I became a foster parent for two simple reasons. I know what it’s like to be on both sides of the fence. I know how it feels to be a child who’s taken away from home and I know what it does to a parent to have a child taken from them.
Both happened to me.
I understand the terror and sadness a child feels when they’re separated from family and I especially identify with the fury and helplessness a parent goes through when a child is put in someone else’s care. Most of all, I believe I understand what a child needs when everything in their world has fallen apart. That’s when I can be there for them – to give them back some of the love and stability they need to get back on their feet.
Support Is Essential
I couldn’t do it without my husband. What we have in common is stability and a love for children. He’s always said that if a child needs help, we can give it. If we’re cooking for three, it’s no different than cooking for ten. If we have a spare bed, a child is welcome to it. We don’t see the children who come to us as strangers but as little people in desperate need of care and understanding. It only takes a short time to reassure any of them that they are loved and wanted and perhaps in doing this we can play a small part in building their characters for the future.
It wasn’t always this way. I always knew what it took to be a mother and I’ve loved babies all my life, but I myself was a real brat in my teens. I took no notice of what my mother said and would slam out of the house to spend time with friends whenever I could.
When I found a boyfriend at the age of fifteen and became pregnant soon after, I earned an automatic charge of ‘uncontrollable’. That was the term the police and courts used back in the ‘sixties when they charged you under the Children’s Act for not conforming, wagging school or running away.
My mother could no longer cope with me and I was sent to Parramatta Girl’s Home until I had my baby. For the first time in my life, I was no longer a person, just a number. In this grim, grey institution, there was no help or counselling and every night before we were allowed a two-minute shower, we had to go through the degrading ritual of washing out our underwear and showing the crotch to an officer. I was so angry at my mother for putting me there I refused to see her when she came to visit me.
Make The Best Of It
I remember sitting on my dormitory bed looking at the bars on the windows and feeling hot tears spill over onto my belly. I can’t change the situation I thought, so I’ll just have to make the best of it. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the philosophy that saved me and in one way or another has helped me all my life.
My baby was born before a sea of male faces, all students who crowded into the ward to watch a breech birth. There was no relief for the pain and when I could no longer hold back my tears, a stone-faced doctor told me to stop blubbering and to get on with it. Almost as soon as my daughter was born, she was whisked away to be put up for adoption. I was moved to a ward filled with older women who subtly tutted in my direction. To this day I can remember their side dressers filled with flowers and congratulatory cards.
I might have been only fifteen, but I was not about to let my baby go without a fight. ‘You’re not keeping her,’ the matron told me. ‘You’re just a child yourself. Adoption is the best thing for her, we’ve all agreed.’
There I was — a ‘tough’ girl from Parramatta – with no control over my own or my baby’s life. It was only when my sister came to see me and I told her what had happened that she helped me take matters into my own hands. She marched me straight to my daughter in the nursery and a short while later the three of us left the hospital together and returned to my mother’s house. I never got the chance to tell my mother I was sorry for what I’d done because she died of colon cancer when my daughter was just eight months old. But I know she had forgiven me because when she saw my daughter, her face softened for the first time in a long while.
Things did not have a fairytale ending. I had to get special permission to marry my boyfriend because I was so young. He, in turn, found it difficult to be married and under the stresses of a shaky start, he became violent with me. After he had broken my spirit for the umpteenth time, I left him. But found to my shock that I had to fight for custody of our baby. In the wake of the storm, a court allowed my daughter to be placed with my husband’s sister – a decision that baffled and infuriated me. No matter how much I protested, the law turned against me.
Eventually, however, I won my daughter back and set about putting my life right. My second marriage gave me the love and stability I needed, three more children and set me on the path to finding my life’s work. I had seen the heartbreak and horror the system meted out to people in crisis. Now, I resolved if I could help in any way, that was what I was put on earth to do.
What I’ve learned since then is that there are no uncontrollable children, only uncontrollable parents.
These are the people who care just about themselves and aren’t aware of what their children might be feeling or expressing. I don’t think they do it intentionally. When I look back on losing my own daughter, I can see that my marriage break-up and the custody battle that followed distracted me from focussing on her wellbeing. My own emotions became uncontrollable and I saw only what was happening to me. I didn’t address my daughter’s fears in time, so I was the one who put her on a path she might not necessarily have chosen. It was a hard lesson to learn but it compelled me to understand how all of us have to accept the consequences of what we do. We need to be sharply aware of the ripple effect our actions have on our children, whether they take two or twenty years to show up.
