Foster kid's advice: 'don't forget the love factor'
Monique Goodhew was five when she and her sister were first taken into care. Her parents were addicts. Her dad was violent.
Goodhew was never physically abused, but she was neglected: she and her younger sister weren't fed on time; when they made it to school they didn't have lunch or the right clothes.
"I remember being picked up after school one day by a random lady. My parents didn't know we were being taken away. We were just told we had to go with this lady and the police officer."
At eight she could still barely read or count, but at 14 she discovered she was great at touch rugby.
Success bred success. She started focussing on academics too, and by Year 11 had caught up on the lost schooling. Now 21, she's in the fourth year of a Health Sciences degree at Massey University in Wellington.
You could say Goodhew's a success story of the state fostering system, but she's sure it could have been a lot better. Even in care, her and her sister's lives remained chaotic.
"We ran away a lot. We wanted to find our parents. We didn't realise they were abusing us."
Over the years they lived with 23 different families.
"Every time we arrived we wouldn't unpack our suitcases. We never got comfortable, because we expected them not to like us, and then to isolate us and throw us out."
Now, though, she's helping make things better for the 5500 foster kids still in that system.
From April 1, New Zealand's care services will receive their biggest shake-up in decades, with the replacement of Child Youth and Family (CYF) with the Ministry for Vulnerable Children Oranga Tamariki. Among the new ministry's lofty claims is this one: it will listen closely to the voices of the children and young people within the foster system.
That's where Goodhew comes in. She's part of an eight-strong panel of former foster kids that advised minister Anne Tolley on their view of CYF's failings, and she's also on the steering committee for a new "connection and advocacy" NGO that will launch alongside the ministry on April 1.
On Thursday the group announced that the fledgling NGO is to be called "Voyce Whakarongo Mai" – Voyce for "Voice of the Young and Care-Experienced", and Whakarongo Mai means "listen to me".
Funded by government (and to a lesser extent philanthropists including the Tindall Foundation) Voyce's role is to bring foster children together, online and in the flesh, to connect and share experiences, but it will also be a conduit for children in care to advise and directly influence the services they get from the ministry. It will eventually have 70 staff around the country.
Steering group chair John McCarthy says similar child-focussed organisations abroad - Australia's Create Foundation and Who Cares? Scotland – have already shown the benefit of a "strong consumer voice" within foster care.
Oranga Tamariki's chief executive Grainne Moss says even before Voyce and her ministry have their respective launches in April, she has been listening to the voices of past and present foster children.
One reminded her that when a child moves house for the umpteenth time they stand to lose not just another family and set of schoolfriends; they could also be losing a lifesaving connection with that sports coach who's the first adult who's seen their potential: connections to the local community can be just as important as those with the foster family.
Another told her that even a harsh truth can be preferable to a white lie.
"A kid said to me: 'People said I couldn't go and stay with Auntie Bess, because they were protecting me from the fact that she was doing drugs and prostituting herself. But that created a gap for me, because I didn't know Auntie Bess was doing things that weren't helpful for me. I just thought you were keeping me away from her.'"
Goodhew has some suggestions of her own: better screening of caregivers to ensure foster parents are genuinely prepared for what they've signed up to; an assurance that when agencies hand kids over to extended family they do so because it's actually the safest situation for the child, not because it's most convenient for everyone else. Like 60 per cent of children in foster care, Goodhew is Maori, and she'd like to see more engagement with iwi and hapu to find ways to change that number.
Above all, says Goodhew, she wants to see a system that has a better appreciation of the importance of the "love factor"; one that recognises each child as a person and not just a number.
She's not pinning all her hopes on a new ministry – "we've been let down so often" – but she believes Voyce Whakarongo Mai, with its mandate to make sure that the ministry keeps listening to the children in its care, is a step in the right direction.
"It gives me hope that the next generation that comes up has a chance."