In search of a “forever home”

This opinion piece was written by Guardian for Children and Young People, Penny Wright. It was featured in The Advertiser on 23rd December 2020.

Every kid needs a loving home at Christmas, but for a growing number of children and care will go without one again this year, writes Penny Wright.

Kelly is 11 and has been living in residential care since she was seven. She recently told me: “I want a foster home. I have been in the same (resi) house for 3¾ years.”

Kelly lives with three other girls in a house staffed by paid carers. The workers are nurturing and kind but, at the end of the day, it is their workplace and when their shift ends, they go home.

Across the years, Kelly has seen other kids arrive and leave – reunified with their families or going into foster or kinship arrangements.

It is no reflection on her but she feels overlooked and sad.

It’s just the reality of a system where there are more children needing families than there are families available.

Every state is seeing more children and young people coming into care every year.

Many South Australian children, like Kelly, live in residential care but yearn for a “forever family”.

It’s not rocket science that children need to live in safe, stable environments with caring adults who are there for them every day. Especially children or young people who have experienced trauma and harm. Love, stability and healthy relationships are their key to growth and healing. For most kids, the best option is living in a family.

Part of my role is to promote the best interests of children and young people in care. So I’ve been wondering about what kind of people are willing to open homes – and hearts – to children who need them. What can they tell us?

For many years, fostering was on Rose’s bucket list before she took the plunge three years ago. She provides respite care to children on weekends, once or twice a month, supporting both them and their foster carers.

Her front room is a Christmas wonderland full of toys. She has always wanted to bring “joy into kids’ lives”, conscious some come from having nothing. Rose tells me “some of these children don’t know what a warm bath or a warm bottle is” but are often surprisingly undemanding. Rather than things, “they just want love” and “lots of cuddles”.

She remembers bathing a four-year-old who said to her, “Thank you for looking after me so well”.

When I spoke to her, Rose had two little ones with her and it was busy. One has had five foster homes in her three years so her behaviour is sometimes challenging. But Rose has noticed she is settling easier and this time she went to bed without a problem, saying: “This weekend, all she wants is hugs – ‘Can I have a hug?’” I say: “Of course you can”.

Mick and Sonia are new to fostering. They were looking for a way to give back but had thousands of questions. After attending information sessions, they found “all these obstacles came to nothing”. It’s clear they are already hooked. They say: “If your heart is in the right place, do it!”

Their first child was four-week-old Sammy. They were surprised how much their own children have gained from the whole process. Apprehensive at first, they quickly became involved with bathing, reading and caring for him and have all grown in their understanding about “the reasons behind the way people have ended up”.

After six months, their family helped Sammy to transition to first-time carers who will be looking after him long term. It went well, he is now 10 months old and Sally and Lindy love and adore him. The two families have forged a strong bond.

They catch up weekly and shared a Christmas together.

After Sammy, Sonia and Mick cared for a little boy called Jamie until he was nearly two. In four short months, they saw huge improvements in his trauma-related behaviours. They say he had “every reason not to trust and love” but showed an amazing capacity to open up to our love and care. At first, he was not interested in sitting still to look at a book.

“But towards the end, he would bring a book to us and sit on our lap so we could read to him,” they said.

A common theme with these special people is their conviction that it takes a village to raise a child. While sometimes challenging, they all said it was worth it. For anyone interested, there are various agencies that recruit, train and support foster and kinship carers to be part of our South Australian foster “village”.

Visit: childprotection.sa.gov.au/children-care/become-foster-carer or call 1300 2 FOSTER

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