Caring for Foster Care

This week was Child Protection Week, a week in which we stop and consider child protection and our role in it. As part of my reporting I attended the South Australian Play Your Part Awards hosted by NAPCAN (National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect). With these awards were key note speeches and reflections aimed at the child protection sector.

As of June this year there were 3,234 children under the guardianship of the government.

1 in 3 of them are Indigenous.

Right now the South Australian child protection system is getting more notifications than it is able to deal with.

In fact in SA 1 in 4 children have had a notification before the age of 10.

So this year there was a strong focus on the prevention of child neglect and abuse placing more emphasis on families and communities to keep children safe. The reason why this strategy is pertinent to a state like South Australia is because we spend the least amount of any other state preventing child neglect and abuse and the most in the country on emergency care.

You can hear my full report from the conference here.

While we may spend the most on emergency care, South Australia does not have enough foster carers to keep up with the demand. This leaves many children to be placed in to institutionalised care.

As Minister Susan Close said on the day, this area of work “is emotional labour like nothing else.”

On Friday I received a response from an emergency (or short term) foster carer. All week they had been watching the media report about Child Protection Week and the calls for more foster carers. They wanted to share their insights in to what life is like for a foster carer such as them in South Australia.

Here is their edited response.

A foster carer’s view,

I can give you a picture about what it looks like to be an emergency foster carer in South Australia, because I am one of the few.

Most of us carers do it for all the right reasons, for the kids and wanting to help them in what ever way we can – at one of the most challenging times of their young lives.

We are the ones that help them out of filthy clothes, get them cleaned up, sometimes delouse them, hold them through the tears, whimpers, adjusting their whole world being turned upside down and helping them to heal from their trauma.

These kids come with little notice.

We are ready for that with a stash of clothes, nappies, spare toothbrushes and most importantly a new fluffy friend for a little one (or not so little one) to cuddle.

The hardest part of this job is often not the kids but the system that comes with them.

Initially, as comes with the urgency, there is little information about the child – a name and a date of birth might be all you get at first. Later though it would help to get a bit more information, even small bits of knowledge to help us respond better to the children.

For example getting a child then finding out from the caseworker weeks later that they had never slept in a cot, this would have been helpful information to have at the time. Being told the child had been living in a pram before coming into care, would have helped adjust the care and understand why there are physical deficits.

Or finding out after a child had been in your care six months they had tested postive to Hep C at birth – but you hadn’t been told, placing you, your family and friends at risk.

A newborn coming into care will have family contact every weekday while on an investigation order, for this you will be asked to transport, or be home for pick up and drop off. Deal with drivers that are early or late, don’t have the right car seat for the child or the family contact is cancelled and no one rings to let you know.

Or you are not informed there was family contact at all and the child you just put down for a nap is woken up to be put in the car as you scramble around to pack a bag for them.

You arrange your day around this family contact and then rearrange it when you are the last to know when changes happen.

Many babies and children come into care with a range of medical needs, so you get quite used to multiple appointments for the child. If it is a newborn or younger child with high medical needs you are unlikely to get any extra financial assistance for this, as the special needs loading assessment does not take into consideration the extra needs of babies and younger children. So the little money we do get to provide care for this child does not cover it all and you will be financially out of pocket.

From doing physiotherapy exercises six times a day, applying cream four times a day to preparing special formula or food, tube feeds, dealing with the effects or antenatal drug and alcohol use or a genetic syndrome – we do all the extra care with no extra support.

Add into all that the child may have no birth certificate, no medicare card, no health care card therefore unable to access any services that relies on this information like childcare or family tax benefit.

The focus has been on getting more emergency foster carers, but there fails to see something lacking in the next step for short-term foster carers. Which is a big issue for emergency carers as we are often caring for children longer than planned as there is no where else for them to go.

Generally the courts will place a child on a 12 month court order with the aim of reunification, but this is the hardest type of care – short term care – because you and your family become attached to the child and the child to you. But the future for the child is unknown, their life is in limbo, waiting for the birth parents to get their life somewhat in order.

So emergency carers end up keeping the child longer, as who can live with themselves knowing a child is going into commercial care or being bounced around from one placement to the next, till a more permanent placement is eventually found? In the meantime we can’t take on other emergencies.

For a baby or young child under four years old we get $158.50 a week, a bit over $22 a day, when you think about the costs of a baby, nappies, formula, bottles, dummies, extra medicines or creams the extra washing, the clothes they grow out of too quick it barely covers it all or it simply doesn’t at all. And most of us try to give these babies and children the best that we can afford because we wish to give them no less than we would our own or that they deserve.

There is no recognition that our time is valuable, many babies and kids have sleeping issues so we are often tired from getting up multiple times in the night.

Nothing is scheduled around us, we are the last to be considered, we rock up at the hospital for an appointment only to be told it was rescheduled but no one bothered to let us know.

Sometimes all a carer needs is a little extra support to maybe have another child or to continue being a foster carer. There would be many and varied ways that foster carers could be supported in creative ways, fairly common sense things which aren’t even considered.

This all may leave you wondering why, why do we do it or why we haven’t booked ourselves into a mental health clinic by now, and these moments are why…

I once had a little one arrive late at night, gave him a bath, some fresh pyjamas on, something to eat, having a bedtime story and he looks around our house then looks at me and whispers to me like he is afraid it will all vanish ‘is this a magic place?’