone call from my mum saying my son’s been removed from her care. I ran into the school to my children and I got to speak to them in the office for a little while. I had to walk away before the police and DOCS turned up… The kids were crying and saying they’d be good. I didn’t know what to do. As soon as they were taken, I walked round the corner from the school and just collapsed in the road. My sister and a neighbour had to come get me and I was just screaming. I didn’t know what was happening and didn’t understand why. I thought I was doing everything right.” – A parent recalls the trauma of having their kids taken away.
Imagine the desperation and hopelessness a parent who has just lost their kids to the system must feel. The guilt and shame, the worry, the not knowing when you’ll see them again or how to get them back – where do you turn for help?
The FISH (Family Inclusion Strategies in the Hunter) Peer Parent Support and Advocacy Program provides comfort and support to parents and families whose children are at risk of, or have experienced, removal by authorities due to child protection concerns.
The program was chosen to receive a Sisters of Charity Foundation Community Grant.
Helping parents navigate the court system
“I remember just standing at the lights before the court and my stomach started getting really sore, I wanted to vomit and I was sweating heaps. I was having a panic attack. I was so nervous. Every time I went, I felt like that. It was just awful.” – A parent describes how going to court affected them.
FISH provides free court support, phone line support, morning teas and workshops to parents. The program is run by ‘peer support workers’: parents who have had their kids removed in the past, successfully navigated the system, and had their children returned to them. Their stories and success provide a ray of hope – if getting your kids back is the goal, peer support workers are living proof that it can be done.
The peers talk to parents before and after court appearances to give information, reassurance and companionship. They might join in while a parent is talking to lawyers or child protection workers to provide much-needed emotional support.
They know what questions to ask, they know what a parents’ rights are, and they can help process information that a parent might be too upset to properly take in.
Two parents who received help from their peers through the program had the following to say:
“Having kids in care is one of the most isolating and stigmatising experiences. Speaking to parents who have been through similar things lifts and provides great relief from that isolation. Together we’re stronger in ensuring that our children’s best interests are met. I often feel like I am viewed by social workers as a villain: She has kids in care therefore she must be a really bad person. Connection and solidarity with parents with lived experience has greatly contributed to my being able to continue to maintain my strength and fight for the best interests of my kids.”
“What was helpful was that she’s a mum, just like me. She has experienced some of the same life experiences I have. She made me feel very comfortable and very supported in the sense that she has been there and done that. Just last week there was a breach of an AVO that happened while I was at court – I had hands-on support from my peer support worker. She’s been absolutely fantastic, just letting me know I don’t have to go through this stuff alone.”
How COVID-19 impacted FISH services
“When COVID-19 first hit, the courts closed which meant parents could not attend and, as a result, could not access peer support,” says FISH Project Worker Lou Johnston. “So, we set up a free call line where parents can speak with a peer support worker.”
This service proved so popular during 2020 that it continued after restrictions were removed. Now, around 35% of support is given via phone.
“Currently, the courts are open and have number caps. We are still attending court, with masks,” Lou explains. “During these times, many parents are encouraged to appear for their matter via video link, which we consider an equity/access issue, even though it is difficult to manage an alternative.”
From January to May 2021 FISH used its Community Grant to help facilitate a total of 375 peer support events with parents and families involved in child protection and out-of-home care. Of those the main interactions were court support (41%), phone support (34%) and Facebook support (17%). The majority of parents supported were mothers (81%), though “we are seeing a slow increase of fathers present at support events,” says Lou.
About the Community Grants Program
Twice every year the Sisters of Charity Foundation provides grants of up to $15,000 to a wide range of incredible community projects. Unfortunately, there are always more worthy projects than we are able to fund – that’s why in 2020 we were inspired to bring on a corporate partner to fund an additional two grants.
The Sisters of Charity Foundation and Family Inclusion Strategies in the Hunter (FISH) would like to express their deepest gratitude to EISS Super for funding the Peer Parent Support and Advocacy Program.
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