Leanne Claussen describes herself as a mother of 6 children with 10 years of lived experience in the Queensland child protection system. From her experiences, she has developed Leanne’s Gift, a self-help book, an information pack and so much more, for parents who are going through the complexities she experienced. Through these substantial offerings, painstakingly written and devised, Leanne talks about many pertinent issues including: what happens when the Department of Child Safety staff remove children from their parent/s and home; what is needed when writing an affidavit; and coping with the reality of very limited time spent with your children.

Through her enormous endeavour, Leanne has brought significant information for parents into one place that is easily accessible and user friendly. She’s also brought genuine heart felt processes back into a space for the heart broken: “Losing my children was the worst thing that ever happened to me and I had to learn how to be their mum in this system and rebuild my relationship with them with very restrictive options.”

Leanne aims to holistically and caringly support parents who are experiencing the same trauma she knows too well by offering information that is succinct and readily available when they need it most. “In 2009 my children were removed from my care. I had been in a domestic violence relationship for 13 years and I finally had the strength to leave. However, I couldn’t cope on my own. I wasn’t able to look after my children the way I should have and other people could see that I wasn’t coping so they contacted the Department. The Department saw that I wasn’t coping and removed my children. I acknowledge that I needed help. I was down and didn’t know how to get back up after years of abuse. I’m glad the Department intervened but I don’t think my children should have been taken into long term care.”

Leanne is clear that she wasn’t meeting her children’s holistic needs but she’s also clear that there were better ways to respond to her crisis and her children’s immediate and long-term care needs. “It is really hard to be a parent with children in care, because alongside the trauma of losing your children and their pain of being taken from you, everyone in society thinks you’ve physically, sexually or emotionally abused them or neglected them. Somehow it seems that they just see abuse or living in an unclean house. Yet that isn’t real for many clients. I needed help. I know I wasn’t coping but I was doing my best whilst struggling. I would have appreciated help but was too ashamed to ask for it. I needed help to build myself back up again. I wish I could have been the mum I am now to my children back then.”

For Leanne, the biggest trial came when her children were placed in long term care. She reflects that once her children were taken into care, she went into fight mode: “For the first 5 years I fought the Department and it got me nowhere. I was so angry and frustrated and hurt.” She said that she found Kyabra and participated in their Parent Trail program. In doing so, she learned so much about herself. She notes that she also benefitted from participating in the KNIT program (now Life Skills) with David Rolls at Logan East Community Centre. Leanne has since been informed that the Life Skills program that helped her so much no longer receives government funding. She is hopeful that this loss can be addressed given that so many parents have benefitted from completing the program.

Another significant turning point for Leanne was finding the Family Inclusion Network, South East Queensland (FIN SEQ) which she describes as a place where parent’s voices matter: “I was accepted even though I was angry and resentful. It was a life changing experience, especially being with other parents going through the same thing. By 2015 I was struggling with the Department. My kids are all in care until their 18th birthdays. I wanted my kids back. I wanted to have the best relationship I could with my kids. I could only see them once a month. This was heartbreaking. I know I dropped the ball but then to be given monthly contact for a couple of hours each visit over 5 years was very difficult. By the time I saw them, it took almost an hour for them to start to warm to me and soon after it was time for them to go home. That isn’t in the Child Protection Act. Longterm guardianship doesn’t need to mean such minimal monthly contact.”

Leanne is clear that the Department and all involved need to realise the harm that such limited contact does to a relationship between a mother and child. “We all know that children often return home to parents when they leave care so we need to make sure that we are ready to care for them. I’ve worked on myself to do that and be that parent.”

Leanne is totally committed to being a mum to her children whilst they are in care and when they return home. Her 6 children are now 14 to 26 years of age. Her 22 and 26-year-old children live with her. She has ongoing relationships with all of her children, including her 14-year-old, 15-year-old twins and 18-year-old. Her 22-year-old son, who was in care, has assisted her in understanding the perspective of being in care at the various stages of his life which include his experiences as a child and teenager and the impact as a young adult.

