Opinion | Broken fostering system needs repairing

HEART OF THE MATTER: It is a challenging role but, in reality, fostering is poorly paid and the carers are not well supported, the author says.
HEART OF THE MATTER: It is a challenging role but, in reality, fostering is poorly paid and the carers are not well supported, the author says.

I have never been a foster carer, but I admire those with the generosity of spirit to take up this challenging role.

Gary Christensen, director of Hunter-Manning CatholicCare Social Services, has discussed the shortage of foster carers in his recent article (Herald 12/6).

We have known for many years that it is getting increasingly difficult to find foster homes for many young people who are unable to live with their natural parents.

While I haven’t fostered, I’ve had the privilege of being an approved occasional respite carer for some children in care.

From the sideline, I have been able to observe the trials and difficulties faced by the fostering “parents” and by their young charges.

I can understand why it has become so difficult to recruit, even taking into account that many women who might formerly have considered it now find it necessary to stay in the work force to make ends meet for their own families.

There is plenty of lip service but, in reality, fostering is poorly paid and the carers are not well supported.

Many of the children have behavioural problems that make them hard to love, hard to support no matter how compassionate and caring the fostering families may be.

Babies are placed in care direct from maternity units. Many have drug addiction issues which means constant care and attention to patiently nurse them through withdrawal.

Toddlers and young children have often been subjected to neglect, abuse and instability.

Older children may have witnessed or experienced behaviours to which no child should be subjected. Some are brain damaged because of the birth mother’s addiction to alcohol. Others are autistic or have developmental delay.

Children suffering like this generally need a great deal more professional and medical support than the average child. This means numerous public hospital and allied health visits. This can be an unexpected aspect of fostering that was not identified when the child was placed. This is further complicated when the child reaches school age.

Familial visits also intrude on family life and often unsettle the child.

Case workers are generally carrying unrealistic workloads and can’t provide the promised support to carers, particularly those new to fostering. Sometimes what was promised as a “short term” placement drags on for months as placement organisations try to find suitable placements or matters are delayed through a clogged court system.

Sadly, many children placed in care have siblings who have gone into care before them. Natural mothers are not being given birth control advice or support to help them to reunite with their children.

It seems we have things backwards. We need to teach parenting skills to young people in high school. We need to support vulnerable mothers and coach them to care for their children.

Case workers would be better placed in the natural parents’ homes, teaching good parenting, rather than separating children from their natural parents.

This won’t work in all cases, but as a community we need to accept that the present system is broken and has to be fixed so that damaged lives can be repaired and children will not suffer.

In the meantime, I salute foster parents everywhere.

Kaye Duffy is a journalist and Newcastle-based community advocate.