FOSTER CARE: Who'll care for the kids if nobody steps up?

Twins Gabriel and Michael Saalfield have thanked their foster carers' love and support for giving them a better life. Picture: JOHN RUSSELL
Twins Gabriel and Michael Saalfield have thanked their foster carers' love and support for giving them a better life. Picture: JOHN RUSSELL

THEY’VE known the ones who do it for the cash and the ones who used it as an “experiment” before having children of their own.

But they’ve also known the ones with homes full of love, those foster carers who made sure these Mount Beauty twins have made it through the system.

It’s a system the peak organisation representing carers in Victoria has said is on the brink of collapse — the number of carers is declining and the number of children needing homes has risen 58 per cent in a decade.

Melbourne-born twins Michael and Gabriel Saalfield, 23, well known for their X Factor appearance last year, are orphans. Their mother died of breast cancer and their father was killed in a house fire.

They bounced from home to home and found some carers seemed to treat them like an experiment before they had their own kids to others more interested in the fortnightly government payment than family.

“There was no love from some of them, but then there’s Bev and Claire and Mark and they shower you with it,” Gabriel said.

Claire and Mark are the Melbourne-based couple who cared for the boys while their mother’s illness ran its course.

Then Bev Tasker became their permanent carer when they moved into her Mount Beauty home when they were 10.

Gabriel and Michael were Mrs Tasker’s very first foster children.

“My kids had all left home,” Mrs Tasker, 66, said.

“It was very quiet here and I thought: ‘I’ve got the room, I’ve got the love’.

“It’s one of the most rewarding things you can do really. Those children need somebody and, whatever their background is, they are not in foster care because they want to be there.

“Something happened that’s wrong and they need somebody to love them.”

The latest available figures for Victoria — from 2012 — show there was a 58 per cent rise in the number of children in out-of-home care in a decade.

There were 2166 children in foster care with another 4041 in either residential or kinship care.

There are only 1500 families registered as foster carers and Foster Care Association chief Katie Hooper said families were leaving the system.

“More carers leave the system each year than can be recruited,” she said.

“No other state or territory is experiencing such a significant decline in foster care.”

Ms Hooper said a lack of financial support was a big reason with the gap between the foster care allowance and the cost of providing for a child as much as $5350 a year in Victoria — the state with the smallest carer’s payment.

Ms Hooper said Victorian carers received about $250 a week for a 14-year-old child, compared with $329 in NSW.

She said that financial strain, coupled with lack of emotional support, could collapse the dysfunctional system within three years if changes were not made.

“A fairly chaotic and dysfunctional system has a lot of inconsistencies. It drives carers away and. They feel burnt out and used and abused,” she said.

“The system is becoming entirely unsustainable.”

Upper Murray Family Care runs the North East’s foster care.

Its chief executive Luke Rumbold said foster carers did need more financial assistance, but he rejected the association’s suggestion the system would collapse in the short term.

“I’ve been in the industry for 30-plus years and foster care is going to be around for another 30-plus years,” Mr Rumbold said.

“But it shouldn’t be short-changed, there should be more resources pumped into it.

“The kids are coming from serious backgrounds with significant issues and foster carers should be entitled to more support than they receive.”

He said carers were “banging their heads against a brick wall” trying to get more money to pay for their foster children’s medical and educational needs that they are paying from their own, often already-strained, pockets.

“These people do a sensational job and these are our most vulnerable kids, so why aren’t we looking after it?” Mr Rumbold asked. 

His organisation is one of the few in the state bucking the trend of fewer foster carers coming into the system.

In the past three years, the annual registration rate has grown from 13 to 21, adding to the pool of about 80 foster carers in the region.

“That’s a tribute to our staff and our foster carers,” Mr Rumbold said.

But, just like the rest of the state, it is not enough to meet the number of children coming into the system. About 60 children a night need support in the North East alone.

They are children who may have come from homes experiencing domestic violence, drug abuse and neglect.

And as a Human Services Department report released last month reaffirmed, children get the best outcomes in foster care.

The Looking after children report said children placed in residential care when there are no foster homes to go to, suffer the worst outcomes.

 Mr Rumbold said that no matter how strained the system became, there were always children needing a home and that was is why the organisation always needed more foster carers.

“You talk to foster carers and they say it’s the most rewarding and satisfying thing they’ve ever done,” he said.

“They are saving lives and transforming children.”

Gabriel and Michael said they were on the brink of one of the most exciting years of their lives.

Both have just completed exercise science degrees from the University of Ballarat.

They are using this year to try to establish music careers with their band, the Royce Twins.

They have raised $40,000 through crowd-funding (a website where individuals can donate to causes) and will use it to record their EP and starting touring.

They do not appear to be type-cast as “foster kids” and would rather be known for their music and what they have achieved, despite the problems of their past.

“You can curl up in a ball and cry about it or go get a bottle of booze and join a gang and be a menace,” Michael said.

“Or, I don’t know, you can make your life better than what they (their parents) had.”

Yet their background is integral to who they are. They know they would have struggled without the love of Claire, Mark and Mrs Tasker.

“I guess that’s why we’re so good now,” Gabriel said.

And both said they may become foster carers themselves.

“There’s so many kids out there in families that just suck,” Michael said.

“I guess they meet all the criteria for being parents, but they’re just shitty parents and kids have to put up with it.

“I reckon I’ll be a foster carer when I’m older.”