At 30 June 2012, there were 39 621 children in out-of-home care in Australia. About half of these were living in foster care and the other half lived with relatives. Foster children often come from abusive or neglected backgrounds and caring for them can be a challenge. It can also be very rewarding. Read about the experiences of two different foster parents and also about the key issues facing Australian foster carers.
Profile of a foster father
Clyde is a foster father and also has two biological children. He and his wife live in Shepparton, Victoria.
‘My wife and I have been foster parents for about 25 years. We’ve cared for about 250 children. We had two children of our own, but after that we decided to help other children.
‘We really enjoy what we do. We’ve still got four kids from two families here, ranging from 4-12 years. They’ll stay with us until they’re independent. We’ve had another seven children who’ve grown up with us. Some kids we’ve had for two or three years then they go back home. Some only stay overnight.
‘In the past we’ve had up to 8 or 10 kids at once. We’ve always concentrated on family groups. The main reason kids end up in care is because the parents aren’t able to look after them properly – domestic violence mainly, and sometimes neglect or drug abuse.
‘Getting the kids to fit in can be a bit of a challenge. A lot of these kids don’t have any boundaries when they come into care – at home they’ve been allowed to do what they like. We deal with disturbed behaviour by having firm boundaries, like set bedtimes, and outlining consequences. After a few days they realise that’s how it is and most fall into line.
‘We consider the children as part of our family. We also talk to them about their families and try to explain awkward questions like, “Why am I here?” We tell them their parents do love them but they can’t look after them because they’ve got their own problems. The worst thing is when kids have no contact with their parents. They often think that maybe it would have been better if they’d stayed with them. But some say, “We don't want to go back to our parents’ house, it’s terrible there”. Ultimately the system favours the parents, and the kids tend to go home until they’re old enough to voice their own opinions.
‘We always try to have contact with the biological parents. Most are pretty good once they come to terms with the fact that they need someone else to look after their kids. Sometimes we go to a park or a community house for contact. With the kids who’ve been here for a few years, their parents come here.
‘The children we’ve cared for generally understand what’s happening and appreciate it. Sometimes we’ll walk down the street and we’ll see a kid we cared for 10 years earlier and they’ll say hello. A few keep coming back and visiting.
‘We get some assistance for food and clothing, but it doesn’t quite go far enough – not in our case, anyway. We tend to do a lot of things for the kids: holidays and camping, and we try to get them involved in sport as much as possible. But we look after ourselves too. We make sure we go out once a week and we take a week off every now and then. It’s the only way we’ve managed to keep going.’
Profile of a foster mother
Lyn has three biological children and has cared for 25 foster children over 15 years. She lives in Melbourne, Victoria.
‘I've been fostering children for about 15 or 16 years now. I started when I was about 50. It was something I’d always wanted to do but it was a matter of the time being right. So far we’ve had about 25 children in our care – some for short periods of time, some for much longer.
‘These days I mostly take little babies because of my age – it’s too hard to go running after toddlers and little children. At the moment I’ve got a little four-month-old girl and it’s looking like she’ll be adopted. She’s a beautiful little girl, but her mother has mental health issues and can’t care for her. She was placed in foster care voluntarily, as opposed to children who end up in care as a result of a court order. In situations where the parents aren’t in a position to care but can make the decision to adopt, adoption can offer children the best hope for a healthy family life.
‘The challenge with babies is keeping up the energy. I tend to be tired all the time. My husband has been fantastic with the children though. When we have small babies, he’ll do the final feed of the night and let me get a few hours before they wake up in the night. Caring for small children means you have to sacrifice quite a few things, but nothing really important. It just means you have to stay home more.
‘We haven’t had much trouble with behavioural problems. Children really respond to having boundaries in place, particularly small babies – routines and boundaries really help to make children feel safe and secure. This is really important for foster children. With the little girl now, I always have a routine of putting on her night clothes and singing songs and reading stories to her so she knows it’s bedtime.
‘The politics associated with fostering are challenging. I don’t always agree with decisions made about the child and the confidentiality issues are complicated. In the old days you weren’t told very much at all about the child but it’s relaxed more now. There are systems for exchanging information, and it’s important to know about the child’s history, behaviour and health.
