• Aunty Lyn Austin said she is struggling to home school her grandson. (Madeline Hayman-Reber/NITV News)Source: Madeline Hayman-Reber/NITV News
Foster and kinship carers are part of the fabric of our communities, but thanks to COVID-19 they and the children they care for have had to make some hard adjustments.
Madeline Hayman-Reber

22 Apr 2020 - 12:56 PM  UPDATED 22 Apr 2020 - 12:56 PM

As the COVID-19 global pandemic grips the nation, families have had to readjust their working arrangements, childcare, and schedules. Victoria's foster and kinship carers are facing an added challenge.

Across Victoria, Aboriginal kinship and foster carers fulfil their roles in addition to juggling work, their children and other responsibilities - and every family and carer situation is unique.

Sissy Austin is a 26-year-old proud Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman who wears many hats. She works full-time job providing domestic and family violence support to vulnerable Aboriginal women, as well as being an elected member of the newly established First Peoples Assembly of Victoria working towards the state's Treaty.

In her care is a nine-year-old boy with autism, Sam*. The COVID-19 lockdown has thrown unexpected hurdles at them both. 

She told NITV News that one of the hardest parts was watching Sam miss his family, and struggle with the concept of having no structure or timeline.

"They're still getting over not being able to see each other over the school holidays, which is what they look forward to all year. Like seeing their siblings over the school holidays, which didn't happen," said Ms Austin.

Sam has a sweetly unique way of communicating feelings he has trouble expressing verbally to Ms Austin. With his siblings in the care of another carer, he has started asking when he will see them again.

"When he doesn't want to say things he slides letters underneath the toilet door, or when I'm in the shower," said Ms Austin.

"This morning he slid a photo of his sister under the door, and knocked on the door, and said, 'when do I get to see this woman' - his older sister."

"You can't give them a timeline, and Sam's very timeline [focused]. He doesn't cope if there's no set plan, even with the day."

As well as working from home, Ms Austin has been homeschooling Sam using the school's suggested schedule as a guide. However, it has proven challenging as she does not have the help of a partner or teacher.

"[Sam's] not someone that will do stuff by himself, he needs someone guiding him through stuff… He wants you to be part of his learning, and that's probably the hardest part.

"It's just hard balancing when you're working full time, and then his needs, and the school."

Although Ms Austin has been supplied with a laptop and other homeschooling tools, she hopes schools will do more to support carers over the coming weeks.

"The school's really good, but because they've got a whole heap of other parents and carers asking them to help I think they're overwhelmed as well with it all," said Ms Austin.

Aunty Lynette Austin lives in Melbourne's northern suburbs with her primary school-aged grandson, who has been in her full-time care for several years. She told NITV News that she is majorly struggling with homeschooling.

"40 plus years or more out of school myself and this is very stressful. I'm way out of touch with what happens in a classroom today, so are other Elders, struggling I hear from other conversations I've had with mob," she said.

"And I think it's quite unfair as it is. We're raising grandkids, we're in self-isolation, trying to deal with our own health, and keep well ourselves, and be on top of things. Now all of a sudden we've got to be teachers. What do they think we are, Albert Einstein? It's just putting too much pressure on us."

Due to her grandson's autism and other disabilities, he is already two years behind in school, and Aunty Lyn fears the impact the pandemic will have on his learning and others when carers are ill-equipped to be teachers. 

She could send her grandson to school, risking him contracting COVID-19 and bringing it home to her. At her age, that could be fatal. However, she has been forced to consider it.

As a single carer like Ms Austin, Aunty Lyn said being unable to return to Country or visit family and friends for support is taking its toll.

"I know you can ring someone up or have a phone conference, but that's not the same as being able to go and visit your mob and have a cuppa. You can still connect with mob, but you know, it's about actually being able to be with your mob," said Aunty Lyn.

Ms Austin said she was having the same issues with Sam, who does not like using platforms such as Zoom to talk to his siblings.

"The facts are unknown, and that's creating anxiety for kids. Especially kids in out of home care who rely on seeing family for ways to get them through," said Ms Austin.

Agency support 

The Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA) has been checking in with some families and having caseworkers drop off craft supplies.

CEO Muriel Bamblett said based on VACCA's research, most families aren't sending their kids back to school this term.

"I think it's a challenge for most families, but we know that at the moment 80 per cent of our families are doing really well. At this stage, the 20 per cent is going to grow to 30 and 40. And hopefully not 50," said Ms Bamblett.

"We know that part of the real challenge is parents themselves that are working, and so three hours of study is really challenging."

Being a carer herself, Ms Bamblett said she has been giving strategies, particularly to vulnerable grandparents, to get through some of the challenges.

"If we're not doing that work to support families, then I think we're failing dismally," said Ms Bamblett.

"We fund carers. We fund grandparents to look and care for their children. We don't fund them to be also teachers and educators.

"And we don't fund them to protect them from COVID on a day to day basis - which means keeping them inside and keeping them away from everyone else. So I think this is challenging everybody."

* Name changed for legal reasons.