Foster Caring: A Consumer Report

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

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!

  1. 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.

Badass Mother

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Today I am embracing my inner badass mother. On the outside, I am your typical late thirties, skinny jean-wearing, pot-planting, SUV driving mother. But on the inside, I am transitioning to a hip-hop rapping, bling wearing, chin nodding and ‘aha aha’ murmuring, badass!

Or at least, I am trying to.

Parenting teens is difficult, especially as a single mother. I do not have moral backup. I cannot tag-out of the difficult issues I am not naturally adept at addressing. I am no longer their soft place to fall. I am not cool to be around in public. I know nothing…even when my academic credentials prove otherwise. I am defeated in strength and stature. I am not intimidating when I am angry, and my opinion of disappointing behaviour is now rather insignificant.

Up until recently, my children have been my whole world. All my decisions have had their wellbeing at the forefront. I have sacrificed my whole self for them. I relinquished full night’s sleep for a decade, to ensure the management of health conditions was optimal. I worked hard to finance their private schooling. I have juggled weekly life to take them to hundreds of hours of appointments and therapies. I have frozen my tooshie off in winter at Saturday morning soccer. I have driven them across the countryside for music lessons. I have made sure they had nice clothes, haircuts, toys, and books. I have sidelined my own interests and goals and put their needs first.

If I am brutally honest, a small percentage of this sacrifice, has been for my own glory. The glory of being hailed a “good mother”, the accolades from friends of “I don’t know how you do it”, the social media affirmation of staged milestone photos, the recognition at Mother’s Day Church services complete with lapel flower and chocolate hearts, shining case plan reports from social workers who were relieved that my deeds reduced their own workload, the pictures for the family portrait wall, the inner fulfillment of knowing I’m a ‘good Christian woman’.

Another part has also been to compensate for the guilt of being divorced. My subconscious inner voice often reminds me of these failures yet can be easily be ignored when I am busy caring for the children. Being rejected as a wife is the ultimate shame, however if the children turn out ‘alright’, my sins appear forgiven. I can hold my head high in my community! Redemption is possible! My logic tells me, ‘if I can’t be a good wife, then I’ll be a good mother’!

But sacrificing all is what a ‘good mother’ does, right?

Maybe not.

Despite all my intentions and sacrifices, I feel as though I have come up short. Have they all been worth it?

The pre-teen to teenage season, has not gone to plan. I was not successful at shielding my children from the dysfunctions of my marriage and its effect on them. Toxic patterns have started to rear their ugly heads, and out of necessity, I’ve had to change my tune from ‘mother of the year who sacrifices all’…to ‘badass who accepts none of your ****** (insert your own adjective here).

This badass-mother-in-training does not sacrifice all. She invests where it is fruitful, enforces boundaries, refuses disrespect, and elevates her own self-worth, fulfillment, and safety above her children’s. (I felt guilty just writing that sentence…this badass is still a work in progress…clearly!)

The transition has been frightening. It has taken me years of failed attempts at faulty behaviour and co-parenting negotiations to arrive at the only option left at my disposal.

Relinquish.

Let go.

Hand the children over to their circumstances, desires, and ultimately…their God.

Over time there has been incessant regressions, then re-attempts to…

Let go. Let go. Let go.

Let go of their health.

Let go of their moral development.

Let go of their education.

Let go of their opinion of you.

Let go of other’s opinions of you.

Fast forward a year or two, and this is where it has led me.

Silence.

Peace.

Sadness.

Stillness.

Calmness

Okay-ness

Make no mistake, letting go hurts. It hurts a lot.

I regularly grieve. I mourn. I am disappointed that my family is not what I desired.

But I still love them. In a different way. In a safer way.

If I had continued the path I was on, it would have been more of the same for years to come. Arguments, power-struggles, constantly explaining myself, broken things, being used and manipulated, name calling, pleading for co-parenting and department support and character assassinations. It would lead to a future of toxic relationships not only for myself, but for my children and their future partners and families. I could see history repeating itself over decades, I could possibly still be a victim of it as an elderly woman. Round and round the abuse cycle.

Instead, by embracing my inner badass, it is possible me and my children will have a different outcome. I acknowledge there is a risk that I will lose them completely, however, I have placed those worries in God’s hands. Instead I try to focus on the goal of my children learning that all people have limits and all people deserve respect. That choices have consequences, good and bad. Forgiveness can be sought; however, repeated negative behavior does not need to be accepted.

So, I have been on a journey towards badass-ness. Yes, I have been accused of ‘rejection’, and I have faced the dreaded fear of ‘what if people call me a ‘bad mother’’.

But it no longer has power over me.

I am fighting for my children by putting my skinny jean-wearing, pot-planting, SUV driving weapons down, and instead laying my family’s future at the foot of the cross. His will be done, not mine.

I am now free of cursed maternal expectations and guilt trips, and let me tell you, it is nothing short of empowering and enlightening.

Will you join me and become a badass mother too?

A Scooter Affair

Photo by Brett Sayles

Don’t you love it when the kids throw a conversational grenade while you’re driving in the car…and have no way to escape?!

“So Mum, why can’t you just forgive?”

Gulp…. silence…and a million thoughts, memories, emotions and traumas ran through my mind within a two second time span. Urggghhh….not that issue. Since the ‘affair monster’ reared its ugly presence in my world, I had wrestled with these issues on a daily and sometimes minute by minute basis. It was hard enough for me to work out my own feelings, let alone to explain them to my children. It had been the bane of my existence the past few years.

