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Foster care when you have a really tough job and not enough time…

Foster Care is a delicate balance

I’ve been quiet… for a long time!  I took on a role… a very tough role in an NGO agency that provides out of home care (Foster care) for children referred by the state government.  I saw it as an opportunity to support foster parents for these young people in need.  I went into foster care recruitment, training and support as an area coordinator with a team to support and with energy and excitement.  I was coming with all my skills and experience and knowledge and at the time. I was also completing another great training in trauma and attachment with Matthew Dilges that seem to bring together all my knowledge and gave me more tools to help people (of all ages) to integrate their trauma and move on with their lives.

The job kind of fell into my lap!  I have been talking about being a foster carer for over 20 years!  But at each point of the idea coming back into my thoughts I had to check in to make sure it was the right time for me and my family.  Could we take on another child/ren with all that was happening in our lives?  Finally, after 20 years, my husband and I were ready and I then picked up the phone.  We were eager to open our home to a young person (or two) and were open to long term foster care. The agency carer assessor, on my second phone interview, had obviously done some Facebook stalking and had found this website and she told me of the position and jokingly laughed… “you could end up being my boss!”.  The role was going to be a challenge… but I love a challenge and I loved the idea of helping foster parents understand how to use healing, therapeutic parenting skills to help young people recover from broken relationships.  I knew at the interview that I had made the right decision… the interview was a breeze and I landed the role… and I ended up being her boss!

Unfortunately, this meant that we couldn’t go through this NGO agency to foster because you can’t foster a child in the same agency you work in… it just creates a nightmare around management, teamwork, conflict of interest and resolving issues.  So we had to change agency and go through the process again.

The foster care recruitment process takes a long time and now I know, having taken other people through it, it’s for very good reasons why it does!   If children cannot stay with their parents, and there’s no extended family to take them in and they must go into a complete stranger’s home… then you want to make sure those carers are good… understand trauma… have empathy… have patience… have the strength to provide those child/ren with a home that is secure, safe, loving and supportive of not only them… but to include their family (through supporting healthy contact with their parents, grandparents, siblings and extended family)… and they must have the right motivation… based on the needs of the child/ren and not their own.

The normal process of becoming a foster carer wasn’t quite applied to us because I was now working in Foster care and recruiting, training and supporting foster carers!  The time from picking up and making the initial phone call to having someone come into our home and talk to us was well over 6 months!  But once that happened and they recruitment officer heard we were open to teenagers… she began to talk to us about a  14yr old young person who needed a place and was heading into residential care if they couldn’t locate one.  The young person was looking for a fresh start in a new location as she’d been quite severely bullied at her regional high school and wanted out of the town she was living in.  Within a month, she was living with us, we were assessed over two days and she began our journey together.  This is NOT the normal speed or sequence of events that normally happens when it comes to assessing people as foster carers!  It was my skills, knowledge and willingness to take in a teenager that made the run in the end quite quick.

So not only was I now in a very challenging job… I had taken on a  now 14 year old teenager with understandable trauma and everything that comes with that.   I am not going to go into details about her journey with us as it’s her journey and her story to tell.  I will say that I think everyone of us, in the home, gave it our very best… in the end the fit wasn’t right.

Yes, I am sad and disappointed…  I am also exceptionally grateful for having her live with us for 13 months… she taught me so much… and gave me such a valuable insight into the life of a young person in care, who’s experienced trauma and has been misdiagnosed for most of her life.  She is an amazing young woman with a lot going for her and I am hopeful for her future.  We remain in contact and I hope to be a part of her life going forward.  I apply all my learning to my role now and I am much more understanding of why placements sometimes have to end…Here’s some of what I learned from this experience…

1) It takes more than love

One of the myths I tell prospective foster carers is that it takes more than love for these children, no matter what the age you have them come into your home.  Even babies in the womb are affected by trauma and can have “attachment” (trust/security) issues.  When children experience trauma at a young age (up to 6 years old) it affects them deeply… emotionally… physically… mentally.  It takes a skilled carer to work with their team (Case managers, GP, Pediatrician, Psychologist/attachment therapist and trauma informed developmental specialists) to unravel the complex survival response that can be individual to each child…. AND it takes TIME and requires attention.  With my work schedule… it wasn’t fair on her that I couldn’t be available to her as she needed me and I didn’t always have the energy either!

