Being a foster carer is like being in a secret cult. We have rules by which we must live our lives, we go through a rigorous initiation process, after which our lips are sealed. Then we go about our lives as if everything is perfectly normal, when it is anything but. In fact, in a world where everyone is trying to be ‘special’ and ‘unique’ we are doing our very best to keep everything as regular as possible – and that can be a big stretch some days.
Despite what many people think, foster carers are not angels, saints or anything like that. We are not better, more noble, more loving. We don’t have bigger hearts. We are everyday people. There is usually some trigger that gets us involved in foster care. We may meet a carer one day and see into their world for a moment. We may come from a family who has fostered. We may have been raised in foster care ourselves. Whatever it is, carers come from all walks of life and I’ve never met one who ‘does it for the money’.
Becoming a foster carer in Australia takes time and involves a number of stages. From registering your initial interest and attending a general information session through to training around ‘standards of care’ and topics like trauma and attachment. Before you are approved though, you will have someone trawl through your life looking at how you were raised, the kinds of discipline your parents used, your support network, your thoughts around the issues you may need to deal with as a carer. How will you feel if they reveal previous abuses to you? How will you react if they steal from you? lie to you? run away? scream abuse at you? flirt with your partner? play power games with your kids? are physically violent? kick holes in your walls? hoard food under their bedding?
Ultimately you will have police and criminal history checks, medical checks and home safety checks before you are approved. Invasive? Yes indeed! But that is just a taste of things to come.
One of the most effective training experiences I had was when our group watched a dvd about a boy. He was the only child of a single mother, about 5 or 6yo. The mother went off to work early in the morning, leaving him to get dressed, have breakfast, make his lunch and get himself to school. He did all that to the best of his ability, but wore a dirty school uniform, there was no cereal or milk left so had no breakfast and he made a sandwich from the one remaining crust of bread, accidentally dropping the jar of jam and cutting his finger. The kids at school were teasing him about being smelly and having no snacks, drink etc. The teacher finally noticed something, but wasn’t sure what she should do.
We were asked – should this child be put into foster care – yes or no? That divided the room. The yes’s were then asked to work together to say why he shouldn’t be placed in care and the no’s why he should.
It’s interesting for me just recounting this story and thinking about it now that I have a few years of caring under my belt. Back then I felt that he shouldn’t go into care, that the mother needed more support. Of course it’s not that simple…ever…but I haven’t changed my view.
The reason children come into care is because their family are unwilling or unable to provide them with a safe, loving, nurturing home. There are many reasons that lead to these situations, none of them are straightforward.
Life is complicated, good people make bad decisions for all kinds of reasons. Intergenerational neglect and abuse are not uncommon but the most common issues are those of mental health and addictions. I’ve seen people with the best intentions fail and disappoint themselves and their kids time and time again. I’ve also seen people who you thought were highly unlikely to ever get their kids back – pull themselves out of the gutter, refocus their priorities and persist in changing their lives for the better and…getting their kids back.
As carers, we do not get to sit in judgement on these parents. Our job is to focus on the kids and to help them in whatever way is necessary to learn about what it is to be loved and cared for. Something every child should know.