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The future of foster care

By the time a foster child enters the system, the odds are already stacked against them. Which is why same-sex couple Kelli and Katrina decided to give it a go.

The future of foster care

By definition, these children are at risk – whether through intent or negligence – by their biological family, and often as a result of generations of disadvantage.

Babies have the best chance – they’re the easiest to place because, well, who doesn’t love a baby? But older children and kids with disabilities often get bumped to the back of the line or “bounce” from place to place.

It’s no wonder so many act out or self-combust. Which is why same-sex couple Kelli and Katrina decided to give fostering a go. They wanted to help an older child before it was too late.

Kelli’s job in emergency services in Newcastle meant she had seen first-hand the destruction caused by those living on the fringes of society. She imagines it’s sometimes foster children who slipped through the cracks, bounced too many times, and one day found themselves as angry adults with nowhere to go.

Kelli believes society sees foster children as victims, until they reach a certain age, after which point we become intolerant of any destructive behaviours:

“We feel sorry for a little girl of five until that little girl gets to 14 and is prostituting herself and into drugs. Then she’s no longer a victim,” says Kelli.

“With boys, society feels sorry for them until they’re eight, maybe nine, and then once they start damaging property and stealing, we don’t feel sorry for them anymore.”

Four years on from when their journey as foster carers first began, Kelli and Katrina now live in their modest family home with *Lauren, a 13-year-old girl with special needs.

But, it hasn’t been an easy road. Before taking in Lauren, Kelli and Katrina fostered a seven-year-old boy with very high needs and then a nine-year-old boy who they say broke their hearts. When the honeymoon period ended, the boys “tested” the placements by acting out. Both placements broke down.

“We were devastated. We thought, ‘we’re never doing that again’ but then we remembered how he’d never heard a fairy tale when he first came to us…and we found inside ourselves this extra compassion,” Katrina says.

To their surprise, Kelli and Katrina also missed the challenge that fostering had brought to their lives.

“We’d learnt to do new things, developed a different way of life. We got real fulfillment from that challenge so eventually, we got over the sadness of missing him and thinking, ‘Oh no, what will happen to him?’ and instead said ‘Oh hold on, how big is the line (of kids waiting to be fostered)?’” Kelly says.

Like most foster kids, Lauren went through an adjustment period. Kelli and Katrina recall the heavy cloud of depression that used to descend over Lauren when important events such as her birthday and Christmas approached.

Now Christmas has become a joyful event. The women talk over each other excitedly detailing the family’s Christmas routine:

“We’ve got the little key you put in the door for Santa to get in. We’ll leave food out for the reindeers…and of course quality time as a family playing games, heading down to the beach,” Katrina says.

Their family has clearly come a long way but the journey has not been without sacrifices and lifestyle changes, not least a role reversal for the couple.

Kelli, who was the homemaker by nature, has continued to work full-time in emergency services while Katrina, who works in a childcare centre, has dropped her hours right back to give Lauren more quality family time and to manage the household.

The women also give a lot of credit to their foster care agency Allambi, which is a not-for-profit agency catering to some of the most difficult-to-place children in the Hunter Region of New South Wales.

Allambi have arranged for Lauren to stay with other carers one weekend every month to allow Kelli and Katrina some time to themselves. The agency also offers additional respite when needed and runs training programs to help foster carers develop new skills.

“I know people who’ve fostered through DOCS and never had any contact – just a phone call once every 6 months but our agency comes out every two weeks,” Kelli says.

Katrina agrees:

“Allambi are like a family. When you have your own baby you rely on your family. After two weeks your mother comes round so you can have a cup of tea and a sleep. So you’ve got to trust your organization as well because that’s what they’ll do for you. You’re not doing it by yourself.”

This family atmosphere is something that Allambi (nicknamed ‘Allambi family’ by staff and carers) actively nurture through celebrations of events in their carers’ and foster children’s lives. Small gifts and cards are sent for birthdays and carer’s anniversaries marking their time with the agency, and informal get-togethers and parties are regularly held during the school holidays and at times like Christmas.

Kelli and Katrina’s experience is reflected many times over throughout NSW where a quiet revolution of foster care is taking place.

In 2007, NSW Commissioner Justice James Wood launched a commission of inquiry into NSW child protection after several children who were registerd with DOCS died within weeks of each other. The resulting three-volume report, released a year later, recommended that the provision of the state’s foster care be transferred to the private sector.

The transition, which began last year, is the biggest reform in a generation to NSW foster care.

It’s is a gradual and complex process but one which promises to rejuvenate the system, with carers offered more training, support, and contact with case workers.

At the same time, NSW is facing an urgent shortage of foster carers.  To address the need, the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies (ACWA) Agencies’ is running a government-funded Fostering NSW campaign to recruit 900 new carers during the next two years.

Agencies are also offering flexible foster care options such as emergency care, long-term care, and respite care or weekend care, to suit a range of lifestyles.

When Lauren first met Kelli and Katrina she could barely speak. For Kelli, this became a symbol of all the injustice Lauren had faced and she made it her mission to help Lauren find her voice.

“Her language skills became important to me. I wanted her to be able to express her wants and needs. Lauren didn’t know what she liked and what she didn’t like, whether that was food or activities or clothing or smells. To say “I don’t like the smell of that soap” is such a basic human right. To not have the smell of something on you that you don’t like.”

Now Lauren knows exactly what she likes.  When the question is posed she immediately yells “Swimming!”

And when Lauren is asked what it feels like to be a foster child she pipes up, “I’m not a foster child. I’m a teenager!”, then lunges towards the laughing pair for a big group hug.

From time to time Kelli and Katrina still think about their “lost boys” but they know the secret to foster caring has been, in part, a process of letting go – of accepting what has been and appreciating what they have.

“Regardless of how many foster homes they went to after or before, we made some form of difference. Even if it’s as simple as the fact that he was in a safe environment for nine months, his needs were met for nine months out of his life and we showed him a different way. I can’t say what happens after that,” Katrina says.

To find out more about fostering in NSW visit the Fostering NSW website or call 1800 2 FOSTER (1800 236 783).

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the child in foster care.

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