'I became a mum of two overnight when I was 23'
The day that changes your life likely starts out ordinary, in the same way a familiar ringtone heralds unexpectedly devastating news.
It was an unseasonally hot but otherwise regular night in March when Jess Maude took the call which broke the news that her mum, Belinda Brown, 44, had taken her own life. That Thursday, Maude, 23, a footloose young professional building a life with boyfriend Dave and planning overseas adventures with her girlfriends, became responsible for raising her half-siblings Chloe, 9, and Jai, 7.
There was barely time to think, let alone grieve, as she and Dave drove from Brisbane to the Gold Coast to pick up the kids she barely knew, pack some things and settle them into the house Maude shared with two girlfriends.
"We just tried to swim. You're just trying to get on with everyday life. Reality set in within two weeks. The funeral was over, the kids were in school, I was at work but kept getting all these calls - you need to come to the school, you need to go to the doctor's … how am I supposed to deal with all of this?" Maude says.
"I called the Department of Child Safety … there's got to be some kind of support. They said, have the kids been abandoned? Yes, by my mum, because she passed away. Are the kids living with you? Yes. Are the kids safe? Yes. Then we don't classify that as abandonment. Do you think you can look after them? I don't know, and I don't know how long for. Well, if you don't think you can look after them, you can drop them down at your local police station or you can drop them here at the Child Safety office," she recalls.
"I don't want to do that; I don't want to pack up all their stuff up and tell them, we're going down to the Child Safety office because I don't want you."
Maude is one of Queensland's informal kinship carers; the adult relatives - a grandparent, aunt or uncle, sibling or cousin - parenting an estimated 12,000 children through private family arrangements because they don't want the children to go into the child protection system.
As the Department of Child Safety is not officially responsible for these children, their relatives cannot access any of the financial or emotional support provided to approved kinship and foster carers by state and federal governments.
Yet these "invisible carers" often pay a high price for love and loyalty, sacrificing their own financial, educational, employment and emotional wellbeing to take in these children - a group which accounts for more than three times the number of children being raised by government-approved carers.
In the aftermath of that fateful phone call, Maude swapped her full-time career in shipping for more flexible, lower-paid retail work, moved out of the share house she was in and put her own goals on hold for years to raise Chloe, now 16, and Jai, 13, with now-husband, Dave, 29.
"[Dave and I] probably didn't know what was going to happen. There were times we thought, oh, maybe we should just drop them down to Child Safety, but we couldn't do that. Just couldn't. We've always been really passionate about what we're doing [for the kids]," she says.
Informal kinship carers are the hidden population University of Melbourne research fellow Dr Meredith Kiraly has devoted most of her career to. While national advocacy and policy has focused on grandparents raising grandchildren for the past decade, Kiraly's research estimates 55,000 young Australians jeopardise their own educational, financial and relationship security to parent their siblings, cousins, nieces or nephews.
"We think there's many more times that [12,000 informal carers]. In the UK they think it's 90-95 per cent of the total and here we think it is three or four or five times as many are informal carers, but we don't really know until we can get better data from the census," she says.
Kiraly's report We're Just Kids as Well, released at the national Kinship Care Forum in Brisbane earlier this year, found young carers were most likely to be single women under 30 caring for one to three children, employed on low incomes, and unlikely to have post-secondary education or training.
She was surprised the majority had never met anyone else in a similar situation and it had been a "real joy to bring some of them together".
"One of them said, 'I've found my tribe'. It's quite a lonely life and other people their age might still be kicking up their heels, having a more social life and so on, and don't really understand the impact on them of caring for extra children," Kiraly says.
"These children come with their own legacy of trauma, so sometimes they can be quite challenging or distressed children, and so get an awful lot of their time and energy."
A public awareness and government lobbying campaign led by PeakCare Queensland and Integrated Family and Youth Service, launched with Kiraly's report, was waylaid by COVID-19. Issues highlighted in budget submissions to Queensland Child Safety Minister Di Farmer were necessarily put on the backburner, and a delegation - including Maude - to Canberra to meet federal politicians and advocacy groups had to be cancelled.
Still, a working party to liaise with child protection bodies in other states is being formed and funding has been secured to pilot a support group for young carers. Priorities include changing the way census data is collected to accurately identify informal kinship carers and forming a national kinship care advocacy body, which Carers Australia has backed.
PeakCare Queensland executive director Lindsay Wegener says these young people are often harshly judged for taking on the children, an act of love and family loyalty which saved governments "millions of dollars" annually.
