Fostering a sense of care for children

By Stephen Acott

Ava would make a good riddle.

She’s 42, single, lives in country Victoria and, at last count, has had 15 children. Yet she’s never been pregnant, much less given birth.

Jamie could be the same riddle. He’s 43, in a same-sex relationship, lives in Melbourne and has lost count of the number of children he’s had. Yet he’s never been the biological father of a child.

Ava and Jamie are foster parents.

People like Ava and Jamie are few and far between, yet their impact is enormous. It isn’t something you can gauge with statistics – you can’t measure it by dollars and cents – but what they do changes lives. And tangibly so.

Ebony isn’t a riddle. She’s an example.

She’s 18, beginning Year 12 this year and has had four mothers in that time. Ebony lived with her first mother – her biological mother – until she was four. But Ebony’s mother had severe drug and alcohol issues and wasn’t able to take care of her. She passed away in 2015. Ebony has never known her biological father.

Ebony’s current mother – the mother Ebony has had since she was 15 – will be her last mother. Her name is Vanessa. Vanessa is 51, single, lives in Melbourne and has had “many, many” children in her care since she started fostering in 2012. Right now, she is caring for Ebony and two other children.

Vanessa has, in Ebony’s words, “changed my life”. Ebony now has a home she knows will be hers for as long as she wants it. Importantly, that home is a safe, stable, nurturing and nourishing environment. It is the first home Ebony has had that fits that description.

“I feel secure,” Ebony says. “I feel part of the family.”

When her biological mother could no longer care for her, Ebony was placed in the care of a couple for the next three years. Following that, she was placed in the care of a family.

We will not disclose, much less detail, what Ebony says happened to her for the next eight years, but, if true, it amounts to severe neglect and abuse.

That reality is “out of the box”, as Gillian Harris-Dawson would say, but the broken child Vanessa  took into her home is not.

Gillian works for Uniting, one of the leading agencies in Victoria and Tasmania that deal with foster care. Her title is almost as never-ending as her responsibility: Manager of Family Preservation & Reunification and Home Based Care.

Gillian says all children who are looking for foster care come from “vulnerable families”. And that’s a nice way of putting it. Jamie says all of the children he and his partner have fostered have gone through “significant trauma”.

“I remember when we were going through our training, the woman said if you’re hoping for an Oliver or Annie you’re not going to get that,” he says.

“These kids have gone through hell and you do see challenging behaviours. They need support. They need a stable environment and they need to know someone is there for them.”

Gillian says there are a range of issues that might lead to a young person ending up in foster care.

“It could be mental health concerns with the parents, an environment of neglect, drug and alcohol use, family violence,” she says.

“There is also out-of-the-box reasons like the parent or carer is suffering a significant illness and they’re really isolated and don’t have any support to care for that child. We have children who have come from overseas or other states and they’re unaccompanied because something’s happened to their primary carer.

“A child or children may need care for a couple of weeks while the parents are addressing a housing issue or something like that. It’s not all doom and gloom. It can just be sort of temporary care to help out vulnerable families who don’t have a lot of support available to them.”

Clearly foster care isn’t for everyone, but foster carers look like everyone. You wouldn’t be able to pick them out of a crowd. Foster carers come from all walks of life and no two are the same. Some a single, some are married, some are in same-sex relationships, some are retired, some are religious, some are not. But all of them would blend into any crowd.

They are anonymous, but vital. And here’s why.

About two children a week are referred to Uniting seeking foster care – and that’s in the Eastern region of Victoria alone. When you add the other regions and other agencies, that’s a lot of children and there simply isn’t enough foster carers on standby to accommodate them all.

Houston, we have a problem.

Uniting recognises this and has launched a campaign with the tagline “no heroes needed – just you” in a bid to find more people willing to take on foster care.

It’s important to know what constitutes foster care because there are plenty of options under its umbrella.

“Foster care doesn’t have to only be long-term care, where your life revolves around this young person coming into your space,” Gillian says.

