What would you do if your adult child turned up on your doorstep with a baby, dumped the child and left?
Imagine it: you’re a couple getting on in years, both close to retirement, establishing that garden you dreamed about and talked about for so long, planning an overseas holiday.
One afternoon, your youngest daughter turns up with a baby no more than a few days old in her arms, dumps the child and runs.
That’s what happened to Anna and Theo. They had no warning that their ‘golden years’ were about to end before they had even begun… or that they would soon be working carers.
Their daughter, Sara, was in some kind of an elevated condition. They hadn’t seen her or heard from her in almost a year. “I’ve come home,” she cried. “And this is your grand-daughter.”
An hour later, Sara had vanished. She left a roughly printed note: BACK IN MORNING.
She didn’t come back. The next time they heard from her was an abusive phone call five months later when she accused them of kidnapping her baby.
This isn’t an isolated case. There are thousands of grandparent-parents across Australia raising the children of their own children… raising the kids of young people who have become addicted to drugs or alcohol or both, or, in some cases, to computer games or social media, or to various combinations of all these. Some simply can’t cope with having a child to raise. Some just can’t be bothered.
The first thing Anna and Theo had to cope with when they had the care of their baby grand-daughter imposed upon them was to have her cured of her drug addiction. They couldn’t understand why she screamed for hours on end. Their old family doctor saw it at once: she was going through withdrawal.
The treatment was costly. The overseas trip went on hold. Theo kept his job driving a school-bus but went to part-time hours. Anna started working three evenings a week, stacking shelves at a supermarket.
They kept waiting to hear from Sara. They didn’t even know what the baby’s name was. They decided they would call her Evie.
This new social phenomenon has become so common in the last few years that a Facebook group where grandparent-parents can discuss matters has more than 600 members. The group was founded by Sue Erben, who, with her husband, Karl, has had the care of her grand-daughter, Jayde, for four years.
Sue told the ABC in a recent interview that these children and thousands like them would otherwise be in care at government expense. Yet grandparent-parents and other kinship carers have to fight tooth and nail to get any government support at all in the costly business of bringing up children who are, in the great majority of cases, severely traumatised. And these carers have no legal rights whatsoever.
In Anna and Theo’s case, for instance, should Sara decide she wants Evie back after all, she would have the weight of the law behind her. If she should change her mind again, as almost certainly she would, Evie would be returned to Anna and Theo who would then have to set about repairing the inevitable damage. They would get no thanks, no help at all, and might well be told it’s all their fault anyway because they didn’t bring up their daughter properly.
The statistics are scary. An Australian Institute of Family Studies survey indicates that the number of grandparents raising grandchildren has doubled in less than a decade. The estimate is that there are now 46,680 grandparent-parents in Australia. In NSW, kinship carers now outnumber foster carers. As of October last year, 49 per cent of all children in care are being raised by relatives other than their biological parents.
Sue Erben says she is one of the lucky ones. At least, her daughter, Erin, now 22, understands that she’s not capable of raising a child and is grateful to her mum for taking on the job. And though Sue’s husband, Karl, isn’t Jayde’s biological grandfather, he’s completely supportive – even at a risk to his own health.
Erin’s not doing methamphetamine (ice) presently. She’s still smoking marijuana, but she is seeing a counsellor.
“It’s more of a self-medication sort of thing to try and stop myself before the depression kicks in,” she told the ABC. “I get very suicidal. I’d rather get high before I get suicidal.”
Since she had Jayde at 18, she has been homeless most of the time, except for six months in rehabilitation. She’s now living in a share house.
Erin said that she’d been abused by a relative when she was a child and that she still lived with the scarring of that experience. Having Jayde while she was still trying to deal with it was just too much.
“It was very difficult. There’d be times when I couldn’t change her nappy or something because it’s too emotionally raw still. It was difficult. I wanted to protect her but I was scared that I’d be the one to hurt her too. Because I was so unwell.”
Then one night she cracked: “Jayde wouldn’t stop crying and I had all these pieces of paper and everything that told me what to do – like feed her, burp her, change her, give her a bath. But she wouldn’t settle down. I remember, I held her in my arms and screamed at her. As soon as I’d done that, it snapped in my head, that’s not cool. So I went and put her down in her cot and I called mum straight away and said, ‘I really need you, I really need you, I can’t …’ and she came around. She’s amazing. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.”
For some grandparent-parents, the radical alteration to their lives is imposed in a much more traumatic fashion than a telephone cry for help. Rose, for instance, a 59-year-old widow, was stirred out by a hammering at her door at 2am in the morning. It was the police with two small, frightened children in the police car.
They thought they were expected. “Didn’t DHHS call you?”
