The history of Foster Care Westernport - OzChild

The history of Foster Care Westernport

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Foster Care Westernport was established in the 1970s. Its story as an independent agency, and then as a crucial part of the coalition of child welfare services that became OzChild, is rich and proud.

But to do justice to that story – and the people who are part of it – we need to begin at the very start, and give a brief history of the whole organisation, a story that begins over 160 years and another millennia ago.

Canvas Town, South Melbourne by A.H Kenyon. The Gold Rush brought with it a tent city of people to the southern banks of the Yarra River, all hoping to find their fortune. Image: State Library of Victoria.

OzChild’s story unfolds shortly after gold was first discovered in Victoria in the middle of the 1800s. News of the precious metal had spread to the world and the ‘gold rush’ was well underway.

Between 1851 and 1854 the non-Indigenous population in Melbourne increased from 29,000 to 123,000. Between 1850 and 1900, the town of Bendigo (130 kilometres from Melbourne) alone produced the most gold of any location in the world – in today’s money it would be worth $9 billion.

Gold transformed the capital into one of the world’s most prosperous and impressive cities and, by the 1880s, it had been dubbed Marvellous Melbourne.

But “marvellous” didn’t describe life for all of its inhabitants.

Australian historian Mark Peel outlines the social impact of the Gold Rush in his book The lowest rung: voices of Australian poverty:

“Discovery made rich men out of a few prospectors [but p]rofits… often impoverished not only the unsuccessful diggers but also many of those they left behind. The prospects for the destitute and the deserted – especially women and children – were grim indeed, and by the end of the 1850s, with its benevolent and orphan asylums, Melbourne was erecting the visible signals of its poverty as well as its wealth.”

One of those institutions emerging from the result of lost dreams and poverty was OzChild’s earliest predecessor, the Melbourne Orphan Asylum, which was founded in 1853. It assisted children and women in need for more than a hundred years. When societal attitudes to the care of neglected children began to shift throughout the second part of the 20th century it began to change its approach.

Melbourne Orphan Asylum

Eventually, large-scale congregate care evolved into care through family group homes and family support so the name was changed to Melbourne Family Care Organisation and then in 1987, to Family Action. In these latter years, other agencies – Mallee Family Care, Upper Murray Family Care, and Windermere Child and Family Services, were developed by Family Action, supported and ultimately made independent.

The second amalgamating agency, Family Focus, parallels the beginnings of Family Action. It began in 1893 as the Victorian Neglected Children’s Aid Society during the crippling post gold rush depression. The Victorian Children’s Aid Society, as it became known, provided residential care, foster care, boarding out and family support. By 1991 it had greater involvement in family support and disability services alongside its foster care program, and the name changed to Family Focus.

The third amalgamating agency, The National Children’s Bureau of Australia, began in 1971 as the Child and Family Welfare Council of Australia, a national peak body with a mandate to lobby government, share information and develop training programs. In 1986 it was incorporated as the Children’s Bureau of Australia. Family Action provided some financial support and in 1990 substantially underwrote the then National Children’s Bureau of Australia to become a leading children’s advocacy and research body.

In 1993 these three agencies realised they shared a rich history of innovation and service to children and their families, and a vision to improve the quality of care and life chances of children. They came together as OzChild, to work towards better futures for Australia’s children.

Foster Care Westernport is very likely the longest running foster care agency in the state of Victoria.

It was formally established in 1979, during a period in which the Victorian government began to bring child care services to the state’s regional areas.

In addition to voluntary and involuntary foster care, which was its primary service, the agency also offered respite care for children with disabilities such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy and developmental delays. A foster program dedicated specifically to adolescents was set up slightly later and grew quickly.

Although the state government identified the need for foster care outside Melbourne, substantial public money didn’t flow into new agencies. In the beginning, Foster Care Westernport relied on the backing of the Uniting Church – UnitingCare had established a fostering community in the region in the 1960s, and the new agency was in many ways a successor to it.

Even still, its strength came as much from the extraordinary dedication and generosity of its people as it did from institutional support. Most important among those people were the carers and care workers, many of whom worked for Foster Care Westernport’s forerunner organisation and who moved to the new agency.

The relationships between carers and care workers at Westernport were informal (certainly by today’s standards), and it was common for workers to help carers beyond professional obligation. They would chat over morning teas, bond and sometimes form deep friendships.

Leaders introduced a buddy system to make sure that carers always had support among one another when they required help or reassurance. That buddy system is still in place at OzChild; older and more experienced carers are still happy to provide wisdom and assistance to newer members of the OzChild team.

Workers tended to stay with the organisation for long periods and this, among many other factors, led to Foster Care Westernport establishing itself as a distinctly family and community-oriented organisation.

Original Foster Care Westernport foster carers and staff reunited in 2017

This organisation thrived thanks to its tightly-knit community, many of them volunteers. Their work was funded largely by donations (and in the early days by some support from the Uniting Church). The enthusiasm and good work of the carers meant that those in the region rallied around the agency, seeing it as force for good in society – a way of helping children in need.

