When Amy was five years old, she’d get up and make herself breakfast, pack her bag and walk to the bus stop to wait for the school bus. “Mum would be up all night playing music and she would just be on the table, passed out. It wasn’t amazing when I was little.”
Her mother was an alcoholic and was simply unable to be a good parent. Now 25, Amy looks back at her time in foster care with gratitude. Weekends at the home of foster parents Cathy and Greg became permanent by the time she was seven. “I felt quite mixed because I loved my mum and I knew even then that this was something she couldn’t control. I used to get upset because she would call me and be quite distraught but, other than that, I felt so much safer being with foster parents. I felt a lot of guilt around my mum.”
More than 45,000 children are in out-of-home care in Australia. For them, like Amy, foster care is an important back-up when their own families are unable to care for them. But the growth in numbers of children needing care is increasing, with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare noting an increase of 7.7 per 1000 children at 30 June, 2013, to 8.1 per 1000 children at 30 June, 2014. The challenge, though, with the standard family structure also changing (society now has fewer stay-at-home parents and more stay-at-home children) is to find an innovative way to find more foster carers to look after children in need.
Building tiny brains
The importance of a child’s upbringing has never been questioned, and research has proven the long-lasting effects that childhood experiences can have.
“Early experiences literally get built into our bodies and affect the circuitry of our brain,” says Dr Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University in the US. “If we don’t provide the right kind of experiences early on, it’s not just a matter of trying to change behaviour, it’s a matter of dealing with the legacy of biological changes.”
Foster parents Fiona* and Tony* have two of their own children, aged 12 and 14, but three years ago put up their hands to look after babies removed from abusive or neglectful parents.
“Sometimes when you’ve been holding a screaming baby for hours, it’s good to remember it’s not meaningless and you’re not just a babysitter – you’re actually improving their brain function,” Fiona says. “Secure attachment is crucial and being responded to appropriately is a huge developmental need … the earlier you can get them in a stable home, the better the outcome.”
Fiona, who has degrees in psychology and primary education, now looks after three-year-old Tom* permanently. “When kids are traumatised they tend to become hyper vigilant and their flight or fight response is always on,” Fiona says. “So if they get overexcited or nervous or overstimulated, it kicks in.” In Tom’s case, he bites or kicks or wraps himself up in Fiona’s clothing.
Lots of ways to care
The longer Tom stays with Fiona and her family, the less often that behaviour is shown and Fiona says she now sees him as her son. “He’s just another one of my kids now,” she says. “He’s such a cool kid; everyone who meets him loves him. He’s incredibly outgoing, he’s really smart and speaks very well – when he’s calm and peaceful he’ll come up and tell you that he loves you.”
Her own children have adapted well to their new sibling, too. “They love him so much; he’s just their brother now.”
MacKillop Family Services CEO Micaela Cronin says there is a increasing shortage of foster carers, but reminds anyone considering the idea that a range of options are available. “As diverse as our kids are, we need a whole range of different types of foster carers,” Cronin says. Foster carers can be any age, single or married, working or not, and can offer to look after children on an emergency basis, just on weekends or longer term. There are signs that adoption is likely to become easier in the future, too.
Interestingly, many young professional couples are starting to volunteer to look after foster kids one weekend a month – not only to give help where help is needed but also to test the waters and see if having their own kids is something they want to pursue. “The couples often talk about it as learning a lot about themselves and themselves as a couple – they get to know each other in a way that people say is really valuable,” Cronin says. The same children generally come each time and look forward to visiting much as they would a close aunt or uncle. “The kids usually love it; they love the opportunity to have a different relationship, to have different experiences.”
Although it can be tough being a foster parent, it can be rewarding, too. “While it sounds daunting, all of our carers say once they start doing it that they can’t imagine not doing it – it’s so enriching for their lives,” Cronin says.
For Sophie, a 30-year-old foster parent who has looked after 40 different children over the past seven years with her husband, fostering has had a profound effect on her life, especially as a mother.
“I’ve learnt how to navigate through tantrums and tears, how very powerful the family unit can be, how very much children need unconditional love in their lives,” Sophie says. “I have learnt how powerful the words ‘you can do it’ are, and the power of a hug.”
Sophie says it’s heartbreaking when children have been bounced from foster home to foster home and become jaded by the system. “They struggle to form personal connections with people because every single connection they have ever made has been broken,” she says. “Soon these kids just stop forming them and that’s hard to see. These kids are hard to love but they need it the most.”
Types of fostering
Out-of-home care refers to the care of children and young people up to 18 years of age who are unable to live with their families. This can involve residential care, family group homes and home-based care, which includes relative or kinship care and foster care.
But not all foster care is full-time with care sometimes only required on weekends, some for two months, some for two years or possibly longer.
Days or months
Short-term foster carers look after children experiencing a short-term family breakdown or children who are waiting for a long-term foster carer to be found. Placement can range from a period of a few days, or a few months up to a period of two years.
Permanent carers are needed for children generally aged five to 12 years who the court has ruled will never be able to return to their birth parents because it is not safe. In long-term care, children are matched with carers to find children a permanent home.
A break for parents
Respite carers generally offer one weekend every month to look after a foster child. Respite carers provide foster children with a wider social network and give the primary carers a break to recharge their energy.
Source: The Australian Institute of Family Studies and barnardos.org.au.