Nowra foster carers Tammi and Leena recently returned from a well-deserved holiday – their first in three years.

The couple, avid adventurers, have put their travels on hold, not just because of COVID-19 like the rest of the world, but in a bid to balance the complex needs of their two foster children.

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; exhilarating yet scary. There have been extreme highs and deep lows, sharp jolts and sudden changes of direction but above all plenty of squeals of delight.

“Le 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 birth parents. The children’s father, who was given full custody, was so impressed with the bond the carers had built with his children that he asked Leena and Tammi to stay in contact. The pair still see the children at least monthly.

Leena and Tammi began caring for a second sibling group – two young girls and an 11-week-old baby boy. The couple loved and supported the children for 10 months through some extremely challenging times 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, it was pretty rough to comprehend because there’s this social stigma that you don’t break up siblings. But every day was like World War III due to the impact of trauma. Life with the girls was just survival mode. Now each of the children are thriving. It’s so nice to see.”

The baby boy, Jack*, stayed with Tammi and Leena and the girls were placed with a maternal grandparent and a foster carer. They all have regular family time with each other and their birth mum.

“Our first family contact was about six weeks after the sibling separation and it was the first time that we saw the children play together,” said Tammi. “In 10 months we had never seen them play together.”

“We knew then that the right decision was made,” said Leena.

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.”

Olivia was home a few weeks later but was “still quite crook”. Just shy of Olivia’s first birthday doctor’s inserted a feeding peg.

“Her first birthday she was tube free, it was amazing to see her face,” said Leena.

“The first twelve months of having her was really, really busy,” said Tammi.

An understatement given that the family juggled regular appointments with Olivia’s heart specialist, lung specialist, sleep specialist, speech, physio and OT, as well as the emergency hospital admissions for aspirated pneumonia. On top of this they had an active toddler, with his own complex needs, to care for.

“(Jack) has his own story,” said Leena. “When he came to us he had a severe flat head. We thought he was deaf, but it turns out he had desensitised himself from his environment.”

The couple also noticed a level of anxiety and took Jack 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.”

Jack is now thriving at kindy, both academically and socially. After Jack’s diagnosis and Olivia’s surgery things were looking up for the family and hospital visits were few and far between.  Until Christmas Eve, last year.

“Unfortunately, bub got really sick on Christmas Eve with aspirated pneumonia again,” said Tammi.

“Just as the bushfires were starting,” added Leena.

In a bid to make the best of a difficult situation, Tammi and Leena organised Christmas lunch on the ward. But Jack came down with a bout of gastro and the family were unable to spend the day together.

Then COVID-19 hit and 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. We basically shut our house down,” 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. He doesn’t even like school holidays, let alone a lockdown, so we had to organise lots of socially distanced playdates where we would draw a line through the middle of our driveway and have segregated picnics with friends.”

“We also set a lockdown goal to teach him to ride a bike, which we did, and he would go on socially distanced rides with the neighbours around our street,” said Tammi. 

“We had to weigh up his mental health and bub’s physical health and it was, and still is, a really hard balance,” said Leena. “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 birth 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.”

And family is everything for the couple who recently celebrated their long-awaited wedding, with a guest list that included 45 children. The couple performed a special sand ceremony just for the kids, where sand from separate vessels was poured into a unified vase.

“We wanted to do something special to include the children as well,” said Leena. “The celebrant and photographer had their hands full, with 45 children playing with sand.”

“Our poor celebrant,” laughed Tammi.

The newlyweds would not have it any other way. At the end of the day it is all about the kids.

*names have been changed