The generosity of the people of south western Victoria during this time, both carers themselves and those who admired their work, is difficult to quantify. To give some sense of the selflessness of those who gave to the cause, in the middle of the 1980s, the agency began to consider purchasing its own premises – until that time it had rented properties. This coincided with its split from UnitingCare and the associated loss of funding from the Church. Even still, Foster Care Westernport was able to raise enough funds to buy a new residence – a centre for its operations. Later, community donations paid for other properties, as well, including a holiday home for children in Inverloch, as well as the Heatherton Rd office in Noble Park and the Mornington Office on Nepean Highway, both still essential parts of the OzChild network to this day.

The need for new premises came in part from increase in demand. And with that increase came growth in the number of carers. By the middle of the 1980s there were more than 200 foster carers within the Foster Care Westernport network. Despite this growth, the camaraderie remained, and so did the community support.

Locals were not only supportive of the ideal of protecting individual children, but of foster families themselves. In many ways, this was again down to the excellent work of the carers, who found that engaging with their foster families in the Westernport region spread the word about what foster care was and how it worked. It was a way of passively advocating for the acceptance of ‘irregular’ family units and dynamics in an area that for many years had only known and seen ‘traditional’ families.

The way in which Australian society responds to the plight of vulnerable, traumatised and at-risk children has changed dramatically since the days of the Melbourne Orphan Asylum. Even over the course of the last 40 years, since the establishment of Foster Care Westernport, our knowledge of child welfare has improved enormously, and with that improvement has come a shift in focus.

Foster Care Westernport operated on principles that put close family connections at the heart of a child’s experience. But these were, wherever possible, connections with a child’s natural families, as well as the foster family.

Biological parents who recognised that they were struggling in their roles would look to foster parents for guidance, advice and emergency assistance.  Quite frequently, it became the role of the foster parent to teach a child’s natural mother how to ‘be a parent, and this was reflected in carers’ training.

In the 1980s, foster carers were taught that their role was to understand how to manage the trauma children dealt with, but also to work with and support the biological parent/s of the child, as well. It included information on how to form relationships with the parents of the child, to deal with the issues these parents faced and to assist the rehabilitation of the natural family. The aim was to help rebuild a stable home environment that the child might ultimately return to.

This was an era in which voluntary foster care was far more prevalent. Voluntary foster care took place when a natural parent or family member, realising they were struggling to look after their children for one reason or another, took up an offer of foster care. Today, this is less common, and children in foster care are very often there after an intervention by a welfare organisation, the police or a state family/human services department.

Unfortunately, the foster system could become a cycle for some families, where wards of the state eventually gave birth to children who themselves became wards of the state. Tragic as the cycle was, and can still be today, what is remarkable is the selflessness and generosity that the Westernport carers demonstrated in their willingness to work with the natural families of the foster children to make a child’s quality of life better. They would go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that families of foster kids were educated and looked after, aiming to break the vicious cycle altogether.

Much more detailed research into the area of child welfare has helped the world understand the discipline better; OzChild now trains carers differently to the way we did in previous decades. And that research continues. New scientific evidence – on everything from the effect of trauma on the brain to the best way for a baby to sleep to prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) – becomes available all the time, making regular training all the more important.

Today, OzChild’s ‘Shared Stories Shared Lives’ training course taking anywhere from four to 12 months to complete.

Click the video below to hear from Angela Bruce, Foster Care Westernport staff and current OzChild staff member, sharing her perspective on working in the sector at the time.

After starting as a modest organisation helping fewer than 50 families in the late 1970s, Foster Care Westernport had, by the early 1990s, become one of the largest private child service providers in Victoria.

In 1991, the agency merged with the Victorian Children’s Aid Society (VCAS) and changed its name to Family Focus. Another larger amalgamation took place in 1993. This one involved Family Focus, Family Action (the old Orphan Asylum) and the National Children’s Bureau of Australia.

The combined entity became OzChild.

Foster Care Westernport is one of many branches in OzChild’s family tree, but undoubtedly one of its most significant, robust and enduring. Indeed, much of the Westernport legacy remains to this day. Its deep community ties, its dedication to families of all kinds and its unwavering support for the most vulnerable children and young people are the foundations on which OzChild was built.

Perhaps the most enduring vestige from Westernport, though, is this simple fact: incredibly generous people can make an exceptional difference to the lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children, young people and families in Australia.

Acknowledgements

Compelled by the generosity of spirit of the early staff and carers of Foster Care Westernport, University of Melbourne students and historians Ciara Griffiths and Darcy Gilkerson conducted a series of interviews to explore their story fully. Thank you Ciara and Darcy for collecting and capturing this pivotal chapter in OzChild’s history. Click the video below to watch Ciara and Darcy talk about the making of “Foster Care Westernport: A Legacy of Generosity.”

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