"The difference is foster carers and approved kinship carers are caring for children who are in the care of the state. These [informal] kinship carers are relatives who are not wanting the children to enter into the child protection system - as might be expected, that's what most families want," Wegener says.
"The difficulty is they then aren't able to access supports and they're falling between the cracks between the state and federal responsibilities. And these families are in much more difficult situations than most people find themselves in. You might be a young parent or adult and suddenly have two or three children to care for - you haven't got a car large enough, a house large enough, you have to give up your study, cash in your super, all these kinds of requirements.
"And these children, for whatever reason, have often been through a very traumatic experience - their parents might have died, fallen ill, fallen victim to the scourge of alcohol and substance abuse, or domestic violence. These children have very specific needs associated with that."
IFYS manager Jo Roff says the importance of family connection for a child's identity, health, education and wellbeing was first highlighted in the 2013 Carmody Child Protection Inquiry report, and the initial focus on Indigenous communities now needs to expand to all children entering the system. Roff says children needing state care are increasingly younger and staying in the system for longer.
"Foster carers get a chance to think about it; they're trained, they're assessed. Kinship care is a strong loyalty and bond straight away - someone has knocked on your door and said, can you please take this little person? So, the faster and better we can look after family, the better outcomes for kids," she says.
"Running a foster and kinship care agency, I would get 70 referrals a week for placement of children … so having the time to find family, support them and do it well, can make a huge difference. I am over capacity with my foster care placements. We support just over 200
carers, 60 per cent are kinship carers, so I can't tell you how fast this needs to happen as far as having support available."
Indooroopilly Shopping Centre, in Brisbane's west, is busy when Maude and I chat during her lunch break, in the days before coronavirus. Articulate and open, the banking customer service officer can't hide her frustration about her desperate attempts to get help in the past six years - from the government, child protection bodies, charities, her own generally dysfunctional extended family, all to largely no avail.
Particularly galling is the lack of support from the Department of Child Safety, which Maude says asked her to become a recognised kinship carer four years before Brown's death, when she voluntarily relinquished Chloe and Jai to the state's care for a period. That option wasn't offered after Brown's death.
"If the kids go to hospital, I'm no one. Not their next of kin, not their guardian, nothing," she sighs. "They're left in nowhere land."
It was only when Jai was taken to hospital in crisis late last year, refused to return home because "he felt like a burden" and voluntarily sought a residential placement from Child Safety, that department officers sought to recognise Maude as a formal kinship carer - of Jai only. Instead, he reconnected with his dad and moved to NSW earlier this year, while Chloe, in year 12 and learning how to drive, still lives with the couple.
Maude remembers Brown as a "loving" mother who provided a "very happy" childhood, though one marred by untreated bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety. She, Chloe and Jai each have different fathers, none of whom stayed active in their lives, and Brown had also fled a domestic violence relationship.
"There was no counselling offered to us, there was no psychology offered to us. There was no support group out there that could do anything for us; we didn't match their categories. Support was offered to grandparent carers, to people over 55 years, but I was 23 at the time and I didn't meet any of their criteria," says Maude, married to Dave two years and now renovating their Arana Hills home.
Maude received the Double Orphan allowance of $66.10 per child a fortnight and Family Tax Benefit A and B, but otherwise initially supported the children on a wage of $45,000 a year. Dave would look after the kids while Maude worked weekends for penalty rates, they shopped at Aldi, asked school fees to be waived and applied to local service groups like Rotary and Lions for help with uniforms, books and computers. Extended family was largely absent, but several close friends continue to provide invaluable support.
"Oh, I became a master networker. I would network with everyone, ask for everything," Maude laughs. "They're not our kids, they're not our kids - that's something we always have to say. If someone wants to give a laptop to a child who has no parents and lives with their young sister, that person is doing a good thing. End of story.
"This whole thing of being told 'you should stop asking for handouts', because if you can't afford the kids, they should go into foster care - well, no, that's not how it works. I can look after the kids, as long as I keep asking people for help! If everyone comes together, and if everyone does a little bit somewhere, there's room to help these kids."
I AM, the bold capitals printed in white on Renee Mercer's black T-shirt proclaim. I AM. This is Mercer's equivalent of a superhero's cape - the shirt she wears to feel brave, strong and capable; the shirt that helps deflectjudgmental glances at the school gate, at the shops, at the playground. It's her answer to the question IFYS asks the community at large every day: are you ready to raise the next superhero?
I am, says Mercer, and she is. Has been since a phone call alerting her to seven-year-old nephew JC's precarious circumstances sent her on a six-hour round trip in the middle of the night to pick him up. She and husband Clinton Downes, both now 37, were newly married, in jobs they enjoyed, planning an overseas holiday and investigating fertility treatment to give Mercer's daughter, Lilli, a sibling. Life was good.