The kids were collateral damage from an ‘ice’ bust on an inner-city squat. Their mother was Rose’s son’s girlfriend, though he wasn’t the older one’s father. Rose had never met the girlfriend, let alone her children. She hadn’t seen her son for more than two years. She only heard from him when he needed money.
As was the case with Anna and Theo, Rose didn’t know the kids’ names. But the older one of the two was able, hours later when she was finally able to speak coherently, to say that she was Talia and her little brother was Bayard. Talia was three and Bay less than two. Their main fear when they stopped being frightened of Rose was that they would be sent back to the place the police had rescued them from.
Rose saw that her responsibility for them was miniscule. But seeing the terror in their eyes, she knew there was no chance at all that she would abandon them to the mercies of the system. She knew all about the system because she worked at a foster-care agency: given the present state of the system, these two would almost certainly be placed in an institution.
Work was the first thing Rose had to think about. Fortunately (as it turned out), the agency was going through a generational change and she was able to arrange a redundancy deal. That didn’t cover her mortgage though. She had to sell her house and she and the kids moved into a cabin at a caravan park.
The Community Services people had been happy enough with the arrangement till then. They were disapproving of the new accommodation. But they didn’t offer any help.
Sue Erben has become an expert on the system. She and Karl, for example, are eligible for a means-tested Family Tax Benefit of $400 a fortnight. If they were foster-carers they would be eligible for up to $1500 a fortnight with assistance as well with school and medical costs.
“When we first took Jayde, the case was reported to child protection,” she told the ABC. “They came around and assessed us on two visits to make sure we were OK. Then they closed the case. So we didn’t get any payments.”
Grandparent-parents like Sue and Karl and Anna, and Theo and Rose are classified as ‘informal carers’ and aren’t eligible for assistance from State Government welfare programs.
“It’s so unfair that the children are missing out because the government doesn’t recognise what we do,” Sue says of herself and the members of her growing group. “Some children come into our care with lots of medical problems due to drug use during pregnancy, or the abuse they’ve suffered. They’re extremely traumatised. That is not going to fix itself.
“The kids end up with us and then if there’s no support there, you’re raising another generation who will be dependent on the government. And we’re trying to stop that, but we can’t do it by ourselves.”
At the time of the ABC interview in July, the Erbens were in a state of crisis. They depend largely on Karl’s part-time job as a fitter and turner but his health’s not good. They had to dip into his superannuation to cover for the time he was off work for an operation. The day of the interview, he’d been released from hospital the day before after being under observation because of chest pains. He set off for work but was back home in less than an hour and Sue was calling the doctor.
“I got to Woollies and got some lunch stuff for work,” Karl said. “I got back to the car and I was just sort of staggering sideways like I was drunk.”
The health of the carers is something that is constantly hanging over grandparent-parent families. “Biologically, we are winding down and breaking down,” Sue Erben says.
Anna too has health problems. Like Karl Erben, she had recently to spend some time in hospital. When Theo brought Evie to visit, the child was fearful: “What will happen to me if you die?” The evenings Anna goes to work at the supermarket, she must always promise Evie that she will come back and Evie never goes to sleep till she does.
Another shadow that hangs over kinship carers is the fear that they will lose their grandchildren. The ‘you stole my baby’ accusation levelled at Anna and Theo is something that happens to many carers. Sue Erben and Karl were accused of just that on Facebook by Erin’s friends.
Their greatest fear is that those friends will persuade their daughter she should take Jayde back.
“We’ve got no legal rights,” Sue Erben says. “We’ve got no rights whatsoever. Because our legal standing is non-existent, if either parent wanted to come and get Jayde, we couldn’t actually stop them. Even though Jayde has lived here all her life and knows nothing else.”
At the caravan park, Rose is constantly looking over her shoulder. She has had to take out an apprehended violence order against her own son. Originally, he called demanding money. When she explained that she was struggling to make ends meet, he threatened he’d come around and take the children away. Then, because the AVO got him in strife with his probation officer, he threatened he’d have her and the kids killed.
In March, at Moama 100 kilometres down the Murray River from Yarrawonga where the Erbens live, a woman allegedly abducted her two small sons from their grandparents’ home and attempted to drown them. One boy survived.
A lawyer representing the grandparents, Dale Brooks, told the ABC: “That case obviously involved tragic circumstances of lack of communication, no proper support, a lack of practical and financial assistance. We’re seeing an incredible growth in informal carer arrangements. There’s a lack of practical and financial support for them. There’s also a lack of moral support and emotional support.
“It comes down to the fact that their role as family carers is undervalued. Government agencies invariably are not communicating with them and they live in fear they are going to lose their grandchildren.”
To sign Sue Erben’s petition seeking government support and legal status for kinship carers, go to:
Sue Erben.Change.org here: www.change.org/u/141238220