Penny, The Police and Professionals
Cathy, with limited schooling, battling it out on a single-parent pension with three kids to raise in a little old asbestos house she'd one day call her own, was excited about the new job she was about to take on. She was set to become a Foster Parent. The State Department, which has responsibility to protect abused or neglected kids, had signed her up and she was rearing to go.
She had what it took, she reckoned, and so did The Department. Over a cup of coffee at my place she laid out her plans and rationalised the reasons she was about to take on a lost and lonely child. The Department was desperate to find placements for kids who could no longer live with their families or kids whose parents were at their wits' end and simply needed a break. Her heart was in the right place, she was a good mum, had morals and that's what mattered. "They pay well," she said, "and I could do with the money."
As I watched her clasping her coffee cup, telling me how she'd moved her daughter's beds around to make room for a kid The Department had in mind, I was anxious. "What do you know about this kid? I mean, who is she? How old?"
"She's fourteen, has had a hard trot—into stealing the nun's money at the school she goes to, running away from home, smoking. Stuff like that. Her Mum needs a break."
"There's got to be a reason she's doing this," I asked. "Is there any more?"
"She's got a history, I think. That's all I know."
"I'd want to know a hell of a lot more if I was about to take on such a kid, especially when I had my own kids to raise. I mean, things could get rough and you are really alone."
"Don't worry. I know how to deal with kids. Mine are all doing well and they are keen to have a new sister. Let's call it an adventure."
I thought of my own "adventure"—the family I grew up in and how we were all split up and sent to live all over the place because my mum couldn't cope. I wondered whether this kid was like me when I was about the same age—desperate for love and willing to bend over backwards to be accepted. I knew exactly what it was like to be in a family like Cathy's who had no idea of where I'd come from or what I'd gone through. I was twelve and super sensitive, always on the defensive and ready to run or strike back when hurt by well-meaning ignorance and the pressure to be good. It's no adventure, I thought, especially when I also knew that I could be thrown out for the slightest misdemeanour.
"Adventure? You might need to rethink that one, Cathy. Believe me."
"C'mon, girl. Get positive. Toss the negative. You need to learn to trust."
How many times had I heard that when expressing similar concerns with simplistic perceptions of kids whose parents needed a break? Makes me sick.
"Okay. Just call on me if you need a hand."
As Cathy left, I dreaded how she'd cope if things got out of whack but more importantly, I wondered how the girl would cope with her. "I'd love to meet her when she's settled in," I called as I watched her strutting pride around the corner to her place. Not a problem. She'd let me know when she arrived.
Cathy's house was small and neat. Books for all ages lined the shelves in the lounge room and in her daughters' rooms. Pictures hung on the walls, flowers bloomed in a vase on her kitchen table and the smell of fresh healthy food welcomed anyone who walked into her home. Everything about the inside and outside of her place spelt love and care. The bed she'd made up for the new sister to share in the room with her teenage daughter was adorned with fresh clean sheets, a soft teddy and a pink doona—a desk for study and space for her belongings. Perfect.
A few days after Cathy had let me know she was to be a Foster Parent, Penny arrived, toting a small bag of tatty old clothes and nothing more. Before I got to meet her, Cathy had already taken her shopping for all she'd need at home and school and Penny was dressed like a teenager should dress—clean, neat and cared for. Cathy did what she could to help her to fit in, to make her feel as if she was one of her own— safe and welcomed. Gathered at the small table when she'd settled in, we shared a meal and Penny, whose eyes darted this way and that whenever someone spoke, was taking it all in—agitated, yet polite and lovely, her sharp blue eyes and flaming red hair, strikingly beautiful.
I'd once been in a similar situation as the new sister in a neat clean home with my aunt's family and I hoped that Penny's life with her new family would be very different to mine. I lasted almost a year but the things I could not say, as I tried to be perfect in an alien environment with people I knew had no clue, eventually got the better of me. Resentment for the daughters who had it all began to seep out in ways I could not control—silences, sullen looks, shutting myself away in a room with books, listening to music or disappearing into the countryside to be with the only person I trusted. Myself. What would Penny do in a Perth city suburb as she tried to be perfect and Cathy reacted as my aunt did? Within weeks, I began to see.
Cathy was stressed. Things were not working out. She talked over cups of tea with friends as she tried to understand why the good things she had done were not being appreciated. She didn't want Penny to tell her daughters about the things that had happened to her—the way her mother had locked her in her room and beaten her—her fears of her mother killing her. And neither did she want them to know how she'd been tied up like a dog to a long piece of rope when she was a toddler. It was all too much for their young ears and for Cathy's naiveté. So much so in fact, these chats with friends took place within earshot of Penny. I wondered why Cathy did this and thought that perhaps she unconsciously hoped that Penny would simply take off and not position her to have to make the decision to ask The Department to take her away. Penny eventually ran away but not before she'd taken Cathy's daughters to the shops to show them how to steal little things and get away with it.
