Foster parenting: triumph and trauma

Foster care can save children’s lives, but it can also leave emotional scars. Photo: Thomas Hawk/flickr


There are countless positives for children in foster care, and undeniably, it saves children’s lives. But there can be no denying it also leaves emotional scars. And while foster parents are more usually regarded as white knights rather than as victims, that trauma can take its toll in their role as carers.

Put yourself in their shoes.

Jane*, a foster carer of five years, currently plays hostess to two beautiful young children, Tommy and Lily*. The siblings come from a neglected and abusive home, where their father was a pedophile and their mother a heroin addict.

At the time of their first arrival into Jane’s close-knit home, alongside her husband, two daughters and teenage son, there was a lot of hope for the children. “It was really tough there, but they were like, ‘This is going to get better. They’re just warming up to this’,” says Lucy*, a close family friend.

Lily, now nine, has ADHD, a personality disorder, and low self-esteem and is still traumatised by the children’s separation from their mother. (Tommy, too, suffers from trauma.) “She’s a really talented girl but she won’t take any compliments,” Lucy says. “She needs attention 24/7, more than Tommy. She’ll think she’s ugly, she won’t believe anything you tell her and won’t believe anyone loves her or wants her around.” She was four years old when she was taken away from her parents, and to this day she only hopes to go back to her mother. “She puts Jane down a lot,” Lucy observes of the relationship dynamic throughout their years together.

There are nearly 40,000 children in Australia who are living away from home. Some 44.6 per cent of them are in foster care. A significant increase has taken place over the past decade, with numbers doubling from 2002 to 2011.

This large increase has been driven in part by rises in reported instances of significant harm. In 2011, there were 237,273 reports made to state and territory authorities of significant harm taking place in children and young peoples’ lives.

This harm, which can take forms such as neglect, physical and sexual abuse, can affect a child’s life in such great measure that they are forced to leave their homes. At a young age, they experience feelings of negative self-esteem, behavioral problems and trauma. Many of us from outsider perspectives assume that these children, plucked from their treacherous households and put into new, loving and caring homes, all get their similar happy endings, but in this sad reality, not all of them do.

Anna*, a foster care case manager, says that babies who are taken into foster care have less chance of trauma or behavioural problems. This is because when they are taken away from their homes, they are oblivious to what’s happening around them.

Lily, however, was four years old when she was taken into foster care. Children of this age are more prone to exhibiting such behavioural issues because they are separated from their parents or have been exposed to certain things at an age they can still remember these experiences.

By way of example, Anna cites another of her cases – Cameron, a young boy who was aged two when he was taken into care. Cameron has had four placements during his short life, the longest of which has been six months. According to Anna, he suffers from severe behavioural problems and excessive tantrums.

Applying for the role of foster carer is a significant undertaking, taking between three and six months. Carers go through 19 hours of preparation training, followed by assessment by two case workers from community services, who visit the foster carer’s home and determine whether they meet the competencies and are capable of caring. Time goes into finding a match for the couple, and the child’s specific experiences are researched. Each case is then passed on to a panel of managers, and people from different organisations go through the report to examine if these carers are a suitable match for the child.

Yet the system is by no means foolproof. Anna cites an example of a foster carer couple who performed exceptionally well during the assessment process, and had a child of their own. Despite this, within a week they had phoned Anna to deliver the bad news: “[We] can’t go through with this.”

“You can never [fully] know what people are capable of,” Anna notes.

Anna explains that, in her professional experience, couples coming into foster caring still don’t expect the children to have difficult behaviours, despite the hours of training and assessments. She says they don’t truly understand the abuse and the neglect they have experienced. “People that come into foster care might have this view of, ‘Oh, the child will be so grateful to me and then their behaviours won’t be that bad,’ but in reality, it [doesn’t work that way].”

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Cameron’s newest placement is now past the six-month mark, and he is beginning to feel a sense of settlement and attachment, including calling her foster parents ‘mum’ and ‘dad’. The behavioural issues have also largely disappeared. Anna believes that the initial stages of the relationship with the foster carer in the first two or three years of the child’s lifespan development, where the child should feel that sense of attachment, are critical. The new family are then “able to create great relationships, self-esteem, socially, academically and a lot of other things,” she says. Failure to establish such a connection can result in cases like Lily’s; she has been in the same placement for five years but remains detached from her foster carers, especially Jane.

