In a perfect world, every child would have a safe and nurturing home where all their needs are met. Unfortunately, our world is far from perfect. Parents are not immune from suffering brokenness, illness, mental health, social issues, and addictions. Foster care placements are crucial services our community needs to ensure that all children are cared for appropriately.
Let me begin this discussion by reinforcing, how much I and the general community, value those who take on children who are not biologically theirs. Whether that be adoption, kinship care, foster care, respite care or assisting in residential care, it takes a village to raise a child, and in this scenario that is no more abundantly clear. Foster caring is a noble act of service.
Over the years I have come across people who are foster carers or are considering becoming one. Often these are couples or families who want to add a new dynamic to their lives. As a guardianship system participant, who has learnt some valuable lessons over the years, I offer the following experience and advice for people to evaluate.
I became a foster carer because of a family need. Prior to this, my only exposure to the foster system, were the ads on TV, romanticising the ‘make a difference’ message, showing images of happy families and appreciative, (previously misplaced) now suitably attached, functional children, who appeared settled within the displayed family unit. There were smiles, typical family scenes around the dinner table, and joy. As a result of this propaganda, I firmly believed that although I was about to embark on a season of challenge and sacrifice, one day it would all pay off and be ‘worth it’.
Fifteen years on, the journey has been different to what I expected. There has been fun, tears, laughter, and despair. Much more to the extremes than I could ever have imagined. The adventure and personal growth that my child has brought to my life IS rewarding and has caused me to develop into a much stronger person. I love my foster child dearly, and always will.
Alongside this, I have learnt a lot about how the guardianship system operates, the community expectations and the impacts it can have on the carer. The best metaphor I can come up with, is the retail industry. So let’s go window shopping!
- The CEO/boss/owner, is the government
Children on a guardianship order, who are under the foster care system, do not officially ‘belong’ to the foster parents by any means. They are solely the charge of the government. They are responsible for the upbringing of the child and are accountable for their wellbeing. They decide the morals, education, and discipline. Such authorities sign school excursion indemnity forms, give permission for interstate travel, and police check any friends or family the child stays with on holidays. They approve case plan goals and must show evidence that needs are being met, even if it is just superficially. Child aside, they are predominantly concerned with avoiding future litigation and will do whatever required to prove they have been responsible caregivers.
2. The ‘floor/department manager’ is the social worker
Social workers are the middle management. They have a tough gig. Many of these individuals have also been lured into the industry by their heart strings, however, get lumped extreme caseloads, high responsibility and limited influence. They see the trauma of the child’s upbringing, the challenges of parenting, but must please the ‘boss’. They need to strike the delicate balance of appearing supportive to the foster parents to maintain the placement, while only really being ‘team foster kid’. They have to be friendly and relatable, however at the end of the day, if they want to keep their job and prove their success, they can attribute blame down the guardianship food chain if there is a major disfunction.
3. The ‘customer’ is the foster child
The displaced child ends up being the consumer or ‘customer who is always right’. Happy child = happy social worker = happy boss…and less likely future legal issues. This is not a problem when a child is easy to please, settled and appreciative of the support made available to them. When my child was younger and I took on the bulk of the care requirements, I would receive praise from my social worker. It was a relief for them to not have to worry about aspects of one case, and as a result of my contribution, their workload was decreased. When handover between workers occurred, the comment would be made “I’ve told them how wonderful you are and how you have everything under control”.
When trauma, insecurities, attachment and dare I mention it, teen years come in to play, things can get tricky! If that is not enough, why not throw in some further family brokenness into this picture, alongside the usual biological family contact complexities, carer burn out and other life challenges. Amid such situations, foster children work out that there are a panel of people who are employed just to meet their needs and demands, outside of the foster parents. The usual one or two parent family, now becomes three or more, and you have ‘committee’ of individuals who all have their own theories as to what is best for the child.
