FOSTERING AS A PARENTING OPTION

An LGBT carer’s experience

By Choon Tan

*Foster carers Milton Goodchild and Choon Tan. Picture: Jon Hewson d473312

The following is written from our personal experience as foster carers in Western Australia. While the concepts and rules are largely similar in other states/ territories, you should always check with your local Department or foster care agency.

Congratulations on deciding to become a parent, and to start a family.

Most prospective LGBT parents tend to look at surrogacy as an option. As altruistic surrogacy was not realistic for us, we researched commercial surrogacy and found it expensive, with no guarantee of success. And if it fails, there are no refunds. It seemed like a very expensive gamble. Then, we learned about children in foster care.

It was a shock to discover that there are thousands of children across Australia, who through no fault of their own do not have access to a safe and loving home, and we saw it not only as a way of starting our own “Instant Family” (more on that movie reference later) and at the same time, give back to our community. We weren’t particularly hung up on carrying on our gene pool (*shrug) and felt there were enough kids who needed our help without us bringing more of them into this world!

The first thing we did was to contact a foster care agency. You could of course contact the Department responsible for Child Protection, Communities, Families or whatever they’re called in your State. However, for some time now, state departments have contracts with privately run foster care agencies to help manage the placement and supervision of children in the system. We have found that by going with an agency, we have an additional layer of support which has been invaluable. The agency not only oversees the children’s welfare, but also plays an advocacy role on behalf of the carers.

In our case, we went with Key Assets, an agency who is very pro-LGBT. They have offices in many capital cities in Australia and New Zealand and in some regional areas It was important for us to work with an agency which is supportive in our endeavours to become same-sex parents, as we were nervous about dealing with some agencies who have a religious connection. Judgement and prejudice is not something we wanted on this journey.

The agency sent someone to meet us at our home to have a chat in person, and look at the home the foster child(ren) would be living in. One of things which will be discussed is your motivation for fostering. So perhaps now’s a good time to cover off what fostering is and isn’t.

Fostering is:

  • Caring for children who are not able to remain with their birth parents (temporarily or permanently)

Fostering isn’t:

  • A supermarket for children.
  • Adoption. You will be surprised how many people think it’s the same thing.

There are different kinds of foster care, in WA:

  • Emergency care
  • Respite care
  • Temporary (short term)
  • Permanent (Long term)

Emergency carers are AMAZING carers who take in children at extremely short notice, often immediately after the children have been removed from an unsafe home environment or their foster placement is no longer viable. In most cases, they know next to nothing about the child(ren), and just provide safe harbour for them until they can be placed with family or longer-term carers. As you can imagine, it can be emotionally and physically demanding, which is why I think it takes a very special person or couple to become an emergency carer.

Respite carers are carers who have children for short periods of time, each time. They are there to give parents and long-term carers a break when it’s needed. Some foster carers think this is a good way to get their toes wet on their parenting journey.

We decided to become Long-term carers. A large factor in deciding to become long term carers is the self-awareness that I will become emotionally attached to any child pretty quickly and I would be pretty devastated if they were to leave us, even though we were assured that grief counsellors are on hand should that happen. The revolving door of children associated with emergency, short term or respite care was simply not for us.

“Wait, what?” I hear you ask, “They might LEAVE?” Yes, that could happen. Remember that fostering is not adoption, so you’re caring for a child because their parents or biological family are not able to. Reunification is the goal for any child who’s entered the system. Ideally, a child should remain or be reunited with their birth parents or biological family members, though this is not always possible, often because it is unsafe or not in the child’s best interests to return the child back into those environments.

In WA, the Courts typically issue a temporary order when a child first comes into care. The period of the temporary order is up to 2 years, this gives the birth parents/ biological family time to demonstrate that they are safe to care for the child again. For children under 3 years, the policy is for a decision to be made about the permanent living arrangement within 12 months as it is critical for infants’ development to form those connections with a primary carer. If reunification does not occur during this period, the Department may apply to the Courts to issue an order that covers the child(ren) until they are 18. In some states that age has been raised (or will soon be raised) to 21.

