We wanted to share a story of a young person whom our office has known for many years. Our team of advocates have supported this young woman and helped her voice to be heard through her time in care, youth justice, and as she went in and out of hospital with poor physical and mental health.
Today, this young woman, who was once told she would not survive past her 18th birthday, has overcome the obstacles that many young people in out-of-home care face and is now looking ahead to a future where her experience and perseverance have created a life in which she not only survives, but thrives.
This is a story of how our vulnerable young people caught up in child protection and youth justice systems need our love, care and support. They need to be listened to, have a say in decisions that affect them and know that we believe in them.
We’re meeting Steph at her house where she lives by herself. She once shared the house with carers as she transitioned from care into independent living. Locks on the kitchen cupboard doors are a stark reminder that this is no ordinary home, and something that is still triggering for her.
Our office first met Steph when she was 14 years old and displaying significant complex and difficult mental and physical health problems. Steph found herself locked up in the Youth Justice Centre when she first went into residential care, and for many years was in and out of hospital. At the time, judges, doctors, and carers were telling her that if she continued on this trajectory she would end up in the women’s prison or worse still, wouldn’t live past the age of 18.
Thankfully she did get to her 18th birthday, a day on which the Department for Child Protection closed her case and Steph found herself angry and alone. Living with support carers, Steph would often stay in her bedroom. During this time and in the depths of despair, something clicked in her brain and she realised she didn’t want to be angry anymore and wanted to create a life she could be proud of.
“I thought this is not the life I want,” Steph told us. “I looked at myself and really dug down and decided I wanted to see a change in my life and see my future.”
Despite the in-house support, she found she had to learn to run the house and shape her future by herself.
“I didn’t know who to contact for support, so I had to teach myself, like cooking meals, shopping, paying bills, cleaning the house and putting money away if something breaks,” Steph said.
Steph learned to ask for help and open herself up to new experiences. She also says a friend has been a positive influence and has made a huge impact on her life.
“He believes in me, helps me budget, apply for jobs, gets me out the house, live independently, teaching to trust someone, and try new things, like going to restaurants.”
Steph also credits the advocacy and care she received from our office, specifically from Advocate Conrad Morris, for supporting her through the hardest times.
“Conrad did a very good job. He always answered my calls and helped me through my anger and frustration which would often see me threatening DCP. He always tried to help, always gave feedback, took the time, and acknowledged and validated my feelings. Once we had a chat and unpacked my behaviour, I found I could approach things differently and get better outcomes,” Steph said.
“Over the years I have learned to control my anger. I put on music, watch a show, call someone, get out the house. I don’t get as angry now that I am living on my own, and if I smash something I have to pay for it,” she laughs.
Steph acknowledged that while the department could have better supported her and ‘stepped up to be the parent’, she could also have done better.
“I wanted to be heard but didn’t know how to do it. Kids misbehaving is a cry for help. They just want to go home to a family or their own family,” Steph said.
Today, at the age of 21, Steph is living independently and has been working for the last 10 months. She is currently undertaking a Certificate III in Community Services with Relationships Australia South Australia and hopes to become a youth worker and support young people living in care.
“The system needs more staff with lived experience, people that really understand. I may have listened more if the carers were DCP kids.”
“One carer who had lived experience helped me change my thinking. They said, ‘If you really want to change, you can’.
“I know now that you can change, don’t ever think you’ll be stuck in a bad way. Change your friends. Fight for what you believe in. Go to school and graduate. Don’t judge yourself. Praise yourself. Always be nice to people. If you’re nice, nice things happen.”
Steph has come a long way from being told she would end up in prison and wouldn’t be able to get a job or live independently. And while she is feeling positive about her future, she is concerned about her sister who is still in care.
“I don’t want my sister to have the same experiences as me. I am concerned about her mental health and lack of treatment.”
“DCP need to step up and teach children and young people about the real world. They need to better support mental health and keep kids in school. They need to think about who they are putting together in resi houses. Also, kids need to speak up and tell people what they want. They need to get involved and believe things can change,” Steph said.
“Steph has been on a big journey,” Advocate Conrad shares.
“I am not surprised that I am sitting here with her now after all that she has been through. I believed in her when I first met her, I knew she would become an influential trailblazer for other children and young people in care. She just needed to believe in herself and be given a second chance.”
“It only takes one person to change your life trajectory, and your journey hasn’t finished yet,” Conrad tells Steph. “You are on the cusp of creating something new, making traditions, and creating a positive future for yourself.”
And to the judge who once told her she would have a limited future, he saw her again years later and said: ‘I am so proud of you’.
A big thank you to Steph for giving us permission to write about her life. Steph, we are so proud of you and incredibly grateful that you trust us to share your story. If you know of someone with a positive care experience who would like to share their story with us, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.