Forced to live as wards of the government, the challenges faced by out-of-home care children are often untold and unknown.
They’re the kids you tell your own children not to mix with at school. The ones who are just that little too rowdy, loitering outside the shopping centre with their strange clothes, tattoos and bad haircuts. The ones who make you thankful your child isn’t like them. The ones you wish would take their bad influence elsewhere.
They’re also the kids who hate school because they’ve been told by their classmates—with a child’s honesty—that their parents do not want them being friends with them; who have nobody to help them with their homework even if they were in the slightest academically-inclined; who are constantly moved from “home” to “home”, making it near impossible to stay in the same school. Which is why, for many, a primary education is as good as it gets.
They’re the kids who wish they had a family environment more like your child’s. The ones who had to quickly learn to be tough in order to survive in a world they should never be exposed to at their young age.
“These young people are in a constant state of fight or flight,” says Chaan Pau’u, a youth care worker at an out-of-home service in Sydney. “It’s a hyper-arousal state where they are always tense and have an exaggerated response to most situations. Out-of-home care young people feel they need to fight against anything or anyone who comes towards them in order to be heard, in order to survive.
“It’s like walking through a peaceful forest, enjoying the scenery, the smells and the sights and then all of a sudden, a bear attacks you out of nowhere. For these young people, the ‘bear’ is present everywhere they look in life. The ‘bear’ is the case worker and police officer who took them away from their family, it’s the doctor who is prescribing all these different drugs that they need to take every day, it’s the teacher who can’t understand what they’re trying to ask and sends them to detention.”
As of June 30, 2016, there were 46,500 Australian children aged 0–17 living in out-of-home care. Their “care” arrangement could take a few different forms, including being placed in a residential building where the purpose is to provide placements for children and there are paid staff, to living in the home of a carer who is reimbursed for expenses for the care of the child. But in a system where there are often not enough homes or staff, these children are neglected, forgotten and fail to receive the level of care they need.
Eleni Hale is an author and former journalist who grew up as a “homes kid” in the early 1990s. Residential homes, according to Eleni, very quickly changed her from an ordinary, innocent child to one where being rough around the edges was a survival mechanism.
“You have to have a shell around you and not show your vulnerabilities to the kids in the home. You have to be tough,” she says. “The first home I lived in, there were five or six other kids in there and they were quite wild and they were drinking. I realised I was way out of my depth and I was quite scared. I thought if I didn’t do something, I will be in trouble, so I started to watch the other kids, learned from them and transformed myself so that I wouldn’t get bashed up.
“There are three ways that kids in homes who don’t have a regular parent to guide them survive. One is attaching to whoever, a social worker or random adults who try to befriend you, as a way to stay secure. Another is to zone out, you know, drugs and alcohol. And the final way is to be fiercely self-sufficient So you just decide that you can’t trust anyone. These tend to be very rebellious and out-of-control kids, but it’s a choice that they’ve made because there weren’t any other options.”
Eleni’s experience of living in the homes inspired her first young adult novel, Stone Girl. It’s a harrowing, no-holds-barred account of life in the homes, complete with school drop-outs, bad language and drug use. She believes the novel isn’t too raw for a young audience because “teens that swear, that won’t listen, that do the worst things, the ones we don’t like . . . they deserve their place in literature too. By removing the mystery, I believe we allow teens to learn about addictive and deadly substances from the safety of a book.”
As a mother of two young daughters, she says she would have no problems with them reading Stone Girl.
“Stone Girl is a cautionary tale. It’s not the type of book you read and think I want to go down that path, but it does open your eyes to cause and effects, one thing leading to another, even if your situation is not the same as Sophie’s [the lead character].
“Today’s teenagers are already over-exposed. They already know about all this stuff. It’s nothing new. I would tell my daughters about it, have a chat to them about the book beforehand, but I don’t want them to be sheltered to the point where they don’t understand how other people live.”
Discovering how these other people—children—live will break your heart. The media would often cover the violence or the drug overdose, but what we may not hear about are the circumstances they are living in.
Chaan relates stories of young people arriving at his residential home service not knowing how to use a toilet or toilet paper, or even how to shower properly. Some have very limited vocabulary and can’t even put a sentence together.
Put in a “home” with others who have only been exposed to a life of verbal and physical abuse, in an environment where they are only allowed to socialise with those from the same residential home service, where one paid staff is meant to care for four children, most already don’t believe in themselves much less are able to fathom a bright future, even before the world has passed any judgement on them.
“These kids have a pretty low opinion of themselves,” says Chaan. “It’s mostly derived from the situation they were brought up in: ‘Family do not think I’m important, maybe I’m not’; ‘Parents or carers do not invest time or money into us; we are not worth time or money’; ‘Parents or carers do not show love and care; we are not worthy of love or affection’; ‘Being bounced from foster home to foster home; nobody cares if I stay or not’.”
For these children with no education or even a permanent place to live in, breaking out of the preconceived negative labels they and society have placed on themselves is a monumental task.
“No kid who lives in the homes should be ashamed, yet I bet many feel as I felt,” says Eleni. “Please, be kind. Don’t judge too quick. What you see in this moment is the culmination of many previous events. Most people deserve a second chance. There's a lot going on. It’s not just troubled kids or kids you should feel sorry for, but they are kids who are changing every day because of their experience. This is how they become that.”
. . . I’m hyper-aware that a lot of kids needs to be respected . . .
Stone Girl does a wonderful job of telling the albeit sometimes skewed thought processes of a 12-year-old and how that can change the course of a person’s life. And yet, Stone Girl has a happy ending, much like Eleni, “one of the lucky ones because I got out”.
Filled with grit and determination, Eleni went back to school at 18 and “struggled my way out of the margins of society”. And even then, she admits it wasn’t easy.
“I felt like the dumbest person in the world,” she says. “The hardest thing was believing that I was someone who could go to school and pass. A lot of people struggle with that identity. I really believe that giving people a bit of hope will go a long way. I’m a big believer in education but it’s not for everybody. But it’s about helping people redefine who they are, and not believing that is that for the rest of their lives and that they don’t have prospects.”
Chaan, who has worked with out-of-home care young people for more than five years, agrees. “These children have the potential to build a great future for themselves and break the cycle. They are very impressionable and are longing to be accepted and believed in. Building trust with the young people is a major step in helping them to feel safe and supported. Once the young person believes they are safe and supported, they are open to the staff about their aspirations and what they are wanting to achieve.”
“A lot of mothers are aware of this, but after what I’ve been through, I’m hyper-aware that a lot of kids needs to be respected, constantly feel loved and it’s very important not to be humiliated,” says Eleni on how her experience has shaped her as a mother.
“I just remember there’s always this feeling of humiliation because you’ve got the social workers who give you the feeling that you don’t matter very much, and there were these kids who were stronger. Particularly with my kids who drink up all my words and who my opinions matter so much to, I’m hyper-aware about respecting them so that I don’t humiliate them or make them feel like they’re not important.”
Out-of-home care children. Yes, they can be difficult to deal with, but they are also the ones who need more love, time and understanding than any other child you have possibly met.