Words Tahlia Higgins
Images Wayne ye
“My mother and I had a terrible, terrible relationship. I only ever had social workers as my parents, my guardians, the people I looked up to. That’s why I wanted to do social work.”
In her fourth year at the University of Tasmania and first year of placement in Masters of Social Work, that is exactly what 23-year-old Jane is doing. Her strength, determination and passion are infectious, as is her ability to keep her fizz and look at the bright side of life shining through.
Jane was in the foster care system until turning 18, and was continuously moved between respite carers and foster and group homes.
At almost 4 years old, she was moved into “the system” due to unhealthy living conditions and abuse. She wasn’t being fed and her mother was a heavy drug user who didn’t take Jane’s siblings to school.
“I was put in the oven, called a ‘devil child’ because I cried a lot; it wasn’t healthy,” Jane says.
She recalls that, as a child, she wasn’t aware of the scope of her abuse until reading formal reports later on, but has clear memories of the day she was taken away from her childhood home. Some police officers took her into a room for questioning and she vividly remembers scribbling on the walls.
They continued to question her about her living conditions and current state of happiness as they supplied food and drink. Playing with sand and play dough, young Jane answered all questions honestly and truthfully, unaware of the reasons she was asked.
“They were nicer to me than my mother ever was, or her multiple boyfriends,” she says. “I didn’t really know what was going on. I didn’t even get to go back to the house that night; I went into this other building with multiple kids.”
It wasn’t until grade 2 or 3 that she became truly aware of her situation at home, when Mother’s Day and Father’s Day happened and teachers gave her permission slips requiring parent signatures. She explained that she didn’t have a mother or father, and was immediately placed into confidential counselling sessions once a week, despite being a happy and well-behaved child.
During her time at Mt Faulkner Primary School, she remained a diligent student and a “good girl”. But regular tasks such as permission slips were difficult as she needed a signature from a social worker each time consent was required; sometimes missing out on regular school activities. Every time a friend at school wanted Jane to go over to their house, there was a required lengthy police check, taking at least a fortnight to organise.
“When I was little, care sucked, to be blunt. My foster carers were all horrible. They were really mean. I didn’t have the greatest experience.” Jane hasn’t maintained any lasting relationships with parent figures or her foster carers but did establish friendships out of mutual bonding with other children in foster care and school, and with social workers.
There were two students at Mt Faulkner who recognised she was struggling – one earlier and the other in late primary school – including the daughter of her assistant principal and the daughter of one of her teachers. But her greatest influence was Mrs Daniels, who she met in grade 3 or 4.
Through her primary school years, Jane would spend every weekend with Mrs Daniels and a small group of children, including Mrs Daniels’ son, her partner and his daughter, and two other kids. Jane has fond memories of spending time with them and visiting their shack in Bicheno multiple times.
Instead of sending Jane to be cared for by a “random person every second week”, Mrs Daniels decided to fill out all the paperwork to become Jane’s respite carer for two days every fortnight.
“She was the one who really positively influenced me,” Jane says. “She was incredible; an idol in my eyes.” Jane lost contact with Mrs Daniels without having a mobile phone or other way to remain in contact.
Jane recalls that at just 13 years old, the transition to high school was tough, as she had to learn to rely on herself without guidance from teachers or parents. She attended more counselling sessions and was put on Benzo tablets; “happy pills” for her mental health. “I went through unhealthy habits because I just wasn’t happy. I didn’t want to be around anymore.”
Despite this, she remained well-behaved and “scared of breaking rules”. Because of this, Jane was able to take on various hobbies including swimming, hockey and horse riding. She also participated in various group activities and art groups, including Melbourne art trips every year.
It wasn’t until grade 10 that Jane moved schools to St Mary’s College and a teacher there actively helped her, “rather than giving [me] a new counsellor or more tablets”. It was at St Mary’s that Jane was taught how to apply for jobs and, in preparation for turning 18, how to rent a house.
But one of her most defining moments was the moment she decided to become a social worker. When she was just 14 years old, the school had a careers week. Jane was unaware of what she wanted to be or what she wanted to do but knew she wanted to work with kids. “I don’t have parents, I don’t know what it’s like to be a doctor, or a nurse, or a fireman, or whatever,” she says.
She had jokingly said she “would become a social worker because that’s what she knew and the only area she had experience with”. When Jane approached her foster carer about this idea she was told: “You can’t do that, you have no one”; and: “Think of something more practical”.
During weekly counselling sessions, Jane begun seeking advice on her chosen career path from her social workers and counsellors. “I was talking to them and digesting it and realising this is what I want to do. I’m going to help kids, so they don’t have to put up with people who talk like that to you. They deserve respect, they deserve to be heard, and I’m going to help do that.”
When Jane was little, she was “ashamed to be in care”, and it wasn’t until 17 or 18 years old that she was able to open up to others about it. “I didn’t choose to be in care, I didn’t choose to have horrible parents, or a dad I don’t even know,” she says.
“If others want to know my past, it’s likely they are trying to relate to somebody else’s failures, methods or experiences”.
Fast forward nine years and Jane’s passion for social work has “doubled” – and she’s putting her plans into action. She is currently involved in mental health projects for her placement in preparation for Mental Health Week.
Jane has plenty of advice for others who may be facing similar experiences. “It’s suddenly adulthood and you have control of your life and you get to determine it, so just hold in there. Survive your childhood until you’re out of the system and you are able to do something about it. That’s what I chanted to myself when I was getting older: ‘It’s going to end when I’m 18 and then I can decide everything’.”
Deciding everything is exactly what Jane has done as she continues to keep her fizz with the help from her “incredible support network of friends”, as well as maintaining a healthy lifestyle. But what’s next for Jane? She says her ultimate goal is to make a difference.
“I just want to help the kids as much as possible, that’s my goal. As well as be a guardian and look after kids; the disadvantaged ones mainly, the ones that are a bit too quiet to ask for help. I’m going to be that person, that’s me.”
Jane has plenty of advice for others:
- Don’t be scared to ask for help
- Embrace your friends
- Don’t be ashamed
- Try not to burn any bridges