Interview by Jayne Parish
A child of the system herself, she did not want the same fate for her brother. Her past is a story of addiction, abuse, love, and a courage of conviction, that most of us cannot imagine.
I am in awe, as I sit in front of this young woman Lauren Heard, who at just 29 years old, is the recipient of the 2022, OzChild JC Butler Award, for kinship foster care. Her small townhouse in Melbourne’s southeast, is incredibly neat, but inviting, homely and warm. Dressed in a casual hoodie and sweatpants, long blonde hair loose around her shoulders, she looks and sounds like she has life sorted. For the most part she does, but it hasn’t always been that way. And she indicates several times throughout our conversation that, despite how far she has come, she still has goals and a long journey ahead.
The Broken Years
I ask Lauren to share a bit about her backstory.
She recalls the first year after her parents separation and the access visits between her parents and reflects on this time quite fondly. Shortly after though, her mother had a series of relationships with men who, Lauren says, “totally de-hinged my mum”. They were generally seasoned drug users, and before long so was her mother.
The next few years are a bit of a blur, there was DHHS involvement from 7 years of age, a cycle of foster care, and reunification, and foster care again, and multiple police drug raids on the house. Lauren was looking after her younger siblings and recalls moving drug paraphernalia off the bench to make their dinners. Then there was her period of teenage rebellion, drinking, clubbing, pills and eventually Residential Care at 18 years old.
Years later, after the neglect, the physical and emotional abuse at home, and memories of living in a ‘run-house’ (where there were always random people staying for various periods of time because they were on the run from something – a drug dealer, an ex-partner, debts, or police), she took her first hit of Methamphetamine/ ICE. Lauren recalls her first time using the drug;
“I remember realising what I was about to do, but wanting to try it, to see what it was about this drug that made my mother want it so much, and love it, more than her children”.
She was introduced to ICE by her partner at the time. He was another in what had become a line of abusive relationships, but this one would nearly cost her life. It wasn’t long before she was hooked on ICE. She was in a co-dependant relationship, addicted, being physically abused, and financially controlled.
“I’d look in the mirror and not recognise myself, I’d gone from being quite overweight due to drinking a litre of vodka with soft drink mixers daily, to an extremely thin, dark-sunken-eyed, lank-haired version of myself. I knew this image wasn’t who I wanted to be”.
When her boyfriend had a serious overdose, they both took stock and decided to move to Perth for a fresh start. It was short-lived. Lauren says the pattern of drug use, and abuse started all over again. She never saw her Centrelink payments, he would use them all on drugs, and abuse her if she tried to cut up the card. For two years they were so broke they lived in a tent. Several times she left him and returned to Melbourne, he would follow, she’d go back. She was giving in. She was suffering psychotic episodes and had several suicide attempts, the last culminating in the start of her road to recovery.
“I remember being in a park, I’d tried to kill myself and this time I had full intent. I was desperate, broken. I called a helpline and they told me I needed a referral. I was off my head, screaming down the phone for them to send help or I’d kill myself or someone else.”
The road to recovery
She got help. And, somewhere in the depths of her drug addled mind, her father’s voice was echoing in her head. Dad’s always been my supporter she says. I did come back to Melbourne and I moved around for a bit before landing at Dad’s. My dad has a way with words, I can’t do them justice, the way he says things just makes sense. But really what he was telling me was, if I wanted my life to change, I’d have to make the effort to change it. So I did.
“I went through the Psych wards, to Rehab, the Youth Prevention and Recovery Centre, I do AA and NA (alcoholics anonymous and narcotics anonymous). Through this process and dad’s support, I’ve been able to improve my finances and my choices. And now I’m fostering my brother.”
The challenges of fostering your sibling
Anyone who has siblings, knows that relationships with brothers and sisters can be challenging. Lauren took on the role of Kinship Foster Carer just 3 years ago. Her brother was 14 at the time and facing being placed in the ‘system’. She says, I’d been through that system and I knew I didn’t want that for him. He was also at an age where no-one wanted to foster him.
It was a massive decision, because I was also still living at dads’, and this was my half-brother, my mothers’ child with her new husband. A testament to the type of man her father must be, he was agreeable to allowing James to come and live with them. Lauren gave up her room for her brother and spent the next few months sleeping on the couch. Because she had been away from the family so long, Lauren and James barely knew each other.
She talks of the struggle in rebuilding their relationship. She wanted to be his sister and carer, she knew she didn’t want to be his mother, but wanted the authority of a parent. It was confusing and complicated by the fact they were living with her dad (and his other children,) and her father was the (gentle, but firm), authoritarian of the house. It’s taken time, effort and a lot of ‘dialoguing arguments’ to get to where we are now, she says, but we’ve both learned to listen and work towards solutions and growth.
