By Mikaila Frost
I never met my Dad. The first time I ever saw him was at the viewing room at his funeral. I didn’t know I had a full sister until the day before that. I met her and the rest of his side of the family the day of the funeral. I was 17 years old. Most of them didn’t know who I was.
When I was 18 months old, I was removed from my mother’s care. She was a heroin user when she had me, and when I was born, I was put in a humidicrib while I suffered the withdrawals from the heroin in my system.
I was the third child. My two older siblings were removed aged six months and seven months. You’d think that by the time I came along the child protection services would have been aware of my mother’s issues and removed me sooner.
The department initially placed me with my nan, who was non-Indigenous, and she kept me completely away from my dad and the Aboriginal side of my family. I didn’t know about my Aboriginality until much later in life.
I was never allowed to meet my dad or my other siblings. Later, I learnt that my sister once called to try and speak to me, but Nan lied and told her I didn’t live there. Not knowing my dad’s side of the family has impacted me right into adulthood. I have a lot of underlying trauma because of the decisions made about me when I was a child.
After the department placed me with my nan, the department stepped out of the picture. There were no ongoing check-ins or assessments on whether the placement was appropriate. That kept me separated from Dad and led to me developing behavioural issues. At different points in my life I was misdiagnosed with mental health issues, and incorrectly medicated.
I used to see families in shopping centres with a mum, dad, children and wonder, “Why couldn’t I have had that?”
Shortly after my eldest child’s birth when I was aged 25, child protection was looking to take him from me because of a violent relationship I was in at the time.
Baby and I stayed in the hospital for 10 days. After that, we were put into a kinship placement, where I could stay with my child, but this didn’t work out. We then moved into a different kinship placement arrangement, but it left me feeling isolated. The people we were living with were constantly tearing me down as a mother. There were no boundaries, and it caused me stress and interfered with me being able to bond with my child. At one point, I felt like everyone was having an opportunity to bond with my baby except me.
The concept of kinship placement allows parents to remain with their children, but there needs to be support and boundaries in place to make sure it’s effective and working in the best interests of the child. There also needs to be proper consideration given to whether the designated family members are suitable to take on the role.
After the kinship placement, we went into a parenting assessment program for 10 days. The program gave me an opportunity to properly bond with my child, but I had to notify the assessors every time I gave my baby a bottle, changed a nappy, or had tummy time. I could have used some help rather than feeling like I was under watch the whole time. I would have benefited from some support and assistance, not criticism and assessment.
When we came out of the program, my child was immediately taken from my care. He was about five months old. I clearly remember the Department of Human Services collecting us from the program in Melbourne and taking us to the Magistrates Court at Ballarat. After the magistrate made the order, I looked my son in the eyes and told him, ‘Mummy will see you soon’. But by the time I got to the DHS office at 5pm to say goodbye to him properly, my baby had already been taken to his first temporary placement. The DHS officers just asked me to go through my bag and get his clothes together.
My child went through three different placements in three months, which meant we were constantly in and out of court. I became pregnant with my youngest child while I was still fighting to get my eldest child back. While I was pregnant, I was incarcerated for four days at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre.
I was very unwell while I was in jail and potentially having a miscarriage. I asked for medical attention. It took 48 hours for a nurse to see me. I told staff at the prison that I needed to go to a hospital, but I was ignored. When I was released, I went straight to hospital by myself. I still think about how lucky I am that my baby held on until I got there and received the treatment we needed.
The department treated me like a criminal after my four days in the prison. When I was almost seven months pregnant (three months after I got out), the department informed me I would not be reunified with my eldest baby.
I was completing an 18-week program to demonstrate that I was a capable parent, but that wasn’t enough for the department. I appealed its decision. It was supposed to respond within 28 days, but it took eight months to get back to me, only to tell me no, we were to remain separated. So, I took the decision to court and eventually ended up getting back some custody because the department couldn’t justify its non-reunification decision.
Our experiences with child protection have traumatised us. There are days when my baby just wants to cry, and when my three-year-old wonders where he might be going next, and who is going to come to take him away.
Through the entire process, the department never asked what it could do to help, or what support we needed. It never told me what it needed from me so my child wouldn’t be removed, or so I could get him back. If the department had been willing to work with me, to tell me what I needed to do to have him stay with me, I would have done anything.
The department acts in a way that is about appearances and about statistics, not about the welfare of the child. It should listen to families and their needs, and not judge based on first impressions.
Mikaila Frost (a pseudonym) is a Gunditjmara woman living on Wadawurrong Country. Produced for publication with the assistance of The Age’s Indigenous affairs journalist, Jack Latimore.