When their daughter turned 16, Brenda knew she still had an abundance of mothering to give. That was 21 years ago. Since then, Brenda and husband Jack have helped turn around the lives of over 50 children needing out-of-home care. But theirs is no half-way house. It’s very much a loving home.

A different experience

Brenda admits that being a foster carer and raising someone else’s child is different from being a birth parent. “We love all the children in our care but it’s always at the back of our minds that the children could go back to their birth families.”

The most challenging experience for the couple was when the court gave them a week’s notice that 3-year-old Ralph, who had come to them as a baby, was to return to his birth family. “It was heart-wrenching” confirms Brenda. “It felt as if we had lost our own son.” Four months later, Ralph was returned to Brenda and Jack’s care and has been with them ever since.

In caring for the children, Brenda and Jack have found that routine is important, along with maintaining consistency and giving the children little jobs around the house. “We also get a lot of support from our Challenge Community services case worker. They are very hands-on and focused on what the children need. The case worker not only involves us as the carers, but takes the time to talk to the children to find out what interests them and what will be best for their welfare.”

Maintaining links with birth families

In a gentle and age-appropriate way, Brenda and Jack have always been honest with the children about their backgrounds and birth families. “If circumstances allow and it’s safe for the children, I think it’s very important to have contact with the birth family,” confirms Brenda. “This can be terrifying for some foster carers, who may think it’s better to keep the past separate or hidden. The way we see it, the children in our care have two families.”

As the foster carers, Brenda and Jack can provide a safe and stable environment where the children can thrive, but Brenda is quick to say that she doesn’t judge the birth parents for their circumstances. “The birth family is part of who the children are. It’s important for the children to know where they came from.”

Brenda admits that she is now much more understanding of the circumstances that lead to families breaking down. “Although it’s easy to blame the parents, it’s not so cut and dried. It can be very hard for a mother to hand her baby to a stranger because of mental health or other issues that prevent them being a good parent.”

Brenda and Jack also recognise that not all children and young people want contact with their birth family. “Everyone is different. Ralph, who is now in his twenties and still lives with us and sees Jack and me as his Mum and Dad,” says Brenda. “Right now, he doesn’t want contact with his birth mother, but I continue the contact with her myself. That way she knows her son is doing well. Maybe one day Ralph will want to meet her and his siblings, but it’s up to him.”

Doing it all again … and again

The most wonderful experience for Brenda and Jack has been to see the children go through school and graduate from Year 12. “It makes us so proud that despite their difficult, often traumatic, beginnings in life they have pulled through. They are happy and they have a future.”

Brenda and Jack now have a baby in their short-term care. The other children currently in their care are now aged between 9 years old and 16 years old and have been with the couple virtually since they were born. “Having a baby at home again – the first in 10 years – feels like starting over again. It’s wonderful,” says Brenda. “Although I have had to accept that I can’t help them all, I’m not planning to stop fostering any time soon. It’s what I’m good at. It’s what I’ve been put on this earth to do.”

You can find out more about foster care and how to become a foster carer with Challenge by calling 1800 952 417 or email fostercare@challengecommunity.org.au.

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