Caitlin* is quite possibly the state’s first recipient of the new foster care leave contained in the Victorian Government Schools Agreement (VGSA 2022) – and, when speaking to her, it is immediately clear that these new entitlements have meant a great deal to her and her family.
“Most of all, this entitlement gave us the peace of mind to be able to take leave for our foster children when they need it most,” she says. “Up to this point, all the leave has come out of my personal leave and I have none left.
“I’ve been teaching for a long time, and because foster children require a lot of emotional support and you have to attend meetings, there was no provision.”
For the first time, the VGSA 2022 features up to two days paid leave on up to five occasions per child for employees who provide short-term foster or kinship care as the primary caregiver. Caitlin and her partner have three foster children, and they have been foster carers for three years. The additional leave has provided time for a range of important appointments. “Things you have to attend to support the child’s wellbeing,” she says.
“If your child is having a visit with family members and they are being collected from your home, you need to be home for that. Depending on the child’s situation, there are a range of reasons why you would need to take time off.”
Most children who require foster care have been removed from their home for safety reasons. As a result, they often have trust and attachment issues, along with other forms of trauma – which families need time to manage, says Caitlin. “They are vulnerable children and it’s not their fault.”
“It was really nice that people cared enough to help us, because as a foster parent you can feel really lonely.”
At any given time, there are around 46,000 children in out-of-home care across Australia. If there is no success finding a foster placement, children go into residential care. A few years ago, Caitlin discovered that one of the children she had been teaching lived in a residential home and this is where her enquiries began.
“Australia has a lot of children in out-of-home care – more than people realise,” she says. “It’s under-resourced. There aren’t enough foster carers, and children as young as three and four go into residential homes.”
She talks with enthusiasm about the recognition the new foster care leave represents. “It was really nice that people cared enough to help us, because as a foster parent you can feel really lonely.”
There are very few processes and supports in place for foster care parents, she adds. “So, when you have those in the education sector – my own colleagues – care enough to make that change so that we can have that leave – that felt really nice.
“As a foster carer, you’re asked to do a lot of things to support the child and you’re asked to do it without any support, financial or otherwise. It would be amazing if other unions and other workplaces stood up and did more – if we all did more. It’s looking after children; it’s looking after the future of our country. When you get support from your own union – that’s really meaningful.”
Foster care leave is just one of the new entitlements featured in the VGSA 2022. Caitlin’s story is a good reminder that the rights and entitlements that AEU members collectively campaign for can and do change people’s lives in multiple, often invisible, ways.
*Name changed for reasons of security and confidentiality