Sydney Archdiocese REPORT
16 Sep 2011
Robyn and her husband Leigh have love, warmth and big hearts and for the past decade have not only been Mum and Dad to their own three children but foster parents to many more.
Not only do Robyn and Leigh welcome foster children into their four-bedroom Sydney home, parenting them with patience, commonsense, humour and plenty of love, but they do what they can to make sure siblings are not separated.
Currently the couple, who prefer their surname is not mentioned to ensure the privacy of their young charges, are caring for three brothers from one family and a sister and brother from another.
Among the 80 dedicated parents and their families with CatholicCare who offer short or long term foster care to children, Robyn and Leigh can be relied on to step in when fostering is needed for a family group.
Now as Foster Care Week is celebrated across Australia from 11-17 September, Robyn talks about her role as a specialist carer of siblings.
CatholicCare, the Archdiocese of Sydney's welfare agency offers a wide range of different types of foster care including emergency foster care, short or long term foster care, respite care for children and fostering for children with disabilities. But Robyn and Leigh are one of the few who specialise in fostering groups of siblings.
"For siblings to be separated can be very traumatic and we have the room," she says, explaining that in the couple's big old house, she and Leigh have one bedroom, their youngest daughter another, with the three brothers who range in age from 10 to 14 sharing the third bedroom and the two little ones, a four-year-old girl and two-year-old boy in the fourth bedroom. "Everything's pretty basic but for the kids it seems to work well."
Robyn and Leigh are no strangers to fostering and began caring for youngsters who needed a temporary home and plenty of love and care more than 25 years ago.
"When the two eldest of our three kids were small, we became foster parents as well. We really enjoyed it and found it was something we could do that was both rewarding as well as worthwhile. But as our kids grew older and life became more hectic, we took a break from fostering, although we always knew we'd return to it at some stage in the future," Robyn explains.
Originally based in Melbourne, Leigh and Robyn not only fostered children when their own brood were young but for many years worked at Victoria's St Joseph's Homes, a large residential care facility for children founded by St Vincent de Paul Society and now run by the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.
Later, moving to Sydney where Leigh works at Kingsford Smith Airport, and with their youngest daughter in her final years at high school, Robyn came an ad for CatholicCare which said the Archdiocese of Sydney's welfare agency was looking for families to foster groups of siblings.
"Looking after kids is something we're pretty good at and we thought we could help," she says with a smile.
As with all prospective foster parents, CatholicCare checked out the family's credentials, then after undergoing further training, Robyn and Leigh began caring for groups of young sisters and brothers and opening both their hearts and their home.
"As foster parents officially we're down as providing temporary care, but this can be anything from a few months to several years," says Robyn laughing and explains that the three boys have been with them for four and a half years now and may be there for some time to come.
"But the two little ones are only with us for several weeks while their mother is in hospital and unable to care for them," she says.
The reasons children need foster care vary and they often enter care because a parent is ill and a mother is simply worn down, exhausted and for a short time, unable to cope. There are also cases where parents may be experiencing difficulties looking after their children, or a marriage has broken up and the parent now single is having a tough time.
There are also instances where because of drugs or alcohol abuse, parents may be unable to care for their children.
"Most parents love their kids very much but for complex and different reasons find they are unable to take care of them. But whatever these reasons, at CatholicCare the hope is that eventually all children in our foster care program will be reunited with their families," says Andree Borc, CatholicCare's Manager for the Professional Support of Children.
According to Robyn the big thing for a foster parent is not to be judgemental, to understand how important a child's parents are in their lives and to encourage contact if that's what the children want.
"The three boys know they can call their mum and dad anytime they want to and if there is something special like a prize giving I make sure their parents are invited and know they can come along too," says Robyn who originally had the three sisters of the boys also living with her.
"They were with us for close on three and a half years and now are with another family. Younger than their brothers, we made sure it was a three month transition so everyone could get used to the idea and while it was a sad time for us when the girls left, we make sure they are still part of each others lives."
Next week when school holidays begin, Robyn and the little girls' new foster parents have arranged for the brothers and their sisters to spend a whole day together and are already planning other events.
At 56, Robyn is full of energy matched with a self-deprecating sense of humour and keen sense of the ridiculous.
"Some mothers say to me that this is something they'd like to do too, but quickly add that they don't think their husbands or children could cope with the intrusion," she says and shakes her head. "It's a mistake many people make. There's no intrusion into your life if you don't let it be. Our life just goes on as always whether we have foster children or not. If we go on holiday everyone comes along. Whatever we do everyone is included."
Robyn and Leigh, however, insist on house rules, the same rules their own kids had to follow. "The children who come to us know from the outset what the house rules are and that there are no exceptions. Kids like knowing boundaries and while they might kick up a bit at first, it is amazing how quickly they adjust and how much happier they are as a result," she says.
The house rules include everyone sitting down for a meal together not only in the evening but at breakfast. "We're old fashioned and use meals as get togethers and a time for all of us to talk and tell each other about our day," she says.
Robyn also uses the two kilometres she walks with the kids to school each day as a time to exchange ideas, thoughts and have a good "natter."
"I've never had a driving license so the kids and I walk everywhere and on the walk to and from school we have a great chat and the best time."
The two eldest in Robyn's own family have long since left home with her 30-year-old son now a trained nurse and her 31-year-old daughter working in hospitality in Melbourne. Robyn and Leigh's youngest daughter who is 21 and studying to be a social worker, is the only one of three still living at home.
"My children all have their own lives now but they learned a lot sharing the house with other kids when they were growing up," Robyn says. "Quite a bit rubbed off on them such as their choice of career in nursing and in social work. And from an early age they realised that some kids had it much tougher than they did. Fostering also helps your own kids learn to share and to help others."
For Robyn though one of the most personally rewarding moments from her years of fostering came just a few weeks ago courtesy of cyberspace.
"One of the boys we fostered when my kids were at primary school found us through one of my children's pages on Facebook. He spent four years with us as a youngster. He's now 28 and said he had spent his whole life looking for us as his time in our family was the best time of his life. He had vivid memories of his time with us. I know people say that kids are so young they won't remember but he did and was sad he hadn't been able to get in touch with us."
Robyn and her former foster child are now in contact by email and hope to meet in Melbourne in the near future.
"It is wonderful to have feedback like that. Another girl we cared for also got in touch via my daughter's Facebook page. She's was a very troubled little girl but is now grown up with children of her own and we're arranging a get together."
But for Robyn the quiet joy of being a foster parent occurs each evening when she's tucked the last one into bed, straightened the cushions and having made herself a coffee, sat down on the couch.
"There's a feeling of warmth and contentment, a really feeling of accomplishment and love," she says.
To volunteer to become a foster family and to learn more about CatholicCare's Foster program log on to www.fosterkids.com.au