Did you know that, right now, there are hundreds of children sitting in motel rooms across Australia without safe homes to send them to? There are no orphanages, and only foster carers can help. Irina Castellano has been a foster carer for more than 23 years, helping more than 75 children so far with the support of her husband and three children. Here, she writes about her incredible journey - and how you can help these kids too.
If you were speaking to your younger self, what advice would you give?
Trust your gut feeling, follow your dreams and fully embrace life-long learning. "Everything happens for a reason" is a great motto to live by. Though you might not see the bigger picture and reasoning behind something, it will fall into place at some point in your life.
Have you had any aha moments that changed everything for you?
While living in North Carolina in the USA. when I was 15, I read the book A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer. It chronicles Dave’s story about how he was brutally beaten and starved by his emotionally unstable, alcoholic mother and how she considered him an ‘it’.
Though I’m aware some people have said this is a fictional account, it had a huge impact on me. Having lived a rather privileged lifestyle as an expat child, I was blown away by how a mother could treat her own child like this.
I’d seen a lot of poverty while travelling, but I’d never heard about child abuse on this level and knew nothing about the fostering system.
What decisions have made a difference in your life?
The best decision I’ve ever made was not only to marry David, but also that we didn’t delay our fostering and adoptive journey.
David knew nothing about fostering and initially just went along to please me, but he’s been incredible with each and every child in our home, whether adopted, fostered or biological.
In our home, there’s Celina, 17, who we adopted from Singapore during the time we lived there. Then there’s Ricky, our biological child, 16, and Madison, 12, who was locally adopted in NSW.
Foster children are usually younger than the biological kids in a household in order to keep the hierarchy. It often works better when they can be guided by the older ones.
All of our kids are quite knowledgeable when it comes to redirecting behavioural issues or emotional outbursts with children from all backgrounds and cultures. They’ve also become more aware of the effects drugs have on a baby in the womb and what the consequences of a one-night stand may be.
Watching a baby going through withdrawal symptoms (FASD, when the birth-mum consumes alcohol during the pregnancy), or seeing a child suffer when they can’t see their parent in jail, are all ways for them to understand certain realities they wouldn’t normally be confronted with.
How did your kids come into your life?
We adopted Celina while we were living in Singapore for five years. She was two-and-a-half months old and so tiny when we first met her. It was an incredible feeling knowing we could provide a safe home for her. She was a beautiful baby, and she created our family.
A year later our biological child, Ricky, came into our life, and we thought our family was complete, even though we’d always wanted three kids. But we felt blessed and content.
Once back in Sydney, we continued to foster. Eventually we discovered that one of these children, Madison, wasn’t going to be reunited with her birth family, so we were asked if we wanted to keep her permanently or maybe even adopt her.
We immediately said yes, but the process of adopting her still took a few years. Nowadays, the adoption process is supposed to be much faster, as it’s been well-documented that kids in care feel a huge relief and sense of security when it becomes official, and it’s much more streamlined now.
It should be noted that we appreciate all of our extended family, who were always supportive and inclusive every time we showed up at a family get-together at short notice with a new child. It makes a huge difference and helps the child feel acknowledged and accepted.
How many kids have been in your care over the years?
In our 22 years of fostering, we had almost seventy kids come through our home. Their stay was anything from a single night, to a few weeks or months, and one stayed forever. We took in one to three children at a time.
What helped you during your fostering journey?
I’m a strong believer in lifelong learning. Every month I complete at least one or two courses on any subject that could help me understand these kids better.
I’ve completed a Diploma in Community Services and now teach these units to others. I’ve also taken over 100 courses on trauma informed care practices, complex trauma, FASD, ADHD, autism, attachment, life-story work, bullying, cyber safety, eating disorders, emotional regulation, sexualised behaviour and mental health, as well as others.
What is your big WHY?
There are 26 million inhabitants of Australia, with eight million in NSW, and yet we can’t seem to find homes for these kids (figures vary between 350-600 homes at any given time). Why???? It must be possible.
There have to be people who would like to fill their homes with children who just want to be loved and cared for. Perhaps couples or singles who’ve tried IVF and decided to discontinue it.
I’d love to work closely with IVF clinics in order to give people hope. We’ve been through IVF as well, and I know what it entails. If they’re open minded, flexible and have some patience, they could have children who stay with them permanently. Not all of them can be reunited with their birth family. It’s up to the judge who presides over these cases.
When you foster, you learn a lot about how the system works, both the good and the bad, so you can make an informed decision if adoption is for you.
