An Aboriginal foster carer who lives in the Hawkesbury is helping in the call out for more people like her to help foster Aboriginal children.
While we can’t say the township she lives in to protect her foster children’s identity, it’s a rural area of the Hawkesbury near the river.
Jo Mara has been a foster carer for 17 years since retiring from work and bringing up her own two children. As well as welcoming several children in short-term or emergency arrangements, she and her husband are long-term carers of three Aboriginal young people who came – and stayed.
“I hadn’t planned on three, but when I met them, they were just gorgeous,” Ms Mara said. “So my husband and I spoke about it and we said ‘why not, let’s give it a go and see how we go’. And they have now been with us since 2000.”
Ms Mara acknowledged that caring came with challenges, but it was also rewarding. “When they first came they were timid. The oldest boy, who was seven at the time, he wouldn’t go out and play, he wouldn’t do anything... he had just forgotten how to smile.”
After caring for his siblings for most of his life, Ms Mara said “he’d forgotten how to be a kid because he had shouldered such responsibility for too long.”
That child is now a “really confident young adult” in his mid-twenties and off exploring Australia, she said. His younger brother and sister have both finished high school and are employed and still living with the Mara family.
More than 6000 NSW Aboriginal children have been removed from their birth families, but only one in five can be placed with Aboriginal carers due to a shortage of them. AbSec (the Aboriginal Child, Family and Community Care State Secretariat) fears this will lead to a loss of culture and identity for the fostered children, its CEO Tim Ireland said.
“We want as many of those children and young people as possible to stay safely within their extended family and community networks, so that Aboriginal children can remain connected to their culture,” he said.
“Aboriginal kinship carers and foster carers know how important family is, the importance of connection to Country, to be part of community. They understand that our culture and identity is a source of strength, resilience and hope for our children and young people. We urgently need Aboriginal people to put their hands up and open their doors to children and young people in their community who need support.”
Ms Mara said her favourite part of being a carer was seeing children open up and blossom over time.
“It’s watching them grow up, or even just if they come to you for a little while – six months, a year – watching the change in them. Watching them know or begin to believe they’re going to be OK, because when they come, they often don’t think they’re going to be OK,” Ms Mara said.
People from all walks of life can become carers, as long as they have a few essential attributes: patience, empathy and resilience.
“Whether you’re single, married or in a same-sex relationship, a young professional or an empty nester, we’re looking for all kinds of Aboriginal people to make their mark as carers,” Mr Ireland said.
Ms Mara also wants carers to know there’s plenty of support available. “There are organised carers’ groups and there are some wonderful, wonderful teams of Aboriginal care support workers who are my first port of call if I have something I need support with,” she said. “Carers are also paid a subsidy for the children. It makes it possible for you to be able to do it, to be able to foster.”
Aboriginal people interested in becoming a carer are encouraged to call AbSec on 1800 888 698.
This is Foster Care Week – September 10-16. It is an initiative of the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies (ACWA) and the NSW Government.