Foster carers’ lives are affected in ways that they would not have expected. Lucy says that Jane’s family has “faced issues with their mental state … keeping the house tidy, hardly sleeping, and their biological kids feeling completely left out.” (Jane suffers from post-traumatic stress, which can result from from living with a traumatised person.) Perhaps the most difficult aspect to deal with is her relationship with her three children, who are all young adults. Since the placement of Lily and Tommy, her relationship with her own children has become strained. They feel they cannot communicate around the children because they have to be careful about what they say.

Anna says that when times get tough for carers, together they will try their best to put forward strategies so that they are able continue caring for the child. Sometimes the strategies are effective and sometimes they are not. But it is important to remember that children are not oblivious. They can sense when a carer doesn’t want them, because “time and time again the kid can hear and sense it.”

There is no saying that Jane and her family don’t want Lily and Tommy anymore. Just imagine the difficulties they’re going through with the family communication they once had in the household. They don’t want them to feel like they are unwanted or feel that abandonment ever again.

As for Jane, Lucy says that she is “just pushing through it. She’s not going to quit because she can’t. Those kids will be even more traumatised than they already are if someone else gives up on them. “



Foster care FAQ:

Australian Foster Care Association:

Foundations Care:

Children In Care (Australian Institute of Family Studies):


The elation of floatation therapy

Woman floating in water, Weeki Wachee spring, Florida. Photo: Toni Frissell/Wikimedia Commons.



It sounds like the opening line of a traveling medicine man’s big sell: “In just one hour, the debilitating symptoms of your anxiety, insomnia, depression, stress and even jet lag can be greatly improved!”

Hordes of eager customers gather round, hands raised in the air, each stuffed full of cash, wanting to buy this mystery man’s mystery tonic.

As implausible as this sounds, such a remedy may be closer than you might expect.

Lotions and potions might not be the answer if you are suffering from one (or all) of the above-listed chronic illnesses, but there is one invention that stands a good chance of helping you feel better, inside and out – and far from being the new kid on the block, it’s celebrating its 60th anniversary next year.

This invention is the humble, but very efficient, floatation tank.

It’s a simple idea, really. Get a thick plastic tank, roughly 2.5m long, 1.5m wide and 1.5m high. Fill it with 25cm of water, heat it to 35°C, then add a heap of Epsom salt (magnesium sulphate, which has been used for centuries to soften the skin). This is what keeps you floating effortlessly inside the tank.

Next up, strip naked, have a quick shower, then jump inside the tank and close the lid. You’re able to relax entirely, knowing that the lid won’t lock and can be opened at any time during the float.

It’s pretty black inside the tank, but the idea is to give your mind a chance to switch off. Usually, for the first 10 minutes you’ll hear a little meditative music played in the background, giving yourself the opportunity to slow down your thoughts.

Lying in the warm, salty liquid, which feels silky smooth against your skin, your body is completely weightless and beginning to feel perfectly relaxed. Inside the tank, you feel very safe. It’s almost womb-like.

After a short time, all you’ll hear is the steady slowing of your heartbeat. After this, the journey is different for everybody. You may experience feelings of profound joy and begin to laugh; creative thoughts and sudden insights may find you in the dark; you may even begin to hallucinate and experience quite vivid imagery; or you may enjoy the most peaceful sleep of your life.

The widespread benefits are succinctly summed up by Dr. Rene Mateos from the NSW Department of Mental Health. “The logical-rational mind (left side) is allowed to relax and is bypassed, enabling the right brain activities of creativity and intuition to emerge to more conscious levels of understanding,” Dr Mateos said. “This reinforces not only motivation and drive, but also clarifies deeper understandings related to genuine interests, vocation, and sense of purpose in life.”

The feel good benefits can stay with you for days after the experience, sometimes lasting up to a month. During this time, you’ll feel the weight of life lifted from your head and chest, you’ll be smiling at strangers, you’ll feel blissful and happy, and you’ll be quick to recommend the experience to your nearest and dearest.

Many people have heard of floatation before, but few have ever tried it, which is a surprise, considering the many benefits it can offer.

Since the mid-1950s, universities and hospitals around the world have conducted studies and research into the physical and mental benefits of spending just one hour inside a floatation tank. These include faster recovery from injuries and post-operative surgery, reduced blood pressure, increased self-confidence, and reduced symptoms for various ailments including asthma, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, migraines and insomnia.