4. The ‘sales assistant’ is the foster parent
The ones whose boots are on the ground dealing with the daily chores, school lunches, homework, sicknesses, appointments, ‘I can’t sleep”, behavioural challenges, maintaining employment so there is a home for the child to live in at all…as well as filling the gaps related to why the child can’t live with their biological parents in the first place. Sales assistants are expected to ensure the ‘customer’ is looked after and happy with the service and address any complaints, without the support of a union representative. If there is consumer dissatisfaction, they may have to justify their actions to the store managers and owners. Everything will be documented from whose responsibility it is to take the child to the dentist, how medical and educational needs are going to be met and the parenting style will be scrutinised and reported on. This all leads to annual meetings, where the child, parents, workers, managers, and a heap of random department experts sit around table for an hour to evaluate the care provided to the customer. If only ALL parents had to do this! It can be as enjoyable as trying to source toilet paper from the supermarket in the middle of a pandemic.
When things start going pear shaped, the manager will ultimately look for a suitable child centred response. The go-to (and rightly so in the initial stages of crisis management) is to consider the impact of attachment disorders and put pressure on the carers to address issues with therapeutic methods. The emotions and toll this takes on the carers is beside the point. The managers arrange consultants and mental health supports, however if the consumer’s behaviour escalates to the point of damaging property or affecting other members of the household in a negative way, the manager will not see this as their responsibility to address this.
If the placement does not improve, then the manager will need to report to the owner, with an explanation of what they have done to try to make the customer happy. The manager wants to retain their job, so the only other suitable candidate to direct attention to is….you guessed it…the sales assistant. It is in this situation that foster carers need to be wary and wise with how to proceed to avoid any potential threat to their own reputation, mental health and family relationships.
So, what can be done to make sure the foster caring experience is the ‘product satisfaction’ fairy tale instead of ‘I need a refund from this experience’ nightmare?
Here is my recommended list of do’s and don’ts to safeguard yourself and your foster child:
- Be at peace with the fact…you are not their biological parent.
…and don’t try to be.
- Have a supportive network around you.
Dependable partner/family/friends, are a must. Single parenting as a foster carer is difficult, as there is no back up and no one to provide evidence to the contrary if needed. Ideally, other children in the family should be older, and highly settled. A network of family and friends that can assist with respite and emotional encouragement is a valuable idea.
- Say ‘yes’ to all the help that is available
Do not be a hero and do it all yourself. No one will give you an award for that. Social workers are employed to support you, so make the most of their services to assist with the daily and weekly care requirements of your child. Do not feel guilty about palming off some of the parental responsibilities to them, it is not your role as a carer to pretend there is no guardianship order. Arrange regular respite care, even if you feel bad sending the child away. There will come a time where it is needed, and you will be grateful.
- Document all communication
Keep the majority of your communication with social workers in written form where possible. Read case plan reports and have any details amended before they are released, that could possibly frame you in a negative light.
- You can’t fix everything
It is not your fault that the child is not with their biological family, nor is it your responsibility to fix the situation and pretend the child is your own. Love them in a manner that accommodates their additional needs, acknowledges their unique story and background, but not to the detriment of yourself and other family members.
- Have firm boundaries
Be fair to yourself and your family and keep firm boundaries with expected morals and behaviours for your home. Do not adjust them due to pressure from authorities. Feel free to say ‘no’ to extreme interventions suggested by the department, especially invasive evaluations and meetings (particularly when divorce is involved, as child protection workers are not trained in mediation). You have just as much a right to a safe and happy home and life, as the foster child. Happy foster carers = happy foster child.
- Accept that you will have to love and let go
This is the most important one, and one I have struggled the most with myself. Well-intentioned foster carers often go into this with the attitude of ‘no matter what, I’ll be there for you’. That attitude is unwise. There are many reasons that the child may not be with you long term. The biological family may be awarded custody. The child may not like living with you. You and your family members may find it too much. The department may choose to put them in a different placement. The child may elect to live independently as a teenager.
The moment that you can open your heart to a foster child and be ready to let go at any time…is the moment you are possibly ready for membership to the guardianship superstore. Your till will have the correct change and resources to ensure you make your customer happy, and exchanges/returns are not required.
To all those thinking about becoming a foster carer, the highest of respect to you for considering this, and the best of luck with your experience.