In Sharon’s words …
Who/what inspires me: The actress Miriam Margolyes for embracing her creativity and difference, her awkward honesty and love of life.
Best advice/motto: Always be honest, it’s your own conscience you have to sleep with at night.
It was a busy day like any other in the Greenock household when Sharon Greenock received the email. *Jody, the 16-month-old foster baby they’d received at six days old, was to be returned to her birth mum.
While Sharon had looked after plenty of foster kids on a short-term basis, after so long with Jody they thought this beautiful blonde baby would be with them for life. She had nothing against children being returned to their birth parents, so long as the conditions were right and the child knew who they were returning to. But when Jody was handed over to her birth mum, she found herself in the arms of a stranger.
It started slowly – with supervised day visits then overnight stays. Jody’s behaviour transformed. The once placid baby stopped sleeping well, she refused food, she became unsettled.
Finally the day came and a heartbroken Sharon and her family handed over the child, praying for the best for the daughter they’d loved so much.
Jody is one of about 20 foster kids Sharon and her family have cared for in the past five years on a short or long-term basis, four of whom are now in her permanent care. But what drives a couple like Sharon and her husband Kim to take on foster kids – children whose often traumatic pasts create an avalanche of behavioural issues – on top of raising their three biological children?
When Jody was handed over to her birth mum, she found herself in the arms of a stranger.
The good in giving
The Greenocks were always the kind of family that cared. They had sponsored World Vision kids. They believed in the good of giving. So, when Sharon and Kim’s three kids reached their teenage years and Sharon stopped full-time work, they decided to offer respite to foster carers by taking in kids for the weekend.
At first it was relatively easy. They’d put the housework on hold and go out for a fun weekend, eat ice-cream together, play. Afterwards they’d pat themselves on the back for a job well done. But gradually the kids started staying longer. The Greenocks sat down and considered what more they could do to help the young souls whose own families couldn’t care for them.
“We felt financially we could afford to do it and we’d always felt our children would benefit from giving – you never lose from giving,” Sharon says. “But when you think back we really had no idea what we were in for. There was no way I thought I was getting four more children.”
“… we really had no idea what we were in for.”
First ‘forever’ kid
Their first long-term foster kid was a special little cyclone named *Jim. Jim, now 7.5 years old, was three when he exploded into the Greenocks’ lives. “It was like someone dropped a volcano in the middle of our lounge room and it started spewing out lava everywhere,” Sharon laughs. “He was frightened and completely unpredictable.”
His shocking behaviour made her wonder at what life had thrown at him. What treatment had made him so scared? What had his young eyes witnessed? What neglect had he endured?
Sharon remembers taking him to dinner and finding him under the table, pooing on the floor in the middle of the restaurant. She remembers him shocking passers-by with his foul mouth, while she fielded their judgemental glares. She remembers him biting another kid at a birthday party and the kid’s father ringing up and demanding a HIV test because he knew Jim was a foster child.
Yet Sharon found herself falling in love. “I don’t know when we fell in love with [Jim] for the first time but there came a point when it was just really, really important to make it better for him – no one else was going to do that for this kid. I do remember feeling overwhelmed and asking ‘what have I done to my husband, what have I done to my kids?’ but I knew I couldn’t be the one to send him back and say I couldn’t have him.”
What treatment had made him so scared? What had his young eyes witnessed? What neglect had he endured?
A growing family
Next came Jody, whom they received at six days old. Sharon gazed at the innocent being in her arms and wondered what she may have suffered in the womb. Would this tiny infant endure the agony of drug withdrawal? Would foetal alcohol syndrome affect her future? Whatever the case it wasn’t long before this placid baby also captured their hearts.
They then received *John aged two months old (he recently turned three), followed by a six-day old *Adam, who is now nearly two. Again they wondered what they may have suffered. And again they found themselves smitten.
It was during this whirlwind of child raising that Jody was taken away. They feared they’d never see her again.
Despite the heartbreak, Sharon never regrets offering her full heart. She never laments taking on a child – no matter how little or long she has them. “Of course you’re heartbroken when they go but your heart should be a bit broken,” she says. “You’re the adult, you do what’s best for them. Even with [Jody] we knew we had armed her with skills she would never had had otherwise.”
Despite the heartbreak, Sharon never regrets offering her full heart.
It just takes one
A year after they’d bid teary goodbyes to Jody they received a call. It hadn’t worked out with Jody’s birth mum. Could they take her back? While delighted to be able to care for her again, they knew it wouldn’t be the same Jody who returned. “She’d clearly been neglected by the look of her – a different child came back. There’s all that sadness and grief related to that to deal with, plus also a bit of anger.” But, in typical Sharon fashion, she just got on with the job of making up for the love the toddler had missed out on.
Sharon believes any child is capable of living a happy life, no matter what past trauma they have faced, if they’re showered with love. “I do think it’s possible for kids to get over trauma,” she says. “The younger you get them the better but even teenagers who have had 60 placements, if you have the capacity, the nature and the resources, you can turn that around. You only need one person in your life to invest in you, and keep investing in you, even if they spit in your face, even if they rub faeces in your wall. If you can invest in that kid you can make a real difference.”
“You only need one person in your life to invest in you … to make a real difference.”
The experience with Jody has made Sharon cautious of the current child protection focus on returning children to their birth parents as a first priority. She believes there needs to be stricter criteria for returning children, and that those who’ve been homed by foster carers for more than a year shouldn’t be returned to a family of virtual strangers. “I know one carer who received a child at three months and she was returned to her birth mother three years later – that’s too long. What’s that going to do to that child? They say every parent deserves another chance but they’re forgetting about the child stuck in the middle.”
Despite this, Sharon goes out of her way to ensure the kids in her care have contact with their birth mothers, whom they call “tummy mummies”. “It’s in their best interest and it’s in my best interest,” she says. “I don’t want a teenager shouting that I’m not their mum and that I kept them away from their mum.”
Sharon is particularly proud of the relationship she has developed with Jim’s birth mum, who remains in contact with Sharon and Jim. They spoke to her just recently and she spoke of her love for Sharon, her appreciation for the Greenocks, her pride at who her son had become.
Sharon recently Skyped John’s grandmother and aunts in the Torres Strait Islands (TSI) so they could see each other over the computer screen. “They promised to send him photos and a TSI flag,” Sharon says. “And we will take him over there. What a rich tapestry of life that is. Your children can’t be loved by too many people.”
“Your children can’t be loved by too many people.”
Sprinkled with fairy dust
As Jim, Jody, John and Adam’s stays stretched into months then years, the Greenocks stopped looking after other kids short-term and applied to make the four children their ‘forever’ kids. They have received a special guardianship order on Jim, making them his legal guardians. And they are in the process of applying for similar rights for the three others.
The Greenocks’ three “home-grown” children, now aged 20, 18 and 16, maintain a close relationship with the youngsters with whom they shared a home. While they are now building their own lives abroad and at work, they are eager to be kept abreast of their younger siblings’ development.
And, while Sharon sometimes sighs as she watches her peers post Facebook updates of kid-free holidays in Bali, she knows how much she gains from opening her heart to the children. “The kids are just so gorgeous. So magic. I’ve had moments when I’ve thought ‘oh my god why does my life look like this?’ but overall nobody regrets doing it. The children are loved so much. When these four do something it’s like someone has sprinkled them with fairy dust when they do it. When your own kids walk or lose a tooth or something it’s so fantastic. But when these guys do it it’s like an acknowledgement that they’ve come from not great to just doing ordinary things – that’s pretty great.”
*Names have been changed to comply with legal requirements for foster children. Photos may not show the faces of foster children.