Colleen and Stephen have opened their hearts and home to 20 babies and toddlers over the past decade as short-term foster carers.
The couple, who are based in the ACT and became CareSouth carers two years ago after working with FACS and other non-government organisations, have helped transition children in their care back to their birth families, into long-term foster care, guardianship or adoption.
Colleen has offered her heartfelt suggestions, based on her family’s own experience, to help new or future foster carers navigate the journey ahead of them. It is timely advice, as the need for short-term carers is increasing while critical decisions are made about a child’s path to stability under the government’s new Permanency Support Program. Here is Colleen and Stephen’s story.
Our advice to prospective foster carers would be this:
Be true to your thoughts of why you want to foster, and be generous with the love and care you are about to give to these special babies and children. They come with nothing but possibly some disability, health problems or emotional baggage. You are there to help them start a new loving life with you or to transition them back to their families. Most of them won’t be able to speak for themselves so it is up to you to speak up for them.
My husband and I have been doing short-term care for the past 10 years for newborn babies and children up to 2½ years old. A lot of the children we have cared for have been disabled, born prematurely or withdrawing from drugs. We don’t turn away from any babies that need special care. We love them all dearly and want to give them the best start in life. You have to remember that they never ask to be put in this situation and it is not their fault.
Short-term care can be hard at times but that is one of the reasons caseworkers are there for carers. We are never afraid to ask them for help when we need it. The most important thing is open and honest communication.
As short-term carers we have gone through times where it has not been easy, on us or the little ones that are leaving our care. Our babies have nothing but the best love and care whilst living with us. They either leave us after the appropriate forever family has been found or when they return to their own family.
This is when the hard part really starts, as you have to be prepared to transition the child to a new family or back to their birth family. It is important for us when a child is transitioning that the new family come to our home as often as possible to get to know the child and vice versa. We open up our home because the most important part of a transition is to make sure that the baby and new family feel comfortable with one another.
The transition may take six to eight weeks but you know when it is time to let go, you’re with the child 24/7 and you instinctively know if they are ready or not. During the transition time we make sure the family comes to play with the child regularly and assists with feeding for the first few weeks. After this they need to come and learn the child’s routine such as meal times, whether that be solids or bottles, bath time and putting the baby to bed.
We like to make sure that during this time we have a photo of the new family, or the birth family they are returning to, and we show the baby this picture each day.
After the baby has spent some time with the family in our home we like to take the baby to the new family’s house for a play. We build this up to the baby staying without us for half a day, then a day. The following week we continue with the same routine and if we feel the baby is ready, we leave them for an overnight sleep on several occasions throughout the week.
If all is going well then it is time for the baby to move into their new home. If it is not going well and it appears something is not working between the family and baby we always talk to the caseworker so they can help work through the problems. It is in the best interests of both the child and the family to raise any concerns. We are never afraid to speak up because we are the voice for that child.
When the move goes ahead we make sure that the child takes all the clothes, toiletries, bottles, formula and, most importantly, the toys they love with them. During the time they have been with us we keep a life story book and photos of them. This is an important keepsake as it shows what they have done in their life up to that time.
The most upsetting time for us is when we have to say goodbye. You can only hope that the new family want you to stay in their life. But it is best not to see the baby for three or four weeks after the transition so the child is not confused as to where they are living or who their new family is.
While it is extremely hard, we remind ourselves that it is all about giving this child the best start in life. We have been lucky enough to remain in the lives of most of our babies and they have appreciated everything we have done for them. It is still hard after all these years seeing some of them again, and saying goodbye again, but if they are happy we are happy. We are godparents to a few of them and will always be Grammy and Poppy to them all. The great part of being a foster carer is we now have a lot of extended families and a lot more grandchildren.