When parenthood goes beyond blood ties
They say you don't choose your family, but there are couples across the country who've forged bonds at least as thick as blood with kids in their care.
DAVE AND SANDY LINDBLOM, WESTPORT
If Dave Lindblom could give his younger self some advice, it would be: "Don't make plans."
The Missouri native had two grown children and was step-dad to three more. His family was complete, or so he thought.
Thirteen years after arriving in New Zealand, Dave and his wife Sandy are parents to seven children, who are biologically related to each other, but not to them.
Dave, a high school English teacher, had wanted to retire in Colorado; Sandy said it was too cold. But if Dave found a place with a temperate climate, with mountains and an ocean, and English as its main language, well, Sandy would consider relocating.
She bet he couldn't find somewhere that met the criteria. He proved her wrong. The couple moved to Huntly in June 2003.
That Christmas, Sandy was homesick. She missed her family. She was going home, she told Dave. He could follow when his contract ended the following July.
In the new year, Dave took Sandy shopping to cheer her up. On the road to Hamilton, there was a billboard inquiring whether passersby might have "room in their heart for a child".
There wasn't much debate, Sandy says.
"I said, 'We're doing that'."
The couple researched foster caregiving online before calling Child, Youth and Family (CYF).
Still unsure, they enrolled in weekly training classes to learn more.
About four weeks in, the Lindbloms agreed to try respite caregiving. An 11-year-old named Joy spent the weekend with them. The trio went to the hot air balloon festival and had "a blast".
A social worker soon rung the couple to say there was another little girl possibly in need of a permanent home.
Dave filled out the caregiving application form. They wanted one child, he wrote, penning the number in caps and underlining it twice.
The girl moved into the Lindbloms' house on her second birthday. Her year-old sister followed within months. The girls' brother was born later that year. The Lindbloms picked him up when he was one day old. The children's eldest sibling moved in when she was nine.
In 2011, two more brothers moved in – a 2-year-old and another newborn. Two years later, their younger sister was born. She came to live with the Lindbloms, too. The process was overseen by CYF.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the family have never been able to fit into one car. The nine are rarely invited for dinner at other houses. Finding a babysitter is near impossible.
But Dave, who has become a dab hand at icing birthday cakes, has a sense of humour about the way events unfolded
"I guess it's sort of like, some people collect stamps and some people collect coins. We collect kids, what can I say."
Keeping the siblings together has always been the Lindbloms' priority. Despite best efforts of CYF and the couple themselves, the children have had no contact with their birth parents in the past five years
Even though the children had been abused and neglected by their birth parents, they are still mentioned every night in their bedtime prayers.
Today, five children remain in the Lindbloms' 3-bedroom house in Westport, where they moved in 2005. The eldest, who has moved out, changed her surname to Lindblom when she became a legal adult. One of her younger sisters lives at a residential school in Hawke's Bay. The children, aged 3 to 20, have a range of special needs, including foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The Lindbloms, now in their 50s, take this in their stride.
"I don't give a darn about their grades – not one of these kids is going to be scholars," Sandy says matter-of-factly.
"But they're going to be good citizens. That's what we're raising."
When asked how they wrangle their household, Sandy simply says: "I'm Italian."
"I'll be honest: everybody says what great people David and I are for taking these kids in," she says. "What they don't realise is all these kids give to us. They give us joy. They give a reason to get up in the morning other than work."
Before their first child moved in, Dave started a journal to document the journey. He never got past the first entry - life became too busy.
He's almost embarrassed to read it now.
"The questions that I was asking - 'Will she like me? Will we get along?' - had almost a junior high type mentality," he says with a chuckle.
"It's kind of interesting to look back at that one entry and say, 'Ahh, yeah. Things worked out.'"
Sunny and Wiremu Bayliss. Photo: Maarten Holl/Fairfax NZ
WIREMU AND SUNNY BAYLISS, WELLINGTON
When the little girl from down the road came to stay, Wiremu and Sunny Bayliss had no idea she would one day become their daughter.
The couple were on the waiting list for IVF, and in training to become caregivers themselves. But this arrangement wasn't official – it was to help out elderly neighbours who were struggling to care for distant relatives' children. The stay was meant to last a weekend.
Then living in Hamilton, the Baylisses had babysat the girl before. But when they returned her to the neighbours' house that Sunday night in 2008, the two-year-old screamed "blue murder".