Otherwise the terrible costs are the broken children foster parents take in.
We have had a six-week-old baby with a fractured skull and broken ribs, a two week old who needed constant monitoring and blood transfusions and a two-year-old who screamed at the sound of the bath running because mummy may have scalded her with boiling water.
Then there was the four-year-old who overate all the time because he missed the mother who never fed him. The list goes on; children who show inappropriate sexual conduct because that’s what was done to them, toddlers with sores covering their bodies and conjunctivitis so bad their eyes are swollen shut. I once had a baby with nappy rash that had removed the entire outer layer of skin from her buttocks leaving only a raw, red wound. Then there are the children and babies with fetal alcohol syndrome and others who hold onto their one little bag of possessions and won’t let go, not even to bathe, because it’s all they have in the world.
Perhaps the saddest are the children with broken spirits.
They’re the ones who sit by themselves because they have no idea how to play or to make up imaginary games. I remember especially one little boy who was coming up for five years of age. It’s hard to believe that a child would not know the day on which he was born or that he’d never had a birthday gift, but this was the case with him.
The day before, I told him, ‘It’s your birthday tomorrow, you’re turning five.’
He looked at me blankly. ‘Your birthday,’ I repeated, ‘when you get presents.’
‘What for?’ he asked me. ‘It’s the day you were born and we celebrate it,’ I tried to explain.
Still he looked at me blankly.
‘You’ll see,’ I whispered to him as I tucked him into bed.
The next morning he appeared sleepy headed in the kitchen and asked, ‘Am I five yet?’
‘Happy Birthday!’ we all called out as we handed him his gifts. He looked at me and asked, ‘What do I do with them?’
‘Open them,’ I told him. ‘They’re yours forever now.’
As he tore the paper off his Tonka trucks and toy soldiers, a huge smile spread across his face. That night when we had a party and showed him how to blow out his candles he asked, ‘Can I have another birthday tomorrow please?’
Sadly, we’ve found that the one thing all children bring when they come to us is guilt. They feel they’ve betrayed their parents by being taken away from them. No matter what they did to them, their children will stay loyal and still love them. For these children, ‘normal’ might have meant living in squalor, with sexual abuse, starvation or violence.
Some hide food or steal it in the dead of night for fear they won’t get any more. Others deliberately break our belongings or physically hurt the other children, hoping we’ll give up and send them home. It can break your heart to see a bruised, battered child begging to go home and hating us for saying no. Then again there’s no greater compliment than to have a child let down her guard and feel comfortable enough with us to throw her first tantrum.
Part Of The Family
The challenge with new children is to make them feel part of the family, not guests or visitors. If that means being cross with them because they’re naughty, it has to be. If it means that the family is having two-minute noodles for tea, they soon realise they are too. They have to become part of the brood. After that, we hope to show them that ‘normal’ means a family where people care about them, where there’s plenty of food and where their bed and possessions will always be waiting for them. It also means you’ll be there for them night after night when they’re scared, or when they cry themselves to sleep asking for mummy. Trust only grows when it goes hand in hand with stability.
On the other side are the parents who look on us as the enemy and I can understand that too. We’ve got to build trust with them as well, but that can be more difficult. I’ve sat up all night massaging a child’s body to relax him or given him physiotherapy for a rattly chest only to be chewed out by the parent for ‘spoiling’ her child.
The children stay anywhere from a week to as long as five years with us and we’ve sometimes had as many as five at a time. All the same, it’s never easy to say goodbye. When a toddler clings to your neck and a car is waiting to move her on, it’s heartbreaking. There have been times when my husband and I have said ‘no more’. Then the telephone rings and it’s the placement team calling to say they have a three-month-old baby boy who’s been abused and can we take him in. The answer is always yes.
All it may take is a gesture as simple as holding that child’s hand when they feel unwell or the touch of your hand on the side of their little face to reassure them. Something like that can last them a lifetime. In turn, they give so much back to us. To feel a child’s arms around my neck and to reach down to a little face turned up to me for a kiss is the best reward a foster parent could ask for.
How To Become A Foster Parent
Have you been or wanted to be a foster parent. Tell us in the comments below.