I first met with the Woolley family on the eve of National Adoption Awareness Week 2018. Bella entered foster care when she was just 18 months old. Initially, she was placed with immediate carers, Mal and Elaine, with whom she still maintains contact with today. Next, she was welcomed by the Woolley family and eventually went on to become their daughter, legally, via open adoption.
National Adoption Awareness Week (NAAW) exists to raise awareness of adoption and the importance of permanency for children, along with providing education on the support needs of children and families.
As we sat around the table, sharing a meal, we discussed the importance of NAAW, community misconceptions about foster care and adoption and how Bella’s introduction to the Woolley family has changed all of their lives.
When I ask Bella, 19 years, about her experience of foster care and open adoption she responded, speaking softly but confidently.
“My parents, Adam and Anna, loved me from the moment I was born. I was taken into care because they did not have the capacity to keep me safe and secure, but I have no doubt that they only ever wanted what was best for me. I am incredibly blessed that Mum, Dad (Mark and Anne) and Jessica opened their home to me and welcomed me as part of their family. Mum and Dad really wanted to ensure there was no barrier to me loving my natural family and because of this I am fortunate to have a close relationship with both them and my adopted family. I think it was really important from my natural parents’ perspective to know that that the Woolley family could take great care of me.
“While I don’t remember my early years with them, I have always felt like I belong- they have nurtured me, loved me and provided me with opportunities I would never have otherwise experienced. What they have taught me about compassion and acceptance has set me up for life; their guidance has had a more profound influence on me than even my schooling did.
By his admission, Mark had a fortunate upbringing. He beams as he tells me about becoming a father in his early 20s and then going on to meet Anne, with whom he had Jessica. After becoming a father, Mark felt passionate about providing youth, who perhaps did not have the same opportunities as his own children, with an extended support network. Accordingly, he and Anne joined CatholicCare’s Aunts and Uncles program and loved having the opportunity to be a listening ear, mentor and confidant to young people.
When Jessica was eight years old, and after intense consideration, Mark broached Anne with the idea of becoming permanent foster carers. Committed to learning more about what is involved, Mark and Anne attended information sessions and training where they had the opportunity to talk with agency staff and experienced carers about what to expect. They knew in their heart it was something they wanted to do - but they believed it should be a family decision.
Accordingly, they had an informed discussion with Jessica about what it would mean for them to provide permanent care for vulnerable children and how it might change their family. Together, the three of them decided that it was something they were committed to doing as a family.
“I was old enough to understand what we were doing and importantly, why we were doing it,” Jessica says of this decision. To this, Mark adds “Jess has been a really big asset, playing a role in Bella’s life that we could never have fulfilled,” with Bella chiming in “I look up to Jess so much, she is a great role model and big sister to me.”
The conversation about becoming a foster family was close to 20 years ago, and during that time the Woolley’s have cared for Bella and another child, Dillon. Dillon lived with the family for eight years and at a time when he was old enough, elected to move back with his family. The Woolley’s were accepting and understanding of this decision, and still maintain contact with Dillon who is now in his 20s.
Over dinner Mark and Anne describe that a lot of people have been quite curious about their experience as foster carers, often asking “how can you give a child back, after fostering for some time?”
Anne’s thoughts on this are clear, “a lot of people think that once you have a child in your home that they are “yours.” A child is not a possession. As a family we are here to provide a safe and loving home for however long is needed.”
The discussion continues, and it becomes apparent that Mark, Anne and Jessica, in welcoming Bella into their lives, embraced her entire family. They laugh and smile as they recount experiences with Bella’s family and my heart swells as they show me a photo of Bella at her Christening. Bella was primary school aged and in the photo are Mark, Anne and Jessica, along with her initial carers, Mal and Elaine, her parents Adam and Anna and her grandparents.
To me, this photo exemplifies what foster care and open adoption are all about. Fostering a connection with family for the child, and helping them to develop a sense an appreciation of their origin and hope for their future.
After 10 years in their care, when Bella was 13, Mark and Anne approached her and asked whether she would like to be adopted. They explained to me that they had waited for this length in time, as they wanted it to be a decision that was informed by Bella’s experience.
“Having Bella in our lives has enriched our family in so many ways,” Mark begins.
“To us, it made no difference as to whether we continued to ‘foster’ Bella or whether we went down the path of ‘open adoption,’ we have loved her since the moment she came into our lives and no piece of paper was ever going to change that- to us, she was part of our family regardless of her decision. We chatted with Bella about her options, and she decided it was something she wanted. A lot of discussions were had with Bella’s family to help ease any anxiety around the possibility of open adoption and we committed to ongoing interaction with her family, they are now our family too,” Anne continues.
After sitting with the Woolley family for an hour, it becomes abundantly clear to me that my initial impression of them perhaps undersells their warmth and generous nature, if this is even possible.
Like everyone, they may not be perfect, but their heart is in the right place. Mark and Anne went into foster care not for themselves, but to provide security for vulnerable children and now have two beautiful daughters who consequently, are all the more rich in mind and spirit for it.
It’s a big step, deciding you’re ready to open your heart and home to a child in need. Preparing yourself for what it takes to be a foster carer is one of the first ports of call on the personal journey carers and their families embark on.
Like in Bella’s circumstance, where children can’t be restored to their birth families CatholicCare supports the NSW Government’s plans to make it easier for foster families to adopt or become guardians of children in their care. This type of security is exactly what children and young people need to thrive now, and into the future.
CatholicCare is seeking carers from all walks of life including people of various ages, cultural and religious backgrounds and relationship status’ who can provide immediate, restoration, respite and permanent care for children of all ages. If you would like to learn more about restoration, foster care, guardianship and open adoption I would encourage you to attend CatholicCare’s foster care and open adoption information sessions. You can also watch a video on the Woolley family’s story in more detail on the CatholicCare website www.catholiccare.org.au along with the stories of many of our other families.