Children in Out of Home Care are often diagnosed with ADHD, OCD, ODD, PTSD, Anxiety and Depression and any other type of behavioural label there is and then there are attachment disorders.  In the end, what they should be diagnosed with is suffering the effects of trauma.  Add to that… because of the trauma, there is the delay in brain development (in trauma, the brain prioritizes survival and not learning) and poor digestion/gut issues (again… survival over thriving creates havoc in the digestion)… you have one complex human system to unravel.  Left untreated… and by that I mean with good intervention, on going therapy, therapeutic parenting and healthy/restorative diets… these children develop survival strategies to help them feel in control, safe and in a predictable environment and have the capacity to go from calm to utter meltdown in seconds with a trigger happy survival – fight, flight and freeze response.  These survival strategies can baffle carers who do not understand that they meet a need that is intrinsic to survival… who don’t get that  young people in care find it hard to regulate their emotions (and even their body temperature!)… who don’t approach those challenging times with PACE principles (playfulness, acceptance, curiousity and empathy) and oodles of patience, love and nurturing.

It takes love.. and a willingness to parent differently (from standard parenting techniques which you all know I loath anyway!), continual curiousity instead of judgement, playfulness… humour… team work (with your partner, extended family & friends, healthcare professionals, educational and learning specialists and agency staff).  You need to be loving, open minded, adaptable, patient, practical and willing to learn from each experience.

Doing all of that… and full time work proved to be too challenging… even with team work with my husband and the agency staff.  It’s a delicate balance with a delicate life!

2) All your foster care skills in the world don’t matter if the match isn’t right

The experienced foster carers I know and admire know that not all children fit into your family in a way that you know will benefit not only them but your whole family.  It is an arranged relationship that needs to be developed and compatibility should be based on both the carers capacity (assessed through the long assessment and training process) and the child’s needs.  It doesn’t work to place a tech focused child who is into gaming and computers with carers who believe that sports is where a child should spend their downtime.  It doesn’t work to put a child who is athletic with a family who’s not.

A good, thorough assessment will help identify what would make a good match in placing children with carers.  Ours was too rushed and we were too eager to take into consideration how the fit would be with our broader family.

In addition to this, the assessment process will also (hopefully) identify any “buttons” that the carer(s) may have that make them incompatible with a child.  An adult with unresolved trauma (whether big or little) will have buttons and children in care will undoubtedly push those buttons inadvertently.    Good placement matching will avoid (in as much as possible) placing children with foster carers that cannot cope with their behaviour or have unresolved trauma similar to the child’s.  Admittedly, the second can be hard… because how do you assess what will push someone’s buttons?  Good foster carer assessors know by experience… but there are many assessors out there that don’t have that experience because the average person lasts 2.5years in a Child Protection role before moving out of it due to the tough nature of the work and lack of resources.   Case managers also need to be able to identify when unresolved /vicarious trauma has occurred for the carer and get them into supported therapy and this can be hard to pick if they don’t have the experience to look for it.

If the match isn’t good for the child/ren or the carer and the carer’s own children (both in and out of the home), then this often where placements end.  This is what happened for us.  We took on a young person and we hadn’t even completed the assessment process or introduced her to the kids!  We’ve want to help so much, that we thought we can overcome this obvious barrier.

While I know that sometimes placements just end and that this can’t be avoided due to many circumstances, it was hard on all of us to know we couldn’t make it work.  Even she could see that.

3) Don’t take on more than you can manage… it ends in heart break

Taking on a role in the middle of a massive change within the agency and within the Out of Home Care system in NSW has taken a lot of my focus and energy in the last 18 months.  The changes are exciting and much needed but there has been and still is a lot to deal with in my working life and then to come home and deal with what was happening in the home meant I could not always be a therapeutic parent… or a loving and supportive wife… or even have time to breath for myself.  My husband was drowning in the many appointments and interventions we needed to put in place and he  was suffering with grief and loss, (having just lost is father) and therefore didn’t have the same patience and persistence with behaviours… their relationship was damaged… trust was lost between them both… and it wasn’t not healthy for either of them… everyone was drowning… and it just wasn’t working.

