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FROM a young age, chef Kiara Oxley, now 22, moved between 11 families before finding a permanent home as a teenager.
Kiara was eight when her mum, a single mother, told her and twin brother Zach she was sick and couldn’t look after them anymore.
Being so young she didn’t fully understand the situation but had no other choice than to go along with it.
“Kids have this funny mechanism of sugar-coating things,” Kiara says.
“To them, if their parent is sleeping a lot it seems ‘normal’ but once they’re introduced into what’s considered a ‘normal’ home the confusion begins.”
In the beginning their mum’s dependency issues seemed like their “normal” and it wasn’t until she died, when they were 12, that things started to seem clear.
“It wasn’t until a few years ago that I was consciously able to reflect on these things and how they affected me,” Kiara says.
“At first I was really sad that my mum had gone and, as I got older, I felt hurt and betrayed.
“I couldn’t understand why she couldn’t put her issues aside for us, but as an adult it became easier.”
University student Zach, who spent time in eight families, is still haunted by parts of his foster-care experience.
“Some carers try to take you on as their own and they forget the objective is to help the kids and to rehabilitate the family,” he says.
One family, who wanted to take Zach in as their own, made things even more confusing than it should have been for a 10-year-old.
When his mum couldn’t recover from her alcohol addiction, Zach says the foster carers said negative things to him about her.
“I thought my mum didn’t love me enough to give up her addiction because of what was said,” he says.
“Foster care is not adoption and carers need to realise that it’s about getting the best result for the kids.
“There wouldn’t just be us that would struggle with this, there’d be heaps of other kids like that out there.”
The worst part for Zach though, was when Kiara didn’t mesh with one of the families and had to leave to stay with another carer.
“The problem with being a teenager in the foster-care system is no one wants a teenager, even if you’re well-mannered,” Kiara says.
“No one wants the social baggage and can find it hard to accept you as who you are.
“I just want people to be conscious of why they’re in foster care. If it’s because they want their own kids then perhaps they should reconsider.
“They’ve got to understand that kids might and, hopefully will, go back to their family.”
Eventually Zach and Kiara ran away from their homes and were later taken in by foster parents Annalisa and Trent O’Sullivan, of Forrest, who agreed to have them both, so they weren’t separated.
“With Annalisa and Trent it was such a good experience,” says Zach.
“Their first objective was to help us, not start a family and then, over time, it turned into a family.”
Annalisa says it was about getting them back on their feet, supporting them and helping them create a future for themselves first.
And now, eight years down the track Kiara and Zach are in the process of being adopted by Annalisa and Trent, who also have their own daughter and two other younger foster children.
But unlike other situations, Kiara and Zach have chosen for them to be their parents and still, at the age of 22, go to them for help and support.
“We need family all throughout our lives, at all different stages,” Annalisa says.
And like Kiara and Zach once did, many children in Canberra need foster carers, which is why ACT Together is running information sessions during Foster Care and Kinship Week, until September 16.
Call ACT Together on 1300 933678 or visit acttogether.org.au