Normally this article would be reserved for a personal blog or sharing with friends and whanau but since many of my regular clients have been both supportive and interested in this decision, I wanted to share this for those who have asked to know more. Before we move forward, this is only my opinion, based on my personal experience and other carers and social workers may oppose these views. They do not necessarily represent any organisation or caregiver.
“According to the organisation Foster Hope, there are over 5000 children in care today in NZ.”
Why we decided to become a foster caregivers?
As many people have described to me, stereotypes of foster parents are often older, have plenty of time on their hands, usually with multiple children in their care, and have had all their own kids who are well grown up. We do not fit that mould. We are young, incredibly active and busy, and both work amazing careers we aren’t giving up. We have yet to have our own children making the decision to add a newborn baby that is not ours into our lives particularly interesting for some to comprehend.
The truth is, I couldn’t think of any reason not to do this and to put our hands up to help where help is so desperately needed. I have known about foster care and the children who need it from a young age and had always thought I’d be involved someway. I consider myself lucky I pursued this with a partner who didn’t once hesitate and has been just as proactive and involved.
So why are children placed in care in NZ?
Most children are placed into care because of concerns or confirmed cases of abuse, neglect, harm, substance abuse, psychological concerns or a combination of all of these things. There seems to be a spectrum when it comes to neglect, which can be either on the lower end, where families are struggling to provide for their children but don’t mean harm (or simply don’t know more than how they grew up themselves) right through to purposeful and intentional neglect of children’s basic necessities.
In some cases children will be going back to their families after intervention and parenting courses, but in many cases parents will have lost the right to have their children back at all. In that instance, children will be placed with safe family, whanau or kin, or non-kin caregivers until family can be liaised with, social worker assessments completed, court protocols and dates confirmed. This can take years! The preferred placement is always kin over non-kin for a number of reasons, but the child’s right to grow up with their family is a very strong part of this legislation.
“New Zealand has the fifth-worst child abuse record of 31 OECD countries. On average, a child is killed here every five weeks.”
Where we are having trouble with the system
Based on my experience so far and admittedly, that isn’t a lot in comparison, I’m struggling with the fact that I can’t always see that “the child’s rights” and “what is best for the child” align. In NZ we so heavily rely on a foundation of laws and protocols that are in place (for the most part for very sound reason) that we have left no room for common sense in the few situations that may benefit from it.
For instance, if a parent (in most cases this is a mother) has been deemed so unsafe that they will never get their child back, they still retain parental rights. Until court dates, lawyers, family meetings and applications are made to give another person parenting orders, many decisions still lie with her (including over haircuts, donated breast milk, immunisations, travel) and some of these decisions may remain with her even if her children are permanently placed with someone else to raise.
If a child is likely to go back to that parent then of course this makes sense to retain parental rights and is important for all involved, but for the cases where they are unfit to be parents, they often they do not have their children’s best interest at heart, or simply can’t make an educated and informed decision for their child. This means again and again, the child is at the mercy of parents who may not understand the best thing for that child, nor want it.
In the situation of visitation between children and their families, I won’t go too far into it. It’s such a complicated process for all involved and yes it can be crucial and healthy for some children, and for others so very detrimental to their wellbeing, yet it appears there is a one-size-fits-all approach to this that I don’t agree with.
Finally, the time spent trying to place a child with willing and safe family members can take years if no one puts their hand up or no one who does is approved, and in that time many children bond beautifully and thrive with the caregivers they’re living with. In some cases, those caregivers are willing to open their homes forever and those children don’t always want to be uplifted again and sent to family they do not know. I think this is where the system lets some down, especially in cases where a child is much older and has been settled and thriving for a number of years, all because finally there was a family member willing and able out of the blue to throw the child’s life around all over again.
“A child is admitted to a New Zealand hospital every second day with injuries arising from either assault, neglect or maltreatment, half of them under 5.”
The positives of the work being done
If you can get your head around the procedures, the downfalls, the things you think are lacking and focus on the child, nothing is more important than providing them with a safe home and environment at their most vulnerable times. Many of the positives that you may help establish in a young person’s life won’t even be seen by you but you have to know that you’ve made a difference. To have a child confidently hold their head up, attach in a new family, or simply eat a loving meal with support are all wins. We can all get caught up in what is wrong in the system and this is true of myself as I often struggle to take a step back to look at only the positives we have provided our little girl in particular.
In the moments that I can ignore the storm of the system, I feel a huge amount of pride that I have met some fellow foster mamas and dadas out there who truly are remarkable. This unpaid job is neither easy nor encouraging at times and yet I’ve met couples who have been doing it for years and years and some who have had countless children in their homes. They’re real humans, and they know the need is there so are willing to try and help regardless of how tough the system is or how unfair it is at times to see these children go.
