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Trigger warning: this story includes mentions of family violence, child neglect and drug abuse

“My daddy is a super spy,” seven-year-old Harper* once said to her teacher. “That’s why he’s never home.”

It’s true that children say all sorts of imaginative things, but Harper made up so many stories about her life that her teachers started to wonder what was happening at home.

Other signs indicated that Harper was experiencing neglect, and possibly trauma and abuse. Harper’s uniform was dirty, she often came to school with no lunch, and she had such a terrible lice infestation that her head was covered in sores.

Harper’s trauma was also obvious in her behaviour, as she would often stare blankly at the wall at school and not respond to her teachers. She was also needy for adult attention, and without enough food to nourish her, she found it hard to concentrate and learn.

Harper’s home was a place of fear and neglect

When Berry Street staff visited Harper’s home, we learned that her father had been absent for a long time. Harper had made up stories about her parents to pretend her life was better than it was because her imagination was a safer space than her home.

Before he left, her father had consistently used violence against Harper’s mother, Anita*, who had experienced family violence most of her life. Harper desperately needed help, but so did her mum. This is where the breadth of Berry Street’s programs and services is so important in ensuring the long-term health and recovery of children like Harper and their parents.

Anita needed support to process and recover from her trauma, and for a time, Harper needed to live outside the home. She needed to feel safe, cared for and nurtured, and she needed good food and consistent care so she could start to thrive.

Harper felt safe for the first time in her life

When Harper was placed with a Berry Street foster carer, at first, she hoarded food because she was so used to there being nothing to eat at home. She couldn’t sleep with the light off because she’d always been scared at home. But thanks to the care provided by her foster carer, as well as many hours of specialist therapy and trauma-informed support at school, Harper started to feel safe for the first time in her life.

Harper’s school was a crucial part of Harper’s and her mother’s recovery. The staff, including teachers and the wellbeing coordinator, had been trained in the Berry Street Education Model. This meant that her teacher and wellbeing coordinator were able to recognise Harper’s behaviour for what it was: signs of trauma, violence and neglect.

After even a short time with her foster carer, Harper no longer felt isolated, hungry and unwell. When her eighth birthday came around, she was so excited because she could finally, for the first time in her life, have a party with friends. She’d never felt special before but now, she felt safe and supported at her foster home to invite friends over to celebrate. This was a great sign that Harper was recovering because often the isolation of being affected by trauma means children struggle to make friends.

Harper’s mum recovered from her trauma

Anita also began to turn her life around thanks to counselling and parenting support from Berry Street. She put in so much hard work, showed up for all her appointments, and was able to demonstrate she could care for Harper.

With the support of Berry Street staff, Harper and Anita were enabled to live together again, once it was safe and Anita could demonstrate she could provide the care and nurturing that Harper needed. It was a joyous day when Harper returned home, to a safe space, back to her mum who loved her. With ongoing support and therapy, Harper and her mum continue to recover together – and they’re even starting to thrive in a way they never have before.

Donations from kind-hearted Berry Street supporters help thousands of children like Harper who can’t live safely at home, helping to provide the trauma-informed care they need to recover. Any child who has experienced violence, abuse and neglect needs wraparound support in all parts of their lives, and thanks to our donors, we can help more kids like Harper to thrive and feel safe and hopeful.

Stories like this are made possible through the support of our regular donors. You can learn more about our regular giving program here or find out about becoming a Berry Street foster carer here.

*Model image used and names have been changed to protect the privacy of the children and young people in our care.