‘It’s me or jail’: foster care crisis warning

BRIANNA MORRIS-GRANT

Grame Hopf has seen almost everything in 48 years of foster caring.

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Grame Hopf has opened his home to hundreds of young people. Photo: Brianna Morris-Grant

He takes on the most extreme cases, and his home is littered with the proof of it – holes punched in the walls and doors, the windows replaced 10 times over.

But as he sits in the living room of his Uki home, he doesn’t begrudge a second of it.

“I believe I can make a difference in their life,” he said.

“It’s the bond that someone like myself can build up with those people; you basically can become addicted to caring for other people, for lack of a better word.”

Considering his background, it’s small wonder Grame ended up caring for wayward and damaged young people.

After running away from an agricultural college in rural New South Wales he found himself a street kid in Sydney.

There he found a stranger who showed him the kindness he would go on to share with hundreds of foster children.

“In 1967 I went up to the Sydney show because I had a livestock background (…), I met up with an American fellow who was out here judging and he took me back to America,” Grame said.

“At the age of 19 I came back to work on a cattle property in Western Victoria. The owner of the property was 78 years-old, but very keen on helping young people out, so we started fostering kids on the property and I’ve done it ever since.”

In almost half a century, he’s seen 36 long-term placements, most of whom still call him once a week. He’s lost count of how many only stayed just a month, a week, a day.

One will never be able to live anywhere else. Grame says for this man, now in his 30s, it’s “either here or jail”. But even for an experienced carer there’s only so much he’s capable of doing, and he says he’s often at a loss.

“I had one young fellow that was told to move on from my place, he hung himself in Tamworth, and he left a note,” he said.

“And all the note said was, ‘Grame, you’re the only one to ever say you love me’.”

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, almost 200,000 children entered out-of-home care in Australia between 2012 and 2016.

David Thomas is a teacher at Murwillumbah High School and has been teaching for 16 years, working closely with many of Grame’s charges.

Many of his students are in out-of-home care, but he says it’s difficult to keep up with them.

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Grame says many of his foster placements form strong bonds with the animals on his property. Photo: Brianna Morris-Grant

“You’re dealing with these kids that, if you’re not aware of what they’re coming from, or even having in the back of your mind that this kid’s probably seen more chaos and devastation than you’ll ever see in yours,” he said.

“We’re in our 40s and 50s and we still don’t know, you have to be conscious of how you deal with them.”

There are many people across Australia who know what these carers are going through. Executive Director of Foster Care Queensland Bryan Smith is one of them.

Bryan has been caring for children with his wife for more than twenty years – his oldest foster daughter is now 39-years-old, with children of her own. Like Grame, he has watched the system change over time.

“We still are providing a service in a big system, a system that’s worth more than a billion dollars now, and the child protection system continues to grow,” he said.

“We have much larger degrees of family and domestic violence, mental health issues and drug and alcohol related issues, which then has an effect on the children that they’re caring for.

“So we’re seeing the children’s needs are much more complex. Where in the early 90s we’d have children who were much more modest, we’re now seeing children be quite violent in their behaviours.

“It takes a lot of work, and you need a lot of support from outside agencies, and it’s very, very difficult at times.”

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Shakia Tauwhare credits The Family Centre for her success in life now. Photo: Brianna Morris-Grant

Shakia Tauwhare, 21, knows too well how difficult the system can be. She was forced to live in her car during her final year of high school.

She said it was only through the keen eye of care organisation The Family Centre that her struggle was noticed, and they’ve been fighting for her ever since.

“Without these guys I’d honestly not know what to do on my own,” she said, sitting in the relative comfort of the centre’s conference room.

“It has made me settle down and realise that I don’t want to be on the move a lot, I’ve done that my whole life and I’m sick of it.”

Grame Hopf is aware his time to influence the system is running out.

“The one thing I want to really stress is that I believe there’s plenty of money within the system, it’s just the way that money is being spent,” he said.

“When a case worker can receive more income for coming and visiting a young person in care than what the carer’s going to receive for their time and expenses, I think the priorities are wrong.

“Most carers aren’t there to make a living out of being a carer, they’re there to do a service, but that service can certainly be lacking if there’s a financial burden.”

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Grame Hopf now knows he cannot keep it up forever. Photo: Brianna Morris-Grant

On his pensioner’s income, Grame has made sure all the children in his care get what they deserve – each typically has their own animals, vehicles, and access to internet and telephones.

But money is tight. As he approaches 70, his own children are asking what will happen when he himself needs care.

They ask what will happen to those who still rely on him for support, and those who cannot function in the world beyond his fence line.

He doesn’t have a satisfying answer.

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