The COVID pandemic and its impact on vulnerable families has seen many reach crisis point and more children across the Ballarat region needing foster care.
With demand for foster carers always outstripping supply, there is greater pressure on the agencies and carers providing foster care and, in cases where carers cannot be found, children being placed in motels and other accommodation with staff.
Residential care, motels or placements outside the region have become more common as agencies struggle to find appropriate care according to Berry Street acting senior manager child youth and families Balvinder Chohan.
"There's never enough carers and with COVID, as the system and sector opens up and the after-effects of its impact we are seeing more children requiring out of home care," she said.
"Last year the system itself went in to prolonged lockdown with moderation of services delivered in child protection and in the community through schools, child care centres and medical teams so children were not being seen. Harm, neglect and abuse perhaps were not being reported because people were not aware of it while kids and families with limited supports were struggling.
"In this circumstance of COVID impacting our lives add in disadvantage, intergenerational trauma and this stressful home environment ... and when the community opens up again it means that child protection need to intervene more immediately because the need and risk is more imminent."
Foster Care Week is an annual event which celebrates & raises awareness.— FCAV (@vicfostercare) August 19, 2021
Follow the link below for more info & for a current Foster Care Week Event Calendar - Please note all events are subject to restrictions may be moved online. https://t.co/yJThyEhvIB#caringthroughcovidpic.twitter.com/NF2trhmaBz
Ms Chohan said if early intervention and supports had been able to be put in place some of these children might not have to be removed, but because home situations have continued to deteriorate child protection has been forced to put children in care while support services work with parents.
"The key part of foster care is always to see whether we can reunify and have children return home safely to their parents," she said. "The kids come in to care while we work with the family to build capacity and address protection concerns so children can return."
This week is Foster Care Week, with a focus on recruiting new foster carers, telling the stories of those who do open their homes to vulnerable children and dispelling some of the myths surrounding foster care.
Ms Chohan said hundreds of people inquired about becoming foster carers, but only a small portion of those end up making it through the inquiry phase even before the training sessions, workshops and other assessments needed before carers could be approved.
"A foster carer is a volunteer with the most extreme level of responsibility. It means you have to adjust and adapt your lifestyle and it means we need to ensure the journey is right not just for carers themselves but their family but they have the support of a broader network," she said.
The stereotype of a foster carer used to be an older or retired couple, perhaps empty nesters, but Ms Chohan said there was a shift toward younger families with young children opening their homes to children needing care, and an increase in sole carers.
The reality is anyone can be a foster carer, whether they have children or not and a diverse range of carers is needed because children in need of safe, loving homes come from a wide range of different families and situations.
"We have children from 0-18, children with different complexities, different trauma backgrounds, different disability or health needs so we try to match children around what will work for a particular carer's household."
Foster carers can nominate what age range of child they wish to care for, and the type of care provided.
There is a need for respite care, short term placements, long term placements, emergency care and even babysitting when carer families have other commitments or while case workers are working to find a placement for a child.
"We do our best for the child to go in to a home and family that can accommodate their need because that's where their strength and needs are at.
"Placements are matched much more closely than they used to be. We try to match as best we can what's going to work with a child and family and not set up a situation which is untenable and likely to break down ... but in reality the need to find a placement means we don't always get this decision right. You have pressure to find a place.
"It's why that's it's important to build this pool of foster carers, to have more options so you can prevent children moving around the system and ending up in those different types of care."
Foster care organisations provide training to help carers understand the abuse and trauma children may have experienced.
"Part of a foster carer's role is to provide the safety a child needs, and to be able to provide nurturing and warmth to the child ... and an ability to adapt, adjust and work with the needs of the child and the system," she said.
Part of that training is about challenging behaviour, because the behavioural responses of a child who has experience abuse, trauma or neglect are likely to be different from a child who has not experienced adversity early in life.
"Foster carers provide an experience which can build in to a child's life story and provide safety and promote a relationship with the child's biological family or family or origin. What's important for foster care is how we help, capture and support the biological family, who often come from an experience of harm and abuse themselves."
Carers are part of a team who provide the support a child and their family need as they work toward the eventual goal of reunification.