It’s important to note that all adoptions in Australia are ‘open adoptions’, meaning you will most likely continue to have contact with the birth family, the frequency of which is determined and ordered by the court.
Fostering will show you how important contact visits are for a child, so they can stay connected to their culture, have a clear identity and understand their medical history.
Contact may involve the birth parents and grandparents, as well as extended family. It could even include siblings, who may also be in foster care with other families.
It’s also possible that the child you’re caring for has a sibling who’s later added to your family. It’s not uncommon to have large sibling groups of eight to eleven who are available.
Additionally, it will highlight how fostering provides you with a support system that consists of speech therapists, occupational therapists and counsellors. You’ll discover how to navigate it all.
You’re not alone in this. There’s a team to support you, as well as a 24- hour hotline. It’s possible to receive free training through every agency. Many sessions are also available online for you to complete at your own pace. Some face to face sessions have childcare available too.
What are you passionate about?
Connecting more families with kids in need of a safe home. We never used to have problems finding places for children under the age of five. Now we do. There are many sibling groups, and it breaks my heart.
What’s the best thing that has ever happened to you, and why?
Three things come to my mind right away:
1. Constantly moving. Moving every few years broadened my horizons. It’s made me comfortable with, and appreciative of, other cultures, languages and ways of life. I’m so grateful for these opportunities that were given to me by my parents.
2. Meeting my soul mate, David. David has allowed me to work when and where I wanted. He didn’t always understand the bigger picture or purpose of my actions, but he still supported me. I’m eternally grateful for how he started the fostering/adoptive journey with me after being a bit apprehensive at first, as I’ve found most men can be.
3. Being a parent to our three children. Our children are from three different sets of parents, and I love them dearly. It was never an issue for David or me if the kids looked like us or where they came from.
All three of them are precious to us in the same way, and my family means the world to me.
How did you come up with your idea of helping those who want to foster/adopt?
After hearing about the increase in the number of children in Australia, as well as those as young as two years old being ‘temporarily’ housed in motel rooms, I knew I had to take action.
I tried to figure out how to best put my years of experience, passion and knowledge to good use and help impact this crisis.
I wanted to bridge the gap or create a powerful link and opportunity for those who know they want to provide a loving environment for a child/ children, but didn't know where to start, and wanted to talk to other carers to get a better understanding as to what’s involved.
My vision and deep desire was to create a system whereby each child is able to be placed into a safe and caring home in the shortest amount of time possible. I know this may seem like an impossible task, but I needed to start somewhere.
As a result, I created a four-week program with 90 minutes each week via zoom or over the phone, to inspire and recruit new foster carers. The program is as follows:
I help you understand
• if fostering is for you as a couple, single or LGBTQ+ community member
• how kids end up in the out-of-home care system (OOHC) in the first place
• which type of care is best for you and your current lifestyle • the true fostering statistics
• the different agencies available in Australia
• a few agency options to choose from in your area.
Now it’s time to move on to more pressing matters, such as
• what agencies are looking for in general
• why contact visits with the birth family are so important • the available age group of kids in care
• case scenarios with foster kids
• how to prepare for assessor home visits.
To guide you through the process, I will help you understand
• the difference between fostering/adoption and guardianship • how to start your fostering/adoption journey
• the advantages of taking on sibling groups
• possible behavioural issues.
Once you have decided to go on the fostering/adoption journey, we will discuss
• how to prepare your home for the big arrival
• how your extended family might be affected
• how your own family dynamics may change after a placement • how to prepare your kids for the arrival of a foster child • how to anticipate other issues.
I would like to help potential foster carers navigate the process of being authorised by an agency. My program educates and informs people from all walks of life, professions and cultural backgrounds.
How did you come up with the idea for your business?
It all started with the urge to write down my rather unusual life story. When my dad died, I realised I still had so many questions about his life and decided to write my life story for our three kids. In day-to-day life, we often don’t share details about ‘the olden age’, as our daughter Madison puts it.
I also understood that in order to get more people into fostering, we needed to think outside the box, so I went on a mission to get more people interested in fostering. I intend to do that through the promotion of the book I’m working on.
I also believe that carers need to be supported better when they’re starting out. I don’t want them to give up if and when the going gets tough.
There are so many fostering agencies to choose from, that it can be rather overwhelming. Potential carers may feel more at ease asking another carer, instead of the agency itself.
They want to be able to ask ‘silly’ questions without worrying about not getting approved. I want more carers, and I’m willing to spend my days supporting them.
