“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” – Oscar Wilde –
Do you think that any child should have to grow up neglected and lacking basic human rights? If you’re a decent person, right about now you’d be thinking – of course not. Unfortunately, for many kids within the New Zealand foster system, this is reality. Usually, this is not because of the foster families themselves, but because of the irrational insistence Social Services in this country places on getting children back with their birth parents. In some situations, the best place for a child is not with their natural family. When my younger sister and I were in primary school my family made a joint decision to foster some children who were unable to be with their families for a temporary period of time. We wanted to show children who’d had a rough start in life that they deserved better.
To do this, my parents had to go through an assessment, training and approval process before being accepted as foster parents. Part of the requests that my parents made during the placing process was that we would care for girls younger than my sister and I, to avoid awkward bullying issues. We fostered one child at a time, and at the time my mum wasn’t working, so she was in the ideal situation to devote plenty of time, love, and attention to making sure our foster sister felt welcome in our home. Over the 5 or so years we did this, my family fostered about 5 girls. The reasons they couldn’t be with their biological families were complex and messy, and we were a stable environment while things got sorted out at home – in theory.
Usually, it was quite sudden when the girls came to our home. At the time, it was kept fairly hush-hush about why they had to stay with us; some explanation like ‘their parents needed a break’ was given, and only as we grew older were we told the truth of it. Domestic violence, abuse, severe neglect, alcoholism and drug addiction, as well as rape were what some of these girls had grown up around. With this mistreatment came some serious issues and a massive culture shock when they came to stay with us.
When the girls arrived, it was a matter of my sister and I, as well as our parents coaxing them out of their scared and apprehensive state until they felt comfortable. Usually it only took a day or two before they were as carefree and happy as any normal primary school aged kid, playing with our toys or running around outside with us. However, sometimes trust was a lot harder to come by. One girl, Helen, was about 6 when she stayed with us, and would barely talk to us for days; she was so shy. She was malnourished, and had nits so bad that when she came to stay with us we all got them, and when my mum got rid of them with ‘Mr Nit,’ they were literally running down her arms. Helen told us that her mum used to pick them out of her hair and eat them. It took weeks for her to look my dad in the eye – long after she’d gotten used to my mum and sister.
A five year old girl named Sasha, who lived with us for a few weeks, asked my sister and I to ‘pretend to have sex’ with her. At age eight, sex was one of those words that I didn’t really know the meaning of – only that it was something that adults did. Feeling very uncomfortable, let alone confused about what pretending to ‘have sex’ would involve, we declined. It was a weird experience at the time, but now I look back and shudder to think of what was seen as normal in Sasha’s house.
Lily was four when she came to stay with us for the first time, and when she left for the last time, she was eight. She was our little sister for about two years, on and off – and one of the most vibrant, happy little girls you’ll ever meet. An extraordinarily disadvantaged childhood had not offset her enthusiasm for life. Everywhere she went, whether it was primary school or the local playground, adults and kids alike adored her. She would greet everyone she loved with a hug, which was pretty much anyone lucky enough to meet her more than once.
Since she stayed with us for such a long time, we inevitably became close. She was my little sister, and I loved her. We were both crazy about dancing, and tomboys who couldn’t get enough of the outdoors. Although at first Lily struggled to keep up at school with others her age, by the time she left, she had improved immensely. Despite concentration difficulties and learning problems, through assisted reading programs at school and all of our encouragement, Lily got up to speed with reading, writing, and spelling. When she went back to her old school, she was one of the top students in her class.
Fostering also involved keeping in regular contact with the girls’ families, which the organisation tried to keep as positive as possible. All the kids played together without thinking – as you do when you’re little, and everyone made a big effort to put their differences aside at the Christmas do’s, picnics and meet-ups that were organised. I remember these most poignantly with Lily, as when she came back to our house after seeing her parents and siblings, the tears wouldn’t stop for most of the night. It was heart-wrenching to watch, and made me mad that her mum wouldn’t create a safe environment for Lily to live in. Her mum’s boyfriend had been convicted and jailed for raping one of Lily’s sisters, who was 15 at the time. In spite of the evidence against him, Lily’s mum didn’t believe her daughter, and had the boyfriend come back to live with her and the family when he got out of prison. After my family’s experience fostering, I strongly believe that some people are not meant to be parents. I know it’s more than hard on both the child and parent to be separated, but Social Services workers that are determined to keep genetic families together are sometimes simply not looking out for the child’s best interests. Sending a young girl back to a house where a man with a history of child abuse lives is wrong.
Just to prove my point that something is fundamentally fucked up within this system, when Lily went back to her mum’s house to stay one time, my mum asked her if she’d like anything to take with her. Lily replied that she’d like a pillow. Shocked, my mum spoke to a social worker, who explained that it didn’t matter how much money you gave her, this woman would spend it on alcohol and drugs. Unsurprisingly, Lily’s mum took a dislike to this confrontational lady. So, she was removed, and someone overloaded with sympathy and deficient in backbone was assigned to the case. Saying goodbye to Lily for the final time was painful to say the least. Her new family and mine made an effort to keep in touch, but it’s just not the same as having someone living in the same house as you.
To this day, my sister and I still think about Lily. I still remember her birthday, and all the crazy games we used to play. The last time we saw her would’ve been a visit seven years ago, when she was living happily with her lovely aunt and uncle, along with a few of her siblings. Now, all that I know about her is that she’s back living with her mum. They’re not in contact with the organisation anymore, so we have no way to find out how she’s doing.
I’m not quite sure what I learnt out of this experience, in the end. We all know that child poverty is a massive problem in New Zealand, and while there are children being neglected, the need for foster families will continue.
I almost feel guilty wanting to have my own kids, when there are so many children out there who are being brought up in conditions they just don’t deserve. Every kid deserves an equal chance to succeed in life, and family is a big part in that. I’m not sure if we made a difference in the lives of Lily, or any of the other girls who stayed with us – but I like to think we showed them there was another way to do life.
My parents especially became very disheartened that Social Services would continue to give children back to families, when the parents were clearly not willing to change. No amount of courses or rehabilitation programs can alter a person’s mindset. Of course, our own family wasn’t and never will be perfect – no one’s is. Looking back now, my parents were probably too strict on kids who had never had any rules. But their hearts were undoubtedly in the right place. Having a care-giver who teaches you to read instead of doing drugs in front of you, is bound to give any kid some valuable life skills. Even the angry verbal clashes between my parents and I, gave Lily alternate expectations to the physical violence she saw in her home, for her future relationships.
I don’t think all ties with family need to be cut. In Oscar Wilde’s words, forgiveness is always possible. First, though, these kids need an opportunity to heal from the damage their parents have caused.