Caring family opens door
What's it really like to look after children for Child, Youth and Family? Anna Williams finds out.
A child can arrive on their doorstep 20 minutes after the phone call. They often come with nothing but the clothes they are wearing. Most are visibly anxious at moving into a house with strangers.
Megan Thomas says the first thing she does after she agrees to take the child is find out what they need.
Some of the children can be quite standoff-ish, she says. That's when her two children, Jonty Frisken, 8, and Anna Frisken, 12, whisk them away to show them their new room.
Megan and her partner, Greg Frisken, have opened their Picton home to 34 kids from around Marlborough in the 3 years they've been caregivers for Child, Youth and Family.
Gaining the child's trust is key, but it's often quite slow to develop, Megan says.
A new arrival is often petrified.
"It's taken me almost 3 years to work it out," Megan says. "I used to think these children are shell-shocked because of what they've experienced at home, but they're not. They're actually shell-shocked because they're coming to a home they don't know."
One of the first things they do as a family is take a trip to the supermarket. The kids are given free range to load whatever they want into the trolley.
Food can be a comfort for a lot of the kids they look after. Many are so used to not knowing when they'll eat again they hoard it.
Greg recalls one time when he took the kids to Subway for lunch after a rugby match. One boy, smaller than 8-year-old Jonty, was adamant he could eat a foot-long sandwich. Greg found it a week later stashed in the van with only two bites taken out of it.
"He'd hidden it just in case he might need it later," Greg says.
Family members have questioned the safety of their own children with strangers in the house, but Megan says they would never put their kids at risk. Their three-bedroom house has an open-door policy, and she and Greg make sure they know what's going on.
"We've got the smallest house in town. We're really aware of everyone's safety."
Their own kids have taken away a lot from their experiences with the children who stay, she says. "Our children have learnt to be tolerant, to be accepting, to be empathetic, to be understanding. You can't learn that out of any textbook, it's only stuff that life teaches you."
At June 30 this year, 39 children and youth were placed in non-family homes in Marlborough. In 2011, 50 children were in care.
Marlborough Child, Youth and Family site manager Kaye MacDonald says the decrease in the number of children in non-whanau care is a good thing as it means more children are being placed with extended family.
Marlborough, along with the rest of the country, needs more caregivers who can take adolescents. Of the pool of about 15 non-whanau caregivers in Marlborough, only 5 per cent are able to look after children aged between 12 and 17.
"We know parenting teenagers is hard work," Ms MacDonald says. "When you're parenting someone else's child, it's even harder work.
"We need someone who's not going to judge and, when things go wrong, they're not going to shut the door on them."
It can be hard for caregivers sometimes, but their passion for what they do more often than not sees them coming back.
"Just like parents at times, they feel like they've had enough and they just need that space," she says. "And then they come back. They just need a few days."
Southern regional Child, Youth and Family director Chris Harvey says the service nationally needs caregivers who are able to take adolescents with high and complex needs. There's a shortage of carers who can take teens unsettled in their lives, he says.
They might have behavioural challenges, ranging from drug to mental-health issues.
"Children who just aren't progressing well in their life, they're a bundle of anxiety.
"It's a big ask, and people have to be deeper than committed really, because they will be challenged. They need to do not just necessarily want to help someone; they have to have all the things in their own life well in order."
The ideal caregiver is someone with a full pot, he says. They have all their bases covered in life and haven't got a lot of worries. "They've got a little bit extra to give to someone else, without taking away from anything they're struggling with in their own life. We're not looking for perfect."
Parents of children in care don't want to be "not good" parents, Mr Harvey says. "It's just because they've got big gaps in their life and they've got big problems. And you can't have big problems and be a good parent."
For Megan, becoming a caregiver was natural. Both her mother and grandmother were caregivers, and she grew up with different kids staying for weekends and respite care at her Whangarei home.
The couple own Marlborough Lockwood Homes and met while volunteering for the Picton fire brigade. Greg, still a volunteer firefighter, is also on the board of trustees for Waikawa Bay School and coaches his son's rugby team. Megan works in the school office.
They were looking for something that fit with their family and was more about giving their time, rather than money, which isn't always easy to do, Megan says.
When they first signed up, they took children up to the age of 10. Now they could have an infant one week and a 17-year-old the next. They decided long-term care wasn't for them and care for children short term, up to 56 days.
The longest placement was two years, and Greg says it was tough to see that child go.
They realised it was something that affected not just them, but their wider family.
"We had this child for so long, and then they went away and it gets quite hard emotionally," he says. "Those kids become part of the family. It's not just us missing them; it's the grandparents, the whole family."
While it can be difficult to see the positive impact they have on children in short-term care, Megan is always hopeful they've made a difference.
"You can always hope that they will see what it's like to be in a non-violent home, in a home that's warm and they're loved and there's always food and they are the No 1 priority," she says.
"And you hope when they get to be parents they remember those times and that's the type of parents they aim to be themselves, because that's the only way we're going to break these cycles, for them to spend time in a different home environment."
People often tell them they don't know how they do it.
"We get a lot of that, ‘oh we think it's great what you do but we couldn't do it ourselves'," Greg says. "It doesn't seem that hard when you actually do it."
But they don't do it all on their own. Megan says they couldn't do what they do without help from people in Picton.
They can often have up to five siblings at a time squeezed into their home. When the children arrive, bedding and clothes will appear on their doorstep. People offer to babysit and clean the house. Sometimes they ask for help, but more often than not it just turns up.
"You'll come home and there will be baking on the step, or a box of oranges," Megan says. "It all helps."
To others, they introduce a new arrival as a friend staying with the family. People often imagine children in care to be inherently naughty and riddled with behavioural challenges but Megan and Greg are hoping that stigma is fading.
"I think we've really broken that down, because these kids come and they might not look great on paper, but they're actually just fantastic kids and all these challenges they say they have, we don't normally see."
That's not to say it's always easy: "It is tough. It's a tough thing to be doing," she says.
But they're all just children: "They come with what they come with and, as adults, it's up to us to cater to their needs, not the other way around."
When a child comes into their care, they need to be the flexible ones, she says. "They're so young. They can have lots of issues, but we need to work with what's there. We need to adapt."
- The Marlborough Express