It can be an unnerving time for carers during the period of the temporary order but remember that if their biological parents can prove to the Department and the Courts that they are able to care for their children again, it’s not a bad thing, and you would still have made a positive impact on the child while they were with you, by providing a safe, stable and loving environment. There have been many instances in the past where children have been reunified, only to return to the system afterwards, so the Department and the Courts have become very careful to ensure biological parents/ family prove themselves safe, as returning to foster care can be even more traumatic for the child than entering it.

After the initial home visit, you will be asked to attend an Information Session run by the Department, where you will get an overview of fostering and even meet experienced foster carers (kinda like in the Instant Family movie, without the corny jokes). If you are keen to continue on this journey, you will be asked to follow up with the Department or agency.

You will then have a few more visits with a social worker. They will pretty much want to find out everything about you, and I mean EVERYTHING, from your childhood experiences, your job, right down to what assets you own and how much money you have. Be prepared! You will also be asked about your support network, i.e. who in your family/ social circles could you fall back on should you need an extra helping hand with your child(ren)? It takes a village to raise a child, so it pays off to consider who YOUR villagers are. It is worth noting at this point that because there are more kids in the system than available foster carers, they will consider singles, as long as they have a strong support network. For those of you who have parents/ siblings who are keen to pitch in, you might be eligible! You’ll also be asked to provide a couple of references who are able to speak candidly about you.

You’ll also be asked about what kind of child might work best for you. Are you looking for an infant, a young child, a teenager? Would a boy or a girl be more suitable? Would you consider siblings or a child with physical disabilities or special needs? One thing you shouldn’t do is specify the child’s race or physical characteristics (remember the single woman in Instant Family who specifically wanted a black child with athletic abilities to groom into an NBA player?). Remember this is not a child supermarket (and unlike the movie, there are no foster children fairs in Australia) and the Department/ agencies worry about applicants’ motives who harbour such attitudes. You can, however, express what would make you uncomfortable with taking on a child with specific behaviours/background, such as sexual abuse. Knowing all this will help in the matching process, and the goal is to match with you a child(ren) who will have the best chance at getting their needs met and being in a stable and loving environment.

In WA, we also had to attend a training course run by the Department, which involved 4–5 evening sessions and 1 weekend. (Why aren’t ALL parents required to attend training to become parents?) Anyway, this is where you’ll receive training on the challenges faced by children in care (the most common being trauma-related behaviours) and you’ll meet even more foster carers who will share their experiences. Get ready for that emotional rollercoaster ride! After we completed the course, we were asked to appear before an interview panel. This was the final stage in our application process before we were approved to become foster carers, and it’s not as scary as it sounds.

It’s worth remembering that throughout this process, you can always pull out if you feel uncomfortable or if your circumstances have changed. There is no shame in doing so; you need to be 110% ready to do this — children’s lives are at stake here.

I’M APPROVED. NOW WHAT?

The matching process (described above) begins! Be prepared for it to take a while. In our case, we said we didn’t mind the gender of the child but they had to be of schooling age as my partner and I both work. We weren’t ready to be stay-at-home dads, and I sometimes joke that I got out of nappy changing duties as a result and jumped straight through to kids with a conversational vocabulary — yay!

We also asked our agency to avoid children who appear to have severe trauma (physical, mental or sexual) or disabilities due to our inexperience. We would be comfortable with working with children who have suffered neglect, though.

When a child(ren) is proposed to you, you will receive a short report (anywhere from 1 — 3 pages), depending on what information the Department has been able to gather about the child and their circumstances. This is in contrast to the 50+ page report created about us!

Never be afraid to ask questions or for more information. And don’t be afraid to say “pass” if anything makes you uncomfortable. We did a couple of times, before saying yes to the children (who are now part of our family) were presented to us.

