This week is National Families Week, and the theme is ‘Living Real, Dreaming Big’. CareSouth foster carer Courtney is doing just that while raising her two-year-old daughter Matilda and 13-year-old brother Ben*. The 22-year-old, the youngest of CareSouth’s many foster carers, became a kinship carer for Ben after their mother died suddenly.
Courtney admits to being daunted when first considering the prospect of caring for Ben full-time. Not because she was worried about raising him alongside her toddler. Or because of the financial pressures and social sacrifices she faced as a single parent. Family is everything to Courtney, and she is willing to do anything to keep hers together.
Courtney’s biggest fear on her journey to becoming a kinship carer was “not fitting the typical mould of a carer”. But she soon discovered carers come in all forms, and the only things that matter are unconditional love and support.
“I was really scared going into this process,” admitted Courtney. “I have so many tattoos and piercings, and I have coloured hair. Because I present in a certain way, and I’m so young, I was worried that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a carer. But my experience has been the exact opposite. It hasn’t been a daunting process at all. It’s so rewarding, and I would say to anyone considering it, just do it.”
Courtney stepped up to care for Ben last year after their Mum passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. It turned their world upside down, and the family of seven siblings is still coming to terms with the loss of one of the most important people in their lives. On top of their grief, the close-knit family also faced the prospect of the three younger siblings – Ben and two sisters aged 10 and 9 – going into foster care.
“I chose to be a kinship carer because I wanted to keep my family together,” said Courtney. “That’s just what you do when you’re a family. This role needed to be filled, so I was going to do it.”
Courtney gave Ben and her youngest sisters the option of living with her or a close family friend. The two girls chose to stay with the family friend. Ben chose Courtney and Matilda.
“I didn’t really like the idea that my siblings would be with someone that I didn’t know; that was really daunting to fathom,” said Courtney. “So, when I had to step up as a carer, it was a no-brainer.”
Ben’s caseworker Kate said kinship carers like Courtney are crucial to keeping families together, and more carers like her are needed.
“Keeping kids with families is the absolute first choice if family preservation isn’t possible,” said Kate. “If there’s someone in the family who can step up and look after them, it’s so much better for those kids in the long run.
“Not many 22-year-olds would step up in the way Courtney has. Despite having her own child and losing her Mum, Courtney didn’t hesitate to take on kinship care of all of her siblings, including her little sisters, if they chose to live with her. Courtney is an amazing carer, and we need more people like her.”
There have, of course, been challenges, but Courtney relies on Kate, her siblings (her 19-year-old sister lives with her, Ben and Matilda), and her friends for support.
“It’s intense, but I wouldn’t change it,” said Courtney. “The biggest challenge is distinguishing between being a big sister and a carer; that’s really hard sometimes to separate the two. But you have to put your big sister emotions aside and really focus on being a carer; I have an obligation as a carer first. I don’t think he likes it very much when I’m carer Courtney. He prefers big sister Courtney, she’s more fun.”
Along with caseworker support, CareSouth’s trauma-informed online training modules have also helped Courtney find the right balance juggling a toddler and a teen.
“There are so many different courses I’ve done, like teens and regulating emotions, that have helped me manage those tricky moments,” said Courtney. “Building knowledge of those kinds of things gives you coping mechanisms when things get hard. That’s really important.
“A big plus about being so young and a carer at the same time means it wasn’t that long ago that I was in his shoes and experiencing the daunting feeling of all these pathways opening up in life and questioning ‘where am I going to go now, what am I going to do next’. So I can help him navigate that life path.”
Courtney was nine when Ben came into her life, and she recalls being “so mad”.
“I remember when Mum told me she was going to have another baby,” recalls Courtney. “I said to her, ‘five isn’t even a normal number of kids Mum, you don’t need another child’. I didn’t want a bar of it.
“So then, I came home from school one day, and here’s this tiny, little squishy baby in a rocker. I don’t have favourites, but he was my favourite; every time I visited him and Mum, he’d go out of his way to give me a hug. I don’t think I’m his favourite anymore, now that he’s in my care, but back then, I was.”
While Ben doesn’t fully understand the depth of the sacrifices Courtney has made, she hopes that one day in the future, “he will recognise it and be like props to you! I’m not looking for that, if it never happens so be it, but I hope one day he realises,” says Courtney.
“Seeing him do a load of dishes or seeing his attendance at school pick up, knowing that I had a part in bettering his future, is the biggest reward of all,” said Courtney. “I don’t have any big expectations for him. I just want him to be a good person.”
Each day without their Mum is difficult, and Courtney, as the oldest sibling, feels the weight of responsibility in keeping her family connected and helping them through their grief.
“My siblings come before I do,” said Courtney. “I’m an adult at the end of the day; I got 22 years of life with my Mum, Ben only got 13, and my youngest sibling only got nine. I have to be very grateful that I got that time. When it comes to the grief of losing Mum, I will put my issues aside if Ben comes to me and says: ‘I’m having a bad day’. He’s the priority, not me. I’ll deal with my stuff later.”
The salve that heals the family’s sadness is spending time together. It’s difficult to get all seven siblings in one place at the one time, but when it happens, “it’s so much fun; there’s always shenanigans,” Courtney said, laughing.
“When we all get together, it’s back to how we were with Mum, back to being kids again,” she said. “It’s really hard when I know family time is coming to an end because I have to go back to being a grown-up.”
At Christmas time, less than a year after losing their Mum, Courtney remembers standing in her kitchen watching her siblings decorate the Christmas tree with ornaments and toilet paper.
“I remember thinking, ‘this is amazing; this heals my heart’. There’s no greater feeling in the world when everyone is in the house together. I cherish my family time, especially after losing Mum, because I know how short family time is, and you never really know when that’s going to be ripped away.
“One day, I’ll get old, and my legacy will be my family; my daughter and my siblings will be my piece of the world that lives on. I imagine sitting at a big, long table with all seven of us and all our kids, the grandkids and great-grandkids; I can’t wait for that.”
There is no better time than National Families Week to recognise and applaud the selfless work of our foster carers – whether they are kinship carers, respite carers, long or short-term carers. CareSouth would like to say a big-hearted thank you to the hundreds of carers across our footprint who allow families to live real and dream big.
If you’re willing and able to open your home, heart and mind to support a child or young person, please contact our friendly Call Centre team on 1300 554 260 or visit caresouth.org.au to begin your care journey.
*Name has been changed