Olivia's story, caseworker

Photo of a man throwing a child in the air in the distance
Photo of a man throwing a child in the air in the distance

Meeting Michael, a dad who used violence

I was nervous when I started working with Michael. I was only 24 and had no real life experience working with men who use violence. Michael would call me at work and tell me what he wanted to happen in a loud, forceful way. He wasn’t long out of prison and Gemma told me he had hurt her. It was scary. I had to keep telling myself that as Pheobe’s caseworker, she needed me to give her every chance of being raised by her mum and dad, and that everyone deserves the opportunity to change.

Pheobe was 10 months old when we met. Because she was just a baby, then later a toddler with few words, I needed to take the time to walk in her footsteps and understand what her life was like. When we were together I would focus on her non-verbal cues to get a sense of her security and safety around different members of the family. I would ask all the people who spent time with Pheobe lots of questions – ‘Was she happy today?’ ‘How did she settle into her sleep?’ ‘What happened when she came home to nanna’s after time with her parents?’

Focusing on Pheobe’s future meant investing a lot of time getting to know Michael and Gemma. They were committed to staying off drugs, but I was worried about Michael’s violence and what this meant for the family if Pheobe were to come home.

Michael had completed domestic violence offender programs in prison and he was able to repeat some of things he learned back to me, but I wasn’t convinced that there was real change in his attitudes or behaviours. I could sense in his body language, his tone of voice and the way he spoke to Gemma, me and other women in our office that he needed to continue to work on his aggression.

To help create a space for change I started to have conversations about Michael’s and Gemma’s experiences when they were children, to help them understand how they were parented and what this might mean for them as parents today. I would ask Michael, ‘What does this mean for you as a dad now?’ and ‘What kind of life do you want for your daughter?’ I did my best not to add to his shame. I tried to help him imagine the life he wanted for his family in the future – a life free of fear and violence. 

Seeing change

When Michael committed to a men’s behaviour program I started to see true change. He rang me one day and was really honest about the extent of the violence he had used against Gemma. He didn’t want any more secrets. It seemed important to him that he told me the whole story and I admired his courage in making that call.

Our conversations began to change too. Michael was able to articulate the impact that his behaviour had on those he loved. He told me that if he hurt his partner, Pheobe could grow up and think this is how men treat women and that wasn’t what he wanted. Michael could also now see that when he hurt Gemma, he made it harder for her to be a mum to their daughter. The connections were falling into place.

Over the following months, the program coordinator and I checked in regularly with Gemma to hear about what the changes in Michael were like for her. Gemma was able to articulate the shifts she saw in Michael and I started to observe them too. The changes were noticeable – his energy towards Gemma was more calm and respectful.

While Michael focused on being accountable for his violence, we continued to pave a path for Pheobe to go home. This meant plenty of family time. The family all lived close so there was no reason that Pheobe couldn’t see her mum every day if that worked for the family.

With Michael I moved more slowly. I asked him who would be able to be part of his time with Pheobe. Michael told me his aunt and uncle lived nearby and I did an assessment to make sure they were safe to take on this role. What we might call ‘family time’ at DCJ felt for Pheobe like ‘morning tea at her uncle and aunt’s with her daddy’. I wanted to make sure it was natural and involved the family as much as possible to keep life normal for Pheobe. The bigger goal was to create a genuine network of people around the family who could help when I was no longer around. 

Empowering the network

I called on this family network whenever we needed to make big decisions.When we were considering making Michael’s time with Pheobe unsupervised, I connected with everyone to give them a chance to share their perspectives. We gave the family an equal voice and let them lead the decision making, knowing they knew Pheobe best.

Gemma and Michael had grown into amazing parents and because of their love and hard work Pheobe was blossoming. It was obvious to everyone where Pheobe needed to be now – at home with her parents.

When Pheobe had been safely at home for a year I no longer needed to be in the family’s life. I wrote them a letter to acknowledge all their hard work. I told them that if Pheobe ever learns about this time in her life when she is older, she will know how much her parents love her and fought for her to come back safely. I meant every word. 

Last updated:

30 Mar 2023

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