Tip: Unless you can handle it, don’t ask to see photos. I made the mistake of doing so when a case was put in front of me. It’s one thing to see a name and read a report but once you see a photo, the child becomes “real”. Unfortunately, due to circumstances outside our control, the potential placement fell through at the last minute and it was an emotional blow for us as we became so excited and worked ourselves up. The first time we laid eyes on our foster children was when the social worker dropped them off at our home, and it did not matter what they looked like. They looked perfect and our journey as a family had begun.

OK, onto the most Frequently Asked Questions we have faced in our 2-year fostering journey so far:

1. Do the biological parents/ family see the kids while they are in your care?

Yes, biological parents can see the kids if the Department deems it suitable and in the children’s interest. Carers are not always required and contact is often supervised. Even if biological parents are deemed unsuitable they still have rights to getting updates and photos of their children. As for other family members, permission for contact is on a case by case basis, and the safety and well being of the child is always the primary factor. It’s only natural that children may worry about their family so it’s best for them to see them, if they can. It’s also important that the children see you as Carers accepting their family, so that direct contact (if it’s safe to do so) is more natural for the children

2. Do you get paid?

Generally, Carers receive a fortnightly allowance until the child is 18, it decreases when other benefits kick in for the child. In addition, you can claim most expenses over and above the usual food, clothing and accommodation needs of the child, such as school supplies, before/ after school care, prescription eyeglasses and dental and some recreational activities. Luxuries like mobile phones and holidays are not claimable. While you find that you wouldn’t be left out of pocket, it’s not as if you can solely live off foster care allowances, and the Department worries about potential carers who see these children as their meal ticket.

3. Can you take the child on holiday?

Yes, but you must get Departmental approval if you wish to take them interstate or overseas, or to apply for a passport. The Department need to know where the children are.

4. What’s it like?

Fostering could well be the most rewarding, exhilarating and also exhausting thing you’ll ever do in your life. Just like conventional parents. I guess the main difference is not having a 9-month pregnancy to get your head around the idea of becoming parents and watching the child’s personality gradually develop in their early years. You’ll be dealing with children who suddenly enter into your lives with a personality and in most circumstances, some emotional baggage due to their circumstances. You must be prepared to deal with that, but in doing so, you’ll learn so much about yourself in the process. These children teach us as much as we teach them, and then some.

Because it does take a village to raise a child, let the people close to you, even your bosses and co-workers know about this huge change that is coming into your life. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how supportive people can be. As a grocer once told me as she pushed a bag of free fruit into my arms, “You’re doing an amazing thing, something we all wish we could do, but can’t”.

5. Are you going to adopt them?

Oh, if I had $10 for each time I’ve heard that question! The advice I’ve heard from much more experienced carers than we was: “Don’t”. Not right away, at least.

I know there is the romanticised notion of taking these children, changing their first and/ or last names (just like in the movies) but the reality is many of these kids have experienced emotional and other trauma which they may have to deal with in years to come. This may require medical attention or counselling, and those could cost $200 — $300 for a session. As children in State care, these expenses will continue to be covered, though as carers, it will be your role to advocate on behalf of the child to get them the help they need to heal and to thrive.

Adoption should not be something you rush into, and it also requires the consent of the biological parents too, so it’s not a simple process. It didn’t take our foster children long to start seeing us as their ‘parents’, proving that the position is bestowed upon those who play the role, meets their needs and plugs the emotional gaps.

6. What’s the best advice you’ve been given prior to taking on foster kids?

That the secret is structure and routine. Kids who enter care often experienced chaotic, unpredictable environments where they were left to fend for themselves or become a parent to their siblings. Getting them into a structured routine (which isn’t easy to start with) is essential in settling their emotions and providing a sense of safety. An unsettled mind is too worried about whether they will be hit, when they will be fed etc. to be open to learning, so it’s critical to introduce that structure as quickly as possible. Of course, they will resist it at first; you’re asking them to relinquish control to someone they barely know. Be patient, do it lovingly, with play and it will pay off.

For more information on fostering through Key Assets, visit www.canifoster.com.au.

Or PM me via Facebook/ Messenger and I’m happy to try and answer your questions.

Good luck with your quest to start your own family.