I tried my best to articulate the journey that had changed my boys’ lives, reduced me to a part-time mother, decimated friendships, added a heap of single-parent responsibility, all while still holding my demeanor in check in front of my son. I clenched the steering wheel tighter and strained my jaw.

“Ummm….I have.” I stammered, not at all convincingly.

“No you haven’t…you haven’t forgotten about it.”

“Well…forgiveness and forgetting are different things. I’m doing my best”.

I went blank. How do you explain the complexities of adult relationships to children without scarring the security in their own circumstances?

My other son then joined the intervention.

“Mum, we just don’t get it. Why don’t we see our friends anymore. It’s time you told us.”

I sighed. All those stupid divorce recovery books never touch on all these real life, uncomfortable realities. Where’s the ‘wise counsel’ in this particular situation? Nowhere.

This was one of those moments that was not going to go away and could frame these young men for the rest of their lives. I took a deep breath and mustered up every ounce of energy to come up with a intelligent analogy they could possibly understand.

“You know how much you love your scooter?” I asked son number one.

“How excited you were to buy it from the shop, to choose the colour of the deck, handlebars and wheels. To save up and the upgrade parts to make it look and work better? The fun you have when you ride it at to school and skate park?”

“Yes…”

“You know how for months you would look after it, make sure it didn’t get damaged, even put it close to your bed at night to make sure it was right there in the morning when you woke up? Also, how proud you were to show your friends and meet them at the park to ride and do tricks together? Well, imagine if your best friend took it, even though they knew how much you loved your scooter? How would you feel?”

“Sad”

“What if they started riding it to the park in front of you, even though it had been yours? Doing the cool tricks you used to do, changing the parts you added to it, posting photos of it on social media and telling everyone it was their scooter all along and you were no good anyway. Would that be hard? Would you need to forgive him for lots of little things for a long time?”

“I guess so.”

 “Well that is kind of how it is for me now. I’m doing my best and God is helping me.”

How do you explain the emotional impact of infidelity to children? I am fully aware of all those parenting resources that stress the need to not talk badly about ex-partners, but seriously how do you do that on a day to day basis? Children do not have the capacity to fully comprehend the emotions you as adult, yet still a vulnerable, hurting human being is feeling? At the risk of possibly reducing my ‘fully-sick-ness’, and getting real (which may contradict some of those ideas from the experts of the family-break-up-world…I mean, have they actually lived this?!), here are my own pieces of wisdom with how I’ve learnt to master this!

1.      Chill!

Just like grief is a process, so too is forgiveness, especially when you’ve been betrayed. There are stages of denial, despair, anger, isolation, empowerment, steps backwards…forwards…sideways…spiritual peace, then triggers and regressions where you have to work through the messy process all over again. It is not a ‘one and done’ scenario. It is also important to understand that you can’t pressure and hurry people through this process. Proper healing takes time, don’t rush it and don’t let people tell you to hurry up. Be yourself through all the stages of this recovery.

2.      Create some edits

Create some G or PG video ‘edits’ or scenes in your mind that you can pull out to explain to your children, as needed and in an age appropriate manner. As much as you may be tempted to blurt the soap-opera-messed-up details that continually haunt you, take a breath, pause and choose your examples wisely and allow the facts to speak for themselves. Children deserve to know the ‘real’ circumstances without badmouthing the other parent. Let them make their own judgments over time. Use them as teachable moments, be honest about your own short-comings, the impact of sin and various life choices and focus on how God is able to restore every situation, not matter how unorthodox.

3.      Be wary of the sketchy ones and change your flow

Learn from your journey and make changes to your lifestyle and personal boundaries to model how to cope in adversity. Be discerning about the people in your life and limit unhealthy relationships. If your children are likely to be presented with alternate morals and lifestyles, continue expressing your values and modelling desired actions whenever possible. Be comforted that over time they will observe the differences. Research co-parenting methods, and take out your stress in healthy ways by talking to a trusted friend, family member or counselor, exercise and pursue your own hobbies, interests and career goals.

4.      Don’t worry when you ‘bust your cakes’

This one is the most important! Also, the most unlikely you will be told by anyone!

When you stack it in an emotional and parenting sense, don’t be discouraged. Sin sucks. Parents mess up. Nobody’s perfect. Allow yourself to be human.

Apologise, acknowledge your weaknesses to your children, and demonstrate how to get back on track. Practice self-care, be true to yourself and don’t be dismayed. You will get there. Take an emotional day ‘off’ where you don’t try to meet anyone’s needs or have to pretend to be strong. Binge on Netflix, smash stuff at the gym, go for a walk, avoid responsibilities, make yourself comfortable…but set yourself a time or day for when that is over and you are back on the skate ramp of life.

As much as we humans, especially Christians, hate talking about messy stuff like affairs, family break downs and forgiveness, it is time for us to all get real. The ‘let’s not talk about it honestly’ ideal doesn’t work. Children pick up on everything, so it is pointless for us to pretend they shouldn’t understand the issues that ultimately change the course of their day to day lives. The vital part is how we go about it. This will decide how well you all learn to adapt, become resilient, grow in faith and together overcome the adversity.

After all of that, you may well consider yourself ‘totally legit’! Yeah…sorry, it’s so not cool…puns over….