Cathy had raised her kids to tell the truth and when she found out what they'd been up to at the shops, she lost it and let Penny know exactly what she thought about her damaging, unwanted influence on her family. Penny burst from the house, smashing all the milk bottles that had been left for The Milko on Cathy's front step. Broken glass all over Cathy's front lawn and driveway spun her out as Penny ran for her life and I received a panicked call from Cathy, telling me the story and asking for me to find her and bring her back. "I tried to stop her...she gone crazy... "
"Got it," I said as I cut the call, dropped the phone, jumped in my car and took off, knowing full well what Penny was capable of.
I found Penny, running up the street, hyperventilating as she choked on her words. I'd half expected something like this to happen and with the passenger window wound down, I called for her to get into my car. "Fuck off! Fuck off, Suzanne!" Expletives flew left right and centre as she ran and I tried to calm her down. There was no way that she was going to get into my car and I didn't blame her.
Penny, no matter what, could not spin her life around and fit the mould Cathy envisioned for her. I knew that and the sad thing is that I'd never found the time to sit with her and tell her about my own childhood. Besides, hers was enough for her to cope with, let alone me even trying to get her head around how I might have a very good idea of what she was thinking and feeling. Penny was a survivor and she was fighting for her life. My own counsellors had told me that they could work with a fighter but it was almost impossible with someone who'd given up. Knowing this, I let her go, watching her young life pelting up the street as I hoped beyond hope that she'd stay safe. I don't know why, but her flaming red hair, her back and her bare legs, running, are etched in my mind. She knew I cared. It's in the listening, the body, and the way we interacted on the few occasions we'd had the chance. That night and for the rest of the week, Penny crept back to Cathy's and slept in the tree house in her back yard.
During the day she was careful to avoid The Police who'd been alerted to her disappearance. She knew they'd take her back to her mother and that was her greatest fear. Cathy had informed The Department of her behaviour and the fact that she'd run away and they asked that she call them to fetch her if she turned up. One morning Cathy found her sleeping in the tree house and that day a man in a Department car came to fetch her. I was there when she got into that car. Her bag, bigger than the one she'd arrived with, was placed in the boot as Penny, slumped shoulders, got in. I gave her my phone number and asked her to call at any time of day if she needed me. I watched her leave, her head low as an overwhelming sadness filled me. What next, dearest Penny?
Cathy felt inadequate, sad at having failed to help her. The Department placed her in a Temporary Group Home and she ran away again. The Police soon found Penny and took her straight back to her mother's. Not long after this, I got a call from Penny's mother, a soft, well-spoken woman I'd never met. "It's Karen, Penny's mother. I need you to come. Penny's spoken about you and I think she'll listen to you. She's threatening to jump from the bridge over the freeway and she's also threatened to jump through the glass door."
"What glass door?"
"Our front door is glass."
I envisioned Penny cut to shreds if she did this or splattered on the freeway if she jumped. I was quick to move and when I arrived at Penny's place, she was beside herself, telling me how she was locked in her room and was not allowed to join the family for meals. As she explained, my life knotted and her mother stood over us, listening to every word as she agreed with everything Penny said. Karen told me that she was doing it for her own good, isolating her from the rest of the family to reduce her bad influence. She was let out to go to school and every minute she was in the house, apart from going to the toilet and showering, she was locked up. Meals were brought to her room, and I could not believe that The Department had brought her back to this. The focus was on Penny and her rotten behaviour.
I quietly asked if she had music in her room. No. I let her know that I was about to visit my family in Tasmania and that I'd give her an old radio to bring her some comfort in that room. "Every time you listen to that radio, Penny, just know that I hear you and am here for you."
She got the radio, a treasure of mine, and one night, soon after I came back, my daughter came to get me from a Parent and Citizens meeting at the High School my children attended. Penny had run away from home to find me and was in my daughter's car. Handcuffed. My immediate thought was that she'd been up to mischief, The Police had caught and cuffed her and she'd managed to get away from them. No. When we arrived at my place, she sat at my kitchen table, weeping desperately, telling me how her mother and stepfather had tied her up with rope, cuffed her and shoved sleeping pills down her throat to stop her from running away. She had no idea who her real father was and had wanted her birth certificate so that she could use it to provide evidence of identity to find work. Her mother refused to give it to her.
