“It was emergency respite,” said Sandra, a foster carer with Mercy Community, recalling her family’s first foster care experience. “And we had two siblings at once.”
“When I turned up to collect them, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if they needed to check my car seat, you know, I was thinking ‘How does this work?’ You know, I really had no idea, I really felt in the deep end with that side of things. But once we got them home, they were just children who needed love and support and structure, and it was really good.”
The two children Sandra and her family cared for were with them for three weeks. Her experience is like so many other first-time carers—a mix of excitement and anxiety.
Often, that phone call comes out of the blue, and there’s usually not a lot of information available. You have to make a decision in a short space of time.
“My husband Chris and I have been carers for three years, just over three years. We got two children on a Friday night, with an hour and a half’s notice—a two- and three-year-old—and they’re still with us.” Fritha Radyk, Foster Carer and CEO of Mercy Community
For Sandra and her family, that first night was a late one. Sandra’s daughter Bella recalls it clearly.
“I was 11,” said Bella. “I was very excited because they were two little boys. I had been hoping to have a little girl placed with us, but I was more than happy to play cars with the boys, and my brother and I set up tracks with Matchbox cars because even though it was quite late when they arrived back at our house, we wanted them to have some fun before they went to bed.”
The process of placing children with carers is treated sensitively and takes time, so it’s not unusual for children to finally arrive at their new home long after nightfall. Many children are completely exhausted by this point and may not respond to the adults around them. They often remain attached to their own family and may not settle easily into foster care, which is why foster carer training prepares carers for these experiences.
On the first night, there’s a lot to grapple with—the needs of the child and managing your own emotions. You’ll have a child or young person in your care who may have experienced many sudden changes in their life, leading to confusion and distrust. What plays out is them expressing their feelings about separation and loss in different ways, such as through hostility, aggression or attention-seeking behaviour.
Being prepared by having the essentials on hand will help you feel settled.
“Prior to us being approved as carers, I phoned one of the foster carers of the children at my daughter’s school. I asked her what she wished she’d have been told, if she was starting again,” said Sandra.
“After some conversations with her, I went out and bought a whole lot of toothbrushes for kids, and kids’ toothpaste. I bought pyjamas and underwear in all different sizes so that if I got an emergency placement, I at least had one set of clothes… underwear and things like that. That was really valuable to get that feedback from someone who was an established carer.”
Having a close relative or friend on standby can help too.
“I called my mother and told her two little ones were coming, could she come over to help me settle them for that first night? I headed to the shops to grab bottles, formula, undies, pyjamas and a new toothbrush,” said Elizabeth, foster carer
Eventually, the children will fall asleep. You’ll most likely be exhausted and already thinking of activities and strategies for the next day. The first night isn’t always easy but it can be incredibly rewarding. As your head hits the pillow, remember that the care and safety you provide is going to make a big difference in people’s lives.