Care not Custody – Jess’s story

Care not Custody – Jess’s story

Jess (not her real name) grew up exposed to domestic violence. Notifications to Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) were made from when Jess was a few months old, and DHHS was involved at various stages through her childhood. When Jess was 10, her stepfather started to abuse her, physically and mentally. 'He used to smash things over my head [...] He also used to take everything out of my room that could entertain me. I was just told to sit there. I was only allowed out for dinner. I was then told to go to bed. This happened for about a year'.

Jess was eventually placed in out-of-home care aged 13 when her school found out what was happening to her. After being moved through multiple foster homes, she was placed in residential care. She describes being in residential care as initially feeling like she was in jail. She was a “scared little kid” and “didn’t talk to anyone”. She was surprised to find cupboards were locked and she wasn’t allowed to use the phone.

In the next unit she was moved to, Jess had her first contact with drugs and was assaulted by another resident. Feeling no-one cared about her, she went into a downward spiral. She began smoking a lot of marijuana and skipping school. 'I went really out of control at that unit…Life was nothing. Workers in that unit didn’t care about the kids taking drugs. They would just sit in their office'. At the next unit she was moved to, she had a scuffle with a worker and got her first criminal charge. This charge was subsequently withdrawn.

Jess moved unit again, and this time it was a positive change. Staff turnover was lower, and workers at the residence would drive her to visits with her mother. One night, however, she came home late and was grounded for a month. This meant the workers would no longer drive her to see her mother (despite contact being court-ordered), and it was too far for Jess to go on public transport. Jess was trying to improve her relationship with her mother and this upset her considerably.

During that month, Jess got into a dispute with a worker in the unit about using the phone to call her mother. The unit had a policy limiting phone calls to 10 minutes in length. At the end of the 10 minutes, Jess walked off with the cordless phone, and the worker disconnected it. Angry that she couldn’t get to see her mother or even talk with her on the phone, Jess threw the phone at the wall. The phone broke, the workers called police, and Jess was charged with criminal damage and discharging a missile. Despite offering to pay for the cost of replacing the phone, Jess now has a criminal record relating to this incident.

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Read more information about Care not Custody: a new approach to keeping kids in residential care out of the criminal justice system