The girl's caregivers said she should spend another night with the Baylisses, who put her to bed. Within an hour, the caregivers had brought over a 70-litre container full of the girl's possessions.
Barely two, she weighed about the same as a 10-month-old. She wasn't making eye contact, walking properly, or able to use baby cutlery. The Baylisses discovered she was facing tentative diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder, and "borderline failure to thrive". About three years later, she was diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
The little girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was officially transferred to the Baylisses' care about eight months later. This year, they legally adopted her.
Wiremu says it didn't take them long to tell the social worker from CYF they were "in it for the long haul".
It wasn't a matter of sympathy, he says. Nor was it to fill a gap in their lives.
"It wasn't like, taking somebody else's kid so that we could be parents. It was about making a difference."
Any training they'd received rarely prepared them for the realities of the role. "There is this bubble that they prepare you for, but it very quickly pops," Wiremu says.
Caregivers are told not to get attached to their kids – "love them but don't love them too much".
"That's all well and good to say but . . . in many ways, the kids need that, they need to feel that attachment – that very thing that you're told not to give."
"You can't fake it with kids," Sunny adds.
"They know when you're not legit."
Month by month, the couple witnessed changes in the little girl. She began to express herself, make noises, and started to walk properly.
Now eight years old, her teachers describe her as their hardest-working student.
It might take her longer to learn things, Sunny says, but she's always willing to try.
"She gives her best, she's just such an amazing kid. We're really lucky to be able to have her in our lives."
The Baylisses have been open with their daughter about where she comes from, and explained why she cannot live with her "tummy mummy", who struggles with addiction.
She has met her birth parents, and her half-siblings. The Baylisses have endeavoured to keep the biological links alive.
"Just because we wanted to adopt, it wasn't like well, we're it," Wiremu says. "That's always been what we've wanted for her."
The Baylisses met online in 2004. The following year, the 29-year-old school teachers were married in the US, where Sunny is from. The newlyweds returned to New Zealand, settling in Hamilton.
The couple had been unable to conceive due to Wiremu's weight, doctors told them.
But after two failed rounds of IVF, surgery this year confirmed what Sunny had suspected: endometriosis.
Sunny's gynaecologist recommended a hysterectomy. The couple spent a week thinking, talking and praying about the prospect. They decided to tell the doctor to proceed with the surgery.
The night before their appointment, friends called them with news of an unplanned pregnancy.
"They didn't feel good about terminating, and so asked us if we'd be willing to parent."
To their daughter's delight - she had been asking for a baby brother for six years – the couple learned they would have a son. They decided to name him Samuel.
Sunny was present at Samuel's birth, where he was born in the amniotic sac. She cut her son's umbilical cord.
Now five months old, Samuel has been fed with breast milk donated across the North Island. Some has been expressed by women whose babies died at birth.
The Baylisses have been humbled by the generosity.
"They'd taken something that they'd worked so hard to create for their baby, that wasn't ever going to be able to get to their baby, and turn it into a huge gift for someone else."
The Baylisses keep the milk in a chest freezer. Most of the time, it is three-quarters full.
ALISTAIR WILKINSON AND RUSS FLATT, AUCKLAND
Alistair Wilkinson had always known he wanted to be a dad, it was just a matter of how to go about it.
He and his partner Russ Flatt met at a nightclub in 2008. Wilkinson had made it clear from the start of their relationship he wanted children, and six years later, the couple began exploring their options.
Co-parenting with a biological mother wasn't "the right fit" for them, Wilkinson says. Neither was surrogacy. Adoption as a same-sex couple was almost impossible.
Both men had relatives who had been unable to live with their birth parents. And, as a journalist, Wilkinson was particularly conscious of the challenges some Kiwi kids face. The couple applied to become permanent foster carers through CYF.
They had had to think carefully about whether it was important for their future child to have their DNA, Wilkinson says.
"Lots of people ask, you know, 'What's it like? Do you think it's different from having a child who was born to you?"
"Obviously the answer is, 'I don't know.' But it doesn't feel any different."
A panel who'd pursued a pages-long profile of the couple approved the couple as caregivers. Within two months, Wilkinson received a phone call at work. Then head of news at Sky News, he went into the carpark for privacy.
The memory still brings a tear to his eye, he says.
The social worker on the line said: "We've found you a child who we think will be a good fit. Do you want to know more?"
The 8-year-old arrived at their house with a small entourage of social workers about a week later.
"I remember saying to him: 'Are you Jules?' and he said, 'Who else would I be?" Wilkinson recalls.
