I didn't think I could foster children... I'm so glad I was wrong

Posted on 08 May 2016 by Elizabeth Cashen

Two boys and a woman sit on a couch eating pizza. Foster carer Elizabeth Cashen found out it didn't matter that she was single,

If someone had asked me 12 months ago what milestone I would achieve in the past year, I would never have thought it would be becoming an expert in Lego construction. Nor did I predict that I would know how to confidently split a Salada three ways, or know all the words to every song from Frozen.

But I became accredited as a respite foster carer of three young people, and I haven’t looked back.

I first thought about fostering children 10 years ago when I was working in the homelessness sector. But I didn’t think I’d be considered suitable. I just assumed that foster parents needed to be couples who owned their own house, already had kids and had the capacity to be home full-time.

I’m 34, single, and I work full-time. I don’t have children, and I live in a share house. While I’d felt for a long time I had the emotional resources to be a foster carer, I didn’t see how it could work practically.

Then I found out about home-based respite care– a model where I could go and live-in with the kids for one weekend a month, rather than them coming to me. I didn’t need my own home; I could continue working full-time, and I would be supported by a larger care team of MacKillop staff and allied health practitioners. 

So in late 2014, after completing the training, I became a home-based respite foster carer for three wonderful kids. One weekend a month, I pack a bag, doona and a 1980s movie and move into their house from Friday night to Sunday afternoon.  

The best thing about home-based respite foster care is that the kids get to stay in their own house, with the comforts of their bedrooms, toys and books. It’s much easier for them to stay in routine and it enables me to have a thorough handover with the primary foster carer when I arrive. The other benefit is that we all know well in advance when I’m coming, and for how long. This regularity provides a framework of stability that is great for all of us, and has really helped me to develop genuine long-term relationships with the kids.

A boy looks up at the camera and smiles as he sits on a white tile floor playing with the letters of the alphabet.Looking back, the first few weekends I had them I was pretty ambitious. Knowing they’d probably missed out on experiences that other kids naturally have, I wanted them to experience it all.

So I took them on a few big adventures – on road trips, to festivals and to local fairs. It took a few months for me to realise that actually the most extraordinary thing I could do was to be there for the ordinary – for chats over breakfast and the bedtime stories.  My main role is to not to provide outlandish experiences, but to be present, to listen to them, pay attention and validate their experiences.

These days, a typical weekend is probably much like anyone else with kids – a constant quest to provide a blend of entertainment and education, while mediating fights about food.   

I’m not going to pretend that they are “just like any other kids”; they’re not.  They have missed some important stages of early development, so they find it harder to self-soothe and regulate their emotions than other kids. They struggle a bit more kids to fit in at school and they find it harder to follow instructions. But these kids are wonderful in their complexity.

They never cease to amaze me with their ability to take on new information, try new things and learn new habits and behaviours. And in trying to understand them, I have learnt so much more about myself.

When I did the foster care training in 2014, I was petrified that I wasn’t cut out for it. This fear of failing – of letting the kids down – was almost enough to prevent me from trying. But through talking to the staff at MacKillop, I realised those fears were normal and that I wasn’t flying solo; that there was a whole care team committed to working with me and the kids.

A while ago, the kids and I celebrated our one year anniversary of knowing each other. To mark the occasion, we got fish and chips, watched Back to the Future and had the usual arguments about who ate the last potato cake. Sitting there with them that night, fielding questions about 1985, it felt totally right.

The best advice I could give to anyone interested in being a foster parent is do the training. Arm yourself with information; ask questions, and be honest. Not only will you learn a whole lot of new information, you will discover a new part of yourself.

There are different types of foster care that would suit different people’s lifestyles. If, like Elizabeth, you have a passion for improving the lives of children make an enquiry to find out more today. 

Model images have been used to accompany this article to protect privacy.