“There are different ways to do it. We need respite carers that do the occasional weekend. We need emergency carers who do just an overnight until a plan can be worked out the next day. We need long-term carers. We need, short-term carers, where parents are just addressing smaller issues potentially for the children to return to their care. There’s a whole variety of ways that you can care for children.”

And there’s a whole variety of ages of children who need care – everything from one day old to 18.

The first question most people ask themselves when considering becoming foster carers is “can I do it?”. This is especially true of people such as Ava and Jamie who haven’t had children of their own to gain experience with.

Jamie says he and his partner began by doing weekend care to “dip our toe in the water and get some confidence”.

“Because we didn’t have any children of our own we really weren’t too sure how we would go as parents so we started with respite (weekend) care,” he says.

“Then an opportunity arose with one of the boys we were looking after in respite care so we decided to give it a go and he’s still here two years later. Including respite care, we’ve known him for about five years.

“We also take care of a ‘respite’ boy every second weekend. We’ve done that for the past six years.”

Ava says the longest she has had someone in her care is two months – and that’s by choice.

“My circumstance is that I can’t take someone on full-time, but knowing that I could do a few days here and there got me interested,” she says.

“I started about three years ago. Two months is the longest I’ve had someone. That was last year. I was out of work because of COVID so I had more time. It was two kids and they were very high-needs so I couldn’t do more than two months.

“All in all I’ve had about 15 kids – babies and primary-school aged.”

Ava says not having children of her own wasn’t a hindrance – even with taking care of babies.

“I found it fairly natural,” she says. “I don’t know if there’s just some instinct thing. I just tried to listen to the babies and work with what they needed. Lots of love and attention. I’ve also got friends that have had babies and I could pick their brains. I had support in that sense from friends and family.”

Even though Ava has only cared for children on a short-term basis, she admits to feeling a wrench when they leave. Perhaps it’s another “instinct thing”.

“You do get an emotional connection, where you really feel for that little person and imagine where they come from and how they’re feeling,” she says.

“And so when they go, it can be pretty heartbreaking to see what the future might hold for them.

“Some of the children I have taken care of have been on an emergency basis, where they’ve needed someone straight away. It can be hard handing them back. They come to you and it’s just like, drop everything for those few days and it’s all about those kids. And then all of a sudden they’re gone. So yeah, it has been challenging.”

Jamie says he and his partner have spoken about the fact the boy they are taking care of – let’s call him Lachlan – may be placed back in the care of his biological parents. They have invested a lot into the relationship and have seen enormous gains in him – psychologically, socially academically, the lot. In short, he feels like part of their family.

“If he goes back to his parents we we know it’s going to be difficult, but we knew that when we signed up,” he says.

“You need to trust in what the courts are doing. You need to trust in the system. And if they think the best outcome for the child is to go back to mum or dad or whoever then you’ve got to go with it. It’s easy to say that now though. I don’t know how it will all play out because you put your heart and soul into these kids.”

Unlike adoption, where the issue isn’t so front and centre, biological parents/siblings are often there hovering in the background. And everyone agrees that’s how it should be. With foster care, you are taking care of someone else’s child. And more often than not that child has siblings.

Jamie says he and his partner make every effort to keep Lachlan, who is of primary school age,  in contact with his siblings.

“We want him to have a connection with his siblings. We catch up quite regularly with his brothers and sisters,” he says. “It wasn’t easy for him at first, but it’s getting better and that’s good.

“He’s also just started seeing his mum again for the first time in about 18 months, but we’ve seen a massive regression in his behaviour.

“We’ve made a commitment to him if he needs somewhere to stay until he’s 18 he’s very welcome here. But that’s one of the uncertainties with being a foster parent. The courts may decide he is better off living with his parents.”

Foster care isn’t easy – as Jamie says, there are “challenges” – but it’s important to know foster carers are supported and trained.

