Please be aware that this article contains sensitive themes including sexual assault. Consider your own support needs before reading.
How Jill created a family for those who needed it most
Wednesday 20 March 2019
It was no surprise to anyone when Jill Bower became a carer – it seemed like her calling.
“I remember as a little girl, I was going to take the little kids off the mission and put them in an orphanage, and they’d grow up and have a good life,” Jill says.
“Some people grow up wanting to be a nurse or a doctor. I always wanted to take care of little kids, so it was just a natural thing to happen.”
Jill is a Wiradjuri woman from Bathurst. She’s a pillar of her community, having helped establish the local Kelso Community Hub, where Elders chat and eat sandwiches, teens drop in after school, and parents bring their babies for health checks. She was also involved in setting up AbSec’s carer support line, which offers free advocacy, advice and referrals to carers of Aboriginal kids.
For all Jill’s important work out in the community, arguably her greatest impact has been within the walls of her home, where she’s welcomed more than 100 children dating back to the 1970s.
She first became a kinship carer when she stepped in to look after a nephew. Since then, she’s had some kids arrive at the drop of a hat for short-term emergency visits, while others have stayed and truly become part of the family.
A daughter by any other name
Katie* came to live with Jill when she was just six weeks old. Her biological mother had previously had twins who passed away at birth, and the arrival of a new baby brought back trauma that left her struggling to cope. She happened to be good friends with Jill, who again stepped up to the plate.
Weeks turned into months, which turned into years. Katie stayed with Jill. She’s now 22 and although she has still speaks with her biological mother, she considers Jill her mum.
I was never looked at as anybody other than her child. She brought me up being hers.
“I was never looked at as anybody other than her child. She brought me up being hers. I didn’t even know things were through DOCS until I was 16,” Katie says.
(Katie and others in this article refer to the Department of Family and Community Services or FACS by its old name, DOCS. This is common among Aboriginal people.)
Katie also had a strong bond with her biological dad, who she saw regularly while in Jill’s care. Sadly, he passed away last year.
As a proud Aboriginal woman, Jill knew how important it was for Katie to have a strong foundation in her culture as she grew up.
Mum’s real big on culture … She always made sure I knew where I come from and knew some language.
“Mum’s real big on culture,” Katie says. “She always made sure I knew where I come from and knew some language. I grew up with it, so it’s just upsetting to see so many other kids that don’t even know what tribe they come from. It’s sad.”
Amy joins the family
Amy* was one of those kids who wasn’t so lucky. She was taken from her family when she was five and still struggles to maintain a relationship with her mum, who comes into her life for a couple of months at a time and then disappears.
Unlike Katie, Amy didn’t find a stable care placement, instead moving between several homes and never with Aboriginal carers. She says she mostly learned about her Aboriginal culture at school, until she came to live with Jill.
“Kids grow up and they don’t have any idea about whatever. I’m learning stuff off Jill now, but even with that, she’s from a different tribe and different country to me, so that’s still not my culture. It’s all different,” Amy says.
“DOCS marked me down as Aboriginal, but I didn’t even get a Confirmation of Aboriginality from them. There was no cultural stuff. Even to this day I probably can’t tell you very much about where I’m from because I haven’t learnt that. And that’s been up to me to learn. I haven’t had it through DOCS. No cultural plan, nothing.”
Amy is 20 now and spent her whole childhood and adolescence in care. She’s travelled a rough road. She was sexually assaulted a few years ago at a house party that went wrong. Although the Minister for Family and Community Services was her legal guardian at the time, Amy says the department failed to offer her adequate support.
“I tried counselling but none of that really worked and DOCS didn’t really follow it up. And I couldn’t do a court case, it was just too distressing,” she says.
“They said counselling was mandatory, I had to do it. So me and the counsellor just kind of drove around and looked at houses because her and her partner were looking to buy a house. I never really spoke to her, never really opened up. And at that point I was self-harming, I was very depressed and what not. All my carers did was buy me vitamin E oil, buy cream to clear up the scars.”
Amy was later placed with carers who she built a good relationship with, and had even come to see the male as a father figure. But when compensation funds came through after the rape, she overheard her carers talking about getting their hands on the money. She left the placement.
Yet another carer sexually harassed Amy and continued to make inappropriate phone calls and send letters after she had left his care. She says when she reported this to FACS, the response she received was that this person was no longer a carer, so nothing could be done. The harassment was never reported to police.
When Amy was finally old enough to leave care and begin living independently, she found little help was available. She says she was told she wasn’t entitled to supports that had been listed on her leaving care plan. Thankfully, she found her way to Jill and her family.