Three little boys aged 4, 5, and 7 keep foster carer Catherine Ezzy on her toes.
The brothers, who came Ms Ezzy in November, December and May after previously being separated across homes, are still settling in to their new surroundings but routine and activity are key in making the process as smooth as possible.
But the changes in them over the past few months since being reunited are huge.
"We use picture routines and after the first couple of weeks the kids learn the rules of the house, learn there's always going to be a meal, there's fruit on the table if they just want to get fruit and they've got a warm bed . You can see them start to lower the walls a little and become less hypervigilant, which in some kids can appear as hyperactivity," she said.
"The boys at the moment are still settling and it's a process - if somebody new comes in to our house they become quite hypervigilant again but if that person comes back two or three times they settle and it's another family friend."
Ms Ezzy, 33, has been a foster carer with Berry Street for around five years, and has cared for 10 young people during this time.
Exposed to other foster carers through her church community, Ms Ezzy knew she had the time and space to give children a safe home.
Part of a foster carer's role is to provide the safety a child needs, and to be able to provide nurturing and warmth to the child ... and an ability to adapt, adjust and work with the needs of the child and the systemBalvinder Chohan
"I worked in child care, at a women's shelter, and just seeing the vulnerable kids pulled your heartstrings a bit - I just wanted to take them home and keep them safe. I love kids and hate to see them in that position - it shouldn't be happening to children."
It took about a year from inquiry through training and assessment to approval before Ms Ezzy welcomed the first child in to her home.
The training made her reflect on her own childhood.
"It made me realise how good I had it when I was a kid. My family were really good, though as a teen you think 'oh yeah family' but I realise that our family did it tough for a few years but we stuck together and we are better together."
She wants to encourage people who are thinking about becoming foster carers to attend a session to find out more - and even if you decide you can't become a foster carer that's ok too but you don't know what you can or can't do until you find out more.
"They don't have to be a carer full-time - they could be respite, or help out with babysitting.... anything to fill in the gaps, wherever they can, makes a difference. There are so many different things people can do," she said.
Nora Tchekmeyan and Craig Townsend's journey to becoming foster carers has taken longer than most, with COVID causing delays in the approval process and other hurdles along the way.
And just three months after starting to provide care - which they planned to provide as respite and short-term - they've found themselves with a teenage boy in their care on an indefinite basis.
Everyone is still adjusting to the new family dynamic, but the couple couldn't be happier.
"Initially we were told it was going to be a short three-week period now it's ended up not being case. We were in a position to be able to offer that genuine long term indefinite care and we have the capacity to care for him. Life is full of these sliding doors moments and that's one of them. When these things come along if you are willing to embrace it and roll along with it then good things can happen."
Ms Tchekmeyan, 50, and Mr Townsend, 57, became foster carers with Berry Street in June this year.
As a secondary school teacher, Ms Tchekmeyan has worked at both mainstream and alternative school settings, including with children in care. She believes, as a community, we need to do more for children who, for whatever reason, aren't able to stay with their families.
Mr Townsend said they especially want to help kids who are misunderstood. A few years ago, he was diagnosed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder, and says he was constantly misunderstood - so to be able to reach out and help where we can, is important to him.
Even if we give one child a better life, then we've done something good hereCraig Townsend
"Even if we give one child a better life, then we've done something good here," he said.
Ms Tchekmeyan said foster care had been in her thoughts since she was a child. "I've just got that sense of community and rolling up your sleeves when the time comes. My husband and I are in the perfect position ... and just felt like we could do it now."
IN OTHER NEWS
She said the workshops and training provided great insight in to the needs of the children who come in to care, but nothing could prepare her for the mountain of paperwork required before approval.
"Having a young person in your home brings in a different dimension; it's energising, invigorating and having the energy of a teen under our roof it's a shared journey," she said.
"And that youth doesn't turn up by themselves - they bring their whole entourage of friends, their school community, their other hobbies and things like that which all become interwoven in your life.
"And not only that but the other foster carers you get to meet and establish relationship with, and the young person's biological family as well also becomes part of that network of the kid. There's this whole other life that they bring to you and that's been enriching and fun."
Visit thecourier.com.au for more Foster Care Stories next week
Our team of local journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the Ballarat community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content: