Dear Campbell Newman, Premier of Queensland

Australia is at a pivotal moment in developing a National Disability Insurance Scheme which would ensure that all people with disabilities would have an equal standing regardless of how their disability was acquired, among many other benefits. The Federal Government is seeking support from all of the Australia states in order to commence the initial phase of the scheme.

Where I live in Brisbane, our very new, very conservative Premier is in slash and burn mode and is playing a political game by holding out on contributing, saying we are virtually bankrupt.

I am just so frustrated and angry about this. All I can do is write. See below for the latest news.

Dear Premier Newman,

I’ll be dropping off my 5yo foster child to your office later today, just for a visit. You clearly need some real life experience when it comes to disability. He is after all, a ‘child in care’, so bottom line he is YOUR responsibility and will be for many years to come.

Now, don’t cheat and get your relatives – whoops, I mean advisors in to help. Just take the time to enjoy his company. He does scream a lot but don’t worry, he enjoys it. You’ll have that in common. He’s not interested in toys but he does enjoy ripping paper. He can help you get rid of all those annoying appeals to your humanity and leadership potential when it comes to disability. Do not turn your back on him or let him out of your sight. He’s also what is called a ‘runner’. If he didn’t have a couple of formally diagnosed disabilities, he’d be called an absconder. Thank goodness we’ve got those labels sorted!

Oh, don’t forget to take him to the toilet. Despite talking about the toilet relentlessly, he will not warn you that he needs to go, kind of like the mixed messages you give. You will have a big mess to clean up and not even your advisors will volunteer to help you out with that job. Don’t get angry if you get mess all though your carpet, on your seating, walls and all over you. Just remind him calmly that we do this in the toilet. It’s dirty work, but you’re excelling in that department. You’ll manage.

If you need to do something: cut a few more public service jobs, sob to the media about how poor we are, then just get on and do it. You get used to being scratched, pinched and pushed. Just be thankful he only bites himself and not you.

Whatever you do, don’t let him get distressed. You won’t be able to do a thing if he has a meltdown. George Street will grind to a halt and start judging you on your parenting skills.

If you need a break, just call your mate Ms Davis over at the Department of Communities, see if you can organise some respite. I dare you! If you can get anyone to answer a phone, they will tell you that there’s not one single placement available in the Brisbane region.

Plenty of kids are waiting in line as soon as one becomes available. There’s babies being born every day who come under your responsibility. Kids in desperate need, just waiting for someone to put their hand up and volunteer to love them and care for them while their families can’t or won’t.

You might get a respite offer from another region. You are a pretty important person after all. If you do, would you mind driving 2+ hours or so to drop him off, then go get him again afterwards? You’ll need to use your own personal car for that. If you’d like to get reimbursed for the fuel, there’s a form that you submit, that goes into a black hole. You might hear back sometime next year but you probably will have axed those kind of supports by then, so I wouldn’t bother.

That’s about it. You’ll be right! He’s only five and it’s not like he’s in a wheelchair or anything. I’ll miss him, but I’m trusting you to do the right thing and look after him. I’ve got to get myself off to the rally protesting your pathetic and callous disregard for the people with disabilities in Queensland.

Latest News: Great news – NDIS launches looking positive for NSW, VIC, SA, ACT, TAS. “My Way” in WA. QUEENSLANDERS – hit your keyboards and tell Qld State MPs what you think about your state government’s priorities.

http://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/members/current/list/

We Are Their Village

A series on Foster Care

In Australia we have a very sad statistic. The number of foster carers is going down and the number of kids in care is going up. What’s wrong with that picture? In my mind, I think a lot of this has to do with the way in which we are connected (or not) to each other.

One of the most common things I hear from people when they find out that I am a foster carer is ‘Ohhh I don’t know how you do it! I could never give them back’. It’s funny isn’t it, because these same people, when they are aunties & uncles, grandparents or just friends say things like ‘the best thing about looking after these kids is that I can give them back at the end of the day’.

In reading some of the blogs written about foster caring or about families who do things like heading off to Africa or China to volunteer at orphanages, hospices and the like, I’m struck by the outpouring of emotion in the comments. It’s clear that we like to see ‘good’ being done. And yet…it’s not enough to spur most people to action.

I know very well, that foster caring is not for everyone. Most people are busy raising their own kids, they have their own challenges and may not be in a position to be able to care for others as well. Some people are just not suited for the job.

However…there are so many small things you could do and endless ways in which you can be a part of making your community reflect the kind of values you strive to grow in your family. Letting your own children see you act on this and allowing them to be a part of it will raise you up in their eyes, helping them to understand one of the most important things in life – that we are in this together.

Whatever the circumstances may be in your life, I really encourage you to think of ways in which you might be able to help those children in your community who are most vulnerable. These children are ours. We are their village.

 

A Phone Call, A Space, A Knock At The Door

A series on Foster Care

The phone rings and on the other end of the line is your support worker: have you got a minute? You take a deep breath and you try to create a space in the noise of the day to give your full attention to the conversation you are about to have.

