As a teacher, Rebekah Mangos has seen the impact on children who do not have a consistent home, or when there is a lack of foster carers available for children who need out of home care.
So, with two spare bedrooms at her Sebastopol home, she decided to become a foster carer.
Over the past year she has taken in five children through four placements, with children staying for periods from a weekend to four months.
"The most rewarding thing about becoming a carer is forming the relationships and seeing the changes in the kids as they progress," Ms Mangos said.
"There are challenges involved like not knowing the kids background stories and what is going to work best for their individual situations. But it's important to know that there are many different options available in becoming a carer."
CAFS has issued an urgent plea for new foster carers, with the number of carer inquiries dropping dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Across Victoria, the number of foster carer inquiries has dropped 35 per cent since the start of the year, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while demand for out of home care continues to increase.
CAFS manager of home based care Tracey Savage said one of the key contributing factors to this drop-off could include a change in paid employment for one or both carers as a result of COVID-19, leading to financial or health and wellbeing concerns.
Ms Mangos said after seeing at-risk children she wanted to help in whatever capacity she could, and that capacity has varied over the year.
"At times I have said no to children because the timing hasn't suited my life, but other times I have said yes I do have four months I could give to this child." Her home situation has also changed, living on her own in a three bedroom house when she began fostering to now having her partner Tim Dawson living with her.
Ms Mangos said potential foster carers should know the flexibility of the role - the ability to specify the age range of children you are willing to care for, and the support available for the logistics of caring. For example, CAFS organised transport for children to attend appointments or see their family when Ms Mangos has been caught up at work.
"Foster care offers some stability for the children, offering not just a bed but a warm environment in terms of people. It provides an escape from whatever they need to escape from."
The way I see it is it's going to be really heartbreaking for me (when a child leaves) but it would be more heartbreaking to think a child didn't have a home for that time.Rebekah Mangos
The hardest part is when a placement is coming to an end.
"When I know a placement is coming to an end for different reasons, some have been my choice some have been a choice of the system and some have been to reunite with family, I put some care things in place for myself and my family are really supportive," she said.
"But the way I see it is it's going to be really heartbreaking for me but it would be more heartbreaking to think a child didn't have a home for that time."
Ms Savage said foster carers received full training and ongoing support from CAFS, including financial support and specialist foster care practitioners who were available 24/7 to deal with any issues.
Hear from our wonderful board member and volunteer foster carer Megan and her family about their care journey and the impact of the FCAV's support for the volunteer foster care community and the children and young people in their care. #SupportingCareSupportingChildhoodspic.twitter.com/dLH4ZY7bvv— FCAV (@vicfostercare) May 19, 2020
"Foster carers come from many different backgrounds, they can be single, or have a partner, have no children or have children of their own, they can rent or own their home, work, study or be retired and can be from any culture, religion or sexual orientation. If you can provide a safe and nurturing home for a child; we want to hear from you," she said.
For further information on becoming a foster carer visit cafs.org.au/foster
COVID-19's impact on out of home care
The coronavirus pandemic has increased demand on the foster care system, and foster carers themselves.
A report by Ernst and Young also found social isolation could lead to children being left longer in at-risk situations because of a loss of contact with people in the community who would normally be supporting the family or reporting potential abuse or neglect such as teachers and doctors.
"With school closures and governments encouraging virtual learning, there are limited opportunities for teachers to pick up on signs that a child or young person is at risk in their home," authors Mark Galvin and Dr Melissa Kaltner wrote in their report Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 on Out-of-Home Care in Australia.
"Likewise, lockdown conditions create less monitoring of child wellbeing from health workers, extended family members, neighbours and other community members from whom child protection notifications would normally be received. The lack of observation of at-risk children increases the likelihood that children will be subject to longer periods of abuse and neglect before entering care."
Altered protocols for child protection caseworkers could also impact on any intervention required.
Fantastic news for #fostercarers in Victoria! Thank you to @LukeDonnellan for his support of the sector, and to @CFECFW for advocating on behalf of young people and their carers. Biggest thanks of all to Victoria's foster carers: your work is vital and valued ❤ https://t.co/z5f5gMvZu8— FosteringConnections (@FosteringVIC) April 23, 2020
The authors also found COVID-19 put extra strain on carers and kinship families caring for children more intensely because they are no longer going to school and with less respite care available, and maintaining a virtual or online connection for children in care with their families would not always be effective, or even be an option.
"There is evidence that in this context connecting virtually presents difficulties for some families. Video-calling may not always be an option for low-income families, who may have little capacity to access or use this technology. It can also be difficult to engage young children who have little understanding of it and would lose the benefits of being able to bond physically with their parents."
Some foster parents were also unwilling to welcome an unknown child in to their homes during the pandemic in case they had COVID-19, and with almost to thirds of foster carers aged over 50 many are in the high risk group for coronavirus complications.
"In comparison to the general Australian parenting population, carers are at greater risk of experiencing more serious complications from COVID-19 given their age, and more likely to be required to self-isolate under current government guidance. To the extent this occurs, the capacity of these carers to look after the child or young person in their care who may now have more intensive care needs as a result of the pandemic is compromised."
The authors found it was likely that, for some young people in care, the strain of partial lockdown and associated anxiety could trigger trauma responses and escalate behavioural issues.
But there was some positive news among the findings, with evidence showing when unemployment is higher, more members of the community are open to becoming foster or kinship carers.
"In light of this, there exists a unique opportunity for carer recruitment to meet arising need for child protection placements in the coming months to support wellbeing outcomes for children in need of care," they wrote.
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