The decision was right for all of us in the end.  Even with the right skills… if the support requires more than the time you have to give… if the match is not good with the family… then the match is not good for all involved.

She’s did come a long way in 13 months… she could see that… we all could see that.

We’ve come a long way in 13 months as foster carers… we learned what we could do and what we couldn’t do.

In the 19 months of being in this role, the foster care service has changed significantly for which I am totally grateful for.  The first 12 months of my job I barely made it through simply because the system is so flawed even though every single person I met had passion and dedication to young people, it was disheartening to see placements breakdown… carers loose hope… carers and staff not understanding trauma and therapeutic parenting.

The removal of a child from their family has lasting effects on the family and the child.  The outcomes for children in Out of Home Care are exceptionally poor with a high majority having relationship issues (attachment), learning difficulties (delayed developmental trauma) and a host of diagnosis’ that label the child and create fear instead of helping them with good intervention and therapeutic parenting approaches (which are available).  The judicial system is filled with adults who have been in foster care as children, labeled as bad and never have received good intervention.  Remember, love is not enough.

In addition to this, and a high percentage of young people aging out of foster care… end up homeless… they don’t have the support network around them.  They have been cut off from their family and culture and community… they have no one at the end of the journey.  From a system that was supposed to protect them… it effectively has destroyed many lives.  We, as a society, have to do it better…

When I first began, I could see that foster carers either A) were under skilled in therapeutic parenting (which really help kids heal and thrive), B) didn’t have the capacity to understand trauma and look beyond the behaviours to the needs of the child or C) were in it for the wrong reasons (and there are many of these) that relate to their own needs and not the needs of these children.

The new changes in the NSW Out of Home Care system, (now called Permanency Support Program), align with better aims and outcomes for children that have to come into care.  We have a government who is determined to measure the outcome in terms of positive long term outcomes for children.  The first principle being… not to take child/ren from their family without first putting all sorts of good/proven intervention to help mum and dad get their life on track and provide a safe, secure  and loving home for their children.  Much more funding and programs are now available for families and this is the best outcome for children when it works.  Parenting doesn’t have to be perfect… the kids to be safe and secure and parents healthy and connected to community.  When that approach doesn’t work, when it’s not safe for children to remain at home… then it’s extended family finding… not just the immediate family, but looking further to find Kith/Kinship carers so the kids can remain connected to their family, community and culture.  When there is no one in the family, then we look for carers who are willing to work as part of a team to A) support the family getting back on track or B) provide a permanent outcome for child/ren such as guardianship or open adoption and still keep them connected to their family and community.

Permanent outcomes for children… early in their life… has shown to be better for them.  Belonging to a family, whether it’s their own or their adoptive family has shown to help children feel a sense of belonging.  I’ve seen too many children in the system who have been essentially cut off from their family… struggle with a sense of identity and have been bounced around from home to home because their survival adaptive strategies result in challenging behaviours.  They learn to trust no one.

We have to change the system… be part of that change…

I know from my Family Constellation work the damage that results when you exclude or remove people from their family… even when it’s a dysfunctional family.  What we forget is that it’s not just a mum and a dad… it’s siblings… grandparents… aunt’s, uncles, cousins and … their ancestors.  It is catastrophic when removal of a child is done badly for an child.  It creates so many more life long (mental and physical) problems than if we can keep them safe for a short period, repair families, or find safe people within the family and as a last resort… find carers that are willing to open their hearts to not only the children but their family too.

In my home, our hearts remain open to kids in care … as Foster Carers, we both want to support young people to find their feet, connect with their family… their culture and know they are part of a community that believes in them and  wants the best for them.  Foster Care remains important to us, we just need to be realistic and ensure the match is right so that we can be of long term benefit to children who come into our home and hearts.

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