It’s not often a foster child gets to go to Disneyland. But if the Koop family of Alice Springs is going, that means their young foster-daughter is too.
“We’re going away for one month,” architect Robyn Koop said. “She’s really looking forward to it.”
Originally from a remote Aboriginal community, the Koop’s foster daughter is now in transition at school in Alice Springs. The trip is not her first overseas and will include stops at the Grand Canyon, San Francisco and other US tourism icons. The Koops also have a young foster son, but they were unable to take him as well.
“As it turns out we hit a few speed bumps,” Alice Springs firefighter Andrew Koop said.
“When we were planning the trip, we were told that within six months he would be back with his family. When that did not pan out, it was too late to include him. It was too late to organise a passport.”
Across Australia, government policy stipulates that an Aboriginal child unable to live with family should live wherever and whenever possible within an Aboriginal community. The reality is, however, that comparatively few Aboriginal carers are available or able. That is where families like the Koops can help.
Robyn became interested in fostering after she and Andrew married in 2006. The next year she saw a sign calling for foster carers.
“We had been thinking about adopting, but that didn’t work out,” she said. “We had space in our lives and I’d been meaning to call them.”
Offering respite care to begin with, the couple has since cared for up to 17 children. The duration of each child’s stay varies – mostly one at a time, but often there have been two, and on one occasion three children.
“We cared for a little baby once for New Year’s Eve,” Andrew said. “They needed someone to look after him for a night or two.
“He arrived at 1am and the next morning the other two kids could not believe a baby had arrived in the night. They were ecstatic!”
Now the children stay for longer. Apart from a period of 18 months when she returned to a remote community, the Koop’s foster daughter has been with them since 2009 when she was just eight weeks old.
“She’s beautiful,” Robyn said showing a picture on her phone. “Full of beans, good at running, drawing and loves the monkey bars. I can’t imagine being without her.”
Nevertheless, there are demands.
“You always have to have lots of balls in the air,” Robyn said. “Juggle and respond to what they need, put boundaries down – consistency and bed time is important. I don’t know if being a foster parent is much difference to being normal parent.”
“They become part of your family,” Andrew said in agreement.
While both Robyn and Andrew list the joys of foster parenting as many, both admit saying goodbye to a child to return to an Aboriginal family or community can be tough. After 18 months with their foster daughter, however, the Department of Children and Families wanted to transition the baby back to an Aboriginal community.
“There were tears all round the day she left,” Andrew said. “We knew it was coming, but it still wasn’t pleasant. For her as well.”
The girl was gone for 13 months, returning to the Koop’s care the following November. Eventually she remained with the Koops, and is now under a long-term care order until she turns 18. Their foster son’s future, however, remains uncertain. The seemingly ever-changing circumstances for the children can be trying for both child and foster parents, something potential parents are warned of during departmental training and orientation.
“They didn’t sugar coat it,” Andrew said. “But you can never cover all the bases of what might happen. Nobody can prepare you for being a parent.”
The Koops also seek help from local support advocacy group Foster Carers Association NT.
“Advocacy is their major thing,” Robyn said. “But they also do training, talks from time to time. Workshops where you can hear people speak, which is very good.”
Robyn is also a member of the Foster Carers Association NT Board. Despite the challenges, Robyn urges others to be foster parents.
“Do it if you can. Try it out. You don’t have to do it forever,” she said. If you like children and have space in your life, its lovely.’
Andrew agrees, adding: “It’s rewarding and challenging at the same time. But you can make a difference.”