20 Nov Australia’s Foster Care System
Rose Taylor had been removed from her schizophrenic mother at 10, as she had a history of domestic violence and they were moving every three months.
I remember driving with the Department of Community Services (DoCS) officer to my first foster placement as a bright-eyed 13 year old in 1996. I was filled with fears and ‘what ifs’. I knew their eldest daughter from school, but had never met the parents. I had no idea how long I would be there or if they would even like me.
I’d been removed from my schizophrenic mother at 10 and was placed with my father, who was in and out of mental hospitals. Despite loving me, my father, a Vietnam veteran grappling with PTSD, couldn’t cope once awarded full custody. He became a chronic alcoholic, which led to abuse.
The abuse was traumatising, but the removal itself is enough to leave scars on a young girl. It involved police and a DoCS officer, I had to make statements against my own parents to be used in court against them, and was told I could never go home.
It only took me 24 hours to realise my first foster family were amazing. I would have happily stayed, but after six weeks, my case manager told me my paternal uncle had gained custody. I hardly knew him, but what I did know was that my Dad and uncle were sworn enemies, so I was scared this family wouldn’t like me.
My aunt and uncle were overly nice when I walked in, so nice it seemed ‘fake’.
Like most ‘wards of the state’, I was extremely good at reading people and the environment around me, and in this case I wasn’t wrong. It only took 18 months for my uncle to dump me on the DoCS building stairs before he drove off. He didn’t even call them.
What I learned from this experience was that I was so ‘bad’ that not a mother, father, or my extended family could love me. I lost all respect for the world and myself.
This led to living with a school friend’s family. The father was a war veteran with PTSD and alcoholism like dad, and the family was already a mess. At 10pm one night, the father placed me in a cab and told the driver to ‘just drive’.
My social worker sent me to live with friends of my mother at 11pm – yet another volatile family. These carers had similar mental disabilities to my mother and lacked any parenting skills whatsoever. I lived in fear of their violence for three months before I ran away.
I had to lock myself in my caseworker’s car to make her help me.
She was very vocal that she was at a loss of how to help me, so she did the only thing she could – found me a bed in a refuge. Up to six teens have to cohabit and the place is filled with house meetings, case notes and shift handovers. It’s not unconditionally caring – it’s ‘mess up three times and you’re out’. I craved ‘family’.
They say home is where the heart is, but my heart was frozen behind a brick wall for self-preservation. By 15, this cold hardness was my reality. Luckily, someone had other ideas.
In my eighth school, instead of watching me self-destruct from the sidelines, my casual teacher jumped in head first. She could see something in me that I couldn’t. She looked past my challenging behaviours and became the first adult to ever offer me a loving, stable and unconditional friendship. Pamela became my hope, my best friend and conscience.
I became ill in the refuge, yet had to go to school as it wasn’t staffed during the day and young people couldn’t stay unassisted for any reason. It was hospital or school. Pam took me home until I was well enough to return to the refuge, despite having three young children and a husband of her own. She became my DoCS advocate, my school tutor, my confidant and without either of us aiming for it, my mother figure.
Next came couch jumping, the streets and even breaking into an abandoned area of my old school for shelter while I continued to work in part-time jobs and go to school. I was petrified of losing Pamela if she saw I wasn’t worth saving. She wasn’t fooled. She brought in breakfast drinks to school and the odd sandwich. While living wild, my schoolwork fell behind.
After an altercation with my life management teacher, Ronda, over an uncompleted assessment, I let her have it! This led to a meeting between Pamela, my principal and Ronda, a single childless woman in her fifties who offered to give me a ‘forever home’ with the permission of DoCS.
Life with Ronda was stable. She set boundaries and goals and kept me focused. Pamela provided the nurturing and took me on holidays, and together these two women formed a family unit. We joke that Ronda was ‘Dad’ and Pam was ‘Mum’. I had everything I wanted and had never felt more ‘at home’, loved or valued – but this placement was short-lived.
Three months in, DoCS moved me on to a semi-independent living program. Despite Pamela and Ronda parenting from a distance with the odd visit and call, I hated being away from the only place I’d ever called ‘home’.
This brought on my suicide attempt at 16.
Rejected by my own family, and craving to be with either Pamela or Ronda, I’d had enough. I came to with my head on Ronda’s lap, hugging her like a scared infant, then next thing I knew, it was 3am and I woke to Pamela, holding my hand.
After hospital, I did a short stint at another refuge with some of the roughest Sydney street kids. I was scared. You slept with your eftpos card down your bra and a baseball bat or knife under your bed. Finally, Ronda agreed to take me back ‘home’.
Then, I did the therapy I needed. I was one of the first wards of the state in my area to do my HSC in 20 years, I became my local council’s young ambassador of the year in 2001 and I married a childhood friend.
I’ve created a very normal life – buying our house, raising four amazing young children aged two, four, seven and 11, obtaining a social work degree and studying for a second in psychology, and building a career in youth refuges. Maybe I bubble wrap my kids a little, but I’m allowed to!
I’m rich – not in money – but in family. I have two amazing mums in Pamela and Ronda, I have an amazing role model in Pamela’s husband, and three ‘siblings’ in Pamela’s kids, who mean the world to me. My gift to my own husband and kids is that same unconditional love, and the message that I don’t take them for granted.
Is There Room in Your Life to Give a Child a Home?
Contact Fostering NSW, fosteringnsw.com.au, or 1800 2 FOSTER (1800 236 783).
Contact Key Assets, keyassets.com.au, or 1800 WE CARE (1800 93 2273).
Contact Marymead, marymead.org.au, 6162 5800.
Visit the Government of SA’s information page at www.sa.gov.au/topics/care-and-support/foster-care/become-a-foster-carer or call 1300 2 FOSTER (1800 236 783).
Contact the Foster Care Association of WA, fcawa.com.au or 1800 641 911.
Words by Rose Taylor