Forget partying, meet the 20-somethings opening their homes to fostering
On any day of the week, about 8000 children and young people across Victoria are in out-of-home care.
Unable to live with their own families for often traumatic reasons such as relationship breakdown, abuse, neglect, illness and homelessness, about 1560 of those children are looked after by foster carers.
Each night, about 930 men and women provide care for those children in need — for a few hours, a weekend or for months or longer. But more carers are needed from different cultural and religious backgrounds and all ages.
“Foster carers welcome children and young people into their hearts and their homes — some are single, some are partnered, some have biological children and others don’t,” Foster Care Association of Victoria chief executive officer Samantha Hauge says.
“Age, career and lifestyle aren’t a barrier and foster care is incredibly valuable to the children who need a safe home. To provide a young, vulnerable person a safe and supportive home, and working with them to achieve their goals and improve their quality of life, is uniquely rewarding.”
Foster care agencies say there’s often a misconception that carers have to be highly experienced and more mature-age parents.
“I think some younger people think you have to have kids yourself and be like Mary Poppins,” Louise Cunningham, a home-based services manager with Uniting Care, says.
“ But the children who come into our care just need someone stable, and younger carers often have a lot of energy and can quickly build a rapport with children and teenagers.
“Maybe we don’t get as many younger carers coming forward because young people are studying for longer or maybe they’re having children later themselves, or maybe it’s to do with the cost of living.
“I think there’s also a belief that you have to be a parent. But it doesn’t matter how old you are. If you have empathy, a willingness to be trained and are willing to get involved with kids, you could be a foster carer.”
So, what is it like to be a young foster carer?
SUEZANNE AND BEN CHENG
When Suezanne and Ben Cheng tell people they foster children there’s often an assumption the young couple can’t have children of their own.
“There is a huge stigma on foster kids so people wonder why you would put yourselves through this and they wrongly assume these kids will ruin your life,” says Suezanne, 27, who is studying degrees in communications and psychological science.
“Sometimes people ask us when we will have our own children — or ‘real’ children. But the children we care for are real children.
“I wonder if people say this because Ben and I are younger? I think if people are older foster carers and have their own children, then people think they’re just doing a nice thing. Because we’re younger, people seem to be a bit more sceptical as to why we do this.”
The couple began fostering in late 2017 and have since provided care to 59 children in their Melbourne home. They’re currently caring for three children aged between one and 16.
“I was very nervous when the first child arrived. It was uncharted territory,” says Ben, 31, who works in construction.
“With every child, you’re a little anxious about how they’ll fit in, but we’ve now looked after that many children that it’s second nature. I think being young ourselves helps. We know about technology and social media and the children appreciate that.”
The couple enjoy making a positive difference to the children in their care, however that plays out.
“We had a brother and sister with us and she was younger and would do everything for him,” Ben says.
“He’d leave his clothes and school bag on the floor and she’d automatically pick up after him. They were with us for a few months and by the end of that time, he’d make her sandwiches in the morning and had become a helper to his sister.
“In another case, I taught a child how to swallow his pills because he had to take medication three times a day and found it hard to swallow pills.”
Suezanne says while they provide stability and daily care to their foster children, the benefits and joys flow both ways.
“We’ve enjoyed milestones of seeing our three-year-old start to walk and talk. We keep in touch with the teenagers and some days I might have felt a bit down and I’ve bumped into one of them and they brighten my day.
“There is a special time we get to have with these children, as short or long as it is, and they have an impact on our lives.
“I think there’s a lot of hero worship for foster carers — people think you have to be amazing and that your life has to stop. But you just need to be an ordinary person who’s willing to give it a go.”
LUKE AND STACEY NIMMO
Luke Nimmo, 32, and wife Stacey, 29, have been offering respite and foster care to children since they were in their early 20s, and their Ballarat home has welcomed more than a dozen children.
It might be organising a birthday for a child who has never had a party, or seeing the smile on their face when they receive their first invitation to another child’s birthday. Or perhaps it’s witnessing the excitement of taking a child on their first holiday and watching that young person step on a plane for the first time.
