At age 13, Ella* was living with her mum who was struggling to overcome alcohol abuse issues. Her dad, now living in Queensland, had similar issues. Both parents wanted to keep Ella. But Ella needed somewhere to stay while her parents got on top of their alcohol abuse issues.
New guiding principles for permanent placement of children in crisis in NSW are concentrating on providing a safe home for life for more children. An important part of these reforms is increased support to families so that more children can be returned to their families of origin (known as restoration).
Foster carers provide a critical link in successful restoration. Single parent Merrin* was one such foster carer. With her two daughters now grown up and living away from home, Merrin still had a lot of mother love to give. Ella was placed temporarily in Merrin’s care. ‘Every child on this earth is precious,’ said Merrin. ‘My ex-partner was physically and emotionally abusive towards me. I think these experiences have made me stronger and have given me a deeper level of understanding of families in crisis – I know how hard things can be for families and I don’t judge people.’
‘Ella was really stressed and angry when she came to me. She would push the boundaries, but I could tell she was a good kid underneath.’
‘At first, Ella had lots of meltdowns and could be really defiant,’ said Merrin. ‘One day she dressed in shorts for school. When I said she couldn’t wear the shorts she argued with me. I tried to stay calm and not raise my voice. I explained to her that if she wore shorts to school I would get judged and it would look like I was doing a bad job. Eventually she went to her room to change. When she came out she told me she was still wearing her shorts under her uniform. I was so proud of her – it was our first breakthrough. I gave her a hug and thanked her for doing what I had asked.’
Providing care to a teenager with Ella’s needs was not going to be easy. When she first came to Merrin, Ella felt that no one was considering her feelings. ‘Over the 4 months Ella was with me, I spent a lot of time with her doing things like cooking together and playing bingo and word games. I chose teamwork-type activities, rather than taking her shopping or letting her just sit in front of the TV by herself. I wanted her to know that I cared about her; that she was worth spending time with.’
‘I spent a lot of time with Ella. I wanted her to know that she was worth socialising with. I wanted to help her feel valued.
Although Merrin had experience bringing up two daughters, Challenge Community Services made sure she had plenty of support. ‘The people from Challenge were really lovely,’ confirmed Merrin. ‘They were always willing to do what they could. I also went on some workshops for foster carers which were very helpful.’
The first time Ella went on an access visit to her mother, she still wasn’t home two hours after the agreed time. ‘I was so worried about her I even contacted my Challenge caseworker,’ said Merrin. ‘When Ella did eventually come home, she was in such a foul mood. Another time, I baked a cake for her to take to her father’s. She said, “I don’t deserve it; I’ve been so cruel to you.” I could see that she was considering my feelings and thinking about her own behaviour. It was a really significant moment for me and I thought “She gets it”.’
Ella has now been restored to her father in Queensland. ‘I still worry about her,’ admitted Merrin. ‘It was tough going caring for Ella at first, but each small breakthrough made it all worthwhile; knowing that I had broken down the barrier and that she trusted me enough to get that little bit closer.’
Through no fault of their own, there are 20,000 children in crisis and in need of out of home care in NSW. We have an urgent need for carers. If you would like to make a difference to a child’s life, you might be surprised at how possible it is to become a foster carer. Challenge Community Services considers single people and couples, including same sex couples, as foster carers. By helping a child or young person in need you can help turn their lives around.
If you’re interested in making a difference to a child or young person’s, please contact our team by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
*Models used in photograph and names changed to protect privacy.