Manzanar Relocation Center, California, 1943. Photo by Ansel Adams
Yesterday, just as I had finished putting my toddler down for her afternoon nap, my friend rang me on my mobile. Crying, she begged me to be a witness (over the phone) to a meeting she was just about to go into with a Victorian Department of Human Services case worker, a representative from the local youth emergency housing organization, and her 16-year-old daughter’s adolescent mental health worker. I agreed.
In minutes I was called back, told I was on speaker, and introduced to the other meeting participants. Before the discussion got past the starting blocks, I warned the assembled that my friend was an institutional care leaver and member of the Forgotten Australians, and consequently would be affected by this meeting in a more profound and possibly disturbed way than many other parents. But I don’t think they gave a shit.
The point of the meeting was to break an impasse surrounding my friend’s mentally ill, highly self-destructive daughter. My friend wanted her child to stay at home, but her seriously disturbed daughter wanted to move out and set up on her own. All of the professionals at the meeting were strongly of the position that for their respective well-being, mother and child should be separated. They insisted that the daughter would be provided with financial support (a Newstart allowance), appropriate mental health services, and strong encouragement to go back to school or find employment.
My friend (understandably, I thought) resisted this idea every step of the way. In turns, she cried, raged, shouted and implored. Her despair was met with utter coldness, defensiveness, terseness, and rejection. The meeting hastily concluded when my friend announced she was leaving to drive her car under a train (thankfully, she didn’t).
Throughout the meeting, I offered my opinions as sparsely and calmly as I could (so fucking hard!), and sought to clarify just how much monitoring the state would be doing of this self-harming teenager. I was shocked to my core, however, by the complete lack of warmth or empathy these workers extended towards my friend who was clearly struggling. At one point she asked, “Why haven’t I received any help with my daughter? Where is my assistance?” The emergency housing worker flatly stated that they were there to help the child, not her. At another point, when it was clear my friend wasn’t going to help the child to find a new home in any way whatsoever, the same man said, ‘Well that’s okay, that just makes my job easier, to be honest.’ They just didn’t seem capable of seeing things from her (frankly, traumatized) perspective – that she was losing her only child, and that the girl (whose life she has saved twice) was about to enter a life where there would be no enforced rules or structure.
As disturbing as the whole experience was, I’m glad I was part of it. While before I knew abstractly that the state is incapable of intervening in the earliest stages of family strife – the point at which mothers, fathers, and children might be kept together – now I know first-hand that resources are allocated to (and facilitate) child removal. And so the cycle continues.