Those are some of the golden moments for Luke, a classroom assistant, and Stacey, an allied health assistant, who have fostered for the past four years. Before that they offered regular respite care to children at weekends.
“We have two daughters and instead of having a third child, we had an interest and passion to work with kids who might not have the same opportunities, and we looked into foster care,” Luke says.
“When I met Stacey straight out of high school, she was already providing respite for kids and young people for a weekend or two every month. We’d take them to the footy, a day trip to Melbourne or the zoo. It’s a lot of fun.
“You can give them an experience they haven’t had before and share that excitement with them.
“During high school, I worked in an aquatic centre with kids and I also did after-school care and seem to have an abilityto play and have fun with children.”
The Nimmos became accredited foster carers after looking after siblings for three months. They realised the greater impact they could have on young lives over a longer time and after several months of training, they began fostering the same day they were approved. They have fostered eight children, aged from babies to 17-year-olds.
“Life is busy with all the usual after-school activities, like sport and dancing,” Luke says.
“You do get challenging behaviour because these children haven’t chosen to be in foster care and they sometimes say something that hits you hard. You have to recognise that they’re upset and get them through it.
“You can’t know everything but during training you’re given coping strategies to help with those times. You just have to be patient, get to know them and build trust.”
Luke says opening their home has benefited their whole family.
“You might bump into someone you looked after years ago and they remember you and so you know you’ve had a positive impact on their life in some way, no matter how small,” Luke says.
“Seeing them grow and watching how far they come from when they first come into your care — that’s one of the best things.
“And our girls have learned that some kids do it tougher growing up, but that doesn’t make them less of a person.”
As Laura Trevaskis scoured the aisles of her local Kmart, the 10-year-old boy with her suggested he needed a beanie, an extra pair of pyjamas and a few other bits and pieces of clothing. The Mont Albert schoolteacher gently but firmly reminded him they were there to buy pyjamas and a toothbrush.
“We got in the car and he looked at me and said, ‘Thank you so much. I love everything I have’. When we got home, he gave me a big hug and went off to bed. He was a tough kid — he’d been talking about beating up a kid at school earlier in the evening,” Trevaskis recalls.
“But that night he had awful nightmares and I could hear him screaming. He was terrified. I sat next to his bed, patting his head and singing to him until he went back to sleep.”
Trevaskis, 29, grew up in a home with parents who fostered children, so fostering herself was always part of the plan. A carer since early 2018, she’s fostered five children.
“I was four or five when my parents looked after two sisters for a year and when I was at uni, they fostered an indigenous girl,” she says.
“Sometimes I was a bit confused and confronted by how the children who came into our home saw the world but my parents explained things to me. I’d never met kids who’d had to go and stay with a stranger before and it gave me a sense of my own privilege.
“As a secondary school teacher, I also saw a lot of disadvantage and marginalisation of children. Fostering was a way to do something to support young people like them.”
She remembers the first time, giving respite care to two brothers aged five and eight who were dropped off at her home at 6pm.
“I rarely cook for myself so we walked to the supermarket to buy some food and they were picking fruit from the shelf, taking a bite and putting it back,” Trevaskis says.
“They opened boxes of Coco Pops and ate handfuls. I could sense people looking at me and thinking, ‘What a terrible parent’. I learned to always have food for children in the house.
“If I can provide a child with a night or weekend when they feel safe and know that they have someone there for them, that’s a step in the right direction. Their lives have been tumultuous and I want my home to be a place of peace and a safe space.
“And it’s an adventure. I love the interaction with young people in my home and they give me perspective. You get super busy and then this person arrives who’s been through real trauma. You talk with them, ease their nightmares and realise there are more important things than what’s stressing you at work.”
INTERESTED IN FOSTERING?
Legally, you can become an accredited foster carer once you turn 18 but younger carers tend to be in their mid to late 20s.
The training and accreditation process generally takes up to six months and includes about 16 hours of mandatory training, an assessment process with interviews with foster care workers, and legal checks that allow you to work with children.
A police check includes a criminal record check and Working with Children checks that must be renewed every five years.