Could COVID-19 have made the community a more compassionate place?
Ballarat's foster care agencies think it has as time at home and lockdown have given people the space to think about what is important to them.
Agencies have seen a recent increase in people interested in becoming foster carers and believe it's a product of people reassessing their lives in lockdown.
"I think COVID has made people think about things they otherwise were not thinking about," said Berry Street regional director western Andrew Lowth.
"The bigger picture stuff: who am I? What do I want to be? What could I be doing to help our community? It's not all just about us but people are realising we are a better community if we take care of each other," he said.
But at the same time as COVID has led to soul searching for many people who might want to turn over a positive new leaf within the community, it has also added to stress for many vulnerable families.
Cafs chief executive Wendy Sturgess said more people had inquired about becoming foster carers, but the need for carers could surge in the coming years.
"During COVID the need hasn't dropped off and what is concerning us is that it's estimated there will be a growing need. At the moment the estimate is around 12,000 children are in out of home care in Victoria and that's growing around eight per cent a year, and for Aboriginal children it's growing 15 per cent," Ms Sturgess said.
"There's worry that as families slip in to unemployment there could be higher financial stress, family violence, homelessness and these can be contributing factors for people not being able to care for children. The demands of neglect and poverty and pressure associated with unemployment could result in further children having a need for care."
The two lockdowns of 2020 have put extra pressure on existing foster carers not only providing a home for children in need but taking on the responsibility of home schooling.
Mitchell Park foster carers Remaya and Greg Irwin were caring for a 12-year-old boy throughout much of the COVID period - their first "official" foster care placement.
Over the years they have taken in and cared for friends of their son Zeeghan, now 24, when they were troubled and needed guidance.
"On separate occasions we took in a couple of his friends, gave them the help we needed to give them, and set them up to give them a positive outlook on life," Ms Irwin said.
"Then a few years ago Greg and I thought there had to be something else out there for us to do, our home has two spare bedrooms and we decided to see if we could become foster carers."
Within a month of becoming accredited last year the couple had the young boy placed with them but there were more challenges ahead.
"Little did we know that COVID was around the corner instead of it just being a new challenge for us we were to face a pandemic and change our lives to survive and create a new outlook on how to keep a very active teen busy."
What the couple didn't know before they became foster carers was the support for both carers and the children placed with them.
"We were never alone, It takes a village to raise a child and we certainly had that village. We didn't realise at the time it's not just us but our Berry Street worker, teachers, doctors, clinicians, everyone surrounds that one child to make a contribution to their lives."
A support worker would take their foster son out for bike rides, or spend a day doing an activity and become another trusted adult in his life. Respite care is also offered to give foster parents some time out to pursue their own activities, reconnect as a couple or family, or cater for any other needs.
During the nine months he lived with the Irwins the boy became part of their large extended family and although there was a grieving process after he left the couple equipped him with the tools and resilience to move to a more permanent placement.
"I tell him he's my number one and he will remain in our life in whatever capacity he wants," she said.
"He's a kid who had been taken from home to home in his own family environment, never had a relationship and we taught him routine and structure and built a relationship," Ms Irwin said. "We always reinforced the positive and we saw growth in that child once we put structure and tools in place he grew as a person."
Ms Irwin praised the recruitment, training and support process saying they learned a lot about themselves and the children they would care for.
"We only thought children go in to care because of trauma, sexual abuse, but little did we know there were many other factors like death is quite huge, financial problems, and neglect."
Psychological education also helped along with the support from Berry Street experts to deal with behavioural issues.
"When we were presented with this teen there was stuff we did not know or know how to handle but she gave us the tools to put in place and help. Greg and I would definitely not have seen nine months through without that - we would have quite after the second month if we didn't have that support."
After the boy left for a permanent care placement the Irwins took a short break from foster care but are about to start the transition process to have a 12-year-old girl come to live with them for at least 12 months.
"We want to fill these rooms whether it's with a placement or respite," she said.
"The rewards definitely outshine the challenges."
Mr Lowth said it was common for foster carers to say they feel they get as much, or more, from caring for vulnerable children as the children themselves do.
"Foster care comes in many shapes and forms. Whatever you think you've got to offer we can make that, with training, in to a possible foster care arrangement," he said.
Foster carers can nominate the type of children they are prepared to care for, age range, length and type of care and other factors taken in to consideration.
"We believe there are lots of people out there who have got an enormous amount to offer. There's a myth you are given whatever children are in need but that's not the case, you can say there's an age group that suits me, full time or respite weekends or a couple of weeks over the school holidays ... there is a lot of flexibility."
Foster carers undergo rigorous assessment to ensure they are suitable but Mr Lowth said whether people were married, single, gay, full time workers, part time workers, home makers or anything else they could be foster carers.
"We encourage all people in our community who want to care for children to put their hand up," he said. "We do a very rigorous assessment to make sure people are suitable and make sure that people know what they are getting in to.
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"It's probably been the most difficult year for foster carers and young people and children that I have ever seen... but with support they have risen to this challenge. we have had to put in all sorts of things to help but in saying that we have been completely blown away by our carers' level of commitment."
Ms Sturgess said children did not care about a carer's background.
"If we have learned anything from COVID it's the importance of what family means. Family can mean a whole lot of things to a whole lot of people but to a child who has never had a family or stable relationship it can be a really healing environment."
This week is National Foster Care Week.
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