She says, I was so scared going through the foster care application process, and DHHS was all over us, checking in every week, making sure he was okay. She laughs as she states;
“I don’t have a police record, but if they’d checked my mental health history I wouldn’t be allowed to care for a pet rock”
DHHS obviously saw the love, the connection, the deeper story. They did trust James to Lauren’s care and paid the first years rent on their current home. Lauren explains, she is so determined to make this work that she paid rent at the same time and now she is always in advance.
They moved in 3 months prior to the first of Melbourne’s Covid Pandemic lockdowns. “The only kids allowed to go to school were those in the ‘system’ (and those of emergency workers), it’s not the best of areas around here, and I didn’t want him spending all his time with them, so I kept him home” she says. “I was suddenly home schooling even though I can barely tell the time!”
She explains her attitude was, I don’t always know what I’m doing, but I’m 100% going to give it my best shot. Some challenges are bigger than others, there’s the commonplace arguments over dishes, but then there’s the deeper questions James has about his mother and family. Lauren says this is hard because she wants to protect him but at 17 now, he’s of an age she always tries to be truthful and real with him. It also means she has to relive the past through the story telling which can be triggering at times.
“There’s also the stages of growing up issues, like his first party coming up, I know there will be alcohol and quite likely drugs too. What do I do? I’m scared for him. Is addiction part of our DNA? “
Seeking help was scary but worth it.
I sought help from Mentis Assist when James came into my care.
“I was so scared, what would the DHHS think about me seeking mental health support and being a foster carer? But it was like I had a premonition of what would happen if I didn’t reach out, and I knew I had to do it.”
Lauren says, I was focussing all my time, energy, attention on James. I needed a ‘safe place’ for myself so I could ‘air my dirty laundry’, and have an opportunity for more self-growth. I believe that providing myself this opportunity has strengthened our relationship, and will help me to provide better for him in the future.
Once I made the decision, the process was pretty easy. My NDIS Local Area Coordinator referred me to Mentis Assist. But before I signed up with them, I asked so many questions about the company and what they do, and if I could choose my workers. I wanted a good fit for me. I’ve been with Mentis Assist for around 18 months now, and my workers have been amazing.
“My Mentis Assist Support Coordinator Jen, really holds me to account which is what I wanted. Jen has helped me to link and liaise with services and helped me develop structure in my life. I used to hide from appointments but now I face up to them without issue.”
My other worker from Mentis Assist, an NDIS support worker has assisted me creating task lists and with shopping each week as I don’t have a car. We’ve also been exploring my fears about dating again, it’s good to talk about it, but I know I’m not quite ready for that just yet.
My support coordinator also helped with finding people to assist with cooking some nights, connected me with a mental health nurse, who has helped with a medication review, and that has helped relieve my symptoms of schizophrenia including flashbacks and visions.
I’ve also got a counsellor now. I’m not a nurturing person. I don’t hug or heap on the praise. I know this about myself but, I can’t change it and I was worried about the effect it might have on James. Through work with my counsellor, I have discovered my “love language” is “acts of service” and I can see that I am doing this through fostering and I hope to one day work in a paid service type role. Right now though, a lot of the focus is on self-care.
On winning the award
I ask how Lauren felt about being nominated for and winning the Oz Child award. For all she’s shared, this is the only time I notice Lauren shift in her seat with discomfort, her head drops slightly, but a smile can’t help form at the corners of her mouth. “I was really shocked” she says.
Eventually, with some prompting, she admits to being proud. “I can see what I’ve done, but I tend to push credit away from myself” she says, and adds, “In just one year of having James I’d achieved so much more than my mother did for the whole time she had him. It’s been testing, but when I think of the difference and how far we’ve come together in such a short space of time.”
She stops…Thinks… And starts again… “I just knew I didn’t want him to continue down a similar path to me. Now, together we are looking at apprenticeships for him. I’m watching him grow to be a man. I don’t vocalise praise, but I am over the top proud”
Acts of Service – the next chapter?
Lauren has told me she would eventually like to work in community services to help others. When I ask her how she thinks all the experiences of her life will help in this chosen career path she ponders a moment before answering in short but poignant sentences;
“I think I can help someone to believe there is something better. Just because you were brought up in the system, doesn’t mean you have to stay in the system. But when you are in it, you don’t see that. Also, your diagnosis, like depression or whatever, isn’t who you are. Goals can be really daunting, and that’s one of the reasons why self-care is so important. I had no absolutely no hope. Now I have all the hope in the world, and I’m working out what I really want to do.”
Lauren admits she still has some other goals to achieve, and quite a way to go before she’s ready for the workforce. But even the sharing of her story is an ‘act of service’ and source of; insight, encouragement, and possibly even motivation, to those who might be struggling.
While only a small piece of her journey, Mentis Assist are so honoured to be a part of it. As one of our staff recently said, “it’s the good news stories that fill our buckets, bring inspiration to our work, they help us continue to support people, and hold the hope for them”.