Crisis in foster care

Justine Whitelaw and her husband Chris. Photo Therese Duncan.
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A desperate shortage of foster carers in Victoria has led to claims that some are being pushed to the limit and forced to take on children they are not equipped for. Therese Duncan reports.

Across Victoria, the foster care system is desperate. The demand for foster carers today has reached an all new high and the system can’t keep up. Rebecca Granata, 36, who is a carer recruiter for Mackillop Family Services, a specialist support service for disadvantaged children across Australia, says “there are not enough foster carers out there to keep up with the number of children in care.”

The number children in out-of-home care across Victoria has double to 45,000 in the past five years, according to the Institute of Health and Welfare. However, as the number of children is increasing, the number of carers is declining, and fast. The same report showed that while there were 375 new households that joined the foster care program in 2018, more than 600 families quit.

“It’s getting to that desperate stage where we are pulling out all the tricks,” says Granata. In order to encourage more people to apply, agencies have produced advertising campaigns, such as creating ads for coffee cups and on the backs of buses. But because of this strain, the current foster carers are being pushed to their limits and are unable to cope with the stress.

Justine Whitelaw, 43, has felt the need of more foster carers from both sides. Not only has she been a carer for five years along with her husband, Chris, Whitelaw also works in carer recruitment with Mackillop. Because of her position as both a worker and a carer, she understands the strain felt by both the agency and the carers.

“For every one foster carer, there are five children. If you think of Chris and I as a household of two, there are ten children in need of a home right now,” says Whitelaw.

They have taken in over 45 children, including a brother and a sister who stayed for over a year. However, most of them were emergency placement or respite, which is when foster children stay with a foster carer for one weekend in order to give their primary carers a rest.

Before their current placement, they were caring for three siblings aged eight, ten and 14. Each child had significant trauma and had grown up without a male figure in their life. Because of this trauma, they did not trust Whitelaw’s husband, causing most of the responsibility to fall onto her. She would start her day at 5am in order to get all three kids and herself ready for the day, deal with all of the tantrums, some lasting for four hours, all while maintaining a full-time job.

“It just got to the point where I wasn’t coping,” says Whitelaw. “The behaviours of these three were off the charts, and I know it sounds horrible, but they didn’t want to be parented.” It was one particularly tough morning that Whitelaw decided that she couldn’t take it anymore.

“I got them off to school eventually after three hours, they were all late, and I rang the agency and said I was done.” She said that even though the agency knew that they were struggling, they received no assistance and eventually they needed a break. Whitelaw and her husband took three weeks off to repair and recharge. However, with the agency calling every two days asking when they were coming back, their stress kept adding up.

But the agency is desperate. With 45,000 children in need of a warm bed, the system is getting desperate to provide them. Whitelaw understands that the Placement Coordination Unit, who is in charge of placing each child, doesn’t know this stress that each carer has just been through, so they push for the agencies to fill the vacant households. Whitelaw said that the whole process left her feeling “raw, exposed and vulnerable.”

Marg Tomnay, 58, is also no stranger to the foster care system. After being a carer for 11 years, she has taken in seven permanent children and over 20 respites. Tomany was unusual for a foster carer. She opted to take care of teenagers rather than children, which is very rare as most people going into foster caring ask for babies.

“I have a full-time job so that was not compatible anyway. I prefer teenagers to little kids anyway,” she says.

Marg Tomnay in her kitchen at her Boolarra home. Photo Therese Duncan.

Granata says that because of the lack of foster carers wanting to take on teenagers, most of them end up in residential care, which is not ideal for most. “Most people want to start out doing younger kids…because they want to build their confidence,” Granata says. The agencies understand this; however, it still presents the issue of finding places for the teenagers in care.

Tomnay knew they she could provide a safe environment for kids in need, giving them as close to a normal adolescence as she could manage. Her house is small but quaint, perfect for providing a home to children who desperately need one. The backyard is fenced off to contain a small but excited dog named Stella. Inside runs a floorboarded hallway leading to the kitchen, with multiple bedrooms lining the walls which would sometimes house up to seven children at the one time.

Now, Tomnay and her three cats are the only ones who occupy the house because of a series of incidences involving a foster child who exhibited challenging behaviours, which left her feeling incredibly angry and used.

“I felt scared, and I have not felt that… I felt scared in my own home, which is unusual, my home is always my place of retreat.”  Tomnay felt completely unsupported, betrayed and abused by the agency, so after that moment, she decided she could no longer be a carer and quit fostering all together.

“I said I’m all over, you need to rehome these kids by tomorrow. I had just had it by then.” The next day, the two girls that were in her care were gone and that was the last.

Whitelaw has one child in her care, an eight-year-old boy who is deemed by the department to have extremely complex needs. Whitelaw agreed to take on this boy for a short period of time, however that time has been extended, and now the only reason he will not be in her care for much longer is because Whitelaw will be leaving the country within a couple weeks.

“The department overloads and they push carers to take on kids that they may not be equipped for,” says Whitelaw.

Due to Whitelaw and her husband having experience with their own child, as well as the required training, they often get difficult children in their care.

“They look at us and think they have one, but they can take more. But the reality is we don’t have capacity to take more.” 

As of yet, it is too early for agencies to see if any of their promotions encouraging people to become foster carers have worked, however Granata has noticed that there is an increase in the quality of those applying, which could be the sign of things looking up for the foster care system.