Time to care for foster parents

Lynne Sawyers is the foster carer from central casting and it is no wonder she won the 2012 Australian of the Year award in the Local Hero category. She has provided care to more than 200 children over 15 years, many of them with huge problems, physical, intellectual and emotional. Sometimes she has had six children at a time and her "warmth, humour and generosity" have had an enormous impact on these children, the citation says.

Lynne Sawyers is the foster carer from central casting and it is no wonder she won the 2012 Australian of the Year award in the Local Hero category. She has provided care to more than 200 children over 15 years, many of them with huge problems, physical, intellectual and emotional. Sometimes she has had six children at a time and her "warmth, humour and generosity" have had an enormous impact on these children, the citation says.

Lynne Sawyers is the foster carer from central casting and it is no wonder she won the 2012 Australian of the Year award in the Local Hero category. She has provided care to more than 200 children over 15 years, many of them with huge problems, physical, intellectual and emotional. Sometimes she has had six children at a time and her "warmth, humour and generosity" have had an enormous impact on these children, the citation says.

She's done it without overtime or penalties in difficult working conditions but she could not imagine living any other way.

That is the story we often read about foster carers: they emerge as saintly figures, quite unlike the rest of us. Their reward is to see children grow up to lead fulfilled, happy lives, and in the case of those like Lynne Sawyers, to be regarded as a "second mother".

But another foster carer hit the headlines this week, and the story of Helen MacDonald and her husband, Brian, provides a reality check on the world of carers. For many carers there is nothing sentimental about their work. There is nothing "lovey-dovey" about foster care, as Helen said.

Pushed too far by a penny-pinching state government that cuts their foster care allowances, some carers may give the children back to the Department of Family and Community Services. This is what the MacDonalds have decided to do with the children they have looked after for more than six years now that the allowance paid to carers of 16- and 17-year-olds has been reduced. For many, the effect is a loss of more than $200 a fortnight to the household.

It is a shocking action for the MacDonalds to take, especially when the 17-year-old girl is sitting her Higher School Certificate, and the boy is contemplating what is to become of him when he turns 16 in May. You might well wonder why they could not ride the year out and then bow out of foster care.

But the MacDonald's story illustrates a hard-headed truth about foster care - even long-term placements like this one. Foster carers do not necessarily feel the same emotional attachment or sense of responsibility to their charges as parents do for their own children, even when they have looked after them for many years.

And likewise, the children do not regard foster carers as their parents, or even as their "second" mother and father. Unless they have been with the same carers since they were very young, many remain deeply attached to the parents who mistreated or neglected or simply could not care for them. Often the children run back to them. These two children, for example, see their own mother and father once a week in a satisfactory arrangement.

The story of the MacDonalds illustrates another point. Most foster carers are not saints. They come with all kinds of motivations. At one end of the spectrum are the angels and at the other end are people motivated by money who slip through the screening process designed to weed them out. The MacDonalds are not in this category. Their action is not motivated by greed but principle, they say. They refuse to be emotionally blackmailed by a government that thinks carers are saints who will take anything.

But some people are motivated by money, as I learnt during an investigation of some Life Without Barriers carers. If you live on welfare in a housing commission area and have a spare room, the carers' allowance worth up to $622 a fortnight, plus Family Tax Benefits, can amount to a tempting sum. This is not to besmirch some of the best carers who are sole parents, for example, or low-income couples who are often more suitable for some children than middle-class people totally clueless about the world from which the children come.

On the other hand people who say their main motivation for becoming a carer is that they "love children" are rarely suitable carers. Sentimentalists are bound to become deeply disillusioned when children do not return the love, and continue to regard their "real" family as the one they were ripped from for reasons unclear to them, or all too apparent.

As unsaintly as the MacDonalds seem, they have managed to do a marvellous job in maintaining a placement for so long, and getting a teenager into year 12. Previously they have raised another foster child from infancy to 18 (along with two children of their own, now adults). They don't do it because they "love children". They do it because they want to help produce two reasonable human beings for the world who might otherwise have caused trouble. But they don't want to dip into their retirement savings, or short-change their own children in order to make up the shortfall in income.

They have seen themselves more as professionals with a job to do until the children are 18 and move on when the legal responsibility ends. They would not adopt them - though the department has asked - and they would not contribute to a foster child's wedding, or house purchase as they would with their own children. But they have taught them how to save.

They will never qualify for Australian of the Year. Their decision disqualifies them from sainthood. But they are the kind of pragmatic people who make good-enough carers. Faced with a desperate shortage of carers, the government needs to reconsider its penny-pinching. There are too few saints to rely on.