It takes more than a village to raise a child. Especially when the village is part of a broken system.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” ~ Nelson Mandela
A heartbeat. That’s all it took. One single heartbeat.
My husband and I had long ago decided to become foster parents, yet I’d gradually enabled trepidation to creep in. I’d find myself listening to well meaning family members and friends on the dangers of allowing troubled youths into our home, and the impact it could have on our own children. I was warned about attachment issues, behavioural problems, and having to deal with contact visits with birth parents.
When I finally met my son, any thoughts of doubt I’d given audience to were instantly silenced. Dropped off at our door by the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) with nothing but a plastic bag of clothes, his big brown eyes locked with mine and I knew — in that heartbeat — I’d do whatever it took to keep him safe. I’d fight for the opportunity to provide a loving and nurturing place for him to call home. For me, it was no longer a question about whether we would be foster parents. Now it was about something much more permanent.
In New South Wales alone there are almost 20,000 children unable to live safely at home. A shortage of foster carers across the state has led to pleas for people to come forward as “the lack of people willing to help condemns our most vulnerable children to a life of abuse, crime or death.”
In Western Sydney the situation has reached crisis levels, with many foster children and teenagers couch surfing or temporarily housed in hotels and motels.
FACS continues to face scrutiny over its management of the $1.9 billion annual child protection budget, with a parliamentary inquiry finding the system inadequate and incapable of addressing long-standing issues which result in “generations of lost children”.
“Not withstanding what can be described as a manifest failure of politics and the bureaucracy to deal with the issue of child protection in New South Wales, none of us can escape the obvious question. How can it be that in 2017 in a country as fortunate as Australia, with all its material wealth and prosperity, so many children and young people are in harm’s way every day of their lives?” ~ Hon. Greg Donnelly MLC, Committee Chair, Inquiry into Child Protection.
For many kids, the stigma of growing up in the foster care system is difficult to shake. Shuffled from foster home to foster home, many experience discrimination, victims of preconceptions around their behaviour and future prospects.
In the video, Hayden, now 26, states he entered care at three years old and by the age of 18 he’d been through 39 different foster care placements.
“When children who were with their birth parents would find out you were a foster child they didn’t really want you hanging around with their child after that because they believed you were a bit of a trouble maker and there was going to be issues,” he says.
Lily, 18, talks about her depression diagnosis at the age of twelve and suicide attempt the following year.
“The stigma is incredible,” she says. “There are so many people that think everything is just for attention. That it’s all your fault. Your parents don’t want you. No-one out there wants you because you’re a delinquent and you’re just going to end up in jail or a drug addict.”
In an article in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), Professor Peter Jones, Dean of Medicine at Bond University, claims children entering care have usually experienced trauma and neglect, and, as a group, are at significantly increased risk of mental health problems.
In a subsequent MJA podcast Professor Jones discusses the harms the growing number of children in out-of-home-care (OOHC) suffer, further devastating their mental health and feelings of self worth.
“They disappear into this terrible vortex of foster care where they may go from one carer to the next, and before you know it, you’ve compounded all the difficulties that have confronted this child,” he says.
When the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) released its Child Protection Australia 2016–17 report in March this year, Renee Carter, CEO of not-for-profit provider Adopt Change, called the child protection figures a national disgrace and the approach to child protection inadequate, pushing for a “focus on urgent reform to address the issue and ensure more vulnerable, at risk children have access to permanent, loving and safe homes.”
Founded by actress and activist Deborra-lee Furness, Adopt Change works to encourage reform and empower Australians to work towards all children having permanency and positive life outcomes.
In May this year, the New South Wales Government announced a new program to give carers better support and training to halve the time it takes to find vulnerable children a permanent home.
The My Forever Family program, to be delivered by Adopt Change, will work to place children in OOHC with families who are best able to meet their needs, whether they be authorised carers who can support restoration with birth families, or adoptive parents.
“There’s a deep ethical issue for us as a society that it has to change because the closer you looked at the foster care system and the outcomes for these children, the more you knew that it was dreadful. It might have saved them from immediate death or starvation or abuse, but foster care of itself can’t give a child what they need. Adoption means you’ve got a family for life. Not just until you turn 18.”~ Pru Goward, Minister for Family and Community Services.
When Michelle and Stewart Roberts answered a newspaper advertisement by Barnardos Australia in October 2009 calling for long-term foster parents for a sibling group, they had already been on a wait list with FACS for over a year.
“We hadn’t heard anything from FACS so we called Barnardos. A case worker from Barnardos came out the next day for the initial interview, with a second interview the following week. By that Saturday we were in training, and we had the kids in the house by January, four months later,” says Michelle.
The siblings, Keanu, Keiara and Eva, at the time aged two and a half, one and a half, and six months old, were initially under the care of FACS, however the department had difficulty in placing them with carers as a family group. They referred the case to Barnardos and, according to Michelle, the trio were the first sibling group under the age of three to be placed in long term care in NSW by the organisation.
Barnardos, a leading child protection charity in NSW and ACT, is one of several non-government organisations receiving funding and referral of cases from FACS, and specialises in the open adoption of children and sibling groups from OOHC.
By April 2012 the Roberts’ adoption was finalised, just over two years after the children arrived into their care. Michelle credits Barnardos’ processes, accessibility to help and support, and regular contact with their case worker for the easy transition to adoption.
“We were never going to foster without long term orders and the view to adopt, as we didn’t want them here one day and gone the next. The kids have experienced enough trauma, and there’s attachment issues for everybody involved. If they’re are moved on it rips your heart out — on every side. Not only for you personally, but for the grandparents, the kids friends, your extended family,” says Michelle.
“We need to talk more about adoption as an option, because it’s not as hard as people may think. Especially with organisations such as Barnardos,” she adds.
For us, life changed in a heartbeat.
Like the Roberts family, our son’s pending adoption is open. He understands he has a birth mother, with whom he has regular contact, and collectively we have worked to ensure he feels safe and secure, with a strong sense of identity.
Over the years people have told us how lucky our son is. But we see it differently.
The baby boy on our doorstep has grown into a smart, gregarious, confident, funny kid. He’s full of love and laughter, squishy kisses and fierce hugs.
And he calls me ‘mum’.
I am the lucky one.
For more information on long term fostering or adoption in your state, contact Adopt Change