They need a listening ear when they’re frustrated or hurt by something their caseworker or foster child did or said. It’s important for them to have a bouncing board for ideas on how to manage challenging behaviours when they arise and someone to guide them to where they may find help and support.
I’m honoured to go on the fostering journey with them, so they stay on track and don’t give up.
Why do you think there aren’t enough homes for kids in need within Australia?
There are several reasons, in my opinion:
Not advertising in the right places
Though heaps of money is spent on advertising, I don’t feel it’s being explained enough or marketed to the right candidates. Why are we not holding talks in schools, places of worship or with other community service providers? Why are we not targeting IVF Clinics? Why do we not have more interviews with real carers sharing their experiences? Why do we seem to always show the negative stories of kids in foster care? We could maybe even have birth families share experiences, where they appreciated the carers taking over while they got their lives back on track.
We should all work together even more, improve our support systems and have an increased amount of respect for one another.
Some of the myths in regard to fostering in general include having to be married, ceasing work for a year or not being approved if you belong to the LGBTQ+ community, all of which are untrue.
You may be apprehensive about getting started if you’ve had a life with many lows. You might be afraid that people will judge you about your past. Depending on what you’ve gone through, it’s often these very life experiences that will help you connect with those in need, as you’ve gone through it and come out the other side.
4. People thinking they’re not eligible, because of their busy lifestyle
There are those who seem to think there needs to be a ‘perfect time’ to get started with fostering. You might be doing shift work right now. You know what? That’s life, and childcare can be arranged through your support system. But it still means that this child, who may have been rather unsupervised in the past, now has a safe and loving place to come home to.
NSW alone has over 50 agencies to choose from, and many people don’t know where to start. They’re overwhelmed by so many choices. But once they understand that each agency often specialises in certain services, it becomes much clearer. For example, some agencies specialise in placing kids with a disability, while others place those who come up for adoption or locate homes for teenagers.
6. Not enough information
Did you know that you don’t have to be married to foster a child? Or that many children are fostered into loving LGBTQ+ households? Did you know that you can live in a rental property or that you could take foster kids on holidays? Did you know that you receive a tax-free fortnightly payment, so it doesn’t become a huge financial burden for you?
So many people think they have to be living a perfect life with two parents and a white picket fence, but it isn’t true, because that’s just not real life.
How do you know if you’ve made a difference through fostering?
These are some of the tell-tale signs you’ve made a difference in their lives:
1. They start taking pride in their appearance.
2. They realise it’s not their fault that they’re in care and understand they didn’t break up their parents’ relationship.
3. They start believing they’re beautiful, inside and out.
4. They want to do well in school, because they realise someone cares if they do.
5. They lean in as you’re reading a book to them, when at first they sat far away.
6. They take your hand while crossing the road and won’t let go. They learn to name their emotions and are able to control them. They insist that you have to tuck them in at night.
7. They start making plans for the future. and feel proud of their achievements.
8. They disclose the abuse to you, because they trust you.
9. They say, “I love you”, and they really, really mean it, and they smile and laugh, because they feel safe.
10 They can sleep without nightmares. and they no longer hide food ‘just in case’ they’ll feel hungry.
What is your vision for a better future?
My hope is that birth families are even better supported, so kids don’t end up in the foster care system to start with.
What is the one message you wish to share with the world?
That there’s never a ‘right time’ to have kids. There are always possible excuses to delay looking into fostering, or even adoption. Initially, I struggled to combine the two. I never wanted people to come into fostering, because they wanted to create or increase their family.
As of 2020, there are 47,000 children in care in Australia, with 17,000 in out-of-home care (OOHC) in NSW alone, which means there are plenty of kids who need permanent homes.
My advice would be to get dual authorisation, which means getting authorised for fostering and adoption at the same time, if that’s what you’d like to do.
Some agencies do offer both, but I would suggest always beginning with fostering, in order to understand what it entails.
Fostering means being open to contact with birth families, going to many doctor appointments for check-ups, working within a team setting and educating yourself about trauma-informed care practices.
With each child in your care, you learn and grow as a carer of kids ‘who aren’t born under your heart, but in it’. The chances are rather great that a kid won’t just stay for one night or even several weeks.
They can stay for up to two years in ‘restoration care’, as this is the timeframe given to birth families for them to demonstrate significant changes in their lifestyle, before the court decides if they will move into ‘permanent or long-term care’, meaning that they remain a ward of the state until the age of 18.
Adoptions from OOHC are now being approved quicker than ever, as research has shown that kids thrive with boundaries and consistency, rather than being moved from home to home. Some have had up to twenty placements by the age of 18.