Spare a prayer for foster kids and carers

They need it now more than ever

Louise and Rick Pekan have been foster carers for the past 11 years. During that time they have welcomed around 60 foster children into their home – some just for a night or two, and others for several years. The couple – who now have four biological children aged between 5 and 12 – are currently caring for two toddlers aged one and two, who they hope will be part of their family until they reach adulthood.

While parenting six children sounds hard enough, Louise and Rick – along with most carers – face extra challenges during this time of COVID-19 lockdown.

“There’s no break and not much space,” admits Louise, who has retreated for a few minutes to the bedroom in her Perth home to take Eternity‘s call.

“When you go into the shops and there isn’t everything there; Like everyone else, we’re dealing with that. But it’s harder when you’ve got to drag six kids with you.” – Louise Pekan

This is her third week with all six kids at home as she juggles the roles of mum, carer and school teacher. However, apart from an increased evening intake of chocolate and Netflix, Louise sounds relatively unperturbed by this immense challenge.

In order to devote most of her time to the kids, she’s cut her back work to one hour per day. Louise is WA Manager for Ark Australia, a Christian out-of-home-care support and advocacy organisation. And she’s come up with some creative solutions to homeschooling – or “freeschooling” as Louise has dubbed it – with kids of different ages. She is using daily Bible reading to also teach spelling, handwriting and grammar. They “visit” other countries through craft and cooking. Louise also looks to stimulate each child’s particular interests with activities such as lego making and creating a homegrown newspaper – the “Kids’ Isolation Times”.

In addition to the challenge of homeschooling, shopping for a family of eight has become problematic in this new era.

“When you go to the shops and you can only buy one bag of rice or two bags of pasta because of the restrictions, that can only feed a large family for about two nights,” shares Louise. “Those sorts of practical things are pretty hard – or when you go into the shops and there isn’t everything there. Like everyone else, we’re dealing with that, but it’s harder when you’ve got to drag six kids with you or find someone to be at home them.”

“A lot of the face-to-face contact with biological families has moved to an online system, which has its own challenges.” – Louise Pekan

Besides these practicalities, foster families are now facing more significant challenges. One is that social distancing makes it much harder for foster children to have contact with their biological parents.

“When a child is in foster care, typically they would get picked up from the foster family by a transport worker and be taken to a centre or an office or a public space to have contact with their biological family, who would have caught the bus in from wherever they live – whether they’re living in a refuge or a shared house or whatever that might be,” explains Louise. “And then the child might be brought back to the foster family by another transport worker.

“That’s a lot of different people in the mix of all that, while we’re being told to limit our contact with people outside the family.”

“So a lot of the face-to-face contact with biological families has moved to an online system, which has its own challenges. Because if you are a foster carer with kids from three different families, you are setting up contact online for three families at different times – and it might be mum one hour, then dad the next hour, and getting a two-year-old to sit in front of a computer to play is always interesting.

“The fall-out from that is that the [biological] parents who are doing a really good job and who are working towards reunification, they’re suddenly missing out on that time of rebuilding those bonds with their kids,” Louise continues, adding that this could even delay the reunification process.

“We’re all sort of sitting in a pressure cooker … when you’ve got children from different, unique trauma backgrounds, it can just add another level.” – Louise Pekan

Another difficulty is the current lack of access to additional support services for foster children.

“So many of the children in foster care need support through speech pathologists, OT [occupational therapy], physio, psychs, counsellors, and suddenly all of that is either stopped,” says Louise.

“If you were on the waitlist, everything’s been put on hold.

“If you were having those regular appointments, they been moved to online as well, which means that a foster parent is trying to homeschool kids, look after toddlers and supervise a child who is sitting in front of the computer doing OT.

“So while you don’t want to stop those programs, the reality is that those are additional stresses.”

All these changes, and isolation itself, are taking an emotional toll on the children and the rest of their foster families. Louise says: “You have so fewer outlets and places to go to diffuse the situation. So we’re all sort of sitting in a pressure cooker.”

“I think that’s the same for any family but when you’ve got children from different, unique trauma backgrounds, it can just add another level.”

There are currently more than 48,000 children in out-of-home care in Australia, with hundreds more foster families already needed. But, as evidenced overseas, the increased pressure on at-risk families due to the impact of coronavirus is likely to result in more children entering the out-of-home care system.

“You’ve got families who are already under a lot of stress or dysfunction who are suddenly without work, who are home together all the time, kids who aren’t going to school or daycare and having that safe place – what does that mean for domestic and family violence?” Louise reflects.

“We know that drugs are harder to come by because of border restrictions, so how is that going to play out for families in a good or bad way?

“The lack of support services that are usually there to go into homes to manage some very at-risk families, without them going into these homes, it will likely mean bringing the kids out.”

These issues are amplified at a time when foster carers can be less available – some have children already in their care who are vulnerable to catching coronavirus, meaning they can’t take on other children. It’s also further complicated by the fact that carers must have a plan for someone else – not another foster carer – to care for all the children in their household, if carers themselves contract COVID-19.

Most of the Pekan family

Louise, Rick and their children (minus their foster children whose faces can’t be shown)

While foster carers receive less than one dollar an hour for their service, according to Louise’s estimate, it is absolutely a labour of love for Louise. She decided to become a foster carer even before she married Rick (fortunately, he agreed), because she sees it as “a mandate from God – that we take care of the vulnerable and that includes children who are ‘fatherless’, in whatever form that takes on.”

Louise shares this passion and mission with churches in her role with Ark, informing Christians about the need for more “good homes” where children can learn about healthy family relationships. She also encourages Christians who are already out-of-home carers.

She points to the biblical basis for this in James 1:27, which says: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

“That hasn’t changed from Jesus’ day,” says Louise. “While here in Australia we don’t see orphans in the same way as in places like Africa or Romania, there are certainly plenty of children here that are ‘fatherless’, who need hope and they need a future. This is our role as God’s people, to adopt them into our family as we have been adopted into God’s family.”

“We aren’t all called to be foster parents but we are all called to do something.” – Louise Pekan

Both during the difficulties of the COVID-19 era, as well as beyond, Louise believes every Christian should play a part in caring for children who are displaced from their biological families.

“We aren’t all called to be foster parents but we are all called to do something, whether that’s simply through prayer – which is probably the most powerful way – or practically stepping in and supporting a family through meals, or being a homework buddy, or a listening ear, or a respite carer who steps in and says ‘yes’ to having a child become a part of your family, for however long that’s necessary.”

She adds: “It’s important for us as Christians to remember it’s not through our own strength. We don’t do this because we’re good or amazing people; we do this because it’s God’s love that should spur us on and it’s his strength in the times when we realise how unqualified we are at taking care of a vulnerable person.

“It’s God’s strength and God’s character that can shine through.”

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Some prayer points to help

Pray for foster parents, children and families at this difficult time.

Pray for the government departments and local agencies who manage the out-of-home care system in each state.

Pray for at-risk children who have recently been reunified with their biological families, and for all vulnerable  families during this COVID-19 season and beyond.