In our situation, we couldn’t have done more for this baby girl unless I’d carried and breastfed her myself, and nothing will undo that. I will fight for what I believe to be in her best interest but I will trust her lawyer if it’s not the outcome we would like. Yes we want to take care of her, raise her, and give her a loving, stable home, but if that is not meant to be, I’ll do everything to ensure her transition from us is as smooth as possible whether I agree with it or not. We will do this for the next baby, and the baby after that too. We do want to offer a forever-home for a small number of children and hope we will continue short-term for others, but the road is a long and complicated one, made even more so if we choose to have a baby of our own.
“The median age for abusive head injury patients in New Zealand is 5 months. Most of those babies are not known to CYF at the time they die.”
Attachment and grief
Obviously for many, the biggest negative is attaching to a child you’ve had in your home for so long; in our case, her entire life, and having to hand that child on. The reality for us is that even though we offered to give her a forever-home we are legally the bottom of the ladder when it comes to options.
We may be able to provide opportunities, resources, education, healthcare and so much love and support and encouragement, but for many children this isn’t enough and home or whanau is where they should be. I do not agree with this in all cases, and for us, we do believe we can provide more than simply a safe home for a young girl to grow up in and I’m particularly passionate about encouraging strong ties to culture, family and heritage. While I’ve been reminded that it is only our perception that we could give her what she needs and wants, I’d like to be able to stand in court and argue our case for her sake and her future – something we are unable to do and something that I think should be owed to all children. To have someone stand up for you and say you are loved and you are wanted, is something all children should have the chance to get.
It was always going to break my heart, choosing to go down a path that is so desperately needed, but one that everyone around me (myself included) was worried I’d be unable to handle. While my own health and sanity is important and is being handled to the best of my ability, how can anyone simply handle giving back a child you truly believe is in the best place they can be with you?
“61 children have died as a result of non-accidental injuries in New Zealand in the last 10 years”
So how can you help if you can’t or don’t wish to take children into your home?
Children are often uplifted without warning and while Oranga Tamariki are supposed to provide the basic necessities for that child such as blankets, a bag, clothes, toothbrush etc often these kids just don’t have enough. Some social workers are incredibly proactive and where possible will ensure they’ve got something ready, others are not proactive and kids turn up to a foster home with a bag of mixed things that aren’t that useful or are low quality. Sometimes there just hasn’t been enough time and it’s been an emergency to get children to safety.
Organisations such as Lifewise and Foster Hope are always looking for quality items of need that often get over looked. School bags, quality blankets for bassinets and cots (the amount of cheap rubbish at risk babies come with makes my blood boil), tampons/pads, pyjamas for all ages but especially 12-17 year olds, and anything else that is quality and will make a child from an abusive home feel loved.
I think the most important thing anyone can do is to understand more about our system. How can we expect positive change if the majority of educated voters, those who have a voice, or those in a position to challenge our current system don’t accurately know what is going on. These children did not ask to be thrown into an abusive or neglectful life and I just cannot accept it when people say it isn’t their problem, because it isn’t their child.
To those amazing social workers: I’m tough, outspoken and very cynical when it comes to some of the people who hold power when it comes to crucial decisions for a child in care, but I want to take a moment to appreciate those in the system who are battling every day for the child, and who are not praised at all for it. I personally know a few amazing social workers who go beyond what they should and often are allowed to do, just to get children to safety. It is not an easy job to try and get a child out of a dangerous situation and often to have the law against you too and watch a child go back to a situation you don’t agree with is even worse. There is something very easy about living in a bubble and these frontline social workers definitely are not in one.
You don’t have to read the 61 names or how they died in the article linked below, but I truly feel to be aware and able to do something about it, means suffering for the few short minutes it takes to read their horrific stories. It makes it all that more real, and it gives names and faces to our disgusting statistics. It is painful and heartbreaking. I cry every time I read it, and I hug the little girl we have in our care a little harder.
Update on our journey months after handing our little girl to her whanau.
We have taken in a 20 day old baby coming down off some form of drug unknown to us and her social workers, a 22 month old girl with high trauma and neglect I still can’t put into words, and a 5 month old boy in respite care with us for a couple of weeks. We have now ceased our short term placements to pursue the incredibly stressful, long, and heartbreaking process of proving we are good enough to raise a child forever.
For Hana, she has great parents in the whanau members who were legally approved and we are so lucky to be able to see her regularly, and be a part of her life I hope will be forever. We will do anything and everything for her and the whanau of hers that continue to show her love and care, and will ensure she is safe with them as best we can, and away from those who are a threat and continue to be. She is still the light of my life and some days are still painful, but nothing will ever change the fact she made me a mother and made our relationship stronger for that. She is and continues to be perfect!