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Accredited mental health social worker, PhD candidate, and activist, Isabella Kristo (b. 1982), was in foster care as a child and teenager.

Isabella was born in Sydney, Australia. According to medical records, she was taken by ambulance to a hospital after being born at a location unknown to her. At first, Isabella lived with her mother and older brother, who was ten years older. Her younger brother was born two years later.

Isabella’s family was already well known to child protection services before her birth. Her first notification to child protection services occurred when she was only two weeks old. Isabella’s older brother left the family home when she was about two years old. She does not know if he ran away or was taken into care.

Isabella’s mother was unable to care for her children properly due to her struggle with chronic mental illness. Their father was a much older man who never lived with them. Isabella saw her father on Fridays after school and on Sunday afternoons. Only her younger brother was allowed to stay with their father overnight. Isabella was told by her mother that this was because she was a girl, and “girls need to be with their mothers.” The children were isolated and had no connections with extended family, other than with her older half-brother whom she shared with her father but saw infrequently.

Isabella suffered severe physical and mental abuse and neglect on a daily basis. She and her younger brother were often cold, hungry, and left alone from a young age. Her mother’s behaviour was violent and unpredictable.

Isabella also witnessed violence at the hands of her older brother, who also struggled with mental health issues, in part due to their mother’s abuse. Once, at the age of nineteen, her brother turned up at their house armed with a machete intending to kill their mother. Isabella, who was nine years old at the time, was knocked off her feet when her brother barged in. She didn’t see him again until the week before he passed away from cancer, aged twenty-nine.

“It was a Sunday afternoon. I was hiding behind the door in my bedroom, and I thought I was going to die… He was trying to stab her and she was yelling. Later I found out that she was holding him back while lying in bed.”

But for Isabella, the hardest part of her childhood and adult years was not being nurtured by her mother or a mother figure. Isabella would be forced outdoors before dawn and not allowed back in the house until after dark. She remembers wandering the neighbourhood as a toddler, pretending to be lost in the hope that another family would take her in.

Isabella holds the child protection authorities accountable for allowing her and her brothers to remain in an abusive home for so many years. It took a near-death experience for the authorities to finally intervene.

“I was continuously hungry during those twelve years, cold, injured, in danger, and often alone. Child services visited the home on numerous occasions and interviewed me at school… I was never removed until one morning after my mother strangled me, and I went to school with bruises on my neck.”

Isabella and her younger brother were permanently removed from their mother’s care that same day. At first, the siblings were sent to live with their father. But by that stage, he was already elderly and unwell. Shortly after, Isabella and her brother were placed in a foster home because their father was hospitalised for a long period of time.

With so many changes in Isabella’s life came another big surprise. It turned out that she was a year and a half younger than she had thought. She learned that her mother altered her birth certificate so that Isabella could begin attending school sooner.

“When they went to put my paperwork together for the Children’s Court, they found that my mother had changed my date of birth… So I have multiple birth certificates.”

Isabella and her brother changed placements frequently. Soon, they were separated. The only connections that Isabella had left were at school. She was determined not to lose those as well.

“I stayed in the child service protection office for what seemed like several hours one day, sitting on a desk, refusing to leave my school. And they would say, ‘We’re not paying your school fees.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m still going to turn up tomorrow.’ I had to fight really hard to have that stability in my life.”

In the end, Isabella was able to continue to attend the school where she felt secure. The school did not cancel her enrolment when the fees went unpaid, for a considerable amount of time. Her friends and teachers were incredibly supportive, sometimes taking her in overnight.

“There was a foster placement that was very far away from my school, and so often a day or two during the week, I would stay at one of my teacher’s or friends’ houses.”

Isabella’s final placement was identified via a school connection. A local family agreed to allow Isabella to live with them on their property in a dwelling separate to the family home. She stayed there from the age of fifteen until she was twenty.

But even getting to this arrangement was a hard-fought battle. After a series of temporary family placements in ‘crisis care’, Isabella’s caseworker intended to place her in residential care. But Isabella was worried about the predicted poor outcomes of growing up in residential care.

“I refused to reside in residential care. I had a supportive magistrate presiding over my wardship case in Children’s Court who wanted me to be in a family setting as I did, despite the push from child services to place me in residential care… We met monthly for quite a while, and kept returning… It was a stalemate.”

After finishing high school, Isabella began studying social work at university. She has now been working in the social work profession for nearly twenty years. Isabella’s specialty is mental health social work. She has worked in a number of different settings, including acute care hospitals, and on crisis help lines. Isabella now provides clinical work in private practice as an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, and teaches social work education at The University of Sydney.

Isabella believes that her time in care helped her to develop compassion for others and an interest in social work. She has a very rewarding career and is highly accomplished in the field.

Isabella holds a Master of Social Work Counselling with High Distinction. Her Masters thesis on mental health outcomes and psychological strategies for aphasic stroke survivors was awarded the Dean’s Award at the University of New South Wales and was published in an A1 journal.

“I have loved every minute of being able to assist others in their time of acute need and ongoing… I feel privileged to be able to do this work.”

Isabella believes her biggest accomplishment, though, is to be able to provide her own children with the loving childhood she never had. Isabella married at the age of twenty-two and started a family later in her twenties.  

“Rearing my three children with my husband is my greatest accomplishment. They’re gorgeous, happy, and healthy children, and I love watching them grow.”

Isabella lost her father at the age of seventeen, post-stroke, while she was still in care. She was grateful to have had the opportunity for closer contact with her father in her teens. Ten years later, her mother died of cancer. Isabella reconnected with her mother in her mid-twenties, when she became her legal guardian after her mother’s suicide attempt.

“It was something that I knew that I could do well, that gave me some peace and closure to our relationship. Rather than being the one that was relying on being nurtured, it actually suited me to be the nurturer, and I know it was of benefit to her at the end.”

Isabella is a strong advocate for extending out-of-home care until the age of twenty-one and beyond, nationally in Australia. She believes that raising the age of receiving care can “significantly reduce negative, social, mental, and physical health outcomes and bolster the educational attainments and social connectedness” for future generations of young people.

Isabella would like care leavers to have greater access to funding for mental health support and mentoring. She emphasises that such support should not end at the age of twenty-five because the impact of care experience extends well into adulthood. Isabella stresses the importance of and trauma-informed medical care and notes that care leavers are disproportionately likely to struggle with complex health issues. She believes that there should be greater financial assistance to provide health interventions and other support to meet the needs of care leavers.

Isabella is now a PhD candidate at The University of Sydney. Her research explores the impact of recent legislative changes which provides funding and other support to enable care leavers in New South Wales to remain in their placements beyond age eighteen. She is coordinating a group of stakeholders from thirteen organisations for her research, which is the first to examine extended out-of-home care in New South Wales.

“I do believe that my research, my PhD, is a form of activism… This research centres the voices of care alumni as experts whose knowledge, recommendations, and experience will… ensure that the new extended care, policy, and any future amendments are evidence-based and grounded in the lived experience of care alumni.”

Image supplied.