“It’s just bullshit, it just messes you up. So I’ve completely forgotten all about DOCS now. I don’t ask them for help. That’s it, I’m better off doing it on my own, without them.
“They need to be tougher on carers so you don’t have creepy old guys. And put mental health stuff in place, because I reckon most kids in DOCS would have some sort of PTSD or something. They’ve been through trauma and instability.”
Jill gets sick and Katie becomes a mum
…the child protection system isn’t working for Aboriginal kids.
Amy and Katie both say the child protection system isn’t working for Aboriginal kids. Six years ago, Jill became so ill that she had to be placed on life support. Katie was suddenly thrust into the role of caregiver and household manager.
“Most of her responsibilities fell on me as the oldest,” Katie says. “But even when Mum was sick, I didn’t see DOCS. You only ever see them when they were dropping a kid off and picking a kid up.”
“Mum was in hospital on life support so I couldn’t really go speak to her about anything. I didn’t know where to go, who to talk to. I didn’t have any food, didn’t have nothing.”
FACS responded to Jill’s illness by removing two younger children from her care. A worker brought one of the children a six-year-old boy, to say goodbye to Jill just after she emerged from surgery. This led to a traumatic scene where Jill, still heavily medicated, reacted with horror to the news that the kids were being taken, while they looked on.
“Mum was chucking herself around the bed, trying to get out of the bed,” Katie recalls. “She was still doped up. They still had the catheter down her throat. She was trying to scream out for the kids and we sat down and watched it all.”
In the following years Jill and Katie never stopped fighting to bring the young boy back home, even going through the courts. It wasn’t until Katie had her own daughter that the ruling suddenly changed: she could become a carer.
“We asked them [FACS] what their reason was, and it was because I had a baby and if I can be a mum, then I can look after him too,” Katie says.
Community count on each other
Jill says this story is sadly reflective of her decades of experience as a carer with FACS.
“I can honestly say to you that I’ve never had one positive experience, not one, with DOCS,” Jill says.
She’s had children removed from her care only to be placed in motels; kids who have developed addictions to cigarettes and drugs while in the system; kids who’ve been placed in her home without any support for their complex needs and behavioural problems.
She is particularly scathing about the lack of cultural support provided to Aboriginal kids in care. “The only way this community finds out about anything is Vicki [from AbSec] sends me emails and I’ll give out any information that I think’s relevant for our kids.
“Katie, my daughter, she’s been with me since she was six weeks old. Did they ever send her on a cultural camp? Ever asked us if she wanted to go to camp? Did they ever ask us if she wanted to do anything culturally? Dance?”
“Everything she learned, she learned from me because I took kids in this community out on camps and taught them. DOCS never did anything. They never did nothing, not a rotten thing. That’s why people are so angry.”
Instead of counting on FACS, Jill says her family and community count on each other.
We rely on each other… We have our own network to help one another because it’s not easy caring for kids.
“We rely on each other, I guess. If [another community member] Marcia needs help, the children give me a ring or whatever and I’ll go and do what I can. We have our own network to help one another because it’s not easy caring for kids.”
These days, Jill’s family is doing a little better. Jill’s health still isn’t great, but she’s getting by. Katie is kept busy looking after her daughter, who is now three. She’s thinking about studying to became a police officer. Amy isn’t yet sure what she wants to do; she still struggles with nightmares and flashbacks of her sexual assault, but she feels safe now, living in Jill’s home.
As for the changes that need to be made to the system, Katie says: “Give Aboriginal kids back to their home, their family.
“Just give them back to their family after you’ve gone through and made sure everything is all safe and all good. If not the mother and father, then maybe the kid has sisters, aunties, or an Aboriginal carer is available.”
…it’s vital for Aboriginal kids to have Aboriginal carers, wherever possible.
Jill agrees that it’s vital for Aboriginal kids to have Aboriginal carers, wherever possible.
“White carers know how to meet their physical needs – I’m not saying that they can’t meet their physical needs. They can make sure they go to school and they’re clothed and bathed and they’re loved even, but they cannot meet their cultural and spiritual needs and that’s the end of it. There’s no way they can get around it,” she says.
“I cannot give white kids their culture, because I don’t live it, I don’t know it, so I can’t give it to them. I can’t give a Chinese kid their culture because I don’t live it, I don’t know. So how can white carers give Aboriginal kids their culture?”
AbSec believes the best care for kids is community. We believe in families and communities like Jill’s, where everyone looks out for each other, and there’s always someone to step in.
Please sign our petition calling on the NSW Government to stop removing Aboriginal kids from their community and culture: https://absec.org.au/sign
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.
If you are experiencing distress, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or find other support services listed on the AbSec website.