‘Love is free but living is expensive’ – how financial assistance is helping foster children and carers in regional Victoria

Alec and Shirley have been foster caring for over two and a half years in Central Highlands in rural Victoria. With kids and grandkids of their own, they think of themselves as foster ‘grand-carers’. They currently have eight-year old siblings in their care.

The couple live 30km from Ballarat, in an area classified as rural. Although Alec and Shirley have found that being in nature brings innumerable benefits to the children and young people they care for, living in a remote location adds to the challenges of being a foster carer.

Alec said: “Travel is one of the main barriers [to remote foster caring]. As a carer, you want to minimise any disruption for the kids in your care, so you don’t want to change their schools. For us, that means travelling 120km per day for the school run alone. Not only does that cost us two hours of our time every weekday, but we’re spending between $5,000 on petrol alone and almost $10,000 per year on vehicle running costs to get the kids to school.”

Technology is another challenge for Alec and Shirley. Residing in a mobile phone and internet blind spot, the couple rely on the satellite NBN for all their communication needs, which is many times more expensive than internet connection in metropolitan areas.

There are supports in place to help foster carers like Shirley and Alec to provide the quality therapeutic care that foster children need. Alec and Shirley are associated with Cafs, Ballarat’s local community services organisation and foster care agency. Cafs supports foster carers like Alec and Shirley with a network of psychologists, therapists, pediatricians, and other support services that enable them to facilitate holistic care for every child.

Alec spoke highly of the services provided by Cafs: “Cafs has been a great organisation to deal with in terms of how they support us as carers and the kids.”

“One child we cared had vision problems, so Cafs paid for him to visit an optometrist, and for glasses to help train his lazy eye.”

Another child formerly in Alec and Shirley’s care was assessed by Cafs to be better suited to a special school for children with intellectual disabilities.

“The special school is giving him the opportunity to enter the labour market in later life. Without Cafs, he might not have had access to the employment pathways he does now.”

Cafs provides financial assistance to foster carers and children to ensure that children receive the best quality of care without leaving their carers out of pocket. For Alec and Shirley, during the COVID-19 pandemic Cafs purchased two tablets, enabling the children they care for to continue engaging in their education, and to maintain contact with their birth parents when face-to-face visits weren’t allowed. The tablets also provided greater access to telehealth and other services.

Alec believes that financial assistance to foster carers is vital, particularly for those living in regional areas where the cost of care is higher.

He said: “Loving is free, but living is expensive. To provide good care it’s not just about the love you can give them; sometimes you need the physical resources around to benefit the kids in a therapeutic sense.”

“Putting money into foster care is an investment. You put money into this type of investment, and it’ll reduce crime, it’ll reduce violence, it’ll reduce substance abuse, and it’ll keep kids out of jail. The return on the investment that the government puts into carers will be repaid many-fold in terms of future savings.”

Last year the Victorian Government added an additional $1.2 billion investment to the child and family services system, enabling organisations like Cafs to continue and expand their services, and to reach more foster carers in Victoria to support children in need of temporary homes.

Alec sees great benefits to having more foster kids in rural environments: “We’ve cared for a few children who were victims of neglect. To have them here, where they’re able to ride a bike, watch the wildlife, feed chooks and collect eggs it gives children the opportunity to learn about attachment and trust. We gave one little girl a pet chicken for her to care for, and the change in her was amazing to watch.”

However, the additional costs associated with regional foster care make it an unfeasible option for many. When accounting for technology, travel and clothing, fostering a child can cost up to $15,000 a year in regional areas, a sum far greater than some fostering funding allowance. Alec believes that additional government funding to sector organisations such as Cafs would motivate and enable more people from regional and rural Victoria to become foster carers.

“Cafs care for their carers by supporting, training and developing them. Well trained carers provide better care for the kids. But budget constraints mean that the provision of services is restricted, ultimately impacting the experience of the children in care.”

Wendy Sturgess, CEO at Cafs said: “Cafs never stops working to attract more foster carers to care for the continuous stream of children across our region needing a safe and secure environment.”

“The reality is, for those that make the commitment to become carers, there is a financial cost to bear – particularly for those is rural and regional areas. The rising cost of living, now more than ever, adds pressure to a group of people who already give so much.”

Deb Tsorbaris, CEO from the Centre of Excellence in Child and Family Welfare said: “We all acknowledge how valuable our foster carers are to the Victorian community, and it’s been terrific to see consistent investment in child and family services in Victoria. But more is needed, particularly in the regions, to guarantee quality care for children in need now and into the future.”

“Cafs and other community service organisations work tirelessly to maximise the reach of their services, but resources are stretched. So that carers like Alec and Shirley can continue their amazing efforts, the budget ought to respond to the vast need for foster care services in Victoria, and recognise the amazing things that the sector has done with government funding in the past. We know what the sector can achieve, it’s just a question of whether the resources are in place to allow its potential to be reached.”

ENDS

For more information, or for the opportunity to interview Alec Carson (foster carer available via Zoom as doesnt have access to a mobile), Wendy Sturgess (CEO of CAFS and Ballarat local) or Deb Tsorbaris (CEO of the Centre) please contact Nevena Spirovska on 0427 142 769 or at nevena.spirovska@cfecfw.asn.au.

Cafs (Child and Family Services Ballarat) is an independent community service organisation, with over 156 years of experience in service provision children, young people and their families in the Grampians and Central Highlands regions. CAFS is committed standing strong with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, LGBTIQA+, people of all abilities, people of different race, ethnicity or cultural backgrounds and people of all religions.

The Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare (the Centre) is the peak body for child and family services in Victoria. Representing more than 150 community service organisations, students and individuals, the Centre advocates for the rights of children and young people to be heard and safe, to have access to education, and to remain connected to family, community and culture.

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