That’s usually how it starts. It’s the rollercoaster of foster caring. In that conversation, you are asked if you would be interested in considering a placement. You are given some basic details – the age, gender and the shorthand reason of why this child needs  out of home care. This may be their first time in foster care, it could be their 10th placement. They may coming straight from the hospital in which they were born or they might be getting picked up from school that afternoon, not knowing that their world is about to change significantly. They may only stay with you overnight, they could be with you for a few months or for many years.

Of course when you are asked, you are fully entitled to say no.  It may not be suitable because of plans you have in place with your own family, you may not feel comfortable/confident/equipped to deal with the issues or behaviours this child or their family has or you may just need a break. You don’t even need a reason, you can just say no.

But being foster carers, we are usually willing to open our doors and our hearts once more to allow someone in need to come into our homes and our lives. So we say OK, bring him/her/them over.

The time you have between that call and that knock on the door could be 20 minutes or a couple of days. In that time you shift into hyperdrive. You do whatever you can get done. You make dinner, clean the house, put on a load of washing, reorganise furniture to make space, make up a cot /bed or two, clean out cupboards and dig out some clothes – that’s the first 15 minutes.

Then you think – supplies! What do I need for the next few days? If it’s a baby, then you’ll be getting nappies and formula. If it’s a toddler then you might need a few little toddler snacks, more nappies, drink bottles etc. A school aged child? Lunches, lunch boxes, water bottles, snacks. If it’s not in the cupboard,  then you make a dash for the supermarket. You get the picture.

More than anything though, you want your home to feel warm, happy, easy, stress-free and safe.  A bit of mess won’t matter – in fact it normalises things a little. When you open that door, the running around stops. You need to be in that moment fully, but not intensely.

They will usually be accompanied by a worker (we call them a Child Safety Officer or CSO).  Once the CSO hands over the paperwork and their belongings, usually a small collection of whatever could be found in the moment carried in a garbage bag, sometimes nothing at all, they head off. The child may or may not know them, but when that person walks out the door, there goes the last possible connection to everything that is familiar and to what they know of home and family. Their eyes get that little bit bigger and their heart sinks that little bit lower. They are left with you – in your care.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attachment – Yes, I’m Going There

The word ‘attachment’ is getting a pretty good run in the media these days with anxious and sometimes competitive first world parents trying to work out just how this whole child raising thing should go. Most of these kids are going to be fine simply because they are being raised by parents who love them, who nurture them, reassure them, comfort them and delight in their very being. Ultimately these kids know who they are, they know where they belong and they have an intrinsic understanding of what it is to be loved and to love.

They have that wonderful warm, reciprocal, consistant and responsive experience called secure attachment. Their parents most likely had it too. This is why even as greenskin newbies they leapt into action when their baby cried, did cartwheels when they got that first smile and seriously believed their kid may be a genius when those first imitative behaviours emerged – oh sorry, I meant smiles, waves, words.

For the kids who have ended up in foster care and for those who fell through the cracks in the system, life is not so simple. When you are born into a family where your birth is not the happy occasion it should be, where the parent/s lives are dominated by their addictions, their mental health issues, their own gaping unmet needs, where there is no home to go home to, where your cries are ignored or simply not understood, where you are left in your cot all day, where no one looks into your beautiful eyes with love and hope, where no one checks that you’ve got ten amazing little fingers and toes. Then to put it simply, the brain does not develop in the same way.

It’s stark isn’t it? So when you wonder how someone can abuse and/or neglect a child, remember this image. Because what has happened, is their brain never got the chance to develop in the same way as yours. Not only are they unable to have a deep understanding of giving and receiving love, they have not developed the executive functions of the brain where we make complex decisions and prioritise our actions, where we can delay our gratification and where we learn about trust and empathy and compassion.

But it’s not a done deal, especially for children. The plasticity of the brain means that we can develop new neural pathways, new understandings, new skills. This is what a foster carer helps to do.

It’s not easy to create attachment when a baby or a child has learnt that they will not have their needs met. They go into survival mode and try to meet their own needs as much as possible. They have good reason not to trust you or anyone for that matter. Love, a warm bed and good food is not always enough.

They will push you away, uncomfortable with cuddles and affection. Even tiny babies will push your arms away, wanting to drink their bottle facing away from you, avoiding your eye contact. They do not view you as being any more important to them than a passer by. They don’t really understand why you would want to do anything for them. They will argue about rules and oppose any form of authority. You could turn yourself inside out arranging something special for them and they will just shrug their shoulders and walk away.

It’s a long term proposition. Not helped when the system sends them back to an abusive/neglectful situation, or moves them from placement to placement, or splits sibling groups or they end up in residential care or they age out of the system without getting what they needed when they needed it.

Attachment is one of the keys to happiness. Knowing that someone is there to watch over you, allowing you to explore your world safely, helping you to develop your independence and seeing and believing in your potential, meeting your needs and celebrating your achievements. Someone who is there to pick you up when you fall, the emotional home base, your supply of resilience when it’s tough. We all deserve that.

image credit: peanuts

Kids can develop secure attachment in foster care. They may need some extra help to get there, but that’s what foster carers and the professionals that support them are there for.

