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Ali Clarke: A foster mother left bereft by the system


Ali Clarke recounts the story of a South Australian foster mother, in a case that raises questions about support, training and transparency for those who seek to care for our most vulnerable children.

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What would you do if this was you?

You’d never really thought about fostering a child until someone from the Department of Child Protection approached you after seeing you look after another at-risk child.

They said there were two kids who “everyone in the office wanted to take them home” and the assurances that there were no behavioural issues was enough for you to go home, digest it and then make the decision that you wanted to help change their lives.

You get busy. You even start renovating your house and, even though halfway through the process it seemed like family members might be able to be take over after all, a change of mind had you extending your family by two small people who weren’t even at primary school.

Granted it was all a bit rushed, so maybe that’s why the paperwork and processes weren’t followed, but at times you did wonder why you were allowed to have care of these children even though you were not fully registered as a foster carer, hadn’t gone through the normal months-long training.

You certainly didn’t know, (because hey, you weren’t running the system), that because you were unregistered for well over a year you couldn’t access support nor further training and therefore wouldn’t be allocated a specific support worker, but you just got stuck into it with honesty and enthusiasm, always trying to be ready for what might come.

And then the violence started.

It became increasingly clear these children “with no behavioural issues”, had in fact been so traumatised in the first few years of their lives, that chairs and tables were being overturned, things and punches thrown and threats made.

That went on for around two years.

You did what anyone would do.

You rang people, you asked case workers why this might be happening, you read books, you researched, but aside from a rather general “the honeymoon period is over” and “there’s no silver bullet to this” from the Department, you weren’t offered any more information about what these children had been subjected to previously in their short, precious lives.

It got so bad you had to physically restrain the kid, wrap your legs around them and wedge them between your thighs to stop them from hurting themselves or you, and that’s when you called the crisis line begging for someone to come and help.

You were told, “sorry we don’t do that, we’re only here to talk you through it”, so you hung up because, frankly, one hand on the phone was one less hand to hold this child down.

And it wasn’t their fault.

You knew that.

You understood that.

Something had happened to make the kids so fearful, so scared of life, of everything, that they were striking out at whomever and whatever they could.

Of course, that didn’t stop you from worrying, from being afraid for yourself.

It didn’t stop you from not sleeping, from being frustrated, from becoming desperate.

But you showed up every day and you hid your fear, your tears and you just kept being there.

It was when the child finally came to you and said, “mum you never gave up on me” that you finally allowed yourself to think you might be making headway.

Of course, there were still issues to work through with both of the children, but you thought you had managed the absolute worst of the worst.

And you know what?

The three of you had done it largely on your own.

You had done it with no training and little or no psychological support, for you or the children.

Support workers had come and gone, care team meetings where everyone was supposed to discuss the welfare of the children every six weeks, didn’t happen for months and months.

And then there were the “Care Concerns”.

These are the reports filed by anyone who might think there could be something happening within the home that could be detrimental to the child.

You had absolutely no argument about that except you realised, far too late, that the process is stacked against you.

You’re devastated to find out that when the youngest had a scratch on their leg (which they initially blamed on you, even though they later said it happened at school), the fault stayed on your file.

You had no recourse, no chance to change people’s minds, with or without, evidence.

There were other Care Concerns recorded and those that were made known to you (some weren’t… another problem) you defended and explained.

Yes, looking back there were things you’d do differently, just like any parent, but you know deep in your heart you have done the best you could, you love these children, and with all of their complexities you have never done anything, ANYTHING, to harm them and certainly haven’t disciplined them more than most other parents would their own child.

And so that brings us to where we are now. A phone call at five o’clock one afternoon saying “we’ll be there tomorrow morning”, and you know they are coming to take the kids away.

Too many Care Concerns had banked up and that elevated your situation through the process to the point that something would be done. Despite your pleas, the children’s grandparents’ pleas, and the kids’ pleas, they were taken away.

Not only were they taken from you, but they were also split up.

Yes, the only person each of these children had ever had by their side as a constant, as a support, as their lifeline, was taken away from them.

And this, despite psychological evaluations by the DCP and others that said unequivocally, these children should never be separated, they should never be ripped apart.

The kids want you back, you want them back, their grandparents are desperate for them to be back in your care, so you do what you can.

You write to CEOs, to the Minister, you ask for an internal review application and you beg them to please look behind the paper and see all of the complexities that are ignored by an imperfect system.

Through all this, the DCP has consistently told you that “we hold you to a higher standard of care than a normal parent” because these kids need more love and care than so many others, but in the end, so do you, the carer.

You need a system that doesn’t feel like it’s not trying to trip you up, that’s not running scared of the next horrible headline, that doesn’t forsake an understanding of chaotic situations in favour of risk-averse reactions.

You need another way to be able to show them you’re one of the good guys and you need help to be the best parent you can be, because after all, even the most loving of parents don’t get it right every single time.

No one can do that.

This is the experience of a South Australian foster mother who is waiting for a response to her request for an internal review. She detailed to me all other Care Concerns however I have chosen not to include them to protect the identities of the children and family involved.

Ali Clarke presents the breakfast show on Mix 102.3. She is a regular columnist for InDaily.

InDaily sought and received a response from the Department for Child Protection:

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