Corey White’s recent appearance on Australian Story has some foster carers feeling slighted. ‘It’s like he’s tarring us with the same brush!’, say a number of women (on Facebook). Good God, former ward of the state! Would you just quieten down with your tales of sexual, physical and emotional abuse whilst in care?
Fortunately, not all foster carers are like this. There are the ones who grind through the disputes between DHS and agencies with a taut smile. The carers who know their limitations, and subsequently won’t get burned out. People who genuinely want to provide a loving and supportive home, without expectations of gratitude or fanfare. But we’re losing more carers than we’re recruiting. The road to foster care can just be a simple ‘Oh yeah, I’m patient and I want to help’, or ‘We have a bit of money and we’d like to give these kids a good time’ (problematic, might not get what you’re after there mate), or ‘I need to know I’m contributing so I can send my narcissistic self to sleep at night’ (me).
There are always little pricks of awareness, a heat that fills your body begging you to pay attention. At 17, I had to stay at the Women’s for a bit. As someone who was quite poor, I thoroughly enjoyed drinking juice every few hours. (Or I might just like being waited on. I have donated eggs for IVF several times, and I genuinely think I do it for the sandwiches after the procedure.) During that stay I was in a bed next to a very friendly, chatty woman. Her husband had beaten her to the point of miscarriage. He came in for a quick spell with their four children, where he tried to rape her behind the curtain. When she objected, he roared. No one did anything. He left with the kids. The thought of their faces having to watch this, having to be silent, having to go home with this man, broke my heart. Which is no good for anyone, and definitely meant nothing to those kids.
While it’s good to be wary of being sanctimonious, or proud that you cared – because that is the worst – having empathy is no bad thing. Just don’t brag about it.
As time went on, I met more kids who were being neglected, whose parents were junkies, who were abused by all the men in their life. I don’t know how this happened, as I was in the throes of the world’s longest adolescence. (Why go out and see bands when you can stay home being miserable about that one guy you don’t like or respect? Oh wait, because you’ll feel alive, get to dance and be a part of a community. That’s why.) These kids were looking for anyone, and to my great shame I did not know how to help them.
When I had my own children, worries about other kids intensified. I would lie in bed thinking ‘I wonder how many children are getting molested right now’. Sometimes I would say this aloud to my husband. We did not have sex on those nights. (Dark!) When I was pregnant, I was chatting to a receptionist at the clinic. She was an indiscreet, perfumed woman who told me she was a foster carer. She sounded quite sarcastic about the child in her care, but I assumed that was just her way. Like an older person – firm but horrible. (Joke.) I would see the receptionist around town, and by her side was a sullen, (justifiably) angry looking girl. The receptionist told a story befitting a Today Tonight viewer. The girl was the oldest in her family. The mother was due to have another baby. The other kids were still with the Mum. I looked into becoming a foster carer, but we weren’t finished having children, and they suggested coming back when our youngest turned three. On her third birthday, I began the campaign. My ex-husband is a sensible person; foster care is not really for the completely sensible. It’s an invitation to pain, rejection, bureaucratic nonsense and fear. So I had to use every trick in the book. Which was mostly whining.
We undertook the Shared Stories, Shared Lives training, which was surprisingly terrific. We learned about the effects of trauma on development. The facilitators went to great pains to point out these children would not be ours. We were to welcome them and care for them in a loving environment, but they would be going back home. It was like step-parenting, but with access visits at DHS offices instead. You never know who will make a good carer, as people have markedly different approaches, but during training you knew who would be shit. One woman had pedigree dogs that she brought into the conversation every four minutes. Any vaguely combative child would have sussed that out within two seconds of being there, and promptly kicked those dogs, and their jewel crusted collars. A couple (who may have been there for the free dim sims), sat in a corner, with the male partner nursing a hangover, and the woman so casual she could have slid off the chair.
When learning about foster kids, there’s an aspect of shock tactics used to desensitise you, so when the carers came in with the kids it was a real shock. They were just kids! Bored and funny – like all kids.
Three weeks after we were accredited, we got the call. It was for a little girl, who was six. Her foster care placement had broken down. She had complex issues and reported violent behaviours, and our youngest was only four. My husband, (to his eternal credit) thought it would be ‘alright’, and told me to sleep on it. I woke up and declared ‘Well, as long as she doesn’t stab me, I’ll be fine’. She arrived for a visit later that day. No offence to the children I gave birth to, but she was the most beautiful child I had ever seen. She was a baby toothed Snow White. She had regressed and become angry in her placement, as she didn’t want to be forced to be the (previously) missing piece of their perfect foursome. The foster mother felt this rejection keenly, and punished Snow White with an alarming display of emotional blackmail. It’s like the Brothers Grimm, except with corporate seats and Thermomixes. (She’s still in the foster care game, I might add.)
Foster care isn’t about you. These kids are away from their families, and even if you think their family is dysfunctional and horrible, that’s still their family. The last thing they need are people wanting playground glory. If you’re needy or fragile – go to therapy, don’t make matters worse for these kids. And everyone needs to be open to reports of abuse in the system. It’s like members of the Catholic Church, quietly suggesting that no one come forward with any more pesky priest stories.
Snow White was the baby sister of the sullen and (justifiably) angry looking girl. Three years after she came to us we were granted permanent care. I now have a daughter that’s good at sport!
*It’s probably not good for your health, but it’s definitely good. And if you can do it, you should.