The phone rang within minutes of Penny trying to tell me her life story. Cathy called to ask if Penny was at my place. Yes. "Her mother is desperate, has called The Police and they are looking for her. They want me to call them back."
"Don't do it, Cathy. Not yet. She's a mess. Give her time to settle down."
"I can't do that. I'm calling them back right now."
Within minutes The Police were at my door and were not interested in what Penny had just been through. They had a job to do and that was to get her back home. I was beside myself, feeling as if my hands had been cut off. It was the late 1980's. Western Australia. I had no idea what to do. With The Police and The Department repeatedly taking her back to that family, what chance did I have to protect her and what chance did she have?
Knowing full well what it was like to grow in a family similar to Penny's, I ran on gut instinct. If someone stepped into that family, believing Penny and not being afraid of any of them, I was convinced it would work to stop further violations against her. So, I asked if I could be present when they took her home. I asked if I could call the minister from my church to also be there as a witness to whatever took place. Yes. The minister rocked up soon after we all arrived. The door to the room where Penny had been tied up and cuffed was open. The thick orange nylon rope that her mother and stepfather had used to tie her up was still on the bed.
Penny's mother made tea for everyone as almost word for word she backed up everything Penny said. The Police saw the rope, listened and left. The sleeping pills Penny had swallowed took hold, her words slurred and she went to bed as I found it almost impossible to listen to her mother and stepfather's rationale for doing what they did. They'd heard a person on a Christian radio station say that if parents cared about their kids running away and getting into trouble, then they'd get down to an Army Surplus store, get handcuffs and rope, tie them up and lock them away if that's what it took. And that's just what they did because they couldn't take any more and didn't know what else to do. The minister, known for his compassion, understood their dilemma and all I could see was the measure of their violence and a teenage girl whose life was at serious risk.
The following day, Penny called me to ask if I could come. I did. On the steps at the front of her parents' house we sat and talked. She told me how she'd struggled to stop them from doing what they did—her mother right there.
"I kicked her in the guts," she said. "And I kicked and punched him!" I found it so very hard to hear this.
"How did they get the pills down your neck if you did that, Penny?"
"She," she yelled, pointing to her mother. "She fucking sat on my legs!"
I choked as I took my time and slowly, gathering words, stood face to face with her mother. "If you ever lay a hand on her again, I will drag you through every court in this fucking country! Get the fuck out of my sight!" I had no idea how I'd do this and yet, I stood firm until she left.
Compassion is an interesting thing and mine, unlike the minister's, did not rest with this mother. If I could give Penny anything, I would make sure that she did not grow without someone to trust, without protection as I did in the 1950's. Back then, I was smart enough to know that no one would believe me. Hence, I did not tell anyone anything. Not so with Penny. She hoped that someone would hear and believe her.
Penny came to stay with me not long after this. It was hard for me, especially since I was raising my three daughters and a son on a single-parent pension and was studying to get myself out of the poverty trap. There was so little room in my small State house. One daughter slept in the back of the garage in a room I had partitioned off with a cheap wall. My son had his own room and another daughter, who was studying to be a physiotherapist, slept with her baby girl in a lined tin games room that my eldest daughter had paid for. My eldest daughter was the only one who'd graduated from university and the only one who worked. She pitched in while the rest of us were at school or university.
It was my eldest daughter who shared her room and her clothes with Penny, and I slept in a room that was once a veranda—long, narrow and too small to swing a cat. I recall my psychiatrist coming to counsel me when Penny was with us because I didn't have the money to pay for bus fares to visit him. I sat on the floor as he crouched, long-legged in a beanbag, pressed against the wall and my chest of drawers, appearing like a giant as he took up all that remained of the floor space. I recall his blessed, caring face—a man whose position as a respected psychiatrist kept his feet on the ground—a man who'd let others know that he was prepared to be a "father" to me a and a "grandfather" to my children.
He shared a birthday meal with us and cramped around the kitchen table, my children laughed about how we could hear one another breathing through the thin asbestos walls. My eldest daughter, always open to another person at our table, often said that I made meals to stretch for miles—soups, stews and fresh fruit and vegetables. I was proud of this and did so much to hide the struggles I had to feed them all. Penny, like many who rocked up at my place, was not about to be turned away, especially given the fact that her childhood suffering was so like mine. At times, this meant that I went to The Department and asked for food vouchers to help out.
Penny's mother knew the situation I was in and yet, she took nothing like this into account. She couldn't have cared less. Instead, out of her fear of what I'd find out, she requested that The Department investigate me because she thought I had some twisted ulterior motive for taking her daughter under my wing. I was quick to learn that unless I followed process, like be appointed as Penny's guardian, I could place myself in a position to face some sort of legal action. Who would have given me legal guardianship in the situation I was in? I could be in trouble for helping Penny out. The man who'd been sent to investigate me, a Department Social Worker, told me this.
