When Mark and Karen brought three young foster children into their home, the kids asked if they could dig a hole in their backyard.
"They wanted to be able to escape into the hole if anyone scary came over," Karen said.
"I told them - you're safe here now. Nobody scary is coming to get you."
Foster carers change, and save lives.
But there's not nearly enough of them in NSW - and a chronic shortage in the MIA.
More than 20,000 children in the state have been removed from their birth parents due to abuse or neglect.
A lack of foster carers means a growing number of kids are forced into institutions, separated from siblings or pushed onto the streets.
Many adults think of becoming foster carers, but are uncertain abut how the process works and the commitments involved.
As foster care agency Care South's Griffith information night approaches on 7 June, we asked MIA carers Mark and Karen about what it's like to open your home to children who don't have one. Responses to our questions are summarised below.
Why did you two decide to become foster carers?
Karen: We wanted to be part of a solution. There's so many children in need of a safe home, and we knew we could help out.
Mark: Karen and I got married quite late and didn't have kids of our own. We talked about making the commitment and decided it was something we could do.
What is the process involved in being approved as a foster carer?
Mark: We went to a two-day Care South information session and had home visit assessments. The session spells out the things you may encounter. They give you the worst case scenarios. You find out everything that's involved.
Can you change your mind during this two-day information session?
Karen: Yes, it's really a chance to find out if this is right to you. They tell you on the first day, "we don't expect to see some of you tomorrow".
Do you get paid for being a foster carer?
Mark: When we were deciding whether to become foster carers, we didn't know there was a payment. It's not something we thought about it. But yes, there is a payment, and it makes a difference. Karen has had to cut back her work hours, so being paid comes in handy. Being paid mean you can still make your mortgage payments.
You two first became respite carers, where you provided short-term relief care for foster carers. Did that experience prepare you for becoming full-time carers?
Karen: It gives you an insight but it's very different. The respite placements for us were very short, they lasted only a weekend or so. Being a full-time foster carer is a much bigger commitment.
How do you manage the relationship with your foster children's birth parents?
Mark: Care South handle those things. The caseworkers organise picking up the kids and taking them to visit their birth parents. We sometimes have to deal with the aftermath, if the children are unsettled after the visit.
The NSW government is pursuing reforms to make permanent adoption of foster children easier. Would you consider adopting the children in your care, if they are unable to return home?
Karen: Our children are very young. We'd like them to make that sort of decision for themselves.
Mark: At this stage, no we haven't thought of it, but down the track we will give the children a say and if they want it we'd certainly consider it.
So would you recommend being a foster carer to others?
Mark and Karen: Definitely. It's been fantastic for us. It's not been great all of the time, and there's been some hurdles. We've been foster carers for one and a half years now. I'd like to think we're giving our kids every opportunity to be good people, an opportunity they may not have had without us.
WHAT OTHERS SAY ABOUT FOSTER CARE:
Association of Children's Welfare Agencies (foster care peak body):
The Murrumbidgee / Riverina region needs to attract up to 40 new carers this year across all types of care: emergency, respite and short term carers able to support restoration of children to their birth families, carers wishing to progress to guardianship or open adoption. There is also a need for Aboriginal carers in the region.
Deb Tozer, CEO, Care South:
Families who open their hearts and homes to children who are experiencing upheaval fulfil a fundamental need in our community. Currently across NSW there is an urgent need for families to provide long-term, short-term and respite care for 8-15 year olds, for primary school aged sibling groups and also for children with disabilities.
Kate (foster carer):
It can be quite challenging. We now have six kids and having so many girls of a similar age, there will always be personality clashes. But for all the challenges there are so many positives. When you grow up with siblings the bond you have is like no other you will ever have in your life. When you see the kids together, nothing compares to it. To see how the girls respond to each other has been the most amazing thing in the world.
An informal session providing information on becoming a foster carer will be held 5:30pm Wednesday 7 June at Care South’s Griffith office, 104-106 Yambil street. Details on other information sessions held throughout the Riverina can be found at: