• Danielle O'Rourke. (Getty Images )Source: Getty Images
Danielle O’Rourke became a ward of the state at 13. At 17, she was homeless. Now at 36, she considers herself one of the ‘lucky ones’.
By
Yasmin Noone

14 Aug 2018 - 4:59 PM  UPDATED 14 Aug 2018 - 4:59 PM

Danielle O’Rourke was only 13 years old when she was removed from the care of her parents, separated from her younger sister and brother, and made a ward of the state.

By age 17, she was living independently in a unit owned by her foster carers – that was until she was kicked out. With no support network, O’Rourke became a homeless teenager.

"My younger sister was living with me at the time too,” O’Rourke, who is of Scottish-German heritage, tells SBS. “I had an argument with my foster carers. They kicked us out and I had to leave on the spot. From that moment on, my sister and I were homeless.”

O’Rourke’s saving grace at the time was that she had an income from a part-time job, which she used to eventually rent her own home on the NSW south-coast. “I couch surfed until I was able to secure a unit to live in. Thankfully we were able to do that.”

O’Rourke, now aged 36, considers herself one of the ‘lucky ones’. She ended up going to university and later, successfully gained full-time employment in the finance industry.

But during adulthood, O’Rourke struggled emotionally, battling untreated depression and anxiety.

 “As a child growing up with trauma, you are taught to be strong and show the world you are okay. So I was ‘always fine’. But that doesn’t mean you are actually okay. 

“As a child growing up with trauma, you are taught to be strong and show the world you are okay. So I was ‘always fine’. But that doesn’t mean you are actually okay. I think the whole time I was in foster care, counselling was offered to me twice. Once when I went into foster care. I was also abused in care and moved placements as a result – I was offered counselling then.”

O’Rourke explains that, as a young adult, she didn’t know what mental health issues were – because it’s a lesson she didn’t have the luxury of receiving.

“When I was in my first year of university, my mother died and my stepmother was sentenced to jail. There was a lot going on. I was kicked out of where I was living. I was also at risk of failing one of my classes. 

“So I went to university [staff] to see if I could withdraw without penalty. The only way I could do that was to see a counsellor. I told the counsellor what was going on. She said ‘don’t you think you are depressed’? Those words were so foreign to me. The stigma around depression meant I was weak.

“But, [as a person who lived in out-of-home care], you don’t really understand what mental health issues are, so you can’t accept you have them and get help.”

According to CEO of Foster Care Angels, Kelly Doyle, mental health issues among young people leaving out-of-home care in their teens are quite prevalent, although it is an under-reported issue.

Mental health concerns – arising from untreated trauma during childhood and adolescence – are also a cause of homelessness in this population. Doyle estimates that 35 per cent of Australia’s homeless are young people and 29 per cent are unemployed in their first year of leaving care.

“The sooner you can work on yourself and make sure everything in your mind is good and healthy, the better your future life will be. We can’t change the past but we can move forward – our mental health is of the utmost importance to our happiness in the end.” 

“There are a number of compounding factors which put young people leaving out-of-home care at risk of homelessness,” Doyle says. “They don’t have stability behind them. A third of young people in care have had more than 11 placements in their life.

“They are also at a high risk of mental health issues because they lack social support and family who are often the ones to help you to identify an issue.”

To better equip young people leaving out-of-home care in NSW to deal with mental health issues and prevent homelessness, Foster Care Angels has launched a new online education program, A-Maze-In Mind.

The free six-week education program is delivered via an online classroom accessible via a computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone. No referrals are needed and privacy, Doyle says, is always maintained.

“The program teaches young people to recognise the thought patterns related to depression and anxiety. [It teaches you] what you might be feeling, what anxiety and depression looks and feels like, how to help yourself and if that doesn’t work, where to go to get additional support.”

Foster Care Angels will also be offering up to 10 free one-on-one counselling sessions, by experienced counsellors, for young people. Sessions can be undertaken via telephone, online chat room or video link through a secure, professional counselling network.

“Mental health issues are prevalent in society and there are people out there who genuinely want to help. You are not alone.”

Speaking from personal experience, O’Rourke says the program plugs a gap in services needed for youth to transition from out-of-home care with greater emotional and mental health support.

“Tackling education and mental health are the two biggest things we need to do to prevent homelessness in the foster care and child protection system,” says O’Rourke.  

“The sooner you can work on yourself and make sure everything in your mind is good and healthy, the better your future life will be. We can’t change the past but we can move forward – our mental health is of the utmost importance to our happiness in the end.” 

Young people can approach Foster Care Angels directly to participate in A-Maze-In Mind. For more information, email info@fostercareangles.org.au or visitwww.fostercareangels.org.au 

If this article has raised an issue for you or you/someone you know is in need of support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

If you have experienced sexual assault or domestic and family violence, you can also receive counselling, information and support through 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).


Filthy Rich & Homeless season 2 airs over three nights starting on Tuesday 14 August 8.30pm on SBS. You can also stream the show anytime on SBS On Demand. Join the conversation with #FilthyRichHomeless. 

 

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