He has a "variety of strategies" to explain the arrangement, Wilkinson says.
"Jules wants to be an ordinary kid, but he also is very proud of our family – and we do have an unusual family."
"Because he's got two dads, the question always comes up 'Well, like, how does that work?'"
The trio spends warmer weekends at the beach, and cooler ones going for walks. After school, Lego and board games are among favoured family activities. "It's very ordinary."
Wilkinson, 46, had proposed to Flatt before Jules moved in, but wedding plans had been put aside until the trio settled into life as a family.
The 10-year-old was keen for his dads to make things official, however.
"It got to the point where he was nagging us about it."
In March, the couple married in a forest near Piha Beach, exchanging rings with each other and also Jules, as a sign of their commitment to him.
Flatt told wedding guests when he met Wilkinson, he didn't think they could marry or have children.
"Now I stand here with both."
Jules maintains contact with members of his birth family, some of whom were present at the wedding.
"That's been really important for him," Wilkinson says.
"To see that you can have room in your heart for numerous people."
'WHAT CAN I DO?'
However these families came to be formed, they agree on the need for Kiwis to consider how they might positively impact the lives of young people in New Zealand.
Wilkinson, who is a spokesman for Fostering Kids, says there is plenty of evidence to show those who succeed in life have "at least one adult "who has been there for them. who's gone in to bat for them, who's been around for them".
"People say, 'What can I do? I'm not in a position to take on a child full time," Wilkinson says.
"One thing you can do is change your attitudes towards children who have experienced care, because they are in every community."
"Our members often tell us heartbreaking stories about children in care discriminated against and branded as 'bad kids'. Care-experienced children have all the same hopes, dreams and wishes as other children, but society puts up a lot more barriers for them."
A spokeswoman for Child Youth and Family says there is always a need for caregivers. At any given time, there are about 5200 children and young people in care including in residences and 3528 approved caregivers in New Zealand.
"The number of approved caregivers is not always reflective of the number of caregivers who are available to take on young people for placements."
Some of the approved caregivers are approved to care for specific children or young people whilst others are in a pool of caregivers.
Fostering Kids estimates more than 10,000 children in New Zealand are living with someone other than their birth parents.
Sunny Bayliss says the scale of the issue can overwhelm people.
"Too often, we see this huge problem and we just, as individuals, don't know what we can do about it.
"But you can make a difference to one child."
The Baylisses were among those who attended the March for Moko in Hamilton in May.
"You know, there's a lot of people who want to do something other than just walk around," Sunny says. "They really want to help and there's a lot of ways to do that."
- Foster caregivers take children into their homes for periods of anywhere from a few days to a few months to a number of years. While the foster caregivers have responsibility for the day to day care of the child, they do not have guardianship rights. That means they need to regularly consult with social workers about significant decisions, such as medical care.
- Emergency caregivers make their homes available for children who need a place to stay when they are in urgent need, often in traumatic circumstances. These caregivers need to understand how to support children and young people who may have recently been the victims of trauma, neglect and abuse.
- Respite caregivers take children into their homes for an agreed time to give parents or regular caregivers a break. Sometimes it is a one-off stay, but often it becomes a regular feature of the child's life.
- Permanent caregivers provide a loving "home for life" for children whose own parents are unable to care for them. There are court orders available to support caregivers to provide a this permanent home. In most cases, birth parents retain guardianship rights and it's important children maintain relationships with their birth family, if possible.
Generally, permanent caregivers are granted "additional guardianship" orders by the court. In almost all cases, birth parents retain guardianship rights, so permanent caregivers must make reasonable efforts to consult on important decisions relating to the child, and there may be regular access visits. CYF care is discharged, but financial and other support is available.
Wilkinson says "very few people know about the permanency pathway in care-giving".
"People often ask how secure permanent placements are. It is important to understand that any judge deciding on the guardianship of a child must put the interests of the child at the centre of the process. By the time a child is considered for permanency, numerous efforts should have been made to repair the relationship with the birth parents."
- Adoption is very rare in New Zealand. In the 2014-2015 period, just 152 were granted. Under the current law, birth parents who agree to adoption surrender all their legal rights to the child. A new birth certificate is drafted without any mention of the birth parents. In practice however, there is a focus in New Zealand on open adoption, where birth and adoptive parents reach an agreement about contact.
- Information supplied by Fostering Kids and Child, Youth and Family.