Patience, love and one hundred million chances

Posted on 13 November 2017 by Rachel Dale

Lewis and carer Ben in onesies

Ben has been a live-in carer to eight year old Lewis* and 17 year old Hayden* - both of whom experienced significant trauma early in their lives – for just over a year. In that time Hayden and Lewis have each made remarkable progress with the support of Ben, Team Leader Malenie and Case Manager Cassie. Together they share what it’s like to care for two boys with very different and very unique needs.

When Lewis came to live with Ben, he was seven years old. He’d never had any stability and his engagement with education had been patchy and inconsistent. He was unable to live with his family and had moved 25 times in four years.

Ben describes how these early experiences impacted Lewis’s behaviour. “He was acting out in a lot of different ways as a result of his trauma history. He would hide in cupboards and not want to get out,” Ben says. “He was just really, really scared. He would have major meltdowns around bath time or whenever he was vulnerable.”

It took some time to find the right ‘recipe’ for Lewis. Building trust and developing routines have been critical to these changes, Malenie says. “He craves routine now and recognises that structures are good for him.”

A year later, Lewis still has some bad days, but so much has changed, Malenie explains: “He’s much more able to regulate himself. He’s in school now until 1:40pm, which includes recess and lunch. He’s sleeping now, which he wasn’t before.”

Some breakthroughs may appear minor, but Ben, Malenie and Cassie all recognise the significance of small developments, like Lewis’ ability to show affection and talk about his feelings; something he was unable to do a year ago.

Balancing Lewis’ needs with those of a teenager is something Ben doesn’t take lightly. Although Hayden is 17, he seems much younger because of his intellectual disability. His trauma also means he struggles with attachment and security.

Ben knew his bond with Hayden could be disturbed when Lewis moved in, so he set up bonding opportunities, like regular nights out with just the two of them, to help Hayden adjust. 

Hayden’s behavoiur has also changed significantly over the past year. He is more able to calm himself and do things like cook a meal on his own. “His behaviour is like night and day compared to before,” says Malenie.

Hayden will experience further change in just a few months when he turns 18. Australia’s out of home care system only supports young people up to the age of 18 (although MacKillop is one of many organisations advocating to extend this to 21). He is not yet ready to live independently, but Ben, Cassie and Malenie are working on a transition plan to support him at a time when young people can be particularly vulnerable.

For Ben, it was the role models in this period of his life who made the biggest difference. He openly acknowledges how his own experience of being in care inspired him to help others as a live-in carer. “When I needed it, I had people go to the ends of the earth for me and they didn’t give up on me. And that’s how I see the kids. It was patience, love and one hundred million chances that helped me succeed.”

That motivation is what drives Ben to be there for young people like Hayden and Lewis as they transition to independence. His carers, Josh and Jo, stood by him in that challenging period and Ben is clear he wants to be there for the boys when they transition to independence.

The house is not a typical foster care home – it is much more tailored to the needs of the young people living there. The most important part of the model is the boys having the primary attachment with Ben, says Malenie. “But the primary carer needs a lot of support and regular breaks, otherwise it just doesn’t work.”

Lewis can be anxious when out at night and in crowded places, yet is also keen to experience a holiday. To help him build up to a bigger trip, Ben and the team took Lewis to stay in a local hotel for a night.

After years of instability, Lewis had not spent a night away from home since moving in 15 months ago. Uncertain of how he would react in a new environment, Ben and Cass developed a strategy to help him feel at ease. As well as bringing Lewis’ weighted blankets, beanbags and PlayStation, they decided to all dress in onesies – an outfit Lewis feels comfortable in – to help him conquer the fear of being in public. The trip was a huge success, exceeding all expectations, bringing Lewis one step closer to going on a holiday.

Ben talks about the importance of teamwork in caring for someone with a trauma history. “When Lewis needs it, the whole world stops and it’s all about him. The home-based care model at MacKillop is incredibly flexible; much more so than normal foster care. That’s why it works for him.”

Being a strong team is essential, adds Cassie. “It’s very collaborative. Plus building long-term relationships with the boys is what enables us to see their growth and development.”

“Everyone says it’s the most rewarding thing, but to see how they progress, it’s just amazing,” says Ben.

Like many carers, Ben started off as a respite carer, coming to stay in the house on alternating weekends. He says that respite is a good way to “dip your toe in the pool”. MacKillop has three houses with live-in carers around Melbourne, each with an ongoing need for respite carers.

If this story inspires you, respite caring could be a great way to see if live-in caring is for you. To find out what’s involved, call visit www.mackillop.org.au/weekend-live-in-foster-carers-northern-melbourne or call Malenie on (03) 8398 6800.

*Names changed to protect privacy