CPU helps give Angie her voice back

Katie* always thought her and her daughter, Angie*, lived quite a sweet life.

She describes Angie as having a beautiful character and together, they shared a close bond.

But in her teenage years, Angie began to change.

“She had a lot of rage. I was dealing with a very different child to the one I brought up,” Katie said.

A few months later, Angie disclosed to her mum that she had been abused in many forms by a boy she was in a relationship with.

All of a sudden, Katie felt her daughter’s innocence had been stripped away and she knew from that moment, their lives would never be the same.

“I had a child who was in so much trauma. She had been through such a bad experience and it took her a while to open up to me. Once she did, I got her help straight away,” Katie said.

“I just felt like we were drowning. No parent wants this to happen to their child.”

Angie was referred by a youth mental health service to the Child Protection Unit (CPU) at the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network (SCHN).

The Network’s CPU is available 24/7 and is comprised of a multidisciplinary team of social workers, doctors, occupational therapists, child life therapists and support staff.

This speciality service provides critical support and therapy to children, young people, and their families, who have experienced significant child safety concerns, including sexual assault, physical abuse, neglect and domestic and family violence.

Katie and Angie were apprehensive to make contact at first but once they met social worker Natalie Elias, they knew they had come to the right place.

Listen to Angie and Katie's story on ABC Radio.

”It was pretty hard at first telling my story to Natalie because I was scared about opening up to people. I wanted to talk about it but also every time I did, I got really upset,” Angie said.

“I was just so angry and felt like my life turned on me. Everything in my life just felt completely different and I was so angry this happened to me.

“But with Natalie, I felt so comfortable and not judged. I had someone telling me it wasn’t my fault and someone there to give me support whenever I needed it.”

The CPU supported the family with in-house counselling and provided Angie the tools she needed to work through her trauma.

“The focus was on giving Angie her voice and strength back to her,” Natalie said.

“Giving her the tools to understand what’s happened, why things are the way they are for her, and how she has responded to that. It was about helping her find her confidence and work with how brave she is.”

Not only did Angie receive counselling, but so did her mother Katie.

“That was very changing for me as well, in accepting that what happened was nothing we had did,” Katie said.

"It was important to me, as a mother, for them to say that it was okay to have a bad day, it’s okay to not cope sometimes and that tomorrow will be better. I really appreciated them as guidance.”

“I kept asking Natalie if Angie would get better and she kept reassuring me there would be light at the end of the tunnel. This awful thing happened to us, but at CPU they held our hand. They never judged us. They were always believing.”

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, more than 178,800 children (less than 18 years of age) were supported by state and territory child protection services in 2020-21.

In NSW alone, more than 58,400 children received support from child protection services, equating to one in 33 children.

Bernadette Walsh, Clinical Coordinator of the CPU, said while the effects of trauma and neglect is long lasting, recovery is possible.

“Trauma and neglect can affect a child’s physical, psychological, emotional, behavioural and social development throughout their lifespan but with the right support and help from a professional, it is not impossible to overcome,” Bernadette said.

“More recent research has highlighted the value of Positive Childhood Experiences (PCES). This includes the fact that if children and young people have at least one safe adult who is interested in them and supports them with their health and wellbeing that can be a protective factor against abuse and neglect.

“As child healthcare advocates at SCHN, the health, safety and wellbeing of children is at the forefront of everything we do. We're dedicated to protecting and supporting children, young people and their families.

“All children and young people have a right to grow up safe and supported.”

For families like Katie and Angie’s, this makes the world of difference.

“My life has started getting back to normal, I’m getting back into a normal routine. I’m not angry anymore. I rarely think about it and I’m not constantly shaken up about it,” Angie said.

 Child Protection Week runs from 4 - 10 September and is an initiative of the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN).

 If you suspect a child may be at risk, please call the Family and Community Services (FaCS) Helpline on 132 111. For more information on domestic violence prevention please visit http://napcan.org.au/

*Names have been changed