By Chris Whitworth
For 10 years Colin Hardgrave has witnessed the effects of child abuse from the frontline in New Zealand.
As a full-time foster parent, Colin’s Tauranga home – shared with his wife Angela – is a revolving door for damaged children who have suffered at the hands of their biological parents.
For some children, Colin and his wife simply offer a warm and safe home for the night. In the morning the children move on, taken back by Child Youth and Family or Youth Justice, and he often never sees them again.
Other children stay for weeks, months and even years. Colin has cared for around 40 kids over the last decade, with other pursuits in his life gradually taking a backseat.
“I’ve actually given my golf up. I’ve given up golf to make more time available for the kids…and I love my golf,” says the 62-year-old.
“I walk past the cupboard in the garage and I open the door and I look at my golf clubs, and my trundler, and my golf gear, and think…I will get back one day.”
A former banker, Colin retired from the corporate world after a minor heart attack and was drawn to foster care following a chance encounter with a CYF psychologist.
Ten years later he is the board chairman of Fostering Kids, a non-profit organisation that specialises in training and support for around 1500 New Zealand foster families.
Fostering Kids was among a strong voice of criticism last week towards the Government’s Green Paper on child abuse, calling it "underwhelming and" "nothing new".
Colin says action is needed now, not three years down the track, and says the plan must include funding and resources for the actual foster parents themselves.
“I just feel that sometimes we tend to focus on the child alone, but what you’re trying to do is create a normal family environment when you match a child with a caregiver,” he says.
“The reality is good supported caregivers will provide a better loving and enriching environment for these kids.”
The Government currently funds a three-day workshop
to give basic training for foster parents and has budgeted $230,000 for
additional caregiver training next year.
Fostering Kids received around $430,000
from the Government this year, but chief executive Iris Clanachan says the
organisation needs another $180,000 for proper training.
There are currently around 6000 foster families in New Zealand, but with more than 10,000 kids in need of foster care, many parents are undertrained and ill-equipped for the demands of a troubled child.
Colin says turnover is high for foster parents, especially in the first year of signing up. He says greater support networks and help lines are needed to assist parents.
“You have to accept that you’re not getting normal, well-behaved children generally, you’re getting children that have been abused physically, mentally, so they need extra special care.”
He thought foster parenting would be a “piece of cake” when he first started but quickly realised that much of the training came on the job.
Over the years Colin and his wife have had to chase after the odd runaway and admit even now they get the occasional runner.
“These kids don’t know any different, it’s the way they’ve been treated and they tend to act the same: 'I’ve had a crappy life so why should I [treat you well]?'”
It takes about three months for most children to open up and trust their foster parents, says Colin, but all kids are different and tend to reflect what they’ve been through.
He says it is important to be consistent and slowly build their trust.
“We don’t have a lot of rules and we try to say to children that come into our care that we have one main rule and that is that we respect one another, we respect you and you respect us.”
The hardest thing, he says, is finally bonding with a child only to have them taken back to their parents for a short time.
“It’s hard work bonding with some of these children but when it happens, as a caregiver, you really get quite upset when they are taken back to mum and dad, [and then] that doesn’t work out, the child comes back, they’ve regressed and you’re back to square one.”
He says the foster care system looks to reunite families when the parents show improvements, but the tough reality is some children are better off permanently in foster families.
Other children move on after making progress, but Colin says not all make contact again later.
“The reality is that some of them like to put that part of their life behind them when they move on.”
He says it’s always nice running into children they’ve cared for, whether it’s out in the shopping mall or a personal visit.
But his favourite guest by far is their 21-year-old foster daughter, who they’ve looked after since she was 13.
“She’s left home now and she’s gone flatting but every time she walks in the door I say to my wife, ‘She lights up the doorway'.”
Void of any capable family, she was shy and withdrawn when she first arrived at Colin’s house, but eight years later he says she is an outgoing, successful university grad with a full time job.
And Colin couldn’t be happier.
“I think what that highlights to me as a foster parent, is you that put the children in the right environment and these kids can flourish.”