Back to family!

Back to family!

Elizabeth and Ronda

Thirty-five years was a long time to wait for someone to ask the question she most wanted to hear. When you can’t speak, or read, or write, you need someone who can put themselves in your shoes, in your skin and looking through your eyes. Someone who is prepared to understand that what is most important to you is just what is most important to everyone else. Someone who wants you to have the good life that others have.

Ronda asked that question because she wasn’t sitting there with a “case”, or a “client”, she was sitting with a friend she loved. She realised that the violence, abuse and loneliness her friend had experienced was a consequence of something that was completely missing in her life. So she asked the question “Would you like to try to find your family?”

Elizabeth was a teenager when she came to Australia from New Zealand. She did not know why she was coming here or how long she would be staying and, most distressingly for someone with such strong family connections, she never had the opportunity to say goodbye to the ones she loved. Her family searched for her, even registering her as a missing person, but she seemed to have disappeared. In Australia, Elizabeth waited for the day she could go home. Waited and waited, but the day never came.

Elizabeth became known in her local community as a cheerful, loving and thoughtful person. She lived a quiet life, well protected from anyone who might harm her. She made the most of the life she had but she still waited.

Then disaster struck and Elizabeth was plunged into a cycle of despair, loneliness and shocking abuse. The man who had brought her to Australia, had cared for her and protected her, died after a long illness. Government bureaucrats, now responsible for her care, moved a man Elizabeth did not know into her home. She began to be abused almost immediately, and life became intolerable in what was previously a quiet, harmonious family home.

Elizabeth could not ask, but she had another question. Who will protect me now? Ronda heard about Citizen Advocacy by listening to an interview on ABC radio while she was driving home from another long day at work. She was intrigued by the idea that ordinary people in the community can provide what vulnerable and isolated people with disability need most and so rarely get.

That what really makes us safe, secure, and happy, are the relationships that we have with others. Having people in our lives who value us, protect us when we need it, and advocate for us when we need that. What those vulnerable and isolated people need most from the community they live in is to be valued, protected and “spoken up for” by at least one person. It’s a simple idea, it’s one that works, and for many people it’s very refreshing to find that being able to do something so life changing is within the reach of every ordinary citizen.

When Ronda and Elizabeth met, they formed a strong bond almost immediately. Even though Elizabeth was limited to yes and no answers, good conversation was no problem and Ronda found out much about Elizabeth that the “experts” never knew. What Ronda knew was how to ask the right questions. They found that they had much in common. They were both strong women with a firm belief in fairness and justice. Ronda learned more about the abuse Elizabeth was experiencing and was shocked that the people who were responsible for her situation, who should have known better, were refusing to correct their terrible decisions.

Ronda immediately took steps to protect Elizabeth from harm. She knew that the community expected that their Government would care for vulnerable people with disability, give them a good life, and at the very least protect them from harm. After all that’s one of the reasons people pay taxes. They certainly don’t expect that their taxes will be used to support a situation where a vulnerable woman with a disability is forced to live with black eyes, bruises and regular abuse.

For years Ronda attended meetings, wrote letters and made phone calls, in a concerted effort to see Elizabeth “get a fair go” from the people who controlled her life. However, her involvement wasn’t all about challenging wrongdoers. Ronda and Elizabeth became well known, and were often seen together about town shopping, at the movies, swimming, and at the club listening to music with wine glasses in hand. Ronda found some more things about Elizabeth. She discovered Elizabeth’s brave and adventurous side when she took to surfing with great enthusiasm.

Ronda was always looking for ways that Elizabeth could meet more people and make more friends. She knew that what makes for a safe, secure and satisfying life are the personal relationships we have with others. More people in Elizabeth’s life, especially when no family were around, meant more safety, simple as that! One of the ways Ronda used to get other people involved was to start a Facebook page for Elizabeth. It worked well and a whole world of social media opened up.

Then one day … they were checking Facebook … and Ronda asked … “Would you like to try to find your family?” Elizabeth’s smile lit up. Finally, after all these years, the question had come that she had been waiting for. Events moved quickly. Ronda found a Facebook group family page in New Zealand with Elizabeth’s name. A message was quickly composed and sent.

All it took for the whole world to change was ten short minutes. The first message was heart breaking. “Can this really be my sister we have been looking for all these years?” Soon after came other messages, and photographs, from brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces, a whole extended family wildly excited to hear that the long lost family member was finally back in their lives.

Elizabeth’s family asked Ronda to bring her to New Zealand for a very important family event. Arrangements were quickly made and Ronda and Elizabeth flew to New Zealand for the great family reunion.

A remarkable thing happened during the trip. Elizabeth left Australia as a vulnerable woman with disability, seen by bureaucrats as a difficult problem they needed to solve.

She arrived in New Zealand and became a much loved and respected Matriarch in her family, a Sister, an Aunt, a Great Aunt and because her family had remembered her, an important traditional land owner. It became clear that Elizabeth needed to be home permanently with her family. She wanted it, and her family wanted it, but Ronda knew that the last thing that Elizabeth needed was more uncertainty in her life. So they did the responsible thing. Reluctantly Elizabeth returned to Australia and Ronda set about doing the many things that needed to be done. She negotiated, she cajoled, she demanded and she arranged for Elizabeth to have a safe and secure life with her family in New Zealand and then she arranged some more.

When it was all done, Elizabeth had a home waiting for her with some of her family living just around the corner. She had people ready to support her who respected her. She was finally ready to be back in the embrace of her family and her community. Elizabeth and Ronda left for New Zealand fare-welled by those who loved Elizabeth, shared her joy at going home, and celebrated her finally having what she had silently waited for all those long years.

The lesson for all of us from Elizabeth’s experiences, is that no amount of Government funding, new policies, professional expertise, or good intentions can guarantee that vulnerable people like Elizabeth will always be protected from harm and permitted to have the good life they deserve.