INTERVIEW: Could you become a foster carer?

When the footage from a TV program, ‘Polly and Me’, zoomed in on a young girl, aged around eight, the show about neglected children suddenly became more personal for Bec and Daniel, who then had two young daughters of their own. The sense of loneliness and desperation in this little girl’s eyes tugged at their heartstrings. There she sat, alone and vulnerable in her bedroom. Longingly, she stared out the window at the park across the road, as her drug-addicted mother entertained a series of men.

Bec and Daniel felt so desperately sad about the state of her life: it was in stark contrast to the safe, secure and carefree lives of their own daughters, who had the good fortune of being born into a loving, stable home.

 

After the airing of the documentary, the ABC hosted a discussion forum which introduced the idea of foster caring to Bec and Daniel.  Far too many children were in dire need of love and protection, but there was (and still is) a desperate shortage of carers. Bec and Daniel felt they could help: they had the time and the energy, and really loved having children around the house. Above all, it gave them the chance to make a difference to someone's life.

So, they investigated further, then met with an agent – but at this point, the doubt set in. Daniel runs his own business, and they had their own children to care for (they’ve since had a third). Could they really do this? Might it negatively impact their daughters? Suddenly, the idea seemed very overwhelming, especially to Daniel – so they put on the brakes. Bec knew, without a doubt, that this was a joint decision. If it didn’t feel right for one of them, it couldn’t go ahead. (Even now, as seasoned foster carers, Bec checks each short-term placement with Daniel following the agency’s phone call – even if it’s only a 24-hour placement – to make sure their schedule has room for another child).

As the months ticked by, Bec’s enthusiasm for foster caring didn’t wane. It was hard to push the issue away, knowing so many children needed help. If they were ever going to do this, now was the time – she was still on maternity leave, which afforded greater flexibility. Plus, the time seemed right to offer more time, rather than money, to charitable causes. So, she raised the idea again with Daniel. This time, they discussed the possible risks with their agent, and then set some limitations to ease their angst.

Firstly, they decided to accept only babies: this meant there’d be less chance of behavioural issues that arise from long periods of neglect. And importantly, their daughters would feel involved in the caring process. Secondly, they’d only take one child at a time. Their mind was made up – and they became foster carers.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. There was a rigorous application process, involving police checks, ‘working with children’ checks and interviews about their life, including how they deal with trauma. Clearly, it’s vital to determine that foster carers are genuine and emotionally stable. And down the track, there is also compulsory ongoing training to keep up accreditation.

So, once your application is approved, how exactly does the process work?

First, there’s a difference between emergency, short/long-term care and respite care. The former refers to children who require care immediately due to concerns for their safety.  Short term care is for children who require care anywhere from a couple of weeks up to six months; and long-term care is for children who are unlikely to return home for an extended period. On the other hand, respite care provides temporary relief for foster carers, parents and guardians; this gives the carer a break, and depending on the circumstances, provides the chance for the foster family to build up a long-term relationship with a child (eg caring for the same child one weekend each month).

Bec’s experience relates to emergency and short-term care. Typically, she receives an emergency phone call in the evening, once the child is removed from its home, requesting care until the court hearing, which is usually the following business day. Child Protection chooses the foster care scenario that best suits the child, in terms of family dynamics, length of stay, proximity to birth family (or in cases of domestic violence, appropriate distance from birth family). Child Protection then arranges the drop-off and pick-up.

Due to recent legislative changes that came into effect in March 2016, after the initial court hearing, birth parents have up to 12 months to get their act together. Hopefully, this happens. If they’re not ready at 12 months, but showing signs of improvement, they’re granted another 12 months. But after two years, that's it: the child is then assigned permanent care.  This helps to provide stability for children in care.

In the past, Bec and Daniel often provided care beyond the initial court hearing, for as long as six months. But they’ve limited their involvement since having their third daughter; if necessary, the child is placed with another family following the court hearing.

Is it hard to give up the children in your care? 

Bec answers this question quite philosophically, saying that even with her longer cases, it was only “a little” difficult. When they cared for a newborn boy for 6 months, the privilege of seeing the mother get her life back on track helped to compensate for the sadness of losing the child. “When this happens, and the child is successfully returned to a member of its birth family, it’s fantastic – and ideally, the way the system is designed to work. It’s the best outcome for everyone.”

