SALLY was a 15-year-old street child with a drug habit when she gave birth to a son, Daniel. Not surprisingly, he was taken into foster care. Two years later, she gave birth to a daughter, Janelle, who was placed with a different carer.
Now 21, Sally has won a court battle for the return of the two children. They will soon join their mother and her partner in the early 30s – who is not their father – in a home that already holds seven children under 13. Sally has three babies with her partner and her partner has four primary-school-aged children all living together.
“It’s been a long battle to get these children returned,” Sally says. ” No one gets a child back after 5½ years unless you have really proved yourself. I have turned my life around. I am young, energetic and I have so many children, another two doesn’t matter. It’s just another bath, another feed.”
But the foster carers of Daniel and Janelle are distraught. They say the children are settled, stable and doing well. They cannot fathom a decision to remove them from the homes they have known since they were babies to put them in a household where they will be one of nine under the care of such a young mother.
“We are heartbroken,” says Bev. With her husband, Alan, she has cared for Daniel since he was 13 months. She is also foster carer to her young grandson who has the same father as Daniel (but a different mother).
“He doesn’t want to go. I’m the only mum he’s known. The half-brothers sit in each other’s arms crying about it. He has to go on contact visits now and he’s tied himself to the bed with ropes so he won’t have to go. Now he’s blaming me for sending him back.”
“It’s devastating,” says Darlene, who with her husband, Peter, has cared for Janelle since she was seven months old. “She’s like my daughter. I’ve done my crying and when the time gets closer I will start all again. I just hope the court has made the right decision.”
The case highlights the exquisite dilemmas children’s court magistrates and Department of Community Services workers face in decisions about children’s care.
When is the right time – if ever – to restore children to their biological parents? How is it possible to weigh up children’s stability and their attachment to their long-term foster carers against the potential enduring benefits of growing up in their biological family, knowing their siblings and their culture?
And in this case, how must the age of Daniel’s foster mother – who is in her 60s – be weighed against the enormous challenges facing the young biological mother?
“These decisions are not easy ones,” says Judy Cashmore, of the University of NSW, an expert on out-of-home care. “And it’s more of a dilemma for children who have been in one place almost from birth.”
To their mother, the removal of the children was another case of “stolen generation”. From an Aboriginal family, Sally was in foster care at the age of 11 and on the streets by 14. “DOCS workers have known me since I was a child and they’ve never liked me,” Sally says. Now self-confident and articulate, she says she turned her life around after meeting her partner four years ago. He had won custody of his own children. “He said to me, ‘You can be a mother or you can do your own thing.’ It really hit me,” Sally says. “My kids are more important than anyone else in this world.”
The Department of Community Services originally opposed the restoration of the children to their mother. It told the children’s court it was in the best interests of the two children for them to remain with their carers.
But the children’s court magistrate, Anthony Murray, ordered an independent assessment by the children’s court clinic, which supported the restoration. The court ordered DOCS to prepare a care plan.
Now, after a staged process lasting two months, Daniel will be living full time with his mother from early next month, and Janelle, at a later date.
Sally says Daniel is “so happy and grateful to be with us” on the contact visits. There is another child of a similar age in the family and the pair are known as “the twins”. According to his mother, Daniel “suffered more in DOCS’s hands than in my hands”.
But an Aboriginal elder, who sat on the original panel that approved Bev and Alan as foster carers, says: “This little boy will be destroyed if he is removed. He is doing excellently in school, he plays sport, he swims. He is given responsibility.
“Bev and Alan are not Aboriginal but Bev’s first husband was and she had two daughters to him. She is very knowledgeable about our culture.”
Darlene says she had supported contact between Janelle and her mother every two months for the past 3½ years though no overnight visits had occurred. “Janelle calls me ‘Mum’ and her ‘Mummy Sally’. In the end I want what is best for her, and I don’t think this is. I’m not saying Sally is not a good mum. But to Janelle, we are family.”
Sally says promised support from DOCS – a new fridge, a bigger car – might not now eventuate. “People who don’t like me still see me as Sally the child, not Sally the mother,” she says. “They don’t realise I’ve changed.”
Paul Delfabbro, associate professor of psychology from the University of Adelaide, says a study he conducted showed children who entered foster care at a young age and enjoyed long-term stability with their carers were likely to turn into well-adjusted teenagers.
But children who experienced repeated failed attempts at restoration with their families were troubled teenagers. “But there are pluses and negatives,” Professor Delfabbro says. “If the new partner is a good carer, that is a plus. But if there are too many children the same age, that is a negative. All I can say is ‘good luck to them’.”
* Family names have been changed