But perhaps its most interesting application, and the use for which it is best-known, is in the arena of sensory deprivation. The tank’s creator, Dr. John Lilly, a student of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, was curious to test the effects of sensory deprivation on the brain and mind. Would it switch off, or create its own stimuli?

To find out, he took hallucinogenic drugs ketamine and LSD, crawled inside his dark, makeshift, water-filled tank and rode it out over the next 10 hours.

Emerging from the tank, he said: “You can create a sense of wellbeing, or you can create a sense of fear out of the operation of your own bio-computer. That’s the most important message we have in regard to self-metaprogramming. I saw that in the tank.” The year was 1954 and certain psychedelic drugs were still legal then.

These days, the general line of thinking on the subject remains the same, but instead of transcendental stoners spending hours in the tank, many athletes, writers and artists, including the likes of John Lennon and Michael Jackson, have utilised the enormous, creative benefits of sensory deprivation and floatation therapy. Psychologists at the Australian Institute of Sport recommend athletes use floatation tanks for three main purposes: recuperation and rejuvenation, injury rehabilitation, and neuro-muscular programming.

If all of this sounds appealing, there are plenty of options for the enterprising Sydneysider to engage in a spot of floatation. One option is Bondi Junction Massage and Float Centre, which has been operating for 20 years and has established itself as Sydney’s premier floatation centre.

Carol, owner of Bondi Junction Massage and Float Centre, has seen many different people come through her doors during this time.

“Sometimes they come in and they’re a bit stressed, but they go and have their float and their massage and (when) they come out, you can see a change,” she said.

A regular client of the centre is Adrian, 32, of Maroubra, who works in the film and television industry and has been using floatation therapy for a year and a half. He likes to visit “every couple of months”, and finds floatation the best way to meditate and unwind. “If you don’t like the state you’re in, you’ll definitely be in a different state when you come out,” he said. “I always come out feeling good.”

In the ocean, or in a pool, some people just don’t have the ability to float, but the water inside the floatation tank is five times denser than the ocean, so everybody is able to float.

As Carol says: “Just lay back and let the salty water do the work.”


The week in football

The only good news for Sydney this week: the talismanic Alessandro Del Piero will be back for a second season with the sky blues. Photo: Marco Estrella/flickr




Sydney FC subdued by Brisbane

Brisbane Roar put Sydney FC to the sword on Thursday night, as the last round of the regular season opened up with a bang. Both teams were fighting for a finals spot, but Brisbane outclassed Sydney 3-1 in an entertaining affair at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.

Sydney started the game by giving away possession cheaply during the early stages of the first half. But it wasn’t long before they had a good spell of pressure, forcing Brisbane to drop back defensively.

It was an even tussle for the majority of the first half with both sides looking dangerous in attack. However, the 29th minute saw an absent-minded pass by Alessandro Del Piero picked up by the Roar. The ball was crossed into the centre to find an unmarked Besart Berisha who made no mistakes and gave Brisbane a 1-0 lead.

Just before half time, a brilliant move by Sydney FC checkmated Brisbane’s defence to see Sydney in scoring position. However, a controversial off side call halted the attack, foiling what seemed to be a certain equaliser.

It was only six minutes into the second half before another poor defensive play cost Sydney another goal. A loose pass by Sebastian Ryall was picked up by Brisbane on the right, and found its way to Steven Lustica who finished to make it 2-0.

Some resilient Brisbane defence kept a relentless Sydney FC scoreless for most of the second half. Jade North was particularly outstanding. Then in 79th minute, a rare attack by Brisbane saw Ivan Franjic curl his shot into the top corner to give Brisbane a 3-0 lead.

Sydney managed to score a consolation goal five minutes later when a foul on Joel Griffiths saw Del Piero step to score from the penalty spot. But it was too little too late for the sky blues, who let their final series destiny slip out of their grasp. Brisbane live to fight another day and defend their title.

Brisbane Roar 3 (Besart Berisha 29′, Steven Lustica 51′, Ivan Franjic 79′)
Sydney FC 1 (Alessandro Del Piero 84′)
Man of the match: Jade North
Crowd: 19,010


Wanderers’ Premier performance

The Western Sydney Wanderers wrapped up the Premier’s Plate on Good Friday witnessed by over 7,000 travelling supporters. The fledgling club continues to surpass expectations and set new standards of excellence, thumping the Newcastle Jets 3-0 in Newcastle.

The match was only six minutes old before the Jets were already exposed. A Tarek Elrich ball from right back saw it cut back across the face of goal for Mark Bridge to tap it in at the far post and give Western Sydney a 1-0 lead.

The Wanderers were impressive, particularly in transition as the Jets were continually forced to scramble back in defence on every break. They looked nervy for most of the first half, making it easier for Western Sydney to dominate.

The 33rd minute saw a Dino Kressinger header flicked on for Bridge to race through and calmly chip the ball over the keeper, doubling his team’s lead.

The start of the second half saw more possession from Newcastle, but they were still unconvincing. The Jets were missing some much needed spark, but eventually they stepped up a gear and made the game more competitive. The Wanderers defence was disciplined and managed to quell any pressure that the Jets could generate.

In the 80th minute, a short corner from Western Sydney was teed up by Rocky Visconte who unleashed an unstoppable drive that sailed into the top corner to put the game beyond Newcastles reach.

The full time whistle was met with scenes of jubilation. The celebrations however, like everything this season, were not in excess. The Wanderers now firmly set their sights on their finals campaign as they aim to complete the double in what has been a historic season.

Newcastle Jets 0
Western Sydney Wanderers 3 (Mark Bridge 6′ 33′, Rocky Visconte 80′)
Man of the match: Mark Bridge
Crowd: 22,518

Photo essay: facing fear

Fear: an emotion everyone experiences strongly at least once in their life. Photo: Eliza Cashman



When I was asked to create a photo essay on a topic of my choice I knew immediately that I wanted to do something addressing human emotion. I asked myself what is an emotion that everyone experiences strongly at least once in their life. The answer was fear. From the time we are children we learn to fear the world around us. Often these fears are learned from our experiences. Sometimes though, we learn to fear things because others are afraid. It’s the reason campfire ghost stories are so effective, even for skeptics. A point of focus in my childcare studies was the passing on of fears from carer to child. A particular caution was given against phobias. When confronted by a phobia we often act irrationally, for example, if someone suffering severe arachnophobia encounters a dangerous spider in their bedroom, they are likely to run out screaming, or crying, possibly both. This removes them from immediate danger, however it means they will either encounter the spider again, live in fear of its next appearance (often at the expense of sleep), or have someone else come in to take care of the problem. They aren’t in a position to rationalise that killing the spider then and there will solve the problem, and act accordingly.

These thoughts brought me to a remembrance of an experience I had with a close friend. We were visiting a wildlife park with her infant son for the first time. There was a room we had to go through to get to the rest of the park and it was filled with large butterflies. I did not know until then that she suffered a phobia many refer to as Lepidopterophobia. Remembering her reaction to the butterflies helped me realise that even in a time when we have so much control over our environment many everyday objects, places, and situations can trigger crippling fear. Most of us do not even notice things like traffic, heights, crowded rooms, open spaces, children, or loud noises, but to those suffering from these phobias it can be a confronting experience just to catch the train to work every morning. All this went through my mind in an instant, and suddenly there was nothing else upon which I could have based this photo essay.

Click on the slideshow below to see Eliza’s photos, which are best viewed full screen.


Sports Central Weekly

Kurtley Beale playing for the Waratahs. Photo: paddynapper/flickr

Kahlia Kim-Sheppard joins Jimmy and Wes as they talk about all the hot topics in sport for the week. Ben Barba, Kurtley Beale, the A-league, both Rugby codes and some frivolity with the AFL all get a mention over 30 minutes or so of sport, chat-style.



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I got it bad: hot for Diamond Dave

David Lee Roth: ridiculously self-indulgent, shameless, vainglorious ham and colossal turn-on. Photo: Jon Iraundegi (aterpeirun)/flickr




Let’s get this straight. I’ve always been an avid indie music listener (that is, independent music). Ever since high school when I discovered the irony of Morrissey, the curious sex appeal of Japan’s David Sylvian, and the moodiness of Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen. They were the ’80s Romantics. I had the hots for them all and I loved their languid style and the sophisticated darkness of their work.

