EASTERN Victoria MP Melina Bath has launched a petition calling on the Andrews Government to review current DHHS practices and decisions regarding children in foster care, and locals with first hand experiences of the foster care system say there’s “plenty of room for improvement and change”.
Julie Eaton of Leongatha says she’s had some “heartbreaking” experiences in her 34 years as a foster carer.
As well as raising three children of her own as a single parent, Julie has welcomed hundreds of foster children into her home over the years, some staying just one night, others staying with her from early infancy to adulthood, others being removed without explanation.
“You can have kids for two years and then out of the blue, the Department says ‘we’re moving them’,” Julie says.
“It seems to happen if you ask for too much in terms of funding and support. But kids in care have big issues. They often need more help than I can give.”
Julie says supports such as counselling, speech therapy and occupational therapy are not available in Leongatha, which means she often has to drive to Traralgon and Frankston. “[The travel] is a financial burden but as soon as you ask for more support, the children get taken away. It’s very heart-breaking when you put in such a lot of effort and someone with very little to do with them is making the decisions,” she says.
“It’s a very bad system and it’s not getting any better. What it needs is stable placements so that children aren’t removed without very good, valid reasons. I had two children removed recently, much to my heartache. They were high needs children and as a single parent I did the best I could. I haven’t been allowed to see them and they’ve since had seven different placements. It’s cruel, what they [the Department] do, and carers don’t want that,” she says.
But Julie also has good stories to tell, and one of those is Molly, who after coming to live with Julie at a young age, chooses to keep living with her, even though she’s old enough to have been released from the foster care system.
“She’s the best,” Molly says of Julie.
“I don’t think of her as my foster mum; I think of her as the mum I never had.”
Nineteen year old Molly has been in care since she was nine months old and has moved around a lot (“everywhere,” she says). In between stays at Julie’s, Molly has had several attempts at going to live with relatives but says she’s grateful to have always had a home at Julie’s. “When I wasn’t here, things were pretty complicated,” she says. “Julie’s always just been there.”
Molly doesn’t mind sharing her home with the children Julie continues to foster, even though their behavioural issues can be difficult to deal with at times.
“She looks after everyone: little kids, teenagers, babies. Sometimes it’s full on but then you go through stages without any [foster children] and it’s weird. You get used to having kids in your house.”
Julie’s caring example seems to have rubbed off on Molly, who has developed a passion for working and studying in the disability and mental health sectors.
And like Julie, Molly is keen to see changes made to the foster care system.
“There are good and bad things about the system. It’s not all rainbows and butterflies,” Molly says. “Carers can have kids staying with them for five years, on and off, and then they just get taken away to another carer they don’t know. It’s really sad. They’re like your little brothers and sisters and they just leave. It’s hard when you have no control,” she says.
Julie says more compassionate people and people with hands on experience are needed in the DHHS.
“They have these professional meetings that carers are not invited to. And the so-called professionals are about 25 years old. What gives them more knowledge and experience than carers? Carers are good enough to have the kids in their houses but not good enough to sit in the meetings because the so-called professionals know what’s best. I don’t think they do. They don’t see the hard yards. They claim to know the kids’ best interests but they don’t even know the kids,” she says.
She also says politics, rules and regulations have “gotten out of hand,” making it a “hard call” for people to become carers, and that the government needs to do more to support carers.
“I’m over 60 and I’ve been a foster carer for 34 years but you’re not entitled to anything. Newstart: that’s the thanks you get.”
Julie says she continues to foster children because “somebody has to care”.
“Some of these kids have experienced very severe neglect and abuse. It’s unbelievable what they go through and some of them are very hard nuts to crack but if you can make them happy for the time they’re with you, that’s a good thing. Some days are good; some days are not so good, but it is rewarding and I hope I can make a good change in their lives.”
Melina Bath’s petition is available until February 26 and can be accessed via www.melinabath.com.au/foster_carers.