“We had nothing, literally nothing. We had — I can’t even say the clothes on our back … they were ripped, tattered, ankle freezers, too small … shoes that were holey. Oh God.”
Monique is speaking about growing up in the most run-down section of one of Melbourne’s poorest suburbs, Broadmeadows.
And now, on a cold grey day, she’s come to revisit the scene of her nightmarish childhood — the block of public housing known as the “Broadie Bronx”.
“It’s like the house of f***ing horrors,” Monique mutters as she stands in front of the bleak 70s-style double-storey unit she lived in with her drug-addled step-mother and terrifyingly violent father.
Monique lived here until she was rescued by a cousin, Peter, and his partner, Mel, themselves just young parents with an eight-month old baby.
Peter and Mel took her into their family in an act of love that almost certainly saved Monique’s life.
That was a decade ago.
Since then Peter and Mel have cared not just for Monique but for five other young relatives who couldn’t live with their families, mostly due to drug addiction.
The couple are among at least 10,000 Australians aged 30 and under who are caring for younger relatives.
It’s called kinship care and it’s the fastest growing type of care for children who can’t live at home.
Monique’s story illustrates how with courage, determination and generosity young lives can be saved — but as you’ll see, it isn’t easy.
“There was drugs, alcoholism, abuse, child abuse. Domestic violence with their step mum. Neglect. You name it, Monique’s gone through it,” Mel said.
Monique was born addicted to methadone. She spent the first three months of her life in hospital, suffering withdrawals.
But her drug addict mother was allowed to take the tiny infant home.
Luckily, Monique’s cousin Peter, aged just 17 at the time, was around to look after her.
“I used to sleep on the fold out couch in the loungeroom and Monique used to sleep next to me. I used to feed her and change her and everything like that,” Peter remembers.
“It was hard. There were times when she wouldn’t stop crying for hours and hours. Her mum was there but she did nothing,”
But when Monique’s father got out of jail, he made it clear it was time for Peter to go.
“It was heartbreaking to give her back. I didn’t want to. I felt like I’d done all this and you’re going to walk back in and take over?” Peter said.
Monique was left to survive as best she could.
“I think that’s the saddest part. When I look back at my childhood I can’t remember even one good thing,” Monique said.
“All of it is overclouded by me laying in bed crying, listening to my mum get bashed, screaming for her life.
“Or my brother getting hit, or I’m getting hit, or someone’s getting hit.”
When Monique was aged four her mother took her own life.
She remembers going without food for days.
Violence at the hands of her father was normal.
“One of my siblings was crying because he’d [her father] just bashed my step-mum and she was pregnant,” she said.
“I went over to comfort my sibling and he said ‘don’t touch her’ and picked me up by the hair and threw me into a cabinet.”
Her father formed a new relationship with a woman, Sheridan, who was also addicted to drugs.
“Heroin, ice, methadone, marijuana, pills, Xanax,” Monique remembers.
“Anything they could get their hands on, literally anything.”
Instead of paying the rent and bills and looking after their kids and feeding them, they would spend money on drugs and alcohol.
“You’d never see my dad without a VB can. That was his priority. We were just a pay cheque,” Monique said.
She recalls one day being excited that her father agreed to take the family to the local pool.
“When we were ready to go Sheridan said, ‘Come on, let’s go’, and they were playing Play Station and James (Monique’s brother) turned off the Play Station, so my dad cracked the shits and hit him and stabbed Sheridan in the head for no reason,” Monique recalls.
“That was a normal day. Yeah, a normal day.”
Even now, Monique won’t go out at night on her own.
She is doing a hospitality course one day a week in the city, but races to get the train home before the sun goes down.
Being in the city at night brings back memories of being with her out-of-control father and step-mother.
“They’d go into the city and take drugs and be passing out, staggering through the streets of the city,” she said.
“Then I’d have to drag them to the train and get them on the train to make sure we all got home.
“And then I’d be walking through the Broadie Bronx at 2 in the morning. Hadn’t eaten. Eight years old. Six, seven, eight, I was going through that.”
At the age of nine, Monique’s step-mother died from a drug overdose in the Broadie Bronx.
With her father in jail, Monique stayed with various relatives until she came to live with Mel and Peter.
Mel was just 19 at the time, with an eight-month-old baby of her own.
Her heart went out to the little girl. Mel had had a similar upbringing.
“I grew up with my parents being drug-affected and never put us first,” Mel remembers.
“I lived in my room as a teenager, DHS (Department of Human Services) in and out of my life. As a young kid me not talking, saying nothing happened in my life, because I had to go home.
“I was going home to the perpetrators who were doing stuff to me, I couldn’t say nothing because I was going home to get bashed.
“I didn’t say nothing until I was old enough and I moved out when I was 16.”
Despite her own abusive childhood, Mel prides herself on defying family history.
“Someone needs to be a voice for these kids. Someone has to protect these kids,” Mel said.
“It is their right to be a parent but it’s not their right to treat their child with neglect and put their needs first. When you’re a parent you’re a parent, and your child’s needs come first.”
Despite having limited income, and raising her own 9-year-old son, Mel is now considering becoming a foster mother to other children in need.
“It’s so worth it. As hard as it was, because there were times when it was really hard, I’d just think, ‘Mel, you’re doing a good job’. Having your own child, it’s great, but helping a child who has been in danger, it’s more rewarding,” she said.
Monique was safe and loved at Mel and Peter’s place.
But it took time for her to adjust.
“Getting up going to school, having dinner every night, brushing my teeth, having clean clothes, going to bed, having new clothes, new shoes, having everything I needed, having all my school stuff, having lunch for school!
“It wasn’t until I had had that for a year and I knew it wasn’t going anywhere that I felt, okay, this is normal,” Monique said.
But against her wishes, a court ordered Monique to see her father, and Mel was forced to take her.
“She would cry, carry on, wouldn’t get out of the car, would be in hysterics, didn’t want to see him, didn’t want to go to her dad’s, but it was court ordered and I had to do it,” Mel said.
Mel fought for seven years to get permanent care of Monique.
Both Monique and Mel are scathing of the role child services played in their lives.
Monique says in the first nine years of her life, Department of Human Services made numerous home visits.
But she says each time she was threatened or bribed by her father about what to say.
“As long as DHS comes to our house and, yay! We’re smiling and our house is clean and we get fed every day. That’s bullshit! That’s how people fall through the cracks.
“And it still happens today, literally. You don’t know what happens behind closed doors. No-one does,” Monique said, shaking her head.
A departmental spokesman said, “The Department of Health and Human Services does not comment on individual cases”.
“Decisions about children’s safety and well-being are made based on available evidence — with protection orders made by the Children’s Court.”
Thousands of kinship carers — ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Melbourne University researcher Meredith Kiraly says there’s very little support for kinship carers or awareness they even exist.
“I think of them as ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Sometimes they’re raising other people’s children against amazing odds. They might have very little money, managing very challenging families around them,” Ms Kiraly said.
Mel received regular government payments to care for Monique, but not all kinship carers do, particularly if it is an informal family custody arrangement.
Ms Kiraly has been interviewing dozens of young kinship carers around the country.
She’s identified at least 10,000 aged 30 or under but says there could be several times as many in that age bracket alone.
With the support of Peter and Mel, Monique finished her Year 12 VCE last year.
She hopes to go on to university and study criminal justice.
She says without Mel and Peter taking her in as a member of the family, she would probably be on the streets or on drugs or dead.
“There’s still kids in the system that are just being ignored. That’s why I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” Monique said.
“I have a good life. My life’s good. I’ve finished school, I have clothes on my back, a roof over my head, I have everything I need, but there’s kids out there that don’t have that.
“So I don’t want people to feel sorry for me.”
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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