September 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Full house

By Annabel McGilvray
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Early one autumn morning this year a newborn baby was found outside Dandenong Hospital, in outer Melbourne. A month later and a state away, a Sydney pastor found a newborn on a church doorstep. In both cases the babies were hours old and suffering from hypothermia, shivering in their makeshift cardboard cribs. Nurses fussed; members of the media fell over themselves; the prime minister tutted. Hospital staff christened the two Baby Catherine and Baby Joan, but the generic term for abandoned children is that fairytale word ‘foundling’. In the past there were group homes and asylums for foundlings, but where do they find homes now, when the media hoopla subsides?

It’s five in the morning in the land of cream-brick fortresses, the urban mortgage belt that politicians visit a lot more frequently these days. Five stacks of sandwiches stand to attention in a pre-dawn kitchen. By a rough reckoning, Don O’Connor, 56, has made tens of thousands of these in the past decade alone. Despite his sandwich-making prowess, he’s a pool-heater repairman. He has a great daddy of a walrus moustache and a sense of humour perfect for fostering.

His Welsh-born wife, Sue, soon emerges with two-year-old Little Miss Muffet, a fuzz of blond hair with a predilection for chocolate and a couple of words to shape her world. “Dad” is the one she sings in the direction of Don. Shortly afterwards Snow White (11), Tash (10) and Oliver Twist (12) tumble down the stairs. “You can call her ‘Boofhead’,” Oliver says with a smile, nudging Snow White, when we discuss the pseudonyms required by law when describing wards of the state. Snow White pouts, but everybody else laughs easily. Finally, with a little more coaxing, Sally (16), child number five, floats down for breakfast.

“It’s quiet at the moment,” says Sue. “We have had seven here.” Over the past 17 years, the O’Connors, who have two grown-up children of their own, have opened their home to (“we think”) between 150 and 180 foster children. Among all the faces arrayed about the pastel walls in giant photo collages, there has been one foundling. “It’s a mother that cares who does that for a baby,” says Sue of the women who leave their children for others to find and look after. She brought the foundling home from hospital when he was only three days old, due to media attention. Two days later, he stopped breathing. “He turned black,” Sue explains. “She gave him the kiss of life,” says Don gently.

Not long afterwards the foundling’s mother came forward. It had been shame and a lack of knowledge that had prevented her from trying to care for him. (“A lot of their mothers just don’t know how to parent,” says Sue. “Nobody’s taught them.”) With Sue’s help, she learnt how to be a mother and was able to take her child home. He was restored, as the NSW Department of Community Services puts it, but that wasn’t reported in the press. Shrugging, Sue says that she doesn’t mind that the mother now crosses the road to avoid her. “You wouldn’t want people reminding you of the worst times of your life. It’s not fair. You need to move on.”

Some children spend a couple of days with the O’Connors. For Sally, it has been 16 years. “She were all broke when she came to us,” says Don. Oliver was just seven weeks old when he arrived. Some have been battered; some simply have no home; many others are what the department calls their special babies, drug-addicted infants. Sue has become a dab hand at administering spoonfuls of methadone. “It’s just like Panadol,” she says, without irony. “You just give it to them off a teaspoon.” Access visits, when the children spend time with their birth parents or other family, have provided a comprehensive education in narcotics. “Some of the mothers have told me how to cut drugs - I’ve learnt the different names of drugs that I’d never heard of before!” Her laughter booms across the spotless living room, with its big couches and table set for ten.

Amid the pigtails and Lego, the effects of such beginnings reveal themselves with quiet pathos. There’s a lazy eye; there are ADHD, dyslexia, mild cerebral palsy. Sue points out that most of the current brood, despite impressions, will always be intellectually slow. But, relatively speaking, Sally, Tash, Oliver Twist, Snow White and Little Miss Muffet are the lucky ones. This place, far from being an institution, is their home.

“It was never planned. We were never going to have this many children,” Sue says. “We’ve just extended and extended and extended.” She’s referring to the house as well: they’ve moved once, and later added a second storey. The brood waxes and wanes. Midnight phone calls can herald a new arrival for breakfast. “Oh, my mum just goes to DoCS and gets them,” Tash says when talking about where babies come from. Alongside Christmas (complete with homemade reindeer on the roof), Easter and birthdays, life is marked by access visits, welcomes and goodbyes.

This may not be an institution, but there are figures and calculations to match any minor fiefdom. The O’Connors receive $374 a fortnight for each child; late last year a separate rate of $508 for adolescent wards was introduced. Careful decisions are made regarding adoptions or otherwise, based on the costs and availability of care needed, and there’s always a packed agenda of special treatment and tutoring. School fees are paid for where required; holidays occur regularly. (Their last, to Surfers Paradise, saw them commandeer 26 plane seats.) There’s a giant plasma screen on the wall  in the living room and, upstairs, another TV. “It’s even bigger,” says Sally proudly. That’s where at seven every night, without fail, the girls sit down to watch the country’s original fostering fairytale, Home and Away.

Out the front, as it approaches midday, Don is playing hurl-the-thong with the girls. There are shrieks and surprised glee when Tash wins a point. It’s something of a relief after the brief moment of embarrassment when, while showing off some of the photo collages, Don mistook his biological daughter for Sally.

In the backyard, by the above-ground pool, Oliver Twist introduces me to Pinky the galah, the only member of the household who looks at all ruffled. Oliver confides quietly that Pinky is occasionally overlooked at feeding time.

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