First of all, there is a comprehensive two-day training course. “This helps carers understand the impacts of trauma, understand the system and how to therapeutically work with young people,” Gillian says.

“Once they have a child or children – we prefer to keep siblings together – we assign a contact person who provides monthly supervision. If they have a young person in their care that young person will also have a case manager who will be dealing with all of the things that arise, helping them navigate the system, looking at contact with the biological family, etc. They will have daily contact with that person and there is also after-hours support if they need help or advice, or just to debrief.

“There’s also the Foster Care Association of Victoria, which provides a lot of training and supporting advocacy to foster carers, and there is ongoing training available if the carer needs up-skilling or is struggling with something.”

Carers are given an allowance to cover food and clothing and, if they need things like furniture etc every effort is made to help them.

“All you need to start is a spare bedroom and a willingness to care for vulnerable children in our community,” Gillian says. “We do our best to take care of the rest.”

Jamie says the support he has received from Uniting and other agencies has been “really good”.

“The support workers have come across many of these different scenarios before so if you come across something you don’t expect, or aren’t sure how best to handle, they will give you good advice,” he says.

“You’re not there by yourself, you’ve always got some level of support there, even in the middle of the night. But it’s not just in emergencies – there’s always check-ins. For example, homeschooling during lockdown was difficult, but the support we got was great. We had a support worker checking in on us every few weeks saying, ‘how are you going? I know it’s difficult, you’ve got a challenging child and now you’re homeschooling’. It helped a lot.”

People become foster carers for different reasons, but all of them have at least one thing in common: they want to help ensure children in need are taken care of and are nurtured into adulthood. They don’t want them falling between the cracks of community care.

And, for Jamie, there was a personal reason. “My mother grew up in care and when she was younger my grandparents couldn’t look after her,” he says. “I’ve always felt if people didn’t help my mum when she was younger I probably wouldn’t be here myself.”

One thing all of the people we spoke to for this article agree on is the rewards are profound, but are found in the little things, like hugs or at playgrounds.

Ava says she finds joy just “seeing the kids happy and healthy and playing and being able to be normal kids”.

“I watch them and imagine where they’ve come from, so just being able to see them make friends and knowing I have been able to provide that for them is a really lovely thing. And the bond. I’ve had kids come back for repeat respite care and when they jump out of the car and come screaming over for a hug it’s really nice.”

Jamie thinks of Lachlan and is astonished at how far he’s come in just two years.

“When he first came to us, he was quite distant and reserved and scared. But over time he started  to relax and come out of his shell and one day he just came up and just gave me a hug and said ‘I love you’. It’s things like that. They’re the big ones and you realise they are in the repair phase, they’re improving.

“In Lachlan’s case, it was also in seeing him come so far at school. When we got him he was probably two years behind other kids his age and his big goal was to be able to start reading books without pictures. That was the start of the year (2020) and just last week he started reading Harry Potter so that’s massive from where he came from, to be able to actually start reading a serious book like that, that’s been a massive achievement for him.

“Another joy has been seeing him make some friends for the first time at school. And he got invited to his first birthday party. He was very behind on his social skills and he’s been working so hard on that this year and then getting to the point where he can go to parties and things like that is a big deal.”

Gillian says overall, foster carers get a sense of “contributing to creating different trajectories for a child or young person” and a perfect example of that is Ebony.

Three years ago she was living a life that she describes as horrific. This on the back of losing her mother and never knowing her father. Three years ago, Ebony had no future to speak of. She was in survival mode.

Thanks to Vanessa  and an innate resilience that is remarkable, Ebony has not just a future, but a purpose.

“I want to work in a hospital,” she says. “I am doing an allied health care course at TAFE this year and I can’t wait to start it.”

Ebony isn’t a riddle. Nor is Vanessa, Ava or Jamie. They are inspirations. And we as a society are better because of them.

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* All names, except Gillian’s, have been changed to protect their privacy.

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