But sometimes these ideal scenarios don’t pan out, and you know that a child is returning to a challenging environment: “You just have to accept that you’ve done your bit. You need to have faith in the system and trust it will be the right decision”. Which is probably easier said than done…

Does foster caring lead to adoption?

Bec is quite firm about the fact that foster care is not a means to adopt a child; they’re quite different processes. She never considered foster caring as a way to grow her family. Sometimes, though, it does happen.  The courts prioritise what is best for the child, which may mean placing the child in the permanent care of his/her long-term foster family.

Does the birth mother have access visits during the foster care period?

Safety is paramount. Depending on the scenario, the birth parent(s) may or may not have access visits.  The access visits are hosted away from the foster carer’s home, usually at the foster care agency’s offices.   Understandably, these visits can be quite traumatic for the child (and the birth parent(s)).

Are clothes or supplies provided for the children? Do foster carers receive an allowance to care for children?

Often, children arrive only with clothes they’re wearing – maybe a few nappies, but that’s it. Some agencies receive donations, so can then provide items such as blankets, formula or car seats – but not always. It’s easier for Bec, who still owns prams, cots and other equipment from her own babies.  

Carers receive a variable daily allowance depending on the age of the child. But it’s not much. Often Bec races out to buy nappies and formula, and the total cost exceeds their allowance – but they’re not in it for the money. However, Bec doesn’t believe that foster carers should be out-of-pocket for the costs involved in looking after a foster child. And importantly, potential carers shouldn’t be excluded because they don’t have the financial means. 

How would you describe the average foster carer?

There is no ‘normal’. The 2016 Foster Carer Census showed that household income varies widely, with around 25% of carers coming from each of the four income brackets. Just over one third of all foster families has a heritage other than Australian.

The need for foster carers is so great that there are few restrictions, as long as you meet the initial application process. Around one third are single (either divorced, widowed or never partnered) and 15% are retired.

If you work full time, it’s more of a juggling act, but still possible. Childcare centres often find positions at short notice for foster children.

What sort of support is available for carers?

Agencies organise support groups and social functions, such as movie nights, which provide opportunities to meet other people in similar situations. Also, since learning about Bec’s experiences, some of her own friends are now foster carers – and this provides additional support within her existing friendship circle. In order for foster carers to retain their registration, they must complete a couple of training sessions each year.

What has been the impact on your family?

Bec’s girls love having a foster baby in their care: “It's been great, and really helped them develop a caring aspect to their personality. But it’s become a bigger juggling act since we had our third child: we’re in and out of the car more often, with more appointments and commitments.”

Bec is also back at work three days a week, which makes it more challenging. Some days, she can’t accept a child when asked; but the agency always understands, with no questions asked. They simply phone the next person on their list.

Bec & Daniel Xuereb

Bec & Daniel Xuereb

What is your advice to people considering foster care?

If you’re looking to become a foster carer and you already have a partner/family, you all need to be 100 percent on board – even for each placement. “It’s very tough to do it on your own, when you have your own kids. It’s disruptive, but what you get back in return is so worth it.” 

You can never be too patient or caring. These kids have experienced so much, and you’ll never know the full extent of their suffering. “There are nights when I’ve held a crying baby for hours, and I’m softer on these babies than I was with my own.” There’s definitely no controlled crying for any of the children in her care – it’s hugs all the way. And on the flipside, Bec once cared for a child who never cried. Afterwards, the agency worker explained: “The really neglected babies never cry, because they’ve learned that no one ever responds to their cries”. It’s heartbreaking.

As we wrapped up our interview, we told Bec that she was completely amazing and inspiring – but Bec is very humble and insists, “I’m not amazing; the foster kids are the amazing ones”.

If you’ve been inspired by Bec’s story, then please visit the website below. Victoria is crying out for more foster carers.

What could be more rewarding than helping a vulnerable child in need?

www.fosteringconnections.com.au

Or call The Mackillop Foster care hotline 1300 791 677 or email fostercare@mackillop.org.au

Below are some additional references regarding foster care:

Difference between emergency and respite care: http://www.fosteringconnections.com.au/what

More information on permanent care: http://www.dhs.vic.gov.au/about-the-department/plans,-programs-and-projects/projects-and-initiatives/children,-youth-and-family-services/permanency-for-children