parent opinion

'I became a foster mum for my brother's baby. 6 years in, I feel like I'm drowning.'

My son has been in my care since he was three months old. What I do is a form of foster care known as Kinship Care because my son’s biological parents are my brother and his long-term girlfriend.

Last year I attended a ‘care team’ meeting at my son’s school, and at the time of the meeting he had just had his sixth birthday.

Watch: The reality of foster care in Australia. Post continues below.


Video via The Home Stretch

My son was attending the after school care program run out of one of the school buildings. When it was over, a group of women came with me to pick him up: our heavily pregnant case manager, her soon-to-be replacement and a woman representing the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

He was chortling with delight when we found him, knee deep in a bucket of coloured slime. His eyes lit up at the sight of my partner and I - he calls us Mum and Dad - and he ran to meet us. 

Upon greetings and introductions to the women with us, my son snapped and launched at the pregnant belly of our case manager. It took both my partner and I to prise the six-year-old away, while his mad cackles turned to frustrated hoots and screams.

In the car park, after I had strapped his thrumming body into his car seat, the DHHS representative said “It’s a blessing you took him in, or else he would have been lost in the system.”

My son is moderately intellectually disabled with a confirmed forensic diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) level 3, and Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). 

These were likely caused by his birth mother’s heavy use of heroin, methamphetamines and alcohol during her secret pregnancy.

He has few words, although his communication skills grow by the day, and he rarely sleeps a full night. He is at times violent, endlessly noisy and often the most loving little snuggle bug I could imagine.

He attends a special development school in Victoria, where we live, and sees allied health professionals and therapists both at school and out of hours. None of it helps in any significant way, but that’s a story for another day. What I want to talk about is respite and foster care.

Listen to This Glorious Mess, on what growing up in foster care is really like. Post continues below.

My partner and I burnt out last year, long before the meeting. We attended yet another meeting a few weeks later where we bared our souls and were promised support. It has not come, almost a year later.

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As much as there are an awful lot of places to lay the blame: the department for seeing my child as a problem, NDIS for not actively seeking to resolve glaring issues in our disability support sector, or even my brother and his partner for setting us on this collision course so many years ago, leaving me at odds with my greater family and all alone without any support. 

The reality is that there are not enough GOOD people available to give people like us a break. In all the years I’ve had my son I have only managed one night of respite with a foster carer: a single, male, childless school teacher who had never interacted with a single disabled person before. 

He enjoyed spending time with my son (they got takeaway and watched sport) but found the experience daunting (my six-page cheat sheet probably didn’t help quell his fears as much as exacerbate them) and wished to have easier kids in his care instead. 

Not a bad idea, really, if he could take easier kids and more equipped folks could take on kids with a little more flair, like my boy. 

But the equipped folks are overloaded themselves, doing their best to love and raise the babies our system doesn’t seem to know how to support. 

When I have fronted our case worker with my concerns and woes, I have been faced with the bleak reality: my son will be hard to place elsewhere and will likely be moved into facility-style care. 

I don’t want to give him up anyway, but I’m forced to push through feeling more worn out than I ever could have imagined just to insure that he does not end up in the hands of an organisation that values profit over people.

I’ll keep pushing through and negotiating options for my son’s care, even though some days he pushes every conceivable limit I have. 

The joy he brings me is far greater than the pain caused by the lack of support; even greater than the feeling of suffocating grief.

I will keep pushing for the life I would like for both of us, but cannot manage through my exhaustion. I will find a way to facilitate safe and secure respite for myself and my partner, so that we may continue to give our son every inch of our love and support.

I’ll climb out of this deep well of sadness, but I just hope that when I get to the top, I will find some more help.

My dream is for a world of good folks to make their lives and homes available for even just a few days a month. 

Kids like my son should be able to have a nice break with some fun-loving families and carers like myself can have a moment to breathe or shower alone. 

Yet the thing is, we need people power to drive these things, and so here I am: mid-burnout, writing this piece after a day of openly weeping, hoping to inspire some on-the-fence folks to look into the roles of respite care and help save drowning people like myself.

Feature Image: Getty.

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