Just so you know: I’m not a psychologist, psychiatrist, neurologist, scientist, social worker or baby whisperer. Take whatever I say with a grain of salt and consult the professionals if you are at all concerned about your child or someone you know.

For clarity, I am talking about the theory behind attachment, not Attachment Parenting. I am not advocating for Attachment Parenting or any particular style of parenting.

And…I KNOW that the foster care system is not all it could be, no matter where you live. I just try to do my bit to improve it.

Something Every Child Should Know

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.

image credit: luke’s army

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.

Back Pain Funk & A New Series

I am finally emerging from my back pain funk. Doing more than just getting through the day has been quite difficult, especially when it just seemed to be getting worse and not better after weeks of trying to sort this thing out.

It’s still a little irritated, as am I, but I’m doing more, I’m more flexible, I’m in less pain, I can enjoy life more. Oh yes!!!

metaphorically if not literally

I won’t go on about it as there is nothing more boring than other people’s pain. So that’s it on the back.

News: I wanted to let you know that I am planning to start a series of blogs about foster care. I won’t be talking about the kids in my care but more about the experience and the issues we deal with as foster carers. Of course, I’m hoping it will be interesting enough to keep you reading. It certainly won’t be all doom and gloom. I hope you will come with me on this odyssey.

A Taste of Summer in Winter

We set off in the pouring rain, heading north to our beachside destination. Three little boys in their pj’s and a mum trying to keep her stress levels down and energy up for a three hour, post rush hour drive through the night.

When we woke up bright and early the next day it was still raining but the excitement levels were high. We were staying with our friends and the kids all get on pretty well so they were very happy to see each other. There were short gaps when the rain stopped long enough for us to dash out for quick walks. We also dropped into the new local library where they had some great toys and a play area. The kids were occupied enough to keep them out of too much trouble. L’s screaming and circle running rev’ed the other kids up a bit but it was manageable.

N’s favourite book – cup cakes – YUM

Day two and the clouds were still there, but breaking up. We were hopeful. My friends and I usually tag team in the morning so that at least SOMEbody can get a lie in. So after an early breakfast I got the kids all organised and we set off on our morning walk, down to the playground which sits on the sandy cliff behind the beach. The running, walking and playing was followed by a little hot chocolate morning ritual at the cafe – something we did each morning to the delight of all kids.

My friend caught up with us at the cafe and we decided to risk taking the kids down to the beach. We didn’t have any supplies with us but oh well, let’s live a little dangerously…off we headed, down to the beach.

Oh the joy on getting down to the beach! The kids were leaping and bounding about like little puppies. They explored the rocks that had been exposed by all the rough seas. They got dirty, they got wet and as the sun started peeking through the clothes slowly came off. Soon they were all running around in the warm morning sun, bursting with the vim and vigour that a little outdoor freedom and a big horizon will give you.

It was so lovely to be able to see them so happy and free. In town you are always trying to keep them close (especially L who is a ‘runner’), but here, you could sit back and let them run, let them jump, let them feel some independence.

We weren’t the only ones who ventured out into the fresh, warming morning. The people who walked past us were all delighted by the happiness and exuberant whoops as these beautiful kids burnt off a ton of energy.

We were there for a couple of hours. I used every last tissue, wipe, nappy and clothing I didn’t know I had hidden away under the pram. We got back to the house just in time to feed some hungry little beasties followed by some post lunch snoozing. Ahhh! holiday bliss.

Late that afternoon we headed back to the playground. It was full of big boys, playing like boys do – lots of screaming, wrestling, commando moves, code words etc. Enter my boys. L had worked out a little circuit for himself that involved climbing up a ladder to the top deck of a play ship, then down the slide and around again. The smallest of the 10 or so boys who were there was playing up on the top deck as well and thought he’d make friends with my boy. He was probably about 6. This will be interesting, I thought.

Sure enough, as he realised that L was not responding to him in a predictable way, he started yelling at him ‘I can’t understand what you’re saying’. L, totally unfazed just kept moving through his circuit. The boy watched, and so did I. It could go either way at this point. Then he plonked himself down at the top of the slide so that L could not complete his circuit. L was being really good – making a bit of noise, but no hands, no pushing, just trying to get around this obstacle.

My friend made her way over to the bottom of the slide, just to be more of a presence. The boy was just starting to raise his hand up to L to push him away when her 8yo daughter suddenly appeared on the scene. She knew something was going on…’I’m onto it Mum!’ Within a few seconds she’d sorted it. The kid went down the slide, followed by L. It was resolved.

I love her for that moment. Beautifully handled.

The next day dawned and it was cool and clear as a bell. We had an absolutely beautiful day at the beach. The kids were in heaven. Their appetites for food and sleep went through the roof.

We had one last day there on Sunday (another corker) then headed home after dinner and baths.

What wonderful experiences for my kids.

One more week and we are back to school. Term 3. My grandmother taught in infant school for most of her career and she always said that Term 3 was when first year kids really settled down and started to learn. I’m hoping those words of wisdom are true for us.