Love and security were “the most precious of gifts” for Pat, and thankfully, she came to receive, understand and appreciate them when she was later put into the care of foster parents ‘Kitchie and Pop’.
“Those early experiences, I believe, were the embryonic catalyst for my fierce protectiveness towards children later in life – particularly those most disadvantaged and at risk,” Pat said.
Inspired by her foster parents’ love and her upbringing, which included being placed in an orphanage, Pat aspired to have a “large family” of her own and was motivated to be “the best mother in the world”.
Pat truly has set the benchmark.
She has four beautiful birth children, Peter, Tony, Cathy and Lyn, and despite enduring her own tough start to life, was courageous enough to escape a physically and emotionally abusive marriage, before choosing to become a single parent foster carer for 28 years.
I asked Pat to confirm the number of children she had fostered. “I couldn’t tell you,” Pat told me. Naively assuming we were talking about three or four, the shock I unwittingly betrayed made Pat pause.
“I stopped counting at 35 children. It’s not about me being a foster carer, it’s about us being a foster family.”
As we sit in Pat’s lounge room surrounded by photographs, trinkets, memories and a lifetime of achievements, she shows me photographs of some of the children she has cared for. Each occupies a special place in her heart.
“It’s a shame when you don’t hear back from them,” Pat remarks as she puts away the photos.
It was a simple TV commercial encouraging people to consider becoming carers that led Pat to think, “I’d probably do all right at this because I know what they’re talking about and what care is needed.”
Pat’s dream of a large family became reality as she underwent training before welcoming into her home numerous children and babies for ‘short-term’ placements. “It’s a game of chance,” Pat explains as she detailed the often traumatic reasons children are placed in care. However, Pat was determined to put to good use what she had learned from her own upbringing and became committed to ensuring that whilst any child was under her care, he or she received what she believes is the most valuable asset you can give a child, stability.
“The rewards for such a commitment are immeasurable,” Pat explains. And this was further realised when Centacare Newcastle (now CatholicCare) asked Pat to consider fostering Ben. At almost 4 years, Ben weighed ten and a half kilograms, had epilepsy and fitted frequently, had hearing and sight problems, only one kidney, multiple disabilities and needed specialised care. “We were not equipped to care for a child like Ben. However, we reasoned that together, we could meet the challenge for a month, as was originally asked of us. When short-term care changed to long-term care, as a family unit we accepted the challenge and we have never regretted our decision. Apart from my own four children, Ben’s very existence is my proudest achievement.”
Now 29, Ben lives with Pat but also enjoys frequent contact with his birth mother. Detailing a social life to rival Paris Hilton’s, my time with Ben is limited because he is “off to play ten-pin bowling” (for the third time this week). Each day Ben works for a charity and each night he has commitments such as practising for the upcoming Special Olympics Opening Ceremony with the Waltzing Matildas, attending disco and dance nights, going to the gym and visiting the club with his sister. Ben is also a client of CatholicCare’s Disability Services Mentoring program which he looks forward to each week.
“Ben is very independent and socially, he can go anywhere – he keeps me young and is just always so positive,” Pat said.
Outside her four children, grandchildren and Ben’s progress, in fact, his very survival, Pat explains that the next most important thing in her life has been establishing support services for foster parents, advocating for foster children and being able to deal successfully with bureaucrats and the hierarchy.
Pat’s not one to shy away from criticising some of the Departmental bodies she’s found challenging and during her 28 years as a carer, she’s discovered the value of carer support networks. Pat was instrumental in setting up a state-wide support network for foster carers, the Foster Care Association (NSW) Inc and in 2003 Pat received an Order of Australian medal for her work.
At 79, you couldn’t blame Pat if she was ready to put her feet up and enjoy retirement. Instead, Pat has just been appointed to the board of CatholicCare Social Services and will no doubt assist the organisation by continuing to advocate for children in care, foster carers and people with a disability, especially as the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) rolls out in Newcastle.
“I am forever in awe of the dedication of parents and carers to disabled children and young people. By necessity, your life is organised around the needs of that person, but people and organisations are there to support you and carers should never forget to look after themselves.”
“Our Ben sees himself on a level playing field with all of us and that’s how I’ve brought up my own kids. My hope is that NDIS further empowers people with a disability to be treated equally. I’ve learned from my own upbringing and just like I have for kids in care, I will, as long as I’m able, continue to advocate for those who can’t.”