A story that teaches: Emu
A class had been set up specifically for the social and emotional learning needs of a number of young girls. The mother of one student we call Emu, age 10, had recently died from a drug overdose, and Emu was really struggling with grief associated with the loss of her mother. Emu was also being subjected to bullying from the other girls.
Mother’s Day was approaching. A staff member organised for the girls to create a card for each mother, or caring person, often grandmothers, in their lives. It is always important to be sensitive to the needs of all students.
A decision was made to take Emu to visit her mother’s grave, to deliver some flowers and the card she had made. Parental permission was received to include all the girls from the class in the graveside visit. This had a very powerful impact on the other girls, as they came to understand the deep loss Emu had experienced. This changed their behaviour towards her. The bullying stopped. They became supportive and caring, as they worked to include her in all of their activities.
As they gained her trust, she started to confide in them about serious child protection issues she was experiencing since the death of her mother. They told a staff member, also advising them that she needed underwear.
After the mandatory notification was made, the Joint Investigative Review Team (JIRT) came to the school to interview Emu. They did not bring an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander team member, nor a support person. On arriving, they focused on setting up the video to record the interview, without attempting to engage with Emu, who became anxious and upset, and walked out of the interview room, not to return.
Discussion and points for further consideration:
There are a number of lessons here. Because the school knew of the death of the mother, they were sensitive to the meaning of a Mother’s Day activity for Emu. The visit to the gravesite with her school companions opened their capacity to be compassionate and caring, to the extent she confided in them about what was happening to her. They then went to the school staff member with their concerns, resulting in a mandatory report.
Children are often at increased risk at such vulnerable times in their lives. The JIRT team showed a level of insensitivity in the way they set up their equipment before their proposed interview with Emu. She would have been terrified. If the first priority had been to engage with her, instead of focusing on setting up the technology while she sat watching and waiting, the outcome could have been very different.
It is important to be aware of compounded loss, grief and trauma in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ lives, which can be generational. There is no deficit and there should be no judgement. We do not know what may have contributed to the mother’s need to use drugs. There is just pain and trying to cope with pain, across generations.
However, some people may have negative beliefs about themselves. Emu may have had such beliefs, but when her class companions showed her compassion, she confided in them and was willing to talk to the JIRT team. She was not choosing silence but lacked compassionate listeners.
However, the JIRT Team showed a lack of professional understanding of, or compassion for the needs of a child they were about to interview on sexual abuse matters. The other students responded with compassion and care because they had become aware.
It is important to take time to get to know not just a child, but their extended family, and to look for strengths. However, we must also be aware of times of vulnerability. Being different and having different beliefs, values and experiences does not mean a child or their family are inferior, but they may be struggling with generational grief and trauma.