"[Clinton and I] showed up with cheeseburgers, just said he's coming to stay with us, hang out for a bit. [JC] was just so excited that we were there to pick him up. We've always been with him, saw him regularly. He had a backpack, a pair of shoes, pyjama shorts and his tooth he'd lost that night. That's where he started with us," Mercer says.
The next six months were nothing short of "hell". Trauma, fear and neglect had taken their toll on JC. Frequent nightmares meant he slept by their bed. He was anxious, angry, violent. Developmental delays and behavioural issues meant he could not cope with school - he was suspended more than 12 times in the first year. Police were often called by concerned neighbours, which led to hospital admissions for psychiatric assessment. Mercer and Downes lost their jobs and had to move to a larger house. Lilli retreated to her room or the arms of trusted neighbours. "It was just all hands on deck; it had to be 24/7 care. Just one of us couldn't do it. There were days and nights, we'd be awake for days on end because you had to make sure he was safe," says Downes. "There were days where we'd literally both have to stand, one at the front door, one at the back, to stop him from running. And if he could pick up a golf club or tennis racket or something, he was coming at you with it. It didn't matter - he was getting you out of the road, because he wanted to leave.
"He didn't want to go home [to his mum] but he didn't know where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do. He was very … discombobulated is my favourite word."
Just like Maude, as informal kinship carers with no guardianship rights, Mercer and Downes felt there was nowhere to turn. And, as with Maude, many of their family and friends could not cope, "ridiculing and belittling" the couple, telling them to "just give him back".
"Where do you expect him to go? He's my nephew. He's our family," Mercer sighs. Beside her, Downes adds: "We didn't know who to talk to … who to ask for help. We were literally lumbered with all this trauma and told, 'It's your problem, now'. We were looking at each other and going, 'What have we done?'"
Family therapist Andrew Zanos, then working for Child and Youth Mental Health Service, found them frantic in a Sunshine Coast hospital emergency ward after one of JC's admissions. This chance meeting with this "godfather, a gentleman we cannot praise enough" changed everything, coinciding as it did with a referral to IFYS Maroochydore, where they met support co-ordinator Daina Adamovskis. "They might be hiding under her shirt but I'm sure she has [angel's] wings. Daina's now an imperative part of the village we've had to create around this child, to get him the help he needs. She looks at us and knows what we need now, before we even know ourselves," Mercer laughs.
Interim child safety orders named the couple as JC's carers, while the lengthy and "intrusive" assessment to approve them as formal kinship carers was completed. They're held to the same rigorous protocols and standards as foster carers - every injury and incident has to be documented, permission sought for everything down to a simple haircut - but for more than two years, the family has been able to access vital support, training and services.
"All. The. Time. Every step that child takes, he is lifted up by this village of people that we now have created," says Mercer, punching her open palm for emphasis.
Four years on, life is good again. Different, an "amazing chaos", but good. JC, 11 next month, is happy, energetic, making progress at school, and loves the outdoors. "He may actually be some sort of fishing superhero," Mercer laughs. JC and Lilli, 16, juggling two part-time jobs, year 11 and driving lessons, are as close as any siblings could be. Mercer remains a stay-at-home mum, while Downes works and prepares to launch his own food van when COVID-19 restrictions ease.
"You do what you've got to do for family, no matter what it is and how much it hurts," says Downes, as his wife finishes: "… and how hard it can be. You just do what you've got to do."
"It's not about making him a productive member of society or anything like that. It's literally just making him the best possible person he can be," says Downes, as Mercer again finishes: "… helping him live his best life, in every way, shape and form."
Maude hesitates when asked if she'd do it all again, saying being named a state-approved kinship carer would have made all the difference. She laughs when asked if she and Dave want a family of their own one day. "It will be a wait and see; maybe when [Chloe] has grown. I turn 30 this year, Dave turns 30 this year, and I think it would be nice to be empty-nesters … to have a big breather, to just enjoy each other."
Mercer and Downes have all but abandoned their dream of having a child of their own but not only would they "100 per cent" do it all again, they are planning to - as foster carers.
"I met a child, with JC, about a year ago, who literally cried himself to sleep every night because he just wanted a home. He'd been split up from his brother, been bounced and bounced [between homes]; it was like he was a yoyo," Downes laments. "It's our turn. We've been through some highs and lows, and we want to give back a bit." ■
Originally published as "I became a mum of two overnight when I was 23"