Foster care: How we became one big family
Nowra foster carers Tammi and Leena began their foster care journey with CareSouth six years ago and it is fair to say it has been a rollercoaster ride with plenty of ups and downs.
“Leena and I have been together for almost 12 years,” said Tammi. “For as long as we’ve been together, we’ve wanted to start a family and, in 2015, I saw a CareSouth ad for foster care and I said why don’t we do that – give a child a home who needs one. So, we did, we stopped into CareSouth and six months later we had two children.
“I don’t think it was even six months,” laughed Leena.
For almost a year the couple cared for two siblings before they were restored to their parents. Tammi and Leena began caring for a second sibling group – two young girls and an 11-week-old baby boy – before the Department of Communities and Justice decided that the siblings needed to be separated for their own wellbeing.
“That was a bit tough,” said Leena.
“That was really tough,” agreed Tammi. “It was probably the lowest point of our foster care journey. Even though it wasn’t our decision to make.”
The baby boy, Jack*, stayed with Tammi and Leena and the girls were placed with a maternal grandparent and a foster carer. The siblings have regular family time with each other as well as with their mum, and each of the children are thriving.
While it took some time and reflection, the couple successfully navigated their heartbreak over the sibling separation. And when Jack’s youngest sister was born three years ago, Tammi and Leena did not hesitate when they were asked if they would care for Olivia*.
“She was in the NICU when we met her and we were asked if we would care for her,” said Tammi. “We said yes absolutely but were told ‘hold up there’s more to it’,” said Tammi.
The ‘more to it’ was an extremely rare disorder called Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome which impacted on all aspects of Olivia’s development. She is intellectually delayed, physically delayed and, until recently, she was nil by mouth and peg fed, resulting in multiple hospital visits for the tight-knit family. The first was when Olivia was just six weeks old, suffering aspirated pneumonia. Monthly hospital visits followed before, at seven-months-old, Olivia became extremely ill and stopped breathing.
“We were on our way home from our Christmas contact with Mum,” said Tammi. “She went from being a little bit off, to us almost losing her.”
The family continue to juggle regular appointments with Olivia’s heart specialist, lung specialist, sleep specialist, speech, physio and OT, as well as frequent emergency hospital admissions for aspirated pneumonia.
Jack also has complex needs and when the couple noticed a level of anxiety, they took him to see a paediatrician and psychologist. Both said he was “just your typical boy, he’ll grow out of it.” But the pair felt something else was at play and kept pushing for intervention.
He was eventually diagnosed with FASD and ADHD.
“Our caseworker was with us when we got the diagnosis and I cried with relief,” said Tammi. “Someone finally heard us, someone finally listened, and it meant we could get him the intervention and support that he needed.”
When COVID-19 hit and lockdowns became a way of life, the family had to learn to balance two opposing needs – Olivia’s physical health and Jack’s mental health.
“On the one hand, COVID worked in our favour, we had to go into lockdown to protect bub’s health because she is immuno-compromised, so we couldn’t take any chances,” said Tammi.
“It worked well for bub, it’s the healthiest year she’s had so far,” said Leena. “She was able to get stronger. But (Jack) is so social and he needs to be busy all the time. We had to weigh up his mental health and bub’s physical health and it was, and still is, a really hard balance. We tag team a lot, sometimes we can’t do everything together as a family as much as we want to, but we make it work.”
Making it work is a way of life for the couple, who have managed to successfully balance the needs of their own family and those of their foster children’s families.
“It has to be so hard for the birth family,” said Tammi. “So, if you can work with them and make it less heartbreaking for them, by including them, then it’s the best outcome for the kids. We couldn’t imagine it any other way.
“The kids are fully aware that they have three mums. We organise frequent get-togethers with Mum and the kids’ siblings, we share photos. When we have family contact Mum will actually say: ‘our son is doing this, or our daughter is doing that.’ We have a beautiful relationship. The kids know they have three mums who love them very much.
“We’re one big integrated family and we work together as a family,” said Leena. “I think we’re really lucky that they have welcomed us too. It’s a mutual respect. When we were asked to have (Olivia), mum actually hugged us and said thank you for taking my baby girl I wouldn’t want her to go anywhere else. If the children see us all getting on, that’s so much better for them and their wellbeing. It’s not awkward, it’s natural. (Jack) has no comprehension he’s a foster kid. This is just his family.”
*Names have been changed. Not featured in image.
If you’re interested in becoming a foster carer and helping a vulnerable child or young person in need, give us a call today on 1300 554 260 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.