Meet Pamela - an interview with a foster carer
Pamela has been a foster carer for over twenty years. She has had more than a hundred children stay at her home, for durations ranging from one night to several years. Here she shares some of her learnings and perspectives.
Were you always interested in children?
No, the complete opposite! In my teens I was into clothes and going out. It wasn’t until I fell pregnant in my twenties that I started thinking about child development. My oldest friends think it’s hilarious I’ve ended up being a long term caregiver, but I love it.
How would you describe the typical foster carer?
In my experience there is no typical foster carer. The good ones are any age, and come from all walks of life. They might have kids of their own, but they might not. There is a wide range of backgrounds. The only real thing they have in common is that they all have big hearts and they all have a passion for helping kids in trouble.
What qualifications do you need?
When I started as a foster carer, I had no qualifications at all. Part of what attracted me to fostering was the great training that is on offer. I have learned so much through Youth Horizons and similar organisations I have worked with. The support and training they give is really great.
What sort of person do you think is best suited to fostering children with behavioural challenges?
I think the best foster carers are quite practical, down-to-earth people and really good listeners. It’s all about communication. You need plenty of patience to be able to listen to what a child is saying, or not saying, and to learn to read their body language. You need to learn their way of communicating, and speak in a language they’re going to comprehend.
How do you do that?
Understand where they’re coming from and phrase your communications carefully. If you put them in the position where they feel disrespected or demeaned they’ll just shut down. For example, boys from a macho environment can act out if you accidentally make them feel stupid. Youth Horizons children often come from backgrounds where some anti-social behaviours are considered normal, therefore they’re not doing wrong in their eyes, so it’s important your communication doesn’t make them feel wrong or rejected.
How firmly do you enforce rules?
You can’t just lay down the law and expect results. It takes time, understanding and support to turn behaviours around. You need to provide reasons and explanations for what you’re asking them to do. You need to break it down. It’s a balance - you can’t just cater to the kids either, you have to work with them. Youth Horizons kids are very layered so you have to work through the layers carefully.
Humour is very important. A big smile goes a long way. Aim always to see the good in them.
Why did you first get into foster caring?
I was a young mum, with three pre-school children, and I wanted to learn more about being a good parent. The organisation I started working with gave me some great parenting training and over the years I got more involved, and learned more and more.
Why do you stay in foster caring?
Not for the money! My approach is: you can’t save the world on your own, you just do what you can. To me, the achievement is in having got a child to see a bit of light in their world, to show them that it’s not all dark, and that will hopefully keep them surviving.
Do you think people could foster a Youth Horizons child, with no previous foster caring experience?
Of course. Like doing anything for the first time though there will be a learning curve and it won’t always be straight forward – but the support and training helps hugely. I guess the main thing to realise with Youth Horizons young people is that they need a lot more help than the average kid in that situation, but the Youth Horizons team provide you a lot more support, money and training.
What are the rewards?
Making a difference. Giving a child a future. Helping stressed-out families. The kids are so worth it, and it’s really interesting. Youth Horizons kids are complex and multi-layered - they have a wider range of behaviours than the average kid making them like ‘5-kids-in-one’. Therefore caring for them is complex and interesting.
What have been your best experiences?
When you make a breakthrough with a child’s behaviour it is an amazing feeling. I had one child to stay for three years, and it took me two years before he would even let me touch him. On the day he asked for a hug I cried my eyes out and rang all the other caregivers to tell them.
Do you have much contact with other caregivers?
Heaps. We are on the phone to each other nearly every day, comparing notes, having a laugh, being supportive. You learn so much from them, they are awesome. At Youth Horizons it’s particularly good because some of the other caregivers will know the child nearly as well as you, because of the respite care arrangements. We also have ‘tea groups’ where we get together and compare notes and give each other support.
What have been the biggest challenges for you?
Youth Horizons kids are fulltime, including weekends. Some Youth Horizons children don’t fit all social environments so you sometimes have to choose not to participate in some events. But the kids are totally worth it, they are diamonds.
What is the support from Youth Horizons like?
Great. You have support 24/7 through an 0800 number, and a one-to-one relationship with your supervisor, and the caregiver network. Plus, Youth Horizons has very structured and well-designed behaviour development programmes. Sometimes I think Youth Horizons kids come out more focused and better mannered than our own kids!
What advice would you give to people considering becoming Youth Horizons foster carers?
Just try – you’ll never know till you try.