The day that a little boy reached out to hold her hand for the very first time, melted Carmen Gould’s heart. After a tricky start, where he just hadn’t “warmed up” to being in respite care, she and husband Nick had their doubts. But that little breakthrough is one of many highlights in the life of a carer.
Carmen and Nick from Parkes NSW were one of the winners in this year’s Carers Awards, announced at the recent Virtual Picnic hosted by My Forever Family NSW to launch Foster and Kinship Care Week 2020.
The couple has four biological sons aged from 4 through to 9 and have fostered 15 children of various ages since early 2018.
Carmen recalls her parents talking about being carers and although they never took the plunge, it sowed a seed of an idea for her. When she and Nick were preparing to marry they discussed the idea and agreed to both be “open to it” but to wait until they had their own kids to “practise on” first.
Well, Carmen now laughs as she relates that when their fourth son was about six months old and teething, she was walking around the house trying to rock him to sleep and feeling relieved that this would be the last time she would have to do so.
“I felt like God gently laughed and said ‘Oh my sweet child. This isn’t the trial. This is the practice. You will be rocking many, many more babies to sleep, and sooner than you’d think’.
Then came all the signs she could not ignore.
“I was working at a supermarket and would have customers randomly telling me how they were foster carers and which agencies they use and what they like or don’t like about them. I heard songs on the radio, ads on tv, articles in the paper.
“I told Nick it was clear to me we needed to apply to be foster carers right now but I needed him on board. It wasn’t something I was willing to do without his support. He was very unsure, until one night there was a tv news items about a child who was so badly hurt by their carer that they were in Sydney hospital in a coma. That carer had lived in the street behind ours. Nick said “Well we aren’t going to do that. I’m ready”.
“That was when we applied to be carers. That was in 2017. We were qualified in early 2018”
The couple’s experiences with fostering have been very varied. Of the 15 children they have had come through, only two have been girls.
The Goulds mostly do emergency and respite care. This has included some incredible experiences, such as Carmen flying to Sydney via planes and helicopter with a very ill premature baby that had no one to care for him, through to taking on four additional children last year when a fellow carer passed away. That “temporary” arrangement turned into seven months of having nine children under their roof aged 9 and under.
“Our case workers were amazing. They organised meals to be delivered, washing to be done and cleaners to come help us out.
“They were always available to listen to me vent and organised for me to see the psychologist so I could learn how to better support everyone.
“The community of Parkes was also amazing. The first six weeks, before our case workers organised extra help, we had meals delivered by strangers, but they were people who knew the kids. We had clothes donated, babysitting offered, offers for help with washing, running kids to sports and just so much support. It was honestly amazing. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.
“People gave us vouchers, boxes of fruit, toilet paper was delivered (thanks COVID). I’ve never felt more supported and grateful. I honestly now know what it feels like to raise children with a village. It’s amazing.”
Among the “highs” of being carers were the moment that little boy held his hand out in trust to her (“My heart nearly burst!”) and also the fact that, of the four kids they care for 7 months, they still get to regularly see two of them.
“It is such a joy seeing them settled and happy in their new homes. We also got to build relationships with all four of them and we are always so happy to see any of them. We adore them and they seem genuinely happy to see us too.
Carmen says one nice surprise of being a carer had been the teenage boys they have had for respite.
“They have been the easiest, most well mannered, funny kids ever. All they do is sleep, eat and watch tv!”
The couple currently have their four biological children, a 10 year old for respite and a emergency temporary placement for a 13 year old.
“We also have an absolutely gorgeous 18 month old, who we have had since he was 10 weeks old. He is currently in the process to be restored with his Mum, which we are delighted about.”
Although they have been kept incredibly busy, Carmen has enjoyed using the Online Lounges through My Forever Family NSW when she has been able. In particular, she found the “using music as therapy” sessions particularly helpful.
She also loves the pre-recorded training videos that she can “watch while preparing dinner, or cleaning the bathroom” and has attended several of the live training sessions, mostly on how to help kids who have experienced trauma.
“They have been fantastic,” she said.
Carmen says when people ask her about becoming a carer one of the first things she advise is to “not to do it to feel good about yourself.”
“I’ve never spent more time crying than I have since becoming a carer. You’ll cry for the kids, you’ll cry because you’re overwhelmed, you’ll cry because you can’t do more, because the need never ends, because you don’t feel you’ve done enough. It mostly doesn’t have that feel good feeling. There are feel good moments, but they have more to do with feeling proud of the child, than feeling like you’ve accomplished anything.
“Do it because you want to make a difference in a child’s life. It is definitely rewarding but it’s not easy. It does feel good, but it also feels hard.”
Carmen also say it’s important that people know that love isn’t enough.
“A lot of people have told me, these kids just need to be loved. Don’t get me wrong. They do need love but they need so much more than that.
“Safety, structure, routine, boundaries. Yes they need love but they need to have carers willing to do more than just love them.
Carmen has quotes and bible verses hung on her bathroom walls to help her on the hard days. One that she particularly likes is: “Children are not a distraction from more important work, they are the most important work” ~ CS Lewis.