Just like everyone else
Georgie and Tracey, Barnardos out-of-home care case managers
Adolescence is hard for everyone, but particularly for kids in care. We have supported lots of teenage girls facing some tough times. We kept finding out that many of the conversations the girls desperately needed just weren’t happening at home. They might have just moved in with a new foster carer and hadn’t had time to build the trust needed to ask uncomfortable questions, or new carers may have presumed carers before them had already covered off on something. Others were nervous it wasn’t ‘their place’ to talk about things like sex or body image. It was just another way teenagers in care had it harder than everyone else.
An idea started to emerge. What if we brought them all together for a weekend, spending time sharing and learning from us and other young women just like them? We know our girls are funny, clever, and beautiful in their own ways – together they could be magic.
We carefully considered the young people we supported and made a list of the 10 we believed would gel. The dynamic between them could make or break the experience. We invited some young girls going through a tough time, even if we were a bit worried their experiences might be confronting for the others. There were a couple that had no school friends at all, and we hoped it would be
life-changing for them to make connections with girls their own age in a safe space. The girls we had to work the hardest for were the ones we knew had the most to gain.
Chaos and uncertainty were pretty much a given for our girls before they came into care. So to help them prepare and have a sense of control, we sent them a timetable of what would happen. We were covering everything from healthy relationships, self-esteem, body image and cyber safety to self-care. There was so much to talk about. Next we spent undivided time with each girl. Some of them felt quite worried in the beginning. We ‘buddied up’ the girls – the more confident ones could keep an eye on the ones who were nervous. We told the ‘buddies’ that we trusted them to take another girl under their wing. Their eyes lit up to be given such an important role.
We held a girls’ dinner the week before camp. Karen was nervous about coming and so we asked Zara, who couldn’t wait, to reach out to her. She was so empathic and followed her up after the dinner. Karen’s caseworker told me that feeling accepted made all the difference to Karen, and she went from being anxious to counting down the days to camp.
When we got in our cars to drive everyone down the coast, any of our concerns about the girls getting along flew out the window. We couldn’t get a word in!
Over the weekend, the activities were fun and engaging, but we had a serious agenda. Many of the girls had moved around from carer to carer and carried deep wounds from feeling rejected by their families. They craved connection and for people to like them, but without a template for healthy relationships, found it hard to make safe choices about who to let into their lives.
One of the young girls, Selina, had sent a nude picture to a boy, who then passed it around the school. Selina wants everyone to like her, so when someone asked for pictures, she didn’t want to say no. There were lots of stories like this. We talked a lot about staying safe online. We kept reminding the girls that we wanted them to be safe because we really cared about them. They had lost friends with every new carer, and every new school, and then we expect them to be resilient and stand up for themselves. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but we wanted to try and repair their sense of self, so they had the confidence to say no when something didn’t feel right.
Some of the girls struggled with healthy eating and taking care of their bodies. Before they came into care they often missed out on meals, or grew up eating fast food. And sadly, for some, they just don’t believe they are worth looking after. They didn’t feel good about themselves on the inside and it showed on the outside too. Along with lots of chats, we took the girls grocery shopping and talked about healthy food choices and hidden sugars. Then we gave them each a huge care pack filled with nice soaps, lotions, face wash and other fun things to feel pampered. We wanted them to feel worthy of being cared for.
Family relationships were another big part of our discussions. One of the girls, Penny, shared with us that even though her memories of her dad are quite scary because he was violent, she still missed him all the time. The others piped up that many of them didn’t know their dads either. We could see how comforting it was for them to find out they weren’t alone in their feelings of loss. Afterwards Penny said a few times, ‘Well I’m just like so and so, because she doesn’t see her dad either.’
One young woman, Allie, was dealing with some big issues, so her caseworker came for the weekend to be by her side. Allie had lived through lots of harrowing experiences and night-time triggered painful memories for her. We put in plans around bedtime, set up a nightly routine and had meditation apps ready to go. The other girls were prepped too so they knew what to do to help her. Planning was key to making Allie and all the girls feel safe.
On the second night we found all the girls in a circle, sharing intimate details about their lives with one another. Things their regular school friends just wouldn’t get. It was spontaneous and beautiful. Many of these girls had never told anyone about why they came into care, and it was powerful for them to feel safe enough to speak. They named it the circle of trust.
We gave the girls free time one night – this was really a chance to take a little breather on the couch. One of the girls came in and said, ‘We feel really bad for leaving you on your own, do you want to come and hang out with us?’ It was lovely they wanted to make sure we felt welcome too!