“I spent the time that my children were in care working on myself, to make sure I was going to be the best mum I could be when they came home. It took me a long time to become a person, separate from being a parent. My identity was wrapped up in being a mum. I had to learn how to be a parent whilst I wasn’t actually parenting. With the trauma of losing your children, you become two people. You become a different person when you have children, when they’re removed you go into a different sphere – at contact you are Mum; then you come home to their things in your home but your children aren’t there and you can’t mother. There is this huge mourning period. The Department expects you to be on the ball but you’re stuck in this weird place in between two worlds. You can’t be all of you. You’re you but not all of you. You’re two people. Working through that emotionally and accepting the situation and looking at yourself through difference lenses is complex. You do everything you can to think of anything you can do to help your children through the process such as listening to them, being there for them as much as possible and finding programs that you feel could help them. It is hard and it’s heartbreaking but you need to focus on your children.”

Leanne acknowledged that it wasn’t easy and it still isn’t easy. She goes up and down. She’s tried to build the most positive relationships she can with both her children and Departmental staff. “I have to approach each situation with a positive attitude. I have a voice now and I’m going to use it to bring parent’s voices to the Department and maybe we can undo a bit of the damage of the stigma of being a client. The public thinks if you have kids in care you’ve abused them or live in an unclean house. Most of the time, it’s just people who need help and are afraid to seek help because they don’t want to lose their children.”

In order to transform her relationship with the Child Safety Officer (CSO), Leanne noted that she needed to change her mindset. She acknowledged that you can’t change others, you can only change yourself. She looked for points of similarity in the CSO and realised that she cared for her children too. They both wanted the best for Leanne’s children which was a point of connection Leanne worked with. “In doing that, the CSO noticed I was no longer the person in the case file. Instead I was a loving, caring parent, who just wanted the best for my children. When I did the Family Inclusion Network Parent Leadership Training Program (PLTI) I learned intellect over emotion amongst so many other things. The CSO brought my children to my PLTI Graduation on a weekend in her own time. She wanted to ensure that my children witnessed my success. That was a huge gift to me and my children.”

From there on, Leanne learned that the key to her relationship with her children is the relationship with the Department. Her advice is: “Focus on your common ground which is your children. That’s why I wrote my self-help book: A self-help guide to working your way through the Queensland Child Protection System which is inside my information pack, Leanne’s Gift. Parents on a Mission has created 100 bags to give to parents for free because we believe in it so much. Leanne’s Gift aims to empower parents when they’re in their most disempowered state. I hope to have the Department on board and mass produce this resource for all parents in contact with Child Safety.”

Today, Leanne is the Founder and CEO of Parents on a Mission, which launched in January 2019. This is an organisation that works in multiple areas. Through mentoring, Parents on a Mission is intent on assisting parents with innovative ideas who may not have the funds to bring their ideas to life: “We hold bi monthly meetings with parents helping them at all points of their journey. We have mentors and help people at all stages of their business idea or ideas that will benefit the community,” said Leanne.

Parents on a Mission is keen to work in both the child protection and disability sectors. Leanne is using her voice to share her lived experience to assist others. Parents on a Mission is currently having conversations with the Department of Child Safety and community organisations to ascertain how they can be of assistance.

Over the past few weeks, Leanne has been a keynote speaker at the Global Day of Parents Forum and the National Child Protection Conference. “I have had very positive responses to my information pack. I see Leanne’s Gift as not only helping parents to navigate the child protection system but also as a resource for the Department and agencies that work within the system. My aim is to obtain a long-term government contract to mass produce Leanne’s Gift with the intention of reproducing copies relevant to all states in Australia, prepared in all languages, with scope for a smaller pack for parents with an intellectual impairment paired with a companion pack for their families and carers.”

Ensuring that all involved in the child protection system are seen, heard and part of the conversation is central to Leanne’s mission: “That’s why we call ourselves Parents on a Mission. When we understand where each other is coming from, we can genuinely work together to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our children,” she said.

Leanne is hopeful about the future: “As the Department starts to allow this work to happen whereby clients are involved with the Department and carers, I am hoping that attitudes will change. The Department teaches us and we reciprocate. I’d like to see the Department having open minds about clients being peer mentors and about clients working with the Department in system and practice improvement. I’m very positive about where we’re at right now. The Department seem to want to hear the voices of parents and that’s really heartening.”

For more information visit Parents On A Mission.