Later, when I knew I needed support, financial and otherwise, I asked the church for help in the three minutes I'd been given every week to speak of the needs of people in Third World countries—The Mission Spot. I was not good at asking for help and attempted to keep the focus on Penny. Besides, it was well known that to draw attention to the self when helping someone out was a sin, tantamount to self-gratification. Penny stood alongside as she briefly told her story and asked whether or not she could stay with someone else now and then, like someone who'd be an aunty to her or, maybe, give her some part-time work because she had no money. She wanted to help out.
Not wanting to draw too much attention to myself, I explained my situation with four kids to feed on a single-parent pension as well as the fact that I had exams coming up. I was not prepared for what followed.
That week, the minister contacted me to let me know that I had caused a "groundswell" in the church and that I was now only allowed "one minute" to speak in The Mission Spot. I promptly told him that he could stick his congregation up his arse and as a result, my dear Baptist friend who heard me say this, sent me a wooden plaque engraved with the following: Lord help me to speak the words that I need today, because tomorrow I may have to eat them. She made me laugh and the minister's compassion for the whole situation, positioned him to round up The Church Council to tell me that I "should not get involved". I was "not experienced" and this kind of thing should be "left up to the professionals," people who "knew exactly what to do".
The beautiful thing about this was that, Penny, being Catholic and knowing the Bible inside out had asked me to quote the bit in the New Testament where Jesus says, "Suffer the little children to come unto me." She begged me to let her come to speak for herself but I refused, not wanting to place her in a situation that could further harm her. I quoted that passage to the people who gathered to put me on the right path as they repeatedly told me that I was doing the wrong thing. Penny's words from the scriptures made no difference.
Penny stayed with me for a short time after this, and she never had to go back to her mother. It was far from easy for her. At fourteen, she had to be seen to be making her own decisions, speaking for herself. I paved the way, talking it up with a trusted Christian minister who had put me onto people who really cared. Then I took her to meet with them—people in organisations outside of The Department and away from The Police.
Not long after this she was placed in an Anglican home for kids like her and, I was torn apart when I learnt she'd been raped in that home. Just as I was torn apart when a caring policeman telephoned within the next few weeks, asking me to come and identify the suitcase they'd found by the side of the road which headed for the Eastern States.
It was a suitcase I'd given her—the only one I had. The wire handle I'd made with the green rubber garden hose I'd placed over it was still in tact. So too, was my first collection of poetry—poetry I'd written as I struggled to find my way out of my own childhood. The Bible I'd given her to read— a Bible that had given me the strength to break free of my traumatic beginnings as I had realised that I was worth loving, was right there, along with a message of hope, my name and contact details.
Eventually, with the help of the police who contacted me, she was found. This time in a State-run home where she lived in constant fear of being hurt or of others stealing her meagre belongings. Seeing this, I contacted a Catholic institution and it was here that she finally found the help she needed and a safe place to stay. They made sure that she went back to school, provided her with all she needed and eventually she made it into university where she graduated with a degree in Social Work. Her mother had nothing to do with this and yet, today, she speaks as if she did. To be honest, perhaps she did. She gave Penny the courage and determination to stand strong and to do all that she could with her degree and childhood experiences, to help others to rise above the terrible things that they, like her, experienced.
Sadly, over the years, Penny has worn the labels that The Professionals have placed on her; ADD, Bipolar, and others I am not clear about. Recently, it broke her heart when she accessed Hospital and State records and found out that the reason she had mild epileptic fits was a result of her mother who bashed her head against a wall when she was a little tacker. She'd suspected this as a teenager but didn't have the proof. Her mother had told her that the dents in her head were a result of a forceps birth delivery. When she tried to access police records of the night her parents tied her up, handcuffed and drugged her, they could not be found. I remember and I hope that counts.
It broke Penny's heart when she found out that The Professionals who came in contact with her when she was a child, all knew what was happening to her and they repeatedly sent her back to a mother who had let them know that she wanted to kill her. This included doctors at the Children's Hospital.
It breaks my heart to know that she's taken all of the prescribed medication in an effort for The Professionals to fix her and these have taken their toll. Now, in her late thirties, she's educated and far from here. She tells me that I "saved" her. "Penny, darling," I tell her. "You, with your openness and honesty save me. You save me from slipping into silences about kids just like you, and me. I cannot tell you how glad I am that you have finally found professionals who hear and believe in you."