I was one of the lucky ones
I’m an orphan. My mum committed suicide when I was seven and my dad had a heart-attack when I was 16.
Thankfully, I wasn’t living with either of them at the time. I was removed from my mother’s care at age five and my relationship with my father was estranged since before I could remember.
The very first night I spent in a foster home I was bullied.
I wanted to eat porridge and despite being five years old, my new foster sister told me porridge was for little babies and I was one of them. Fortunately she was only a temporary sister and I haven’t seen her since.
Mine is by no means the worst story on the books. I wasn’t abused or severely neglected like many children in the care of state agencies like the Department of Community Services in NSW.
Over the years I met and lived with a lot of kids who endured unimaginable circumstances. My many foster sisters and brothers often shared with me their heartbreaking stories. Cases where parents had beaten them, taken hard drugs in front of them and sometimes even sexually abused them.
At 15, I remember crying myself to sleep worrying about my future - then realising there were three other kids in the same house as me who were a lot worse off.
I’m now in my twenties, have completed high school, been to university and am living my dream career.
At times it has been really, really hard. But in the end I made it through what is unquestionably an out-of-touch and over-stretched child welfare system.
Almost everyone has an opinion on how we can fix our current system. It is so clearly broken.
We see politicians like Mark Arbib on The Punch rallying for early intervention and more community support.
We see social commentators and activist groups calling for more reporting on the issues that are often vastly under-reported in care.
I don’t have all the answers, and I’m not going to pretend I do. But I’ve lived through the system. I’ve seen it from the inside, and I know what helped me get to a point where I can be here today, writing this.
I was in kinship care with my grandparents for most of my infant years. At 14, I was placed back in out-of-home care. My grandparents and I were fighting all the time and the situation was explosive for all parties involved. This was one of the hardest times for me, and the time I needed help the most.
Most of my years in out-of-home care were spent with the support of a non-government agency called The Burdekin Association.
Burdekin gave me one of the best caseworkers in the world. Someone who spent time every week with me, and was always there to help when I needed a guiding voice.
She made a real difference in my life and I believe she was able to do this in part because the case loads for agency workers are often a lot lighter than their DoCS equivalents. These organisations often target a smaller area of the community and as a result there are fewer children to spread their time across.
These are the organisations that should be given more assistance and recognition from both the Government and the community.
Often kids in care just need the right emotional support and guidance in order to turn their lives around. Smaller community-based agencies can and do provide this level of support better than DoCS.
This was my reality. My DoCS caseworker touched base with me on average once every three months. My Burdekin caseworker was there every week. In a troubled life, this can make all the difference.
There is a current push by the Government to move more support services out to agencies like Barnardos, Anglicare and Burdekin to ease the pressure on DoCS and other Government agencies.
This is great news. But it’s no substitute for the job DoCS has and simply shoving extra work in the direction of others agencies isn’t a long-term solution.
Teenagers requiring out-of-home care is too often a sidelined issue. Teenagers are difficult to place and it’s more difficult to find funding as it is mainly aimed at smaller children.
Society tends to blame them for their dysfunctional behaviour when they reach adolescence. The emphasis switches from protecting them to getting them to take responsibility for themselves.
This is also where Burdekin and lead agencies are unique. They catch the teenagers who probably wouldn’t be picked up by an already over-burdened system. This is why they deserve more support.
At the risk of sounding all “let’s hold hands and be friends” – DoCS, communities and external agencies need to work together more to bring about real change in the system. There needs to be fluid lines of communication between each of the parties involved in shaping our welfare system. This is something that doesn’t happen enough.
Individuals need to personally get more involved with non-government organisations. They are community-based so it’s a lot easier to support fundraisers and lend a hand.
Even simply making a donation could make the world of difference. There needs to be more awareness around this.
Some people say there will never be a perfect child protection system.
Of course there will never be a completely perfect system, but if we don’t aim for it, how can we ever say we’ve done the right thing by children in care?
I survived. I was one of the lucky ones. But I shouldn’t have to be.
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