A simple lunchbox is the most important tool for Fay Alford when welcoming a fearful foster child into her home. It’s filled with fruit, crackers and muesli bars that are for that child and that child only, and she’ll quietly top it up as needed.
“They understand there is always going to be food for them,” she explains. “In a few days they will forget about it because they’re getting set meals, but it’s a good way of letting them know they’re important.”
Personal experience has informed that idea. Alford herself was fostered as an eight-year-old in the 1950s, and the most common – and detested – dinner item at her children’s home was liver. “I can’t look at it now – it just about makes me ill,” she says. “They didn’t know any better in those days. I would wet the bed and I had to wash the sheets by hand. The boys and girls were separated so I had no idea where my brothers were and I had to take care of my six-year-old sister. I had no clue as to why I was even there. It was an awful experience for an impressionable eight-year-old.”
Alford’s father had left her mother with five children to look after, in a time when there were no support services or benefits. “It must have been absolutely awful for her when I think about it now,” she says, “particularly as she was raised in the very same children’s home that we went to.”
Having an understanding of what a parent might be going through for their child to wind up in the care system is key when Alford trains foster carers. She’s the director of the Foster Care Association WA, which was the first such association in Australia. She first started volunteering there in the 1980s, and then joined the committee, before becoming president, and then vice-president. “That was all unpaid, then we started doing advocacy work for carers, funded by the government here,” she says. “At that point I became the paid director and the committee changed to a board. When I leave, I want somebody to take over and to be paid to do the job.”
Alford is also a board member for Kinship Connections, the Western Australian initiative designed to connect Indigenous communities. Alford believes that whenever it’s safe to do so, it’s vital to keep children connected to their community and culture, particularly in the case of Aboriginal kids.
She also stresses the importance of keeping siblings together. “My father eventually came back and we went home, but he wasn’t a very kind man and my mum died at 44,” she says. “I went to 14 different schools. You never settle or make friends, but my brothers and sister were my world; we were very close. Research shows it’s the sibling relationship that’s often stronger than the parental-child relationship.”
Alford doesn’t foster any more but she did play mum – or “Mimi” – to 90 children over 30 years, with help from her husband, David. Some neglected kids can wind up hitching their wagon to the worst kind of influence – as Alford’s mother did – but Alford broke the cycle when she started dating David at the age of 16. He came from a stable, normal family; the kind she’d been yearning for. “It made me think when I had my kids that they were always going to know that they were loved,” she says. “And we’ve done that. We adore our children and our parenting style was very different [to my parents].”
When their daughters were 11 and 13, Alford decided that she and David would foster children. “It’s an interesting conversation to have with your children,” she reflects. “Girls are more thoughtful, so they were included in that kind of stuff. I have the greatest admiration for them – they had to share their parents and their rooms. What they learned from that experience was empathy for where these children came from, but also empathy for what happened to their parents for them to get to the point that they lost their children.”
It can take six months for prospective foster parents to get a full assessment done, but once they’re on board there’s plenty of support and further mandatory training days. Even though she’s now 71, Alford’s mobile number is available for after-hours queries. “People need to think about what they can give,” she advises interested parties. “We have people who think ,‘I’m at work and I can’t manage that,’ but you know what? You can do some respite care. You can do one weekend a month, or something for another carer. You can be part of children’s lives whether you’ve got a lot of time or not.”
Alford wouldn’t deny that fostering comes with challenges – the rise of methamphetamine, for instance, means that children have often experienced domestic violence and adults with poor mental health. But, she says, “People have misconceptions – they often only hear the negative about fostering, but if you ask our grownup children [about] the best thing that happened to them, they’d tell you it was being fostered. They’re sad little kids that come into care, and then you see them grow in confidence. There’s such joy in actually seeing a child smile for the first time.”
Her proudest moment, in fact, came when one child, an Indigenous girl, turned 18 and legally adopted Fay and David as her parents. But it’s a fact that no child, upon arriving, wants to be there, she says. “Even though they’re suffering trauma, they want to be home no matter what’s happened,” Alford explains. “So it’s matter of just letting them settle in and giving them pieces slowly. You never push yourself upon them.”