Foster parenting: triumph and trauma

By Kimberley Siauw

There are countless positives for children in foster care, and undeniably, it saves children’s lives. But there can be no denying it also leaves emotional scars. And while foster parents are more usually regarded as white knights rather than as victims, that trauma can take its toll in their role as carers.

Put yourself in their shoes.

Jane*, a foster carer of five years, currently plays hostess to two beautiful young children, Tommy and Lily*. The siblings come from a neglected and abusive home, where their father was a pedophile and their mother a heroin addict.

At the time of their first arrival into Jane’s close-knit home, alongside her husband, two daughters and teenage son, there was a lot of hope for the children. “It was really tough there, but they were like, ‘This is going to get better. They’re just warming up to this’,” says Lucy*, a close family friend.

Lily, now nine, has ADHD, a personality disorder, and low self-esteem and is still traumatised by the children’s separation from their mother. (Tommy, too, suffers from trauma.) “She’s a really talented girl but she won’t take any compliments,” Lucy says. “She needs attention 24/7, more than Tommy. She’ll think she’s ugly, she won’t believe anything you tell her and won’t believe anyone loves her or wants her around.” She was four years old when she was taken away from her parents, and to this day she only hopes to go back to her mother. “She puts Jane down a lot,” Lucy observes of the relationship dynamic throughout their years together.

There are nearly 40,000 children in Australia who are living away from home. Some 44.6 per cent of them are in foster care. A significant increase has taken place over the past decade, with numbers doubling from 2002 to 2011.

This large increase has been driven in part by rises in reported instances of significant harm. In 2011, there were 237,273 reports made to state and territory authorities of significant harm taking place in children and young peoples’ lives.

This harm, which can take forms such as neglect, physical and sexual abuse, can affect a child’s life in such great measure that they are forced to leave their homes. At a young age, they experience feelings of negative self-esteem, behavioral problems and trauma. Many of us from outsider perspectives assume that these children, plucked from their treacherous households and put into new, loving and caring homes, all get their similar happy endings, but in this sad reality, not all of them do.

Anna*, a foster care case manager, says that babies who are taken into foster care have less chance of trauma or behavioural problems. This is because when they are taken away from their homes, they are oblivious to what’s happening around them.

Lily, however, was four years old when she was taken into foster care. Children of this age are more prone to exhibiting such behavioural issues because they are separated from their parents or have been exposed to certain things at an age they can still remember these experiences.

By way of example, Anna cites another of her cases – Cameron, a young boy who was aged two when he was taken into care. Cameron has had four placements during his short life, the longest of which has been six months. According to Anna, he suffers from severe behavioural problems and excessive tantrums.

Applying for the role of foster carer is a significant undertaking, taking between three and six months. Carers go through 19 hours of preparation training, followed by assessment by two case workers from community services, who visit the foster carer’s home and determine whether they meet the competencies and are capable of caring. Time goes into finding a match for the couple, and the child’s specific experiences are researched. Each case is then passed on to a panel of managers, and people from different organisations go through the report to examine if these carers are a suitable match for the child.

Yet the system is by no means foolproof. Anna cites an example of a foster carer couple who performed exceptionally well during the assessment process, and had a child of their own. Despite this, within a week they had phoned Anna to deliver the bad news: “[We] can’t go through with this.”

“You can never [fully] know what people are capable of,” Anna notes.

Anna explains that, in her professional experience, couples coming into foster caring still don’t expect the children to have difficult behaviours, despite the hours of training and assessments. She says they don’t truly understand the abuse and the neglect they have experienced. “People that come into foster care might have this view of, ‘Oh, the child will be so grateful to me and then their behaviours won’t be that bad,’ but in reality, it [doesn’t work that way].”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Cameron’s newest placement is now past the six-month mark, and he is beginning to feel a sense of settlement and attachment, including calling her foster parents ‘mum’ and ‘dad’. The behavioural issues have also largely disappeared. Anna believes that the initial stages of the relationship with the foster carer in the first two or three years of the child’s lifespan development, where the child should feel that sense of attachment, are critical. The new family are then “able to create great relationships, self-esteem, socially, academically and a lot of other things,” she says. Failure to establish such a connection can result in cases like Lily’s; she has been in the same placement for five years but remains detached from her foster carers, especially Jane.

Foster carers’ lives are affected in ways that they would not have expected. Lucy says that Jane’s family has “faced issues with their mental state … keeping the house tidy, hardly sleeping, and their biological kids feeling completely left out.” (Jane suffers from post-traumatic stress, which can result from from living with a traumatised person.) Perhaps the most difficult aspect to deal with is her relationship with her three children, who are all young adults. Since the placement of Lily and Tommy, her relationship with her own children has become strained. They feel they cannot communicate around the children because they have to be careful about what they say.

Anna says that when times get tough for carers, together they will try their best to put forward strategies so that they are able continue caring for the child. Sometimes the strategies are effective and sometimes they are not. But it is important to remember that children are not oblivious. They can sense when a carer doesn’t want them, because “time and time again the kid can hear and sense it.”

There is no saying that Jane and her family don’t want Lily and Tommy anymore. Just imagine the difficulties they’re going through with the family communication they once had in the household. They don’t want them to feel like they are unwanted or feel that abandonment ever again.

As for Jane, Lucy says that she is “just pushing through it. She’s not going to quit because she can’t. Those kids will be even more traumatised than they already are if someone else gives up on them. “



Foster care FAQ:

Australian Foster Care Association:

Foundations Care:

Children In Care (Australian Institute of Family Studies):


Featured image: Foster care can save children’s lives, but it can also leave emotional scars. Photo by Thomas Hawk/CC/flickr

2 Replies to “Foster parenting: triumph and trauma

  1. Such a great article. Fascinating subject matter presented in compelling and sensitive fashion. Lovely work.

  2. Great piece. You’ve explored a difficult issue with sensitivity to both the people involved and your readers.

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