Deprivation as discipline doesn’t work for a child who’s used to having nothing.
That’s what quickly became clear to Leah Warburton, attempting to reconcile with the wild four-year-old who was her first foster child.
“I took everything out of that little girl’s room and it didn’t make any difference,” she said.
“I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’, because she was so combative, and the thing that got her in the end was she liked me enough to want to stop.
“The core of the child is there – it’s the behaviour they have learned that you try to separate.
“It’s a long, slow process, but the rewards are huge.”
For Leah and her partner Paul Scannell, those rewards over the past 11 years have included eight completed HSCs, countless driving lessons, first sleep-overs, successful careers and even foster grandchildren.
Paul first experienced the feeling when he was just 11 years old.
“My mum took in kids from Turana when I was young – they were 16 or 17, and just out of youth prison,” he said.
“One of the boys came back at 45 years old with a child when mum had just started to get dementia, and she got to see that.
“You could just see how a stable home environment had helped them get over whatever issues they had.”
This personal connection to the foster care system is shared by Rudy Kramer, who has just begun fostering with his partner, Robyn Bottrell.
“When I was younger, mum got crook and me and my three brothers went to an orphanage in Goulburn, and my sisters went to one near Thurgoona,” he said.
“Then mum got sick again when I was about seven and we went into a house.
“It’s not a sad memory; I was probably more appreciative people were looking after us.
“To me, it was great someone could open up their home and do that and I think a lot more people should – they think about it and don’t go through the process.”
Rudy and Robyn are new to the game.
They have been providing emergency care on their Springhurst farm for about three months and have recently taken on a seven-year-old boy full-time.
“For us, it’s a learning curve, and we’re trying to help him learn about consequences,” Rudy said.
“He was recently showing a younger boy how to do his shoelaces up, and he pushed the boy over.
“Robyn took him aside and at first he denied it, and then told us the truth – that he was frustrated, because he couldn’t do the shoelaces up.
“And we said, ‘That’s great mate – you tried and there’s nothing wrong with that – there’s no need to get upset with yourself or push him over’.”
Breaking down the ‘flight or fight’ and teaching these kids how to be more rational in their thinking, rather than reactionary, is one of the common goals of their carers.
But as Dom Somers knows, it can take years for them to unlearn the behaviour they’ve grown up around.
“I did respite care on the weekends for about a year, and then got a seven-year-old boy for a week’s placement,” he said.
“When I first met him, he was this really energetic, bubbly kid, and very curious – I loved that first week with him.
“I started to hear they needed somewhere for him for another week, another month, another six months.
“It’s now been nearly five years.”
The pre-teen who now bounds into Dom’s Wodonga home after school talks of his future – about being a YouTuber, a builder.
“For me, it’s not so much about what he’s wanting to be, but more the fact he thinks he can, which is brilliant,” Dom said.
“We get help from the Australian Childhood Foundation, who provide therapists, working really intensively to undo some of the early frameworks he’s got about how the world is and start to build up healthy ones.
“He’s now comfortable and starting to love who he is, which is huge.”
Dom, a 33-year-old school well-being case manager, is often met with questions about being a single, male foster carer.
“Sometimes people have pretty rigid ideas about what a foster carer is – that they have to be the husband and wife couple, who have been parents before and know what they’re doing – I’m none of those things, and have very much learned on the job,” he said.
Families can be far from textbook to work – something Leah knows well.
“My parents taught me as a child that family is what you make it, and it doesn’t matter what form it comes in, it’s about respect and care,” she said.
“I had a Thai woman live with us for five years when I was young in Griffith; so like Paul, I was used to a house and concept of family being very fluid and very open.”
This diversity in life experience has been passed down to Paul and Leah’s four children, as their Yackandandah home was opened time and time again.
“My children are richer citizens of the world as a result of us being foster carers; they’re not as judgmental, and they’re adaptive,” she said.
“The longest we’ve had foster children is five years – they were sisters that came into care when they were teenagers.
“On paper it looked scary but they were the most amazing girls, and I can not imagine my life without these people.
“I get more from the kids than I give them, I think.”
There will always be doubts for anyone starting out as a new foster carer, but they will do well by heeding Paul’s advice.
“It’s like the bumper sticker – sit down, put your belt on, shut up and hold on.”
Agencies across the region are in continual need of foster carers, to provide anything from weekend respite to long-term care.
Call Upper Murray Family Care on (02) 6055 8000 to discuss becoming a foster carer.