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When I was 16, I moved in with a school friend and his family under an informal foster care arrangement. Before then, I couch surfed on and off for around a year. Most days of the week, I remember carrying two bags to school: one with schoolbooks and the other with spare clothes and a toothbrush. For a short while, I even kept a pillow in my locker.

I was primarily raised by a single mum. We were poor, lived in a poor suburb, and the Smith Family sponsored me. For most of my life, Mum has suffered from several illnesses: depression and anxiety, anti-social behaviour, addiction, and trauma. Her illnesses caused abuse and neglect at home, so I couch surfed by staying with friends (usually school friends) to escape. Unfortunately, moving in with Dad wasn’t an option because he lived interstate, was unemployed, and suffered from alcohol, drug, and gambling addictions at the time.

Since I had learnt to play the violin as part of the then Department for Education’s free music program in primary schools, I became a special interest music student at a secondary school in a high socio-economic area. The friends I made typically came from middle to upper class families which meant my couch surfing experience exposed me to different classes and values (which I adopted in my adult life).

I first couch surfed at a school friend’s house over the summer period when I was 15. The family actually considered having me move in, and although it seemed ideal, I didn’t pursue it because they spoke Afrikaans at home. They only used English when I was around them—which never sat right with me. I eventually went back to Mum’s but opted to stay with other friends regularly throughout the new school year. In fact, I made a routine out of it to create some level of stability.

During this period, my living situation eventually made me depressed, disengaged from school, and I failed my subjects. At one stage, I was unexpectedly called into the counsellor’s office, but I decided to use it as an opportunity to mention Mum’s alcohol use. To my surprise, the counsellor seemed unphased by the comment and his perspective was out of line. I walked out and never went back.

Although I’m grateful for having gone to that school, they didn’t know how to help me. I accrued punishments because the teachers assumed I deliberately disobeyed school rules having worn second-hand (and eventually phased out) uniform—but that’s what Mum could afford. Couch surfing also meant having clean and weather appropriate uniform was difficult, which resulted with occasionally wearing casual clothes (socks and jumpers mostly). In the end, I don’t believe the counsellor knew I couch surfed and moved out of home, despite my efforts to explain.

When I was 16, a teacher of mine, who knew me well, grew aware of my family life. After having had a conversation that ended with me in tears, he and his wife tried to adopt me (unsuccessfully) so I could live somewhere secure and safe. I knew nothing would come of it but appreciated them trying. Their aim after that was to maintain my wellbeing. They had regular phone calls with Mum, checked in with me daily, and made my school lunches (I suspect to guilt me into coming to school because I truanted a lot and considered dropping out). It is that teacher’s intervention that changed the course of my life, and I’ll be forever grateful for the risks he took to care for me.

A few months went by, and I had spent the next summer with a high school friend and his family; they had allowed me to stay for a few months into the following school year. I was no longer under Mum’s guardianship as I had given Centrelink evidence that it was unreasonable to live at home, was deemed ‘independent,’ provided the student youth allowance, and assigned a mandatory social worker from Centrelink.

My intention was to stay with the family temporarily and move into a share house near school to finish year 11 and 12. But, my friend’s family decided to take me in as their informal foster daughter. I remember telling Mum, and although she was upset, she wrote them a thank you letter.

Using my youth allowance, I offered and paid the family each fortnight to help cover the cost of caring for me but paid for a lot of my own weekly expenses (transport, school, uniforms, toiletries etc.). The family covered other costs such as phone credit and health insurance. I saved what was left (which I later used to pay for my first year of tertiary education). Once I settled in, I was comfortable, and my mental health improved.

One of my favourite parts was having nightly family dinners at the table because it was something I rarely did growing up. The family was Jewish and so they celebrated cultural holidays and ate Jewish food—all of which I love and celebrate today. They also referred to me as their logical bonus daughter, and still do. In one of their Channukah letters written to me after I finished year 12, they wrote that I completed their family. I remained in their care until I was 19.

Unfortunately, as time passed, my relationship with my school friend (the informal foster family’s son) became unstable and I had to move out. I actually moved out, back in, and out again within two months. It broke my heart. For a little while, I couch surfed again, but eventually found a share house. The family did their best to help me feel a part of it, and when I lived there, I did; though, I’m occasionally reminded by small things that I’m not quite a family member. Sometimes thinking about them makes me teary because I miss them and how things were. I wouldn’t be where I am if not for them, so 6 years later, I still have grief related to moving out. Thankfully we keep in contact.

On reflection, the hardest part about having lived in informal foster care, wasn’t that others didn’t always understand, it was having to leave. Usually, when kids at home don’t get along, it doesn’t resort with one moving out. The fact is, the relationships were never as defined as foster mum, dad, son, and daughter, so I always knew my time with them came with an expiry date.

The hardest part about couch surfing, wasn’t that I didn’t have a consistent home; it was the fact that I was vulnerable. Some parents saw me as a bad influence, others took me in without question, and a few friends took advantage. I endured setbacks and abuse during this period and deliberately only detailed the start and end of my couch surfing year for the reader.

The hardest part about moving out of Mum’s, is my element of choice to leave her. Even after being made aware to the child protection system through reports, I was never removed from Mum’s care. Whilst there are incidents I have shared with others, whose reactions are telling, I sometimes can’t help but think, to what extent was moving out my choice? Although I’m better off having done so, I sometimes wonder if I overreacted.

There are major systemic disadvantages that go unseen for children and young people who can’t be raised by their birth parents because harm is present. I have personally been officially responsible for myself from age 16, and this has come with an abundance of hurdles. All I’ve wanted is to be a contributing member of society, but the hurdles haven’t always allowed it.

At the time of writing, I work as an advocate for foster and kinship carers and their children and young people in the system.

Out of respect for my parents, I’d like to share that both Mum and Dad had established careers before I was born. One was a teacher, and the other, a journalist, so there is a long and traumatic recount that explains why they raised me the way they did (and in their mid 40s)! My point is, despite their mistakes, I believe that Mum did her best, and that Mum (and Dad) always loved me the best way they know how.

Image supplied