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Children end up in foster through no fault of their own. They've often been abused, neglected or abandoned by their parents. Their family might also be going through illness or a crisis, making them unable to take care of their children for a while. That's when foster carers come in.
Foster carers can provide help while the family gets back on its feet.
Sharon Broady works for Fostering New South Wales, a government initiative providing information and encouraging people to become foster carers. She says that many people can become foster carers.
"First of all, you must either be a citizen or a permanent resident of Australia. You have to be in good health and you have to be able to obtain clean working with children and national police checks. Aside from that, you can be single, married or in a de facto relationship. You can own your own home or be renting. You can be working or not working. So it's open to a wide variety of people, as long as you fulfill the original criteria. Generally, most agencies will require that you're over the age of 21."
Another requirement is that you have a spare room in your home, because it's important that children coming from challenging situations have a safe space they can call their own. At the moment, there's a lack of foster carers all over Australia.
Ghassan Noujaim, who is the operations manager for Settlement Services International out-of-home care, says that they're looking for carers from all sorts of backgrounds. "We need carers to take care of children who are vulnerable, from many communities. We need carers who are able to open their heart and their home. So the message is, we need carers from different backgrounds, different communities. We need professional carers who are able to take care of children from a traumatic background. We need carers who come from education backgrounds. We need carers who come from medical backgrounds like nurses. We need carers who are housewives. We need carers from many backgrounds, from many cultures to meet the need of different children."
Even though fostering can be long-term and sometimes leads to adoption, it's mostly a short-term affair. Most carers will welcome children in their home from a period ranging to a few days to a few months.
Fostering New South Wales Sharon Broady says that their main goal is to try to reunite the child with their family.
"The first option for any child coming into care should be to restore them back to their birth family because children do best when they're connected to their own family network. So the government is now working very closely with families to help them get to a point where they can have their children living with them safely and happily and supporting them to do that. So what that means is that we need short-term carers who are able to support that process. Short-term can be anything up to 18 months, maybe even 2 years."
So if you're thinking of becoming a foster carer, how do you go about it? Sharon Broady says the first thing to do is to get in touch with a fostering agency and lodge an application.
"Once you've made that application, there's a period of training and assessment that can take from anything from three to six months where the agency will work very closely with you on all aspects of being a foster carer. They'll come out and see you in your home, make sure everything is child safe, obtain your background checks and documents and just really take you through what you can expect and what the process is and check suitability and what's type of care is going to fit in with your lifestyle."
Once you've been authorised to become a foster carer, the agency will be there to support you through the process.
"You'll be assigned a case worker and some agencies actually have a separate support worker as well to support carers. There's usually a 24-hour line that you can ring if you've got any difficulties at all and they will work very closely with you to make sure you have all the support you need. That means access to respite care if you need it, other training that you can attend around specific topics of interest, maybe providing very trauma-informed care or basic sort of parenting skills, whatever it is that you feel you need to support you to that process."
Some agencies around the country specialise in multicultural foster care.
"It's very important that children are placed within families that can support their cultural, religious and traditional practices to make them feel a sense of belonging and so that things don't feel that strange to them because obviously being taken from your own family for whatever reason can be very traumatising for a child."
Ghassan Noujaim also explains that placing the child in a family who speaks their language or shares their culture, would make it much easier when it's time for the child to go back to their birth family.
"The restoration process is going to be pretty much easier because the child would settle much easily because for example they are used to the language, to the food, to the traditions."
Samah and her husband foster six children. They all come from different backgrounds, but they're all Muslim, which makes things easier.
"I guess it just makes it easier to live a life and go along with our daily activities the way we usually would. Whether it's eating halal food or attending the mosque, we don't have to get out of our way to provide something different for the children."
And even if she admits that being a foster carer can be challenging and takes a lot of patience, there's nothing she finds more rewarding.
"Overall, I would say it's extremely rewarding for both the foster carer and the child. People always come to tell me, 'you're so good for taking those children in', but I always tell them that I feel they've actually given me as much as I've given them."
You could change a child’s life for the best by becoming a foster carer. And if you’re not ready to commit to several weeks or months to start with, a fostering agency can find the best option for you.
To find a foster agency in your state: