Meg and Dave were devastated when they found they were unable to have any more children. They wanted siblings for their six-year-old daughter Amy and had always longed for a house full of children. But rather than lament their loss they set about discovering a new way of building their family together.
"We’ve been foster parents for about five months now," Meg says. "We felt there was something bigger in the world for us to do rather than dwell on the fact that we could only have one child of our own. There were more kids out there that needed us."
Meg and Dave say fostering has brought joy and fulfilment to their lives but the number of Victorians willing or able to care for the state’s most vulnerable children is decreasing.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures reveal that in 2009, 354 households commenced foster care — and almost 500 stopped taking in foster kids.
A new report from Anglicare Victoria, The Care Factor: Rewards and Challenges of Raising Foster Children, highlights the trials and tribulations faced by foster carers, and explores why some are choosing to step away from the role. The report found that not only are foster carer numbers dwindling, but that the group is also ageing, presenting a host of new challenges for all involved.
Report author Sarah Wilks says children are entering foster care with increasingly complex needs — and that this may play a part in many carers’ decisions to stop fostering.
"Foster carers are dealing with things you wouldn’t necessarily have to face in day-to-day parenting. Kids are presenting with complex issues, sometimes resulting from long term trauma and instability," she says.
Julie, 54, is a foster care veteran. Over the past 20 years she has cared for more than 80 children, some for as little as seven hours and others for as long as seven years. She says in that time she’s witnessed a dramatic shift in the roles and responsibilities of foster carers. "Early on when I started fostering it was more about just caring for the child; feeding them, bathing them, taking them places, but now it’s more intensive," she says. "It’s not something where you can just think ‘I’d love to help these kids.’ It really makes a big impact on your family."
Cassie Roylance, who works in the Recruitment, Training and Retention unit at Anglicare Victoria’s Bayswater office, says complex behaviours are unique to each child but some worrying trends are emerging. "We have an over-representation in foster care of children with health and behavioural issues such as autism, ADHD, foetal alcohol syndrome and other disabilities," she says.
"Some children come from very complicated family units where there have been intergenerational issues that the family hasn’t been able to overcome."
However foster carers don’t only face challenges where children’s behaviour is concerned. The Care Factor report also reveals many carers’ struggle with "system challenges", such as dealing with the Department of Human Services, foster care agencies or extensive court proceedings.
Meg says organising life around the foster child’s biological parents’ visitation times is something her family finds very difficult.
"We’ve had to sacrifice holidays and other plans, sometimes it’s impossible to even plan going to the supermarket or having your hair cut a couple of days in advance," she says. "But to us, that’s all part of making that foster child a real part of your family and what we’re sacrificing is nothing compared to what they’ve sacrificed."
Cassie Roylance believes foster carer support is a crucial element in the task of retaining carers and preventing burnout. Her team organises workshops to prepare them for the legal and professional issues that crop up during their time as carers. "It’s about empowerment," she says. "If we can equip carers with the knowledge and skills they need to advocate for a child in their care, they’re going to stay passionate."
Julie agrees the support makes all the difference. Her foster son is currently enrolled in Anglicare Victoria’s Treatment and Care for Kids program (TrACK), a service that provides a support worker who Julie meets once a fortnight.
"I think perhaps in normal foster care there’s not the support," shes says. "But in TrACK we have regular meetings and work out together what the child needs, how to deal with difficult behaviours and how to deal with the courts or school."
There are plenty of challenges but foster carers continue to report the benefits and positive impacts foster children have had on their lives.
Researcher Sarah Wilks says there were some recurring themes in the Care Factor survey. "The idea of supporting kids is something that comes up a lot, ensuring children’s safety, making a difference in their lives and seeing their positive development and outcomes," says Wilks. "These outcomes can be something as small as seeing a child learn how to use a knife and fork; small steps are often considered big wins by foster carers."
Julie sees gaining the children’s trust as being the most important part of the process, and says as long as she’s able to do that, she’ll keep fostering.
"You realise when they come to you they’re not going to stay with you forever, but whether they’re with you for a day or a month or a year, you just try to help them in some way," she says.
Meg too maintains that despite the challenges, fostering has been one of the most rewarding things she’s ever done.
"The thing I love most about foster caring is seeing the difference in the child, seeing them go from this frightened little being into an open, talkative, playful, cuddly little child… that’s what I really get out of it the most."
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