In July, LG awarded Heather Baird of Gippsland, Victoria as a deserving LG Local Legend winner. Heather has spent the last six years devoted to bettering the lives of children in the Australian foster care system. In 2014, at the age of 56 having just completed a Diploma of Social Services, she set up a not-for- profit organisation, ‘A Better Life for Foster Kids’. The organisation provides emergency care packages to children entering and departing home care and advocates for the rights of carers.
The increase of children in the foster care system has shown minimal signs of slowing down. In 2013 there were 40,399 children in the system in Australia and in 2017, this number has climbed almost 20 per cent to 47,915.
Heather Baird knows first-hand the limitations within this system and the stigma that these children face. After being abandoned at the age of two years old, she grew up in temporary homes and institutions across Australia. She still remembers the indignity of being branded as a “homie” throughout adolescence, going to school in old clothing and being teased by other kids.
At 17 years old, Heather struggled to find a stable living environment with no support or someone that could teach her basic life skills. Based on her experiences, Heather is now dedicated to supporting children in similar circumstances. Through her not-for-profit, Heather mobilises her community to contribute as many clothes, linen and food as they can for children who are in and leaving the foster care system. The organisation also arranges “transition” packages for young adults who are on their own for the first time. Ultimately, Heather wants these children to feel the support she never received.
The next big step for Heather and her organisation is to engage with law firms to provide pro bono support for children and carers to navigate their way through the tricky foster care system.
We spoke with Heather to find out more about her selfless efforts supporting children and carers associated with the foster care system in Australia. You can read her inspiring answers below:
LG: What prompted you to give back in your community?
Basically, I was abandoned at two and a half. I spent my life before the age of 18 in institutions and foster care homes which were not as good as they are today. And I always knew that I was going to do something to help these kiddies because I didn’t want anyone growing up the way that I did. I looked into going into the child protection line of work and then graduated with a diploma of community services, and from there completed my placement at the Department of Health and Human Services. What I discovered is that there was a big need for just basic goods for these kids, things that everybody takes for granted, like a toothbrush or underwear.
LG: How did you come up with the concept?
I remember what it was like growing up in the system and I could see that it’s still happening to these kids, they get ridiculed for being in filthy dirty clothes, unbathed - all that sort of thing. So that’s what really motivated me to step up and start the charity.
It’s all about what the kids need and about giving the kids what they need at the time. If I haven’t got it, I’ll put a call out for it.
LG: Have you come up against any challenges?
Oh yes! There’s always a challenge, originally our biggest obstacle was to find a suitable location that we could work from because we had no money. The first year’s budget was $1560 and that was all what my mother-in-law and I raised from cake stalls and Bunnings’ sausage sizzles. For the first six months we worked out of an old netball court’s canteen. There was no power, no running water or any toilets - but we could use it free of charge. Finding somewhere we could call home was a real challenge. Thankfully we’ve found somewhere that is a community-owned premises. It’s great.
The other major challenge is just getting the word out there. The thing with foster kids is that it’s not a nice thing. No one wants to talk about it because it’s a subject people are ashamed of, and they’re ashamed because they aren’t aware of what is going on. Getting people to actually acknowledge what’s happening to these children is the biggest challenge I will ever face.
The biggest problem is getting people to admit we have a problem with the foster care system in Australia and we need to fix it. We have really made a mess of this, and we need to change it. The foster system is one huge industry now. The system has forgotten about the children; It’s all about meeting targets, to get funding and keep jobs.
With COVID-19 it’s harder to get out and about. Due to my chronic lung condition I’ve been isolating since the end of 2019. So personally, it’s challenging for me to assist with transporting our crisis cases. I’ve actually started approaching transport companies now to assist with this. To have a company support us transporting crisis cases in Victoria would just be amazing.
LG: What results have you achieved so far?
We’ve gone from supplying maybe 20 cases in the first year to now averaging 1500 cases in a financial year. We also started offering transitioning furniture packages for kids leaving out of home care, which is a very comprehensive program. It covers everything from the furniture, linen and all the food they could need – right down to the pegs they need for the clothes line! There’s absolutely nothing that I leave to chance because for more of these kids even finding a place to live is a big problem.
All of the sudden you’re 18 and on your own, you don’t have a family, you don’t have anything. I remember growing up really fast. When I left the care of the convent I was staying in, I didn’t know you had to pay electricity bills, I didn’t know you had to go work! It’s just really simple things like that. I floated from homes for quite a few years because I didn’t know any better. I wanted to give these kids the opportunity to stay in a home that’s affordable and stable so that they can make a-go of their life.
People have to remember that most of these kids are growing up in abusive environments. So, we offer them a nurturing home and teach them how to live a stable environment. Unless we start changing things and providing for them more consistently this cycle will constantly repeat itself. You will find that most of these kids have no family, so they decide to have a baby because that’s all they know, and most of the time that baby ends up in foster care. In the six years I’ve been doing this I’ve helped two young girls who found themselves pregnant and we provided them with everything they could need for that baby for the first 12 months. I’m proud to say that to this day, those children have never been involved in the foster care system. That’s what it’s all about, making sure these kids don’t repeat what has happened to them with the next generation
LG: What is next for you and your initiative?
My goal is to end the generational cycle that we see in the foster care system. I never dreamt that we would be where we are now. Recently I have started a new company and my next project is to continue to build it out. The company is called, ‘Foster Kids and Carers United’ and it’s going to invite law firms to provide pro bono legal work and advice for children to help them navigate their way through the legal system and the department. The reason I started this is because I advocate a lot for children and for carers, and these carers need to have more legal rights to advocate for children.
My other goal is getting counselling for these kids. These kids can go years without speaking to a counsellor. I want to see every child speaking to a counsellor within 48 hours of being removed from their home. Even if it’s just to say, “How are you going? Can we help you?”. They’re all traumatised children, even the youngest baby, so they all need to speak to someone straight away.
Additionally, we are hoping to have another 12 to 15 centres for our crisis depots, where careers can pick up supplies for crisis cases on short notice. At the moment we have six.
We would truly like to thank Heather for her contributions to the Australian foster care system and the children in and out of this system. We wish her our best as she continues to make a difference in Victoria.
If you know someone like Heather making positive contributions through their time, actions, talents and/or dedication to others, you can nominate them to be named an LG Local Legend by visiting www.lglifesgood.com.au/nominate-a-local-legend. We are looking forward to celebrating their achievements with you soon!