Every week, about 60 Victorian children are removed from their homes because their parents are unable to care for them. That’s where foster carers come in. Two families speak to CATHERINE WATSON and DAVID SCHOUT about the joys and challenges of sharing their homes with children in their hour of need.
FIRST the hard question. It's the one everyone asks foster carers, or wants to: "But aren't you sad when the children leave?"
Yes, says Megan Taylor. Oh yes! There's no getting away from that.
"But we're willing to be hurt for the sake of the child," she says. "You know you've done something good for someone else.
"You have to remember you're not keeping them — you're just a caretaker.
"You love them and take care of them but always knowing the goal is that they go back to their own family. When they do that, it's a success story."
Every week, about 60 Victorian children are removed from their homes by the state, but there is a chronic shortage of foster carers, both short term and long term.
Figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show Victoria had fewer than 1000 foster households compared with more than 3500 in NSW.
These days, carers are married, de facto or
single; home owners or renters; workers or not. Some have biological children living in the home, some have adult children who have moved out and others have no children.
The key requirement is the ability to provide a safe, stable and nurturing home for a child or young person — but a sense of humour, patience and enjoyment of children's company also help.
Cranbourne's Donna and Stephen Crandell have four long-term foster children through
Ozchild. Donna says she feels blessed to be in a position to provide care, and encourages others to give it a try.
"I felt I should be contributing more to the community and my situation gave me the opportunity to do so. When a teenager turns up at your door with a child in their hands, you realise there is a real need out there for foster carers."
Megan Taylor had always been interested in fostering but put it off until her youngest child, Fletcher, was out of nappies. Most parents would have considered Fletcher and his older sisters, Lili, 14, Maisy, 8, and Sunday, 6, added up to a full house, but about 18 months ago Megan and her husband Anthony decided there was room for one more in their Sandhurst home.
After extensive interviews and several training days with MacKillop Family Services, they were declared fit and proper carers. Two weeks later three-month-old Flynn* arrived.
"There's a ring at the door, they hand you this baby and off they go," says Megan, a former teacher. "You're sitting there with this baby and he's smiling at you. They become part of your family so quickly. I couldn't believe you could become attached so quickly."
In retrospect, she says, probably too attached.
"We were a bit broken-hearted when he left after a month. I think you get better at that as you go along. In fostering, things can change very quickly."
Two weeks after Flynn left, MacKillop rang to say they had a 10-month baby needing a home and Danny* arrived. "Our children were all excited," Megan says.
"Being girls, they wanted babies. The two younger girls were lovely with him. Fletcher too — it was good for him. He's just been diagnosed with Aspergers so it was good for him to get used to people coming and learning to accommodate a younger child. He still calls him 'my little brother'.
"It's been good for all the children. One of my own reasons for going in was to try to help them understand about social justice and to explain how some children end up in foster care.
"They all accepted him so quickly, and he loved the kids. I thought he'd be really attached to me as I was the main carer but he was more attached to the kids and to Anthony. When Anthony came home from work he'd run up the hall saying, 'Dadda, dadda!"'
It was nice for Anthony as well, she says. "At first he was just supporting me but you can't help falling in love with a baby. He was a bit devastated after Danny went back."
They cared for Danny for 10 months before he returned to live with his mother in October.
Megan says the experience was better than the first time around because she had had more contact with Danny's mother.
"We met a couple of times and I'd write little notes about how he was going. He had continued contact with his mother — it built up to twice a week as her circumstances improved.
"There was not a lot of emotion when he first arrived, but as the attachment with his mother improved, he would get very excited when he knew she was coming to pick him up."
She has several photos of Danny but there's one in particular she treasures. It was taken
during a game of hide-and-seek with the other kids. Danny is peeking out of a kitchen
cupboard, grinning with delight. It might look like an everyday family photo but it shows how far Danny had come in just a few months. When he arrived, he rarely smiled or played but,
surrounded by other children, he became one of them. As his confidence and happiness grew, so did his relationship with his mother.
The Taylors are having a break from fostering and this year plan to offer short-term emergency care. Anthony Taylor says fostering has also been good for their own family. "I think our children got as much out of it as Danny. Normally, it's 'me, me, me' so it's nice to have a little baby around the place. They'd be on the monkey bars playing with him."
He says there's not much difference between having four or five children. "You don't really notice one more child chuffing around the house. What struck me was that it was minimum effort for a really big result."
*Not the child's real name
FINDING OUT MORE
TO find out more about becoming a foster carer, contact:
■ MacKillop Family Services, 1300 791 677 or mackillop.org.au
■ OzChild, 8796 0000 or ozchild.org.au
■ Wesley Mission, 9794 3000 or email@example.com
■ Anglicare Victoria, 1800 809 722 or anglicarevic.org.au