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Australian PhD candidate Stacey Page (b. 1987) was in informal kinship care for most of her childhood.

Stacey was born in Benalla, a small country town in Victoria. Her mother worked in a brothel and her father was a client. However, Stacey did not learn the truth about her father until she was in her twenties. Stacey’s mother intentionally became pregnant so that she could raise a child with her girlfriend, who already had two daughters from a previous relationship.

When Stacey was two years old, her mother was badly injured in a car accident. Shortly after, she and her girlfriend separated. The girlfriend was going to raise Stacey, but Stacey’s mum’s family intervened since the girlfriend was having an affair with another woman.

Stacey and her mother moved to Adelaide to be near family. Stacey’s mother was wheelchair bound for a long-time after the car accident and was struggling with physical and mental health problems. Stacey’s mother became heavily dependant on prescribed opioid pain medications and was not able to look after Stacey.

One of my aunties told me she was worried that my mum would accidentally kill me, or something terrible would happen because of mum being on so much medication; mum had anger problems and was passed out a lot.

A decision was made in consultation with a General Practitioner at the local community health centre. Rather than involve the authorities in formal out-of-home care, Stacey’s relatives would look after her. This way, Stacey and her mother would have a better chance of being reunited.

This arrangement created significant instability. Stacey moved between households frequently. She can recall living with each of her mother’s six siblings and her grandmother at many different times.

My family sort of controlled who was looking after me. But it was not ever like a set time, and there was no child protection or authorities checking to see if I was being looked after consistently, or where I was staying… I’d stay with my mum sometimes, but then it would get too much for her she’d end up back in hospital… I missed a lot of the curriculum depending on what school I was at, or if I was at school at all.

Stacey describes her upbringing as toxic and dysfunctional due to generations of normalised abuse.  She explains how her grandmother, mother, aunts and uncles experienced horrific abuse at the hands of her grandfather, who was “sexually violent, physically violent, emotionally, every way you could imagine, and it wasn’t just my Nan. It was the kids as well. So, he was a paedophile.”

Stacey felt unloved and unwanted by her extended family members. She explains, “I was just desperate to be noticed as a good girl.” But, Stacey is learning to forgive her family for the way she was treated as a child.

I don’t think my family intentionally tried to be cruel. I think they just did what they thought they had to. And you know, I think some people struggle to love children that are not biologically theirs… well they struggled to show me that love, they made me feel like a burden. They weren’t the worst people in the world, because there are people out there that are worse. But also, they weren’t the greatest either. 

Stacey was determined to become independent. She began a hair and beauty apprenticeship at age fourteen and moved out on her own as soon as she could. At the age of sixteen, the opportunity arrived when a family she met at church offered to rent their granny flat to her.

They wanted me to be part of their family, because they had gotten to know me and heard a bit about my background.

But the arrangement only lasted for six months. The family decided to renovate their house in anticipation of a new baby. Stacey has been living on her own ever since.

Stacey became a fully qualified hairdresser by the time she was eighteen years old. She worked at least fifty hours a week just to make ends meet. She explains, “I just worked constantly dropped out of high school after I finished Year 10 and just worked full time in the salon.”

Stacey’s financial struggles worsened when she entered a relationship with a man who quickly took control of her finances. He was a drug abuser who could not hold down a job and left her without money for basics. He lied and manipulated her until she began to question reality.

Stacey says that due to her upbringing, she did not recognise any red flags in this relationship for years. Her self-esteemed was shattered. She continued to doubt herself, even when her partner became extremely violent towards her.

He was good at manipulating people to make them think that he was a nice guy, and I thought he was for a while, too… I thought it was a fairly normal relationship to start with, but it never was… it was worse than I could come to terms with, destroyed everything.

Stacey became pregnant at age twenty-four. She soon became determined to escape the abusive relationship for the sake of her young son. Stacey believes that she would not be alive if she had stayed.

I just did not want my son growing up in the same circumstances that generations of my family had lived like, and it had been normalised… Once I left, there was no way in hell I would ever go back.

Stacey describes leaving this violent relationship and creating a safe home for her son as one of her greatest achievements. By “taking him out of the toxic environment” Stacey has been able to provide her son with “a good quality of life with prospects, and hope, and safety.” Stacey and her son soon thrived.

Stacey actively sought early intervention support for her son at a very young age because “it was becoming more obvious that he had a range of disabilities and difficulties.” He is diagnosed with autism, ADHD, and intellectual disabilities.

Stacey identified similar behaviours within herself during his assessment process. She has since been diagnosed with autism and ADHD. Stacey explains that “it all kind of clicked and made sense.”

Looking back on her childhood, Stacey realises that the relatives who raised her likely struggled due to a lack of understanding about neurodivergence. They also lacked understanding about anxiety and trauma. She reflects, “I was told I was difficult as a child. What most people didn’t know was that I had all these undiagnosed conditions”.

Stacey began studying psychology as a mature age student while raising her son on her own. Initially motivated by a desire to understand “why do people think and behave the way they do,” Stacey soon “became obsessed and had to know everything.” She consistently achieved high marks, despite having never used a computer until her first semester at university.

Stacey believes that neurodivergence can be an asset. She describes how she learned to channel “the gifts that I had with the splinter skills of autism”. Although she sometimes feels uncomfortable in social situations and may be “lacking stuff socially”, Stacey quickly hit her stride in psychology research.

After struggling in primary and high school, Stacey felt as though “it was almost like I started learning at twenty-four.” She found enormous satisfaction in “just being able to absorb it all, understand it and do well, and be excited about this sort of thing.”

University has been a positive experience for Stacey in many ways. Her studies have increased her confidence and vastly expanded her social connections. Stacey explains, “I couldn’t believe it when I first started making friends and having mentors that were, you know, really important people at the University, that actually thought I had value.

This was transformative for Stacey because she had always been told she was not smart and would never make anything of herself.

It’s really bizarre, like I just couldn’t work it out. I just you know I never thought I had anything worthy within me. So, for other people to see that, and for them to say, you know you’ve got what it takes… I just never thought I would make it through.

But Stacey did make it through. She achieved top marks as an undergraduate and was invited to complete an Honours degree. Her research explores how hairdressers provide clients with social support, disclosures people tell their hairdresser, and the process of emotional labour. Stacey is now extending this topic as a PhD candidate. She plans to develop training programmes to help hairdressers and other beauty industry professionals “to manage their informal caregiving roles, client interaction, and interpersonal and intrapersonal skills.

Stacey aims to use her life experience to raise public awareness of the need to understand neurodiversity and prevent domestic violence. She considers herself “one of the lucky ones” for being able to escape and heal from trauma, and hopes that she can help others do the same. By sharing her story publicly, she hopes that members of the broader community will rethink the way they view and interact with people from different backgrounds.

I think some people when they haven’t had that lived experience, they don’t realize that they can come across condescending or unhelpful.

Stacey plans to pursue a career in academia after completing her PhD. She takes pride in her ability to help others from similar backgrounds navigate the unfamiliar terrain of academia.

I really like mentoring young people and helping young people to find their way… I like the idea of paying it forward, and you know, being grateful for everything. If new students want advice or help, she is happy to direct them so they can find their place.

Stacey takes inspiration from her university colleagues, mentors and supervisors, and feels fortunate to have support and encouragement. One of her biggest role models is her “primary supervisor, Professor Anna.” 

She’s the most amazing person. She does so much to support all her students. She is a fun person who is very genuine and kind, caring and intelligent. I feel lucky to have so many wonderful people in my life.