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“There is no magic formula for the perfect family to take on a foster child."

Fostering NSW
Thanks to our brand partner, Fostering NSW

In the lead up to Foster Care Week (11th – 17th September), we spoke to Dr. Wendy Foote, Deputy CEO of the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies, about the invaluable role played in our community by foster carers in bringing stability and security to vulnerable children and young people who are unable to live at home.

“People think you have to have a big house that you own, and be married,” says Dr. Foote.

“The truth is that you can be gay or lesbian, you can be single or in a committed relationship; you can be someone who has raised your own children, or is wanting to be a parent for the first time. Carers come from all walks of life, are all ages and also reflect our multicultural society, with many carers coming from the Aboriginal community. What carers can offer is matched to the different needs of the child.”

“Children in foster care have different needs – some need emergency care, others need short term care while other children need long term care, and may be suitable for adoption. Some children need a grandparent figure to provide respite care to back up permanent carers.”

Dr. Wendy Foote, Deputy CEO of the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies. Image: supplied.

“There is no magic formula for the perfect family to take on a foster child but the essential ingredient is your ability to provide good loving care that has a focus on responding to the child’s needs.”

Being a foster carer is very rewarding, Dr. Foote tells Mamamia.

“It’s the most amazing experience to be able to provide a healing environment for a child who needs a family, and to be able to offer a safe and secure environment to that child.”

“Experienced foster carers are familiar with the phases that foster children go through – initial disorientation and apprehension when they first arrive, to becoming settled and able to manage their emotions as they feel more secure.  Foster carers can see that they’re actually making a difference.”

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“When the plan is for a child to return home, when home is now a safe place to return, the foster carer gets to see them safely reunited with their birth family. There are very few kids who don’t want to go back home, so supporting and having a hand in facilitating this reunification can be the high point of achievement for some carers.”

There are many reasons children are removed from their homes, but the three biggest factors that will see a child removed are family violence, drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness, and often there are multiple factors at play in each individual case.

Experienced foster carers are familiar with the phases that foster children go through such as disorientation and apprehension. Image: Pexels.

That means that in some cases children placed in foster care can be particularly troubled young people.

“It’s often quite challenging, because the children come with their own emotional experiences they have to work through. But foster carers are well supported by their Agency to face and overcome those challenges. It’s always teamwork – the foster carers and the case workers form that team.”

“There’s an assessment that’s done when a child first goes into care. The case worker who is going to be working with the foster carer and child has an eye on this assessment and it is a key part of their job to understand what the needs of the child are and to make sure the right supports are put in place for the child and the foster carer.”

“The assessment is ongoing and will involve talking with the foster carer who has the day to day care of the child. But they also have to bring other pieces of information into the assessment. So, they look at the child’s physical, mental health and emotional needs, and what educational needs they might have as well. The child’s care plan looks at all the domains of the child’s development.”

“When you have children and young people who have high levels of need then the case worker would be making sure that there are specialist supports available.”

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"They look at the child’s physical, mental health and emotional needs, and what educational needs they might have as well." Image: iStock.

“Trust is a big part of family life and, like any relationship between a parent and a child, the relationship between foster carer and foster child needs to be grounded in trust.”

Dr. Foote says that "secure attachment" is key. A foster child, like all children, needs to know how a family runs, what the expectations are of them and what they can expect from their foster family members. And they need to know who to go to when they have questions.

Predictability is crucial. “A baby needs to be able to anticipate what will happen next and that its caregiver is essentially good, caring and responsive to their needs.”

“So it’s that kind of really fundamental dynamic that you would want to establish with a foster child.

They will probably have periods of acting out and really wanting to test if the foster carer is going to put up with them, or whether they really love them.”

“That’s something that a foster carer needs to be ready for and be ready to talk to the child about, to say ‘we’re here for the long road with you, we’re going to put up with you no matter what you do, you’re ours and you’re in our family.’ In cases where the child ends up being adopted by the family, or having a permanent placement with the family, they are there indeed there for keeps - but most children do return home.”

Is it hard to say goodbye?

“Yes. It is.”

“In lots of cases though, foster carers will continue to have a relationship with their foster child, especially if a child has been in their lives for a period of time, and a strong relationship has developed.”

“It doesn’t have to be a full stop.”

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