‘Being a foster parent has turned out to be the most rewarding thing I could have done. I do it for the children and for the families. It’s wonderful seeing a family coming together for the sake of the child and makes giving them back much easier. And my family has benefited enormously too – my children and their children are always aware that there’s always someone out there in a worse position than themselves.’
Foster parents and foster children at a glance
- Foster care is sometimes referred to as out-of-home care. Foster children might be in ‘kinship care’ – that is, they’re related to their foster parents. In ‘non-kinship care’, children have no biological relationship to their foster parents.
- Of all children living in out-of-home care in Australia, 43.6% are cared for by non-kinship foster parents. A further 46.7% are living in kinship foster care (with their extended family).
- An important factor influencing the outcome of children placed in foster care is the quality and amount of contact with biological parents.
Challenges of fostering
Becoming a foster parent is a big decision and can require significant commitment. Foster parenting is often described as being more than a parent. The rewards include contributing and making a difference to a child’s life, but fostering can be challenging in ways that can affect carers physically, emotionally and financially.
Why children are fostered
Children require fostering or out-of-home care for several reasons:
- The home life of the biological parent is unhealthy or inadequate for the child.
- There might be domestic violence or a history of sexual assault or physical abuse.
- Parents might be in jail or suffering from drug abuse issues.
- Parents might be suffering mental health issues or intellectual disability.
Sometimes foster parents don’t know how long they’ll be looking after the foster children in their care. This uncertainty can contribute to feelings of instability for everyone – biological parents, children and foster parents. Sometimes care can be for only a matter of days, or it might be permanent, depending on the biological parents’ situation.
What makes it hard
All parents – biological and foster – face challenges, but foster parents might have additional stresses that include:
- feeling there’s no-one to talk to when a crisis occurs, and finding it stressful to deal with children’s complex needs
- feeling there’s inadequate training and support for dealing with foster children’s specific needs
- feeling frustrated they can’t get information about foster children in relation to difficult or problem behaviour or health problems
- finding it difficult to cope with the costs related to foster children with special needs
- being unsure of how to deal with the complex emotional reactions of children after they’ve seen their biological parents
- having mixed feelings towards the biological parents of the children in their care
- having difficulty with their own feelings of emotional attachment to the children in their care
- dealing with social and government agencies.
One of the main issues for foster parents is dealing with foster children’s difficult behaviour, which might be violent, antisocial or sexualised. Behaviour management can be a new or out-of-practice skill for foster parents.
Foster children might display disturbing behaviour because they experience many complex and disturbing emotional issues, including:
- blaming themselves for being removed from their birth parents
- wanting to return to their birth parents, even in abuse cases
- feeling unwanted or rejected, particularly if they’re waiting to be adopted
- feeling unsettled about changes in foster parents, or having mixed feelings about their foster parents
- feeling uncertain of their future or identity
- being traumatised from episodes of abuse or neglect.
Contact with biological parents
It’s important to maintain continuity of all relationships in foster children’s lives to help them feel safe and loved. These include relationships with foster families, friends, role models and other family members.
It’s widely recognised that maintaining contact between children and their biological parents and siblings is the most important factor influencing outcomes for children in out-of-home care. This contact is a key factor in the development of children’s identities and resilience, and their perceptions of security and stability. It also prepares them for being reunited with their birth families.
Foster carers might find contact challenging when they have mixed feelings towards the biological parents, or if they feel the biological parents resent them. They might also feel uncomfortable if children have mixed feelings about their biological parents, or develop conflicts of loyalty between their foster and biological parents.
Foster carers demonstrate great commitment and provide a valuable service to the community in a society that has seen a shift away from institutionalised care to home-based care. But many feel the allowances to help cover the costs of caring for foster children are inadequate, particularly for children with special needs.
In these circumstances, it’s worth remembering that basic money management and budgeting can make a real difference to making ends meet.
For those foster carers with children in kinship care, the financial and physical responsibilities related to full-time caring for children might interfere with retirement or other life plans.
Fostering support organisations
This organisation represents children and young people in out-of-home care. The website has information on programs, activities and events run by Create throughout Australia.
State and territory government foster care agencies
These are the state and territory government agencies or departments responsible for foster care across Australia: