About a year ago my husband and I were stuck in traffic on our way out of Auckland. It was a Friday afternoon – after a pretty long week – and we were not expecting to make a decision that would change the course of our lives.
It didn’t seem like a very big a deal at the time. We were on our way south to spend the weekend climbing Mount Te Aroha with some friends. I was having a rant about my day to my husband – he has the patience of a saint – and this particular rant was focused on my concerns about the foster care system in New Zealand.
That day I had met two sisters who were aged 19 and 21. They told me a bit of their story. They have seven younger siblings and were applying to have the permanent care of all of them. When I asked why, they explained that when they were younger they had been uplifted by Child, Youth and Family (CYF) after opening up to their school counsellor that they were being severely abused at home. CYF undertook an investigation and all the issues came flooding out – including extensive domestic violence, use of ‘P’ and alcohol abuse.
All the children were split up and placed with whānau and in various foster homes around Auckland as well as up north. A couple of the children experienced more abuse in these settings, and overwhelmingly, the experience was one of instability with short-term placements that saw them being moved from home to home over a period of about four years.
Slowly the children were reunited and returned to the care of their parents. But sadly it didn’t take long for their parents to return to their old habits. The children remained silent out of fear of going through the same ordeal again. Recently, CYF was notified, but this time the 19 and 21-year-old sisters made the courageous decision to put their own lives on hold to care for their seven siblings. I was floored.
In discussing this tragic story, my husband and I were reminded that this is an all too common reality. It is well known that there is a shortage of foster caregivers in New Zealand. We all know that the resources of our childcare system are stretched to breaking point, and that New Zealand has a disturbing rate of family violence.
By the time we reached the Bombay Hills, we had decided to stop making it everyone else’s problem – and to stick up our hands and do something. I had always thought I would become a foster caregiver at some point in my life – but not now. My husband and I are in our early 30s, we have only been married for a couple of years and we have our own little one on the way (our first child).
I had imagined opening our home to foster children later in life, after having a few kids of our own, and some parenting experience under our belts. I thought I would wait until a time when I no longer had a busy social life and needed to find something to fill up my evenings and weekends. (Don’t let my parents hear me say that). But with such great need before our eyes, we quickly ran out of excuses.
So we started the journey to becoming foster caregivers. We signed up with Iosis – a charity situated in Manurewa that provides training and support to foster caregivers. We completed the training, one night a week for four weeks, opening our eyes to the challenge that we were in for.
A pretty intensive process of interviews followed. We quickly realised that our home required some serious child-proofing. Who knew the mischief that two year olds can get up to? (I’m sure many of you know). Our list of possible hazards included second-story windows without safety latches, cleaning equipment stored within reach of inquisitive hands, and water taps with serious burn risk. So we bought the latches, answered the questions and were deemed fit to be caregivers. Phew.
Given that we did not want to jump into the deep end and find ourselves in over our heads, we decided to sign up as respite caregivers rather than full-time caregivers. Respite care ranges from emergency short-term placements – anything from a night to a few weeks – to providing a regular break for full-time caregivers who might need some time for their own families, or to simply get some much-needed rest. The real hope is that by offering some respite, we can help to stabilise full-time placements and keep kids in a safe environment for as long as possible.
And then the fun really began. Within two weeks of getting signed up, we received requests for emergency care and then got to meet our first foster children. After a couple of meetings, to both the relief of the full-time caregiver and ourselves, the children liked us and were excited about coming over for their first weekend.
We now look after three siblings who come into our care every third weekend. What fun we have had! There were gleeful shrieks of delight when we went rock climbing, and I was proud as punch watching them doing somersaults at the trampoline park.
But the moments we have treasured the most have been the little day-to-day things – the massive ‘hello’ hugs, playing music and dancing in our kitchen. We have baked lots of cookies together, gone for walks and spent hours playing cards and Guess Who on our lounge floor.
I’ve been forced to ask questions I never thought I would have to ask at this stage in my life. (We seem to have skipped the baby stage, and have arrived in the world of the middle years and tweens). Am I okay with a nine year old wearing fake nails? What do I think about insisting that a six year old eat his broccoli when he swears it will be the end of him? How do I really feel about a child knowing all the words to Mighty Mike’s Hit That Bit for the Gram?
As much as I want everyone to sign up to be foster caregivers, because there is so much need, it would be unfair of me to tell you just one side of the story. Parts of this journey have been the kind of tough I expected. I suffer from FOMO (the fear of missing out) and having to say, “No” to hanging out with friends because we have a 7.30pm curfew is never easy. But other parts of this journey have been the kind of tough that you can never really prepare for.
We quickly realised that the more we open our hearts up to these children, the more we open ourselves up to getting hurt. We love them so much already and when I hear snippets of what they have been through in their short little lives, it crushes me. The reality of their history, their complex present and their uncertain future, hurts.
We ask ourselves what impact we can really make having them one weekend in every three. And recently we have been made to face a bigger question – one that we are in the midst of wrestling through. We need to decide whether we’ll consider taking one of the children into our full-time care because her placement has recently broken down. How do you even begin to weigh up being ready for that? We could have her for three months, or until she is 18, and the uncertainty is a killer.
We are still in the very early stages of this journey. And to be honest, we feel pretty ill-prepared to deal with some of these challenges. We have days of feeling completely out of our depth, but we know these precious children are totally worth it. We also know that they are going to impact our lives in immeasurable ways.
On reflection, that has probably been the most surprising thing about this whole journey. It is not all about the sacrifices that my husband and I have to make, and what we give to these children. You often hear that foster care is tough, but the other side – the fun, the joy, the privilege – outweighs the challenges. I am amazed by how much they give us and how rewarding these relationships-in-the making really are.