In 2008, Jane was a young single parent of 3 children and living in New Zealand. A phone call from her mother one afternoon, changed her and her children’s lives. In an instant, she became a single parent of 6 children. “My mother delivered my nephews and niece to New Zealand from Australia and we were instantly a family of 7.”

The following months were frenetic. Significant support was required for the three Australian children who at 2, 5 and 6 years of age were non-verbal and displayed many distressing behaviours. Jane had little information about the children and had no record of any allergies, medical interventions or immunisations: “I was given a suitcase of clothes, a letter from my sibling signing over custody of the children to me and nothing else.” Jane notes that when she became a kinship carer, she received some support in New Zealand. Each week a support worker would visit their home and offer guidance.  “I tried to raise all 6 children in the same way, much as I’d done with my 3 children. However, within a very short period of time I noticed something wasn’t right with my nephews and niece. The 5 and 6-year-old children couldn’t talk and they would point to communicate. They used their own language with each other so they’d learned to communicate in their own way, just not with others around them. 2 of the children needed to have their teeth removed due to rotting and the 2-year-old was self-harming and harming others. The older children couldn’t shower or toilet themselves. To add further complexity, the 6-year-old child was also deaf. I later discovered he wasn’t born deaf but became so as the result of an injury.”

When Jane returned to Australia to care for her mother and her sick husband, she was really shocked by the response to kinship carers. “When we arrived in Australia in 2012, I reached out to the Department of Child Safety to ask for training and support. I was finding it difficult to care for all of my children and the specific needs of my nephews and niece. I was told there was no services or supports open to me because I’m a kinship carer and not a foster carer.”

Jane states that the delineation between kinship and foster carers was really confusing, especially given that some kinship carers are recognised in the system and others aren’t. “We received some advice that because I became a kinship carer though the Family Court and not via Childrens Court then I wasn’t eligible for support. It was confusing. I’m still confused by the distinction. I don’t actually know how I could or should have gone about becoming a kinship carer differently to allow me to access support for my children. So many people I speak with offer differing advice. All I knew was that 3 children needed a home and care and whilst I didn’t really have the means I certainly wasn’t going to let them down.”

8 years later after muddling through without any support, a paediatrician finally gave Jane some insight into some of the behaviours of her niece and nephews. The children would all take food from the cupboard or refrigerator and hide in wardrobes and devour the food. “It was so enlightening when I spoke with this paediatrician who explained that this behaviour was resultant of their years of neglect. I wish I could have received some counselling or support to assist me in understanding this issue and the many others they faced.”

Mission Australia came on board for a short time and paid for an assessment for the children. They undertook IQ tests amongst others. The 2-year-old who came into her care, was by this time 10. He was diagnosed with Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder as well as a slew of other disorders, as was the 6-year-old who was by then 14. “By this stage, the 10-year-old was continuing to self-harm. He was running away from school, telling teachers and students to kill themselves. Although his needs are really considerable he isn’t eligible for support through either the Department of Child Safety as I’m not a kinship carer officially, nor is he eligible for NDIS due to his biological parents not being Australian citizens, even though I, as his Family Court approved guardian, am. All these system restraints and complexities are just madness. All that happens with all these twists and turns is that children aren’t getting their needs met even though I’m doing my best.”

Jane has spent the past few years studying psychology at University and raising her large family that increased further after she met her husband. Over the years they’ve had 4 more children.

“I’ve learned over the years that some of the most difficult behaviours of my nephews and niece were actually self-protection mechanisms. I was always confused why they didn’t tell the truth. I now understand why. I wish I had the support I needed when they first came into my care so I could really assist them and make sure that all of their needs were met. I’ve needed to be really innovative and self-aware and find out information for myself. It’s been a really lonely journey and really hard. I don’t want that for other kinship carers. I’m lucky I met my husband when I did and he’s been amazing and so supportive.” Jane said that training and support along this journey would have been so powerful in assisting her through the difficult times.

Jane is clear that the trauma experienced by her nephews and niece impacted her and her children They had no support or outlet for the trauma. “I couldn’t believe they never cried for their parents or asked for them. They were so hurt that they just let go of that part of them. I found it so hard that I then had my own mental health issues to deal with. My children also struggled with me spending less time with them whilst I worked so hard with their cousins who had such high needs. I’ve worked that through but caring for 6 children on your own is a massive undertaking and now with the love and support of my husband and more children, we’re doing well but life would have been so much better with some help.”

“It takes a village to raise a child but we didn’t have a village. We had no systems to support us either. I don’t understand why we couldn’t receive any support. I feel for grandparents doing this work. There are so many. They are aging, in retirement and caring for their grandchildren.” Jane asserts that all Kinship carers need to be recognised equally by the systems responsible for protecting children and young people. “We all need to be supported and recognised for what we’re doing and the children we’re raising need assistance. There are so many people who will judge you and knock you. It would be nice if departments could lend a hand and give at least some training and support to all kinship carers for the benefit of children who need it.”

Becoming a kinship carer is multilayered in its complexity. Whilst in Jane’s case there was no systemic support, there also was no support from family. As is so often the case when familial abuse is evident, families are divided in loyalties and don’t always support the person doing the caring. “Family healing is important. So many in my family ignored the abuse the children suffered. Then they felt guilty and angry. Working with everyone to move forward and make sure that the children and their needs are paramount is what matters. Some assistance with that would have been really helpful too,” said Jane.

“It would have been great if the Department had just supported me and said ‘what can we do to help?’ Help with training or respite. What do the children need? Help in them being assessed earlier. Support for myself to know how to parent post trauma. It would be great if camps for foster care kids could include all out of home children. Foster and Kinship Carers Week – it would be nice to be included in that – to be included in the system and support.”

Jane said that she’s always felt isolated. ‘You’re not our problem’ is how she feels the system responds to her and other kinship carers like her. “I asked for respite once and I really needed a break. I rang Child Safety and they said I’d need to relinquish the children, that they’d put them in foster care and I’d be probably be charged with child abandonment. I never asked for help again.”

Jane is clear that Grandparent/Kinship carers want to be treated with respect and be included within the system that supports children. The children they care for need therapy, occupational therapy and many supports that are expensive. Grandparents are using meagre pensions to pay these costs and kinship carers such as Jane are often unable to pay such fees for psychiatric, psychological, paediatric, orthopaedic, speech therapy and other needs.  The needs of children and young people with trauma experiences are extensive. The earlier their needs can be responded to the better the outcomes and the greater the likelihood of their long-term wellbeing. Early intervention with the right supports as early as possible is key.

“I really feel for people, especially older grandparents in retirement, caring for children. Some of them are dealing with threats and violence going on around them. I hope one day that all children in out of home care and all carers who care for them are given recognition and support. There should be no division – they’re all doing the same job. There’s a barrier there and it isn’t right. I thought people in government were bigger than that but they’re creating blockages. It’s everyone’s responsibility to protect children so everyone needs access to support. It takes a village to raise a child, but I couldn’t find a village. Some of these elderly people are on the brink of giving up. They need to have support. If they can’t get it, what happens to the children they’re caring for?”

For more on this issue read the wrap up from the National Kinship Care Forum in Sydney last month.