A sign of trust from your foster child is the biggest reward in the job.

That's why Wellington woman Michelle fosters kids. She is opening up about life as a foster parent as a chronic shortage of caregivers causes social agencies to beg for more.

This crisis comes as a recent study revealed a quarter of Kiwi kids were reported to child protection services by the time they are 17. Almost 10 per cent had been a victim of abuse or neglect and 3 per cent had been put into foster or other care.

Read more: A quarter of Kiwi kids reported to child protection services

Advertisement

Michelle became a foster carer two decades ago and currently cares for five kids aged 2, 3, 4-year-old twins and a 7 year old while studying towards her PhD. She called life "busy".

Michelle has fostered children for over 20 years. Photo / Supplied
Michelle has fostered children for over 20 years. Photo / Supplied

Foster kids arrive frightened and in "survival mode". The biggest reward was seeing the kids open up and start to trust, Michelle said.

Most of the children had learnt coping mechanisms from abuse. They were often very compulsive, especially around food.

When one of the kids arrived aged 3 and a half they were non verbal and still in nappies. Once her fingers got jammed.

"And instead of crying [she] just stood there and looked at me.

"That was horrific for me. Because I've never seen a child be hurt and not be able to cry. And now she's just like anyone else, if she hurts herself she knows that it's safe for her to call out to me that she's hurt, and to me that was a big thing.

"It takes three to five months for them to cuddle or sit by you, that's really neat."

The kids call Michelle mum and refer to each other as brother and sister. But they all know they have a "tummy mummy" too. Michelle continuously links them back to where they're from which she believes is important for their healing and identity.

Advertisement

Michelle urged more Maori to think about becoming caregivers to look after the high number of Maori children in the system.

"Unless you know where that culture stems from you can't ever give the child the depth they need for that."

But it's not easy. Most of the children Michelle has cared for have some kind of learning difficulty. This means routine, set bedtimes and security were key to progress.

She doesn't mind if they're angry as "they have a lot of stuff to be angry about" but they're not allowed to hurt anyone or themselves.

Michelle has gone through the court system to become a home for life to the oldest three, the youngest children's court case is coming up soon and she hopes to be in the same situation with them.

"It provides stability, I prefer doing long term care because you develop a relationship. They know they're there. It's quite horrific for them to move on."

As at June last year, 5708 children were in the custody of the state and there were 3672 approved caregivers. Some caregivers can care for more than one child but numbers were still tight.

Foster agency Key Assets director Wayne Ferguson said the rising population meant foster carers were in need now more than ever. He estimated hundreds more carers were needed to fill demand.

"The number of carers is at an all-time low. We are in desperate need of foster carers.

"We're always trying to get the best possible match for a child through the geographic location, being close to community, minimise the change of school and match kids culturally.

"With all those factors we try our best to provide the best placement. But if we're limited in choice that's what gets restricted."

Ministry for Children - Oranga Tamariki spokeswoman Janet Smart agreed that more caregivers were needed.

She explained that many of the children coming into care had experienced some level of trauma and may display challenging behaviour due to that.

"Some of them might have issues with settling, some might not want to go to school, they might not feel like they belong.

"What they need is someone to feel attached to, to feel loved and have consistency.

"[They need] someone who's got time, compassion, empathy, care, someone who is willing to open their home and provide love to a child."

Caregivers get a fortnightly allowance to cover board, personal items and pocket money. It ranges from $147 to $207 depending on the child's age. There are additional allowances for Christmas and birthday presents, clothing and pocket money for the child.

If you are interested in becoming a foster carer, visit the Ministry for Children - Oranga Tamariki or Key Assets .

Care options

​• ​Emergency care - when a child is placed in care at short notice because there are serious concerns for their safety.
​• ​Respite care - taking a child in for a weekend or a short period of time, to give their parents or caregivers a break.
​• ​Transitional or short-term care – taking a child into care while Oranga Tamariki worked with their family to make decisions about what is best for the child, and how to make sure they are safe and well cared for.
​• ​Home for Life – when caregivers made a lifelong commitment to a child or young person in their care by becoming permanent caregivers. The child or young person still maintained contact with their family of origin, but got a real sense of security and belonging as part of their Home for Life family.