But there was one exclusion to this: a man, as a subversion, who infiltrated my life in the form of an American mainstream music entertainer. A brash singer from the ’80s hair metal genre, or the way I saw it, an extremity of conflict, who challenged my very notion of who I was attracted to. His sense of identity seemed wrapped up in his amplified hair that outperformed mine and could have had its own dressing room. This man weasled his way into my stylish inner world of popular culture and became a part of it; I could have cried with fear from the free-fall towards non-sense.

The stageshow antics, those spandex tights, that hair! It was simply David Lee Roth.

Why was I even paying attention to this cartoon caricature? I have to say it was disconcerting at the time because brooding and sulking lead singers were my type. Like Ian McCulloch singing “Lips like Sugar”. I often thought Nick Cave sexy. Even more recently the thought of Conrad Standish from The Devastations has at times been too much to bear. And Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev? I’d definitely go there.

But slapstick joker Diamond Dave? If anything, he was too conspicuous and ridiculously self-indulgent, a shameless, vainglorious ham with a brand of showmanship that bordered on vaudeville.

In the age of serious head banging he constructed his fame by employing typical tactics of hyper-masculinity and heterosexuality that were way too camp for my liking. I was embarrassed and confronted by him and he was not culturally shaped to fit into my world of pretentious cool. Yet I knew he suggested something else while I continually tried to look the other way.

You see I’ve paraded myself flawlessly on a platform of sub-cultured indie cool. I’ve hung out with the cognoscenti, seen all the underground bands and worn the polka dots, the mod sunglasses, had the bobbed haircut, the striped stockings. I understood these social markers rendered me appropriate for fringe, unconventional, inner-city living because that’s who I genuinely was. So any thought of an attraction to David Lee Roth was inconvenient and at odds with my image and associated cultural fundamentals.

But oh, damn it was there. I secretly had it bad for cock-rock’s hottentot. For me, an MTV airing of a Van Halen or David Lee Roth music clip meant no fist pumping, no manic dancing around the room to Jump – it was more about sitting on the edge of the couch with furrowed brow, biting my lower lip, quietly gazing at his every athletic move like a private investigator.

I’d watch him cavort on stage displaying his openness and his beauty, fluffing and sexing up his wild mane while staring from the TV screen, wanting me to desperately want him, and there I was feeling annoyed that every fibre of my being was simmering like a pack of sexual two minute noodles. It went against my norm.

Yet he was a compelling image for an awkward young girl. Outwardly, his onstage persona as a supernaturally endowed rock star, together with the way he operated that body, was a colossal turn on.

Yes, I’m talking about pushing the envelope of body flexibility and strength with those creative splits and scissor kicks. As a man, he embodied sexual capital in a postmodern world with brazenness, cockiness and penetrative stares down the barrel of the camera.

His schtick of non-conformity against droll social conventions appealed to me even then, and all this with eyes that could melt even the most hard-boiled female prison warden.

Crucially, though, there seemed more to him than the egocentric stage buffoon. He was carefree, rebellious and childlike, with attitude. He seemed to poke fun at himself with excellent comic timing and appeared to be naturally happy. He got away with being the debauched bacchanalian.

Later in life I discovered that during his time out from Van Halen he cut his hair and became a New York paramedic with more than two hundred 9-11 calls under his belt. I read in various interviews he was so outdoorsy there was no furniture in the house. He enjoyed pushing his body to its physical limits with rock climbing and Japanese sword play, amongst other pursuits. Recently, at 58, he trekked through the highlands of New Guinea with a native tribe. His interviews showed he was savagely bright, philosophical, and possessed a deep interest in world cultures and societies. And despite embracing the excesses of rock ‘n roll, he understood the need to get away from its pressures to recharge his depleted soul.

Interestingly, these qualities added to the biological appeal that had me running hot. David Lee Roth was my first real seductive taste of female voyeurism of the male form. For once, it was the sight of a half-naked man gyrating in tight fitting pants that enhanced everything. He indulged my adolescent sexual gaze, a treat usually reserved for men gazing at women. He proudly offered himself as a male sexual object, and as a young female, I could stare back in pleasure. That was the intimacy he encouraged in his massive female audience.

In the end, I accepted the strangeness of my David-Lee-Roth-turn-on. He changed my mind and desires about my innermost secrets of attraction and I was moved by it, something which I now love him for. As time marches on, age has caught up with us all, but there would be no contest now between Cave and Roth. I know who would win hands down.