Busy raising two young children, this Adelaide family still found room for more, reports Linda Wyrill.
Adelaide's Peter and Lynda Graham (pictured) have always wanted to care for others. When their sons Curtis and Jarod were eight and nine years old, Peter and Lynda applied to become foster parents. "We talked to the boys about it first," says Lynda. "We decided that if they weren't on board we wouldn't go ahead, but they were excited. Jarod was worried that he might have to watch Dora the Explorer if we got a girl." While the boys supported the idea, they also understood it could mean caring for someone who might end up leaving.
In 2009, the Grahams fostered a little girl, Sophie*, through Anglicare SA. Sophie's home life was volatile and she needed somewhere to live until her situation stabilised. Sophie's stay lasted only one year – but Lynda, Peter, Curtis and Jarod took the emotional risk of taking her into their hearts.
Peter feels it's important to love and care for foster children as if they are your own. "If you love them any differently they pick up on it," he says. "It does break your heart when they leave, but a child doesn't have the capacity to heal if they have not been loved fully or properly." As hard as it was for the Grahams to say goodbye to Sophie, Lynda says knowing they've had a lasting impact on a child's life is one of the rewards of foster caring. "When Sophie went home she was well adjusted, secure within herself, affectionate and well behaved. That could stand her in good stead for the rest of her life."
After a six-week break from foster caring once Sophie returned home, the Grahams took on another child, a three-week-old girl. Charlotte*, who is now one, requires long-term care, and is unlikely to be returned to her biological parents. While this is a big commitment for the Grahams, Lynda says, "Charlotte is going to get one shot at life and it's going to be a good one. She'll have the opportunity to realise her full potential."
It's important to Peter that the boys speak respectfully of Charlotte's biological parents and that there be no judgement. "You need to be mindful that you are caring for someone else's child," he says. Situations faced by biological families are often multi-generational and empathy is needed, says Peter. A Families SA social worker takes Charlotte for supervised access visits to her parents once a month. Peter and Lynda choose to remain anonymous to Charlotte's family, and this is the usual situation for foster parents, however they are still in touch with Sophie's family. "We had Sophie and her family here for Christmas last year," says Peter.
Jarod and Curtis say they have two sisters and "one of them doesn't live with us". Lynda says her boys appreciate how lucky they are. She says their experience with foster care has given them increased compassion and an understanding that, even at their age, they have something to offer someone else. Peter is proud of the empathy his boys show towards their friends and others. "They have awareness of the real world, people skills and character that you don't find in all adults," he says.
Foster caring can mean providing emergency care to a child for as little as two hours, to respite care on weekends or longer-term commitments, says Tim Hayward-Brown of Anglicare SA. He says foster caring is different from adoption or raising your own children. "It's a team effort where what you do is a planned strategy aimed at producing the best outcomes for the child."
The Grahams underwent a thorough assessment and extensive training including first aid, child psychology and attachment theory.
Anglicare SA supports more than 400 foster families, up to 600 children at any one time. "The number of children in State care has doubled over the past 10 years," says Hayward-Brown. "We are always looking for good new carers."
Meanwhile, Life Without Barriers (LWB) is a non-profit organisation that provides services such as family-based foster care for children with complex needs such as disability and medical issues.
LWB area operations manager Sheena Gray says it takes committed people willing to make a positive difference to provide this sort of specialised care. LWB foster carers undertake rigorous assessment and receive reimbursement, ongoing support and training to help them in their role. Respite support for long-term foster carers, says Gray, is a critical part of the arrangement.
She says there is a growing need for carers. "We never have enough carers to meet the demands. Home-based foster care is an area of great need in South Australia," says Gray. When children can't be placed with foster carers they are given commercial or interim emergency care. Gray says this doesn't always give children the same opportunity to recover and heal as with home-based care, and this is particularly difficult for children with complex needs.
There is also a need for culturally appropriate care. Families SA consults with Aboriginal Family Support Services (AFSS) in the placement of Aboriginal children. Being placed with their extended family or, where this is not possible, with a carer who will support a child's connection to their family, community and culture, is crucial for the wellbeing of Aboriginal children, says the AFSS.
Sheena Gray says the type of commitment potential carers offer differs widely, so LWB usually asks new carers to do respite care first to get a sense of what foster caring is like before being matched to a potentially long-term child.
Tim Hayward-Brown says that while fostering can be challenging, "The real reward at the end is to know that kids who may not have had the opportunities others have had can flourish with the support of their foster carers and, if possible, be reunited with their birth family". As Peter and Lynda Graham say, the bottom line is that many of these kids don't have a future unless someone steps in to care for them.
*Name has been changed.
For Further Information
Visit www.anglicare-sa.org.au for details.
General information about foster care is available at www.dfc.sa.gov.au or by calling 1300 2 367 837.
Life Without Barriers offers information on caring for children with complex needs. Visit www.lwb.org.au or telephone 8515 6918.
This article was first published in the November 2011 edition of Adelaide's Child.