At the end of the three days together, we all wrote letters. Everyone had to note down something special about everyone else on the camp for them to take home. Allie in particular had such beautiful comments, which showed how much the others had rallied around her. We don’t think she had ever experienced kindness from girls her own age. For all we covered off on the hard stuff, it was a really happy weekend with lots of laughing and dancing. They all wanted it to go for a whole week, but we were pretty tired by Sunday night!
After the camp, we checked in carefully with the girls and their carers to make sure they were okay with what they had experienced. Sharing so much can stir up quite a lot of emotions and we were ready to step up if anyone needed us. Most of the time they were only worried about their new friends, checking in with us to see how they were going. They have this amazing empathy for one another.
Most of the girls have stayed friends. Having a connection to someone who has experienced the same things as you is priceless. We know one weekend away can’t fix everything, but the kind of work you can do over three days with a group can be far more powerful than individual casework. Time is golden with young people. It is the best gift you can give them.
Zara, 14, young person
I came into foster care when I was nine. You wouldn’t have recognised me back then; I was a bit out of control. I didn’t like my first two carers. I used to run away to my school because that’s where I felt safe. Once I scratched my carer so hard that she bled. Mostly, I just remember feeling sad.
Then I started having respite care with Cara. In her family we were always laughing and having fun. At the end of the weekend I would become hysterical – I wouldn’t want to get in the car. Cara said it would break her heart to give me back. I was so happy when Cara asked Barnardos if I could stay. She is my mum now. I have been here for four years and belong in this family with mum and dad and my two sisters.
Lots of my friends take their families for granted; they come to school and say, ‘I can’t stand my mum, she wouldn’t let me go out on Friday night.’ And I just think, ‘What are you talking about? You have your mum and dad with you.’ I appreciate my family so much. Mum says I’m wise because I’ve been through so much.
My support worker Georgie is like my second mum. She always gives me good advice – even if it feels like she always agrees with mum! When Georgie told me about the camp I was really excited. We had a dinner a few weeks before and shared our Facebook and Insta details so we could chat before we got to camp. Georgie told me Karen was really nervous about coming, so I made sure I liked all her posts and sent her some funny messages so she felt more comfortable.
I don’t like telling people that I am in foster care. I usually just change the subject whenever people talk about when they were little. Only my best friend knows I’m in care; I’m very careful about what I share with people. A friend at camp, Kyla, told us all that when she told her schoolmates she was in foster care, they turned their backs on her. A lot of us stress out about this happening. One of the best things about the camp is that I didn’t have to worry that someone would find out I was in foster care, because we all were. It was nice to be like everyone else for once.
There were lots of serious chats that felt a bit like school, but I loved it best when we were listening to music, cooking dinners together, colouring in and chatting. I had the best time – it was like the world’s biggest sleepover.
There was a full-on time at breakfast when Karen told us she had been cutting herself. I got really upset about it. But Tracey and Georgie talked to her and then to all of us. We pulled her into our circle a bit closer and I think she felt better. I don’t think the kids at her school would get it like we did.
I’m still friends with everyone and next week we’re have a having a catch-up dinner; I’m so excited. Georgie has told me that she would love if I mentored other kids in care when I’m older. She says that no matter how hard she tries, she can never really understand what it’s like to be in foster care, and other kids in care like me can do a better job. I think I’ll be pretty good at it too.
Senior Project Officer, OOHC Initiatives | Design, Innovation, Safety & Permanency NSW Department of Family and Community Services
What magic! Waking up at camp with the blissful and peaceful feelings that within an arm’s reach is a group of people there for you. You are safe, accepted and understood. The often negative stigma that young people experience in care was removed, not having to avoid questions, feel different, or misunderstood. The adults on camp were able to shift the power dynamic and be present, sharing wisdom through enjoying and facilitating activities together.
This story is an example of when young people are given an opportunity to learn through experiences, in a safe environment, mixed with the right amount of challenge, responsibility, fun and care – they thrive! What a sacred ‘circle of trust’. Sharing the highs and lows of life with each other promotes support and provides these young people with genuine and authentic care.
Congratulations to all the young people who took a leap and turned up to camp. Your care and commitment to each other and the adults in the group was inspiring. You were always offering the opportunity for people to be part of your inner circle or just to ‘hang out’. Zara, your wisdom and care for others is heartening.
What an extraordinary effort from the adults that organised the camp. Knowing the importance of connection they carefully and purposefully designed the program, managed risk, allowed time for sharing and invested time and care into these young woman.
Bring on a one-week camp!