By Sophie Cousins
He sat on the ground outside the only shopping centre in the small neighbourhood, his arms and legs crossed in defiance, crying out.
“Why don’t you love me? Why? I promise I won’t be naughty anymore.” Michael, a 14-year-old Indigenous boy, pleads with his foster mother to allow him to remain living with her in Mallanganee, in the northern rivers district of NSW.
He has only been in Heather O’Malley’s care for six-months. And in this time he had finally agreed to willingly attend school. Before that he was living somewhere in the Adelaide Hills and before that, well, he can’t remember.
Aside from being shuttled back and forth to his birth mother, who is a self-confessed crack and alcohol addict, he has had five different sets of parents in the past three years. And moving from school to school just became too much for Michael.
For Ms O’Malley, this is the harsh reality of the foster care system. And she should know. She and her husband, Neville, have fostered 213 children since 1978.
There were 37,648 Australian children in crisis care across the country, as of June 30, 2011.
According to the CREATE Foundation, the peak body for children in care, that number represented a 33 per cent increase between 2007 and 2011.
Of this, 40 per cent are Indigenous and alarmingly, more than 90 per cent are below the reading age of seven.
CREATE founder Bronwyn Sheehan speaks with conviction and passion. There is a sense of urgency in her voice. Her face tells a story of long hours and painstaking hard work, something she tries to disguise as she sweeps her light brown hair partially across her eyes to cover her “wrinkles”.
“The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) tells us that children in foster care are the group that has the lowest educational outcomes in Australia,” she says.
“Their early lives are more often than not highly traumatic, they have experienced violence and have often been neglected. They haven’t come from literacy rich environments and their academic needs have not been met.”
Moreover, 75 per cent of children in crisis care do not finish school, while 35 per cent end up in the juvenile system.
Ms Sheehan was alarmed at the statistics highlighting the poor literacy levels of children in care and became determined to find a way to address the issue. This was the beginning of The Pyjama Foundation, a children’s charity that aims to break the cycle of disadvantage experienced by Australian children in foster care, almost nine years ago.
The charity’s reading program aims to break the typical life cycle of disadvantage – which can lead to unemployment and homelessness – by fostering an early love of books.
“We have an endless supply of clients,” Ms Sheehan says. “We mentor 1043 children every week.”
The charity works on referrals from foster care agencies and foster parents who want the children to have the best chance at success in life.
Despite the demanding and fruitful successful work of the charity, Ms Sheehan is frustrated by the system.
“The problem is that these children are very mobile, they move placements a lot,” she says. “How do children feel secure and get their needs met if this happens to them? It is a huge problem. It’s on the Government’s radar but we need action. It’s almost like the stolen generation all over again.”
The CREATE Report Card 2013, Australia’s biggest survey of young people in care, last month revealed that the growing number of children in care was due to neglect and abuse.
It surveyed more than 1000 children aged eight to 11 in foster care, from all states and territories except Western Australia. It found that about one-third of foster children went to three or more primary schools and 35 per cent had to deal with more than five caseworkers during their time in care.
Alarmingly, the survey also found that each child had, on average, six placements, while 50 per cent didn’t even know why they were brought into care.
Ms O’Malley can’t forget the day Michael was taken away. She knew he was going back to his mother.
“It’s extremely difficult to say goodbye, especially when you know they’re being put back in the same situation where they originally came from,” she says. “The children get moved around so many times that they don’t know where they belong.”
The Department of Child Services prefers that Indigenous children be placed in “culturally appropriate homes” and while this may make sense in theory, reality often paints a very different picture.
The CREATE Report Card found that only 30 per cent of Indigenous children in care reported any connection with their culture. They, too, had higher levels of different placements and more disruptions. And they are 10 times more likely to be in foster care and only 10 per cent were aware of a “cultural support plan”.
Ms O’Malley is an intense character with a heart of gold. She doesn’t stop talking, radiating energy, as she walks through the tiny community of Mallanganee, 40 kilometres west of Casino.
It’s hard to keep up with her; her lean figure suggests she has little time to rest.
Aside from currently looking after two teenagers and a little boy – all with intellectual disabilities – she and her husband are SES volunteers.
“People ask why I’m still a foster parent and I tell them that there are children out there who need a home, along with love and care,” she says. “Here we are. We’ve opened our doors, so come on in.”