‘Foster families are invisible in a system crying out to be fixed’, Letter to the Editor, Sydney Morning Herald

(Full text) It should be no surprise there has been such a rise in the number of children being removed from dysfunctional or abusive families (“Foster care crisis as families fall apart”, March 15-16). By 19 I had a criminal record, a drug habit, a child, a sexually transmitted disease, a dodgy School Certificate, and an untenable relationship with my family and, unfortunately, my child.

He was taken to live with family members and ended up in foster care when he was seven. Despite very obvious issues (he lived with 26 families over six months), he received very little support for either his psychiatric and psychological care, or for his relationship with me and his father. In 2005 his first mostly stable placement, which had been running for 2 ½ years, broke down and I was informed he was to be placed in another foster home.

By this time I had undergone drug rehabilitations, changed my lifestyle, enlisted a brilliant psychiatrist and begun a degree. While terrified and unsure, I said he could come back to live with me.

We received (and continue to receive) very little support from the Department of Community Services. Ad we approach our third reconciliation anniversary, this lack of involvement becomes ever more obvious. We initially received reasonably regular respite care, but this dropped off. Recently we went for more than a year with no contact from our local office. The only regular assistance we have received is payment for my son’s paediatrician and counsellor, but to get access to the counsellor I had to ring the office sobbing hysterically and implying that the placement was about to break down.

This has become my tactic if I need anything (advice, download time, permission to take my son interstate). The department only seems to care about my child if they think that he may become a problem again.

I sympathise mightily with foster carers and the department’s case workers. They have a massively escalating task, with what seems to be a stagnant budget. Foster families are invisible unless the children they care for create so much difficulty as to be unbearable – and then the carers are branded unreliable.

Foster carers are trapped, knowing a child needs intensive support, but not having the authority, funds or motivation to provide it. It is easier to have a child with special emotional needs removed from your care than to fight for the attention you need. Caseworkers have such a heavy workload that inevitably only the squeaking wheels are seen to. Our caseworker is wonderful, but she has so many high-impact cases on her books that only in an emergency can she find time to visit.

The cycle can be broken, but it takes time, patience, resilience and access to support. A statewide overhaul of community services programs is the only real answer.

Carers, and parents who try to change, need to be able to hear a friendly voice on the end of the phone when it all gets too hard. Caseworkers need the support staff to be able to tackle their whole caseload.

Children need to know that they are important and valuable, otherwise in 10 or 15 years they will be enacting the same cycle all over again.

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