Carer opens her heart and home

00:18, Feb 20 2013
felicity gray
CARE AND CONCERN: Timaru woman Felicity Gray with her latest foster child - her 91st.

Felicity Gray says babies calm her - which is just as well as the 60-something-year-old has cared for many of them. Staff reporter Rhonda Markby talks to a woman who isn't fazed by the knowledge the next phone call could announce the arrival of a tiny baby requiring her care.

Felicity Gray turned up at the Christchurch neo-natal unit one day and took a baby home.

This might not sound so unusual, until you realise she was 56 at the time, the baby was not hers, and nor was she related to the four-day-old infant. That was six years ago and the "baby" is now a permanent member of her family.

And then there was the day the police car pulled up with a bassinet on the back seat. Minutes earlier, Gray had received a phone call asking if she could care for the week-old baby whose mother had died suddenly.

So when Gray looks you in the eye and tells you babies calm her, it is perhaps not so hard to believe.

As a young woman she wanted to be a nurse, but only months into her training she realised it was not for her. She hated it. She then went to care for the children of a farming family. It was the children's mother who suggested the young woman train as a Karitane nurse. She did. That something special she felt for babies then still remains long after her own four adult children have left home.


It was when the youngest was about 11 that Gray decided it was time there were babies in the house again.

She smiles as she recalls how her plan had been so simple, so naive: She would offer to care for babies and toddlers short term, providing respite care to give parents a break. Then the children could go back to their families. She soon found out it didn't work like that as many of the babies in Child Youth and Family's care do not return to their parents quickly, if ever.

Take the case of her 15-year-old "son" whom she began caring for when he was 6 months old. She still is 15 years later, and doesn't foresee a time when he and his wider family will not be part of her household.

Then there was the phone call six years ago asking if she could take in a baby. Yes, she said, asking how old the baby was. Not born yet, was the reply.

Little needed to be organised.

"I never got rid of our bassinet," she said, of a home that was always ready to accept a baby. Gray drove to Christchurch to pick up the four-day-old from the neo-natal ward.

"They were happy for me to take him as I was getting more food into him than the nurses were. I could sit and feed him all the time."

Gray has fostered more than 90 children. Not all have been babies.

She has an obvious bond with the very young, so is she a baby whisperer?

"No, babies are quite calming. I bring them into 'mother's parlour'," she says of the front room she claims as her own space away from the boys.

But at the same time, there is no doubting her Karitane training hasn't gone astray.

"I struggle to put them down on their back [to sleep]," she said referring to the Karitane regime that saw babies put to sleep on their side.

"My routines are probably old fashioned," she says, not apologising for that.

Gray admits not everyone understands why at her age she still wants to look after young children who are not even her own grandchildren.

"When are you going to wake up and play bridge and bowls?" she repeats their comments.

"Having a baby in the house keeps me at home a bit more. But she sleeps from 7pm to 7am and has two sleeps during the day," she says of her latest charge.

She concedes a baby who wakes several times a night can be tiring, but then adds she has perfected the art of the 10-minute day-time power nap to keep herself going.

Her closest friends, many foster parents themselves, are often the most understanding. Her summer holiday was spent with another foster couple and 11 children - a mix of grandchildren and the foster children from both families.

Some of her holiday arrangements might raise eyebrows among those who do not know Gray well. She speaks of holidays spent with the father and siblings of her older foster child; and she sees it as perfectly normal that the relatives of both boys come and stay.

"It is very important they know their roots," she said, of ensuring foster children see their siblings and wider family whenever practicable.

"I would rather they know who their natural family are. It is human nature that at 15 or 16 they will want to know, and they could be in for a nasty shock at what they find [if they have not had contact with the family]."

Some families are more accepting than others of their children being in care.

There have been times when she has dressed a baby girl in a blue bonnet and put blue covers on the pram to ensure the baby's identity remained undetected.

Sometimes the youngster's own actions say it all. She recalls the day she went to pick up a child from supervised access.

"Give your mum a kiss," the social worker said as the session concluded.

He turned and kissed Gray, much to the annoyance of the birth mother.

All the children have their own story, their own reason for being in CYF care, but adoption cases have given her great pleasure.

Her face lights up as she recalls the baby who was only hours old when she began caring for her. She was to be adopted, but by law had to remain in CYF care for the first 12 days.

Very soon, the adoptive parents were on the scene and Gray found herself giving them a crash course in parenting, complete with them taking notes and dad dry retching as he changed his first dirty nappy.

Then there was the 6-month-old who was meant to be in her care for a few days. It was eight months later when she met her new parents and big brother. Gray happily oversaw visits from the trio. She considered her role was to help integrate the little girl into her new family.

But doesn't she find it hard to hand them over?

"You can't feel sad about it. I'm happy because they are going to a good home," she says, of babies being adopted or going in to home-for-life care.

She cares for her 6-year-old under a home-for-life arrangement in which the court has given her the same status as the birth parents. It is an arrangement that legally lasts until he is 17, but in reality makes him a member of her family for life.

While in the past Gray has cared for babies long term, these days she only wants shorter term placements.

"I'm too old to rear them right through," she said, recognising she would be close to 80 before any baby she took on for life now, left home.

The bassinet, cot and pram seem unlikely to go into permanent storage soon as there is nothing to suggest the calls from CYFs are about to end.

Contact Nic O'Driscoll at CYF's Timaru office on 03 956 4484.

An information evening for those interested in learning more about becoming a carer will be run by CYFs in Timaru today, from 6pm to 8pm, with a three-day training programme being held on March 15, 16 and 26.

The Timaru Herald