That first marvellous smile...

Posted on 22 February 2018 by Angela Mallon

Foster carers Sue and Lee with their family

Foster carer Sue McLaughlin loves children, “I always said I’d have ten kids and through fostering, I’m getting close!” laughs Sue as she juggles family life and foster care. Sue has two kids, her husband Lee has three children and they look after two babies – nine-month-old Madeline and Ryan, who is almost two.

Sue, who lives in Diggers Rest, grew up with family friends who were foster carers. Through them, she had a glimpse into the need for safe homes for children unable to live with their family, so from an early age, being a foster carer was something she really wanted to do.

“Lee didn’t know much about foster care, but when I suggested it to him and we learned more about it, we both wanted to give a secure home to children who needed it. We really enjoyed the training, which also taught us a lot about ourselves and our own kids.  We were thrilled to be accepted and two years ago, we started caring for our first baby.”

Sue and Lee look after babies and toddlers under two years of age and have had eight babies stay with them, some for emergency care, some for a few months and Madeline and Ryan, who have been with them for eight months and six months respectively.

Foster care is a team effort for the family with the children and Lee, who works nights, all pitching in and helping with daily life. Sue and Lee discussed how foster care works with their children before starting the process and she believes it has been hugely educational for them.

“They absolutely love having the babies to stay. It’s been such a positive experience for us and it’s taught the kids a lot about the wider world. We share age appropriate information with them about each little one that arrives, they understand that sometimes people need support and that’s why we are caring for the babies.

“Our kids are an enormous help to me and the babies just love it when they come from school as their big brothers and sisters are here to play. Some days I say to them, ‘Guys, I couldn’t have done this without you today.’ They just want to keep them all forever, but we talk about how we have the babies for a short time and it’s our job to keep them safe and as happy as possible in that time.”

Some of the babies Sue and Lee care for have special needs and nine-month-old Madeline came to them at six weeks old as a withdrawing baby, “Madeline still hasn’t slept through the night and we can be up with her four or five times a night. But she has come so far from when she first arrived as an agitated and anxious little baby. I had to hold her all the time and if I wasn’t holding her in my arms, she was close to me in a pouch at my front or beside my bed in her bassinet. It was worth it all when I got that first marvellous smile and I knew we were over that hump and on our way.”

23-month-old Ryan has a rare genetic syndrome called Wiedemann-Steiner syndrome which can cause developmental delays, feeding challenges, short stature, and low muscle tone. Ryan needs special help to support his neck which makes feeding very difficult and he is not very mobile. He has a range of equipment for suction and support which travels with him and Sue when they are out and about. In addition to the syndrome, at six months Ryan acquired a brain injury which adds to the complexity of his care and wellbeing.

“We’re in and out of the Children’s’ Hospital every second week for a range of appointments with different specialists. From Dental to Audiology to Respiratory to Cardio, we’ve been to every speciality at the hospital to monitor Ryan’s condition,” says Sue who keeps Ryan’s family updated on his progress. Ryan’s family live in country Victoria, hours from Melbourne and the hospital which is vital for Ryan’s care. With four children under eight, including Ryan’s twin, and with little support, it was impossible for them to continue looking after Ryan.

Sue is very happy to work with Ryan’s mum and the families meet regularly to spend time together. “We had a lovely weekend before Christmas and we spend days at the zoo, or have picnics in the park. We also talk regularly and I call Ryan’s mum after every appointment to keep her updated or she will ring me for a chat. We have a lovely open relationship. I know it was a difficult decision for Ryan’s mum, but she put his care first and I tell her to think of me as an extended baby sitter. I’m looking after him now but he will always be her son.

“I also promised Ryan’s mum that the twins would always celebrate their birthdays together, so we’re looking forward to celebrating their second birthday next month – everybody is so excited about the party.”

Sue has also become an advocate for foster care, as many of the parents at school noticed she would turn up with different babies and she says most are surprised that babies need foster care. “People assume foster care is only for teenagers or pre-teens, they just don’t think about the babies that need care. I tell them to look into it, as it is such a rewarding thing to do. For me, the only drawback is giving the babies back. It breaks my heart every time. But it’s something I could never stop doing – I know that I’ve made a difference to the lives of these babies. They respond so well to the love, security and safety of a settled environment and it’s a privilege to have them share our lives even if it’s only for a little while.”