While the vast majority of foster chilren go to their grandparents, it is those who take them in who are unprepared for the financial responsibilities that follow.
A few days ago, I sat in my car in a supermarket car park, listening to the radio and knitting. Yes, I know, weird. But it is cold in The Netherlands and I felt all Christmassy and missed my family. So I was being a migrant about it and knitting a scarf for my granddaughter. Think about that when you are having your prawns on the barbie come Monday. Or, actually, no, don’t think about me. Think about Magda and John. They parked their ute next to me that afternoon and then Magda said something about the size of my knitting needles and the colour of the would-be scarf. At the same time, she pointed to the three little boys who were tumbling out of the car’s tray. There was a second-hand market on at the mall and her grandchildren needed some new clothes, she said. They had just received their carers pension and she expected her daughter to come by and try and talk her out of some of it. So she figured that if there was none left, she would have nothing to give. Wisdom from experience, as far as she was concerned.
It was almost four years since she and John had been called by Social Services. They had just left for their long-planned Grey Nomad lap of Australia. They had worked hard all of their lives, but managed to put little bits of money away after their two children had left home. When John turned 64 and retired from his job at the steelworks, they bought a second-hand camper. Magda had lovingly restored it, on her days off from working at the library. In January 2014 they ended the lease on their home and set off, excited about this next stage of their lives. Two weeks later they got the phone call. The woman on the other end told them their daughter had shot through, leaving her children in the care of the neighbours. They were in foster care now, but that was only temporary. Could they come back to talk about the situation and see what could be done?
Magda remembered the sinking feeling she got, and the almost irrepressible urge to hang up, throw the phone out of the window and run. “We knew what we were in for,” said John, “and it wasn’t fair. We’d done our bit. We raised our kids, now it was our turn for some freedom and rest.” They put the camper on the side of the road just outside of Warrnambool and talked about it.
Jessie was a drug addict who had never managed to keep a man, let alone the fathers of her three boys. When she was clean she was still the same sweet girl they had known when she was five, but with ice on board she turned into a violent devil. They had helped her out with the children, but when she moved to Cairns two years ago they were secretly relieved. They loved the kids, but it was hard dealing with the unreliable mother, even though they loved her too. Or maybe because they did. Now, apparently, Jessie was back, and had left her children, to go who knows where. Magda and John knew what that meant. For them, for their precious and longed-for trip, for their retirement, for their freedom and rest. When John started the camper again there had been tears, anger and resentment. And then the realisation that there was really no choice. They were parents again. For at least another 15 years, but probably until the day they died.
The most disturbing conclusion of the report was that child protection authorities increasingly relied on kinship care because it was cheap, there were not enough foster carers and because they felt it preserved the family and cultural ties.
The statistics are a little sketchy in Australia, but the 2011 Census told us that there were 46,680 “grandparent-families” in the country then. There are probably more now, because academics tell us it is the fastest growing form of home-based care. When something goes seriously wrong between parents and children, 93% of them end up in home-based care. Out of that number, roughly half go into foster care, while the rest is being taken in by family, mostly grandparents. In 2014 there was a Parliamentary Inquiry into grandparents who take primary responsibility for raising their grandchildren, and it made for alarming reading. Kinship care, it said, was usually treated as the poor cousin of foster care. Grandparents were not paid enough, didn’t get the necessary training or support and were also usually lumbered with more children than foster parents. They were poorer, had lower education levels, were more often either unemployed or overemployed and frequently lived in housing that was not fit for the job. They also felt isolated and neglected.
Earlier research from the University of NSW had already pointed to the problems. Two-thirds of parents had given over their children because of substance abuse, it had said, and most were absent in their children’s lives.
70% of grandparents had incomes below the national average and a good percentage of those had trouble making ends meet. 80% had to find new housing after their grandchildren moved in, which had compounded the financial issues. In 62% their health had deteriorated, especially because they had to deal with children who were usually (in more than 85% of the cases) emotionally and/or physically scarred. Half of the grandparents told the researchers that their social lives had disappeared and that they felt lonely and isolated. But the most disturbing conclusion of the report was that child protection authorities increasingly relied on kinship care because it was cheap, there were not enough foster carers and because they felt it preserved the family and cultural ties.
Magda and John could have written that report. But they didn’t, and they never told their story in front of the Parliamentary Inquiry. No time. Before they knew what had happened they were living in the camper, with three little boys, just outside of a swamp in the Illawarra. The kids were all over the place, the oldest stuttered, and they were constantly fighting. At night they didn’t want to go to sleep or if they did, they woke up crying. Jessie didn’t show her face for the first three months, but when she did she was combative, abusive and angry. It took Magda and John more than two years to get the necessary paperwork in order: the money, the legals, the house, and eventually also psychological help. For the boys, first of all, but also for themselves. Sometimes Magda wonders how people cope who don’t have a bit of an education, like she and John, or the many, many grandparents she met who are illiterate. They are doing ok now. Always on the edge, but ok for the moment. Jessie is in jail, which is good, because the children are much calmer when their mother is out of the picture. They do better in school, are not as stressed out. Magda and John are fine too. For a moment there it threatened to devour the marriage, after almost 40 years, but they have realised that they need to stick together. This is not a race, but a marathon. And they are only five kilometers from the start. Christmas is coming. The season of light and hope. They can use some of that.