There is joy and heartache in caring for Tasmania’s vulnerable children, something Helen* has dedicated her life to.
Now in her 60s, and with foster children – a term she doesn’t use in her house – still in her care, the Northern Tasmanian carer and her husband are as committed as they were when they welcomed their first child more than 35 years ago.
“We don’t use the word ‘foster’,” she said.
“We are ‘nan’, ‘aunt’ – whatever the child refers to us as. We’re their protectors, but as their guardians, they belong. They come into the family environment that you give your own children.
“As soon as they walk through the door, this is their safe haven. No matter what the world throws at them, like biological parents not turning up to parent visits, the travelling into town and the build-up of, ‘I’m going to see mummy and daddy’, and then dealing with them not being there.
“We talk about it on the way home and as soon as we walk through the door, it’s like walking into a world where they’re safe and protected.”
Fostering does take an emotional toll on Helen.
“There is a lot of heartbreak with the reunifications, when they don’t work and you see the children come back through the system - that breaks your heart.
“When a placement breaks down, that’s another heartbreak for the carer, but I treat this journey as a book.
“The chapter’s played out, you turn the page when a placement breaks or a reunification happens and you grieve and you deal with it and then you move on.”
Helen goes through a grieving process every time a child is reunited with their family and leaves her care.
“I have to grieve before I can move on. When a placement breaks down, I used to question myself - where did I go wrong? And now because I’ve been doing it for so long, I just have to look at it as our journey with this child has finished.
“We’ve taken them as far as we can and hopefully if they go onto another carer or their next placement, we’ve made a start in their life. We’ve given them the foundation and a good background.”
We are ‘nan’, ‘aunt’ – whatever the child refers to us as. We’re their protectors, but as their guardians, they belong. They come into the family environment that you give your own children.Northern Tasmanian foster carer
They wish the child well and try to move on.
“I’d fret over every child that was reunified or replaced. But, in saying that, of a night, when the children are in bed asleep, there is nothing better than walking past their bedrooms and pulling the blankets over them and knowing they are safe. Being a carer is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Helen and her husband have had about 15 long-term foster children through their house, and many more short-term placements.
“When they reach 18 and that leavers’ dinner - you know you’ve made a difference when you see them in their suits and evening gowns and they’re all dressed up looking absolutely gorgeous.
“They’ve all gone on - some to really good jobs, others to not so good, but they’re managing - they cope.
“Our home is always open to children to come back.”
Although Helen loves being a carer, she said there was “a lot wrong with the system”.
“It’s terribly broken at the moment. We’re losing carers in droves.
“Most carers drop out during the first year due to the stress caused by the system and I think that gives you a general idea of why our system is broken.”
She said there was a desperate need for more foster carers to come on board, and younger foster carers, with most now over the age of 40.
“There’s a high turnover of child protection workers, ultimately affecting the children.
“It’s just so stressful that they don’t last.”
Human Services Minister Jacquie Petrusma said she was aware more foster carers were needed.
“[That] is why we have been running recruitment campaigns and is a major priority of the department as part of our current reforms in out-of-home care,” she said.
Ms Petrusma said staff turnover decreased in the past year, but she was still “concerned that a lot of negative publicity” was deterring people from coming forward.
“I recognise and am grateful for the valuable work undertaken by foster carers and child safety workers, and thank them for all their work in supporting our vulnerable children, young people and their families.
“Our target of a 55 per cent reduction in serious child abuse by 2022 will not be met by just employing more child safety staff and having a strong child protection system - it requires a combined whole-of-government and community effort, and polices, plans and measures, to prevent children being abused in the first place from causes such as drug use, family violence and unemployment.”
Even after years of fostering, Helen said she still felt for Tasmania’s vulnerable children. “As long as we can do it, we will. The caring is still there, the passion is still there to want to see a young child achieve, and our home is always open.
“We’re so lucky that we live here and have our own home and that we can provide for these children.”
Helen said if people were interested in becoming carers, they should get in touch with one of the providers, such as Life Without Barriers.
*We’ve changed the name of the carer for the safety of her foster children.