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The Heart of Fostering Children: 80 Lives Transformed

Updated On: February 29, 2024

In this fostering children-themed episode, Corey sits down with Irina Castellano, a dedicated foster parent who has fostered over 80 children throughout her life. Born an expat child and having lived in various countries, Irina brings a wealth of personal experiences and perspectives into her foster journey. This episode dives into her motivations, the challenges, and the rewards of fostering, and how it has shaped her family.

Bullet Points:

  • Irina’s Awakening:
  • Introduced to fostering at age 15 after reading “A Child Called It” by Dave Pelzer.
  • Realized the pressing need for foster homes upon learning kids sometimes stay in motel rooms.
  • Challenges in Australia:
  • Numbers of kids in care remain roughly constant (45-47k, with 17-19k in New South Wales).
  • Greater need for homes as even young children aren’t getting placed.
  • Screening Process:
  • Detailed and rigorous, examining candidates’ upbringing and personal histories.
  • Aims to ensure the right people are chosen.
  • Personal Experience:
  • Irina’s personal journey from being an expat child to fostering.
  • She and her husband have adopted two children (one overseas and one locally) and have a biological son.
  • Their children have grown up around fostering, teaching them compassion and open-mindedness.
  • Adoption in Australia:
  • Requirements for adoption include citizenship and age limits, which Irina suggests should be revisited.
  • Irina’s Future:
  • Plans to retire in Australia, though it may be influenced by where their kids end up.
  • Closing Remarks:
  • Acknowledgement of others in the foster community, especially those caring for children with special needs.

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Transcript

Welcome back to season three of Family Twist. It's just Cory today, but I am pleased to have our guest here, Irina Castellano. Welcome Irina. Thank you for having me Cory. I'm glad to be on this show. Absolutely. So I think it's fair to say that you are pretty passionate about fostering children. Yes, yes. We've been doing it for 23 years and as much as it's, you know, a parenting story that has its ups and downs for sure, I just...

00:30

I really feel with these kids and I would like to find more homes, more people to actually open up their homes and take these kids in. Absolutely, absolutely. Where did this passion begin? Pretty much when I was 15. So I'm already an expat child. I'm originally from Germany. But my father was an engineer. So we moved quite a bit. And when I was in America, I actually read the book, A Child Called It from Dave Pelzer. And that was the first time I ever even

00:56

heard about fostering. I had seen poverty around the world, this and that, and kids maybe not having as much as me as an expat, so I realized that there were differences. But at the age of 15, when I read that book, I was just really shocked because I never even knew that there were parents out there that would treat their own kids like that. And how he was singled out among his siblings. I mean, later on he realized that she had mental health issues and she was an alcoholic, so it all came from somewhere, of course. But yeah.

01:25

That was really shocking for me to read. And I decided then and there that not only would I want my own kids, because I had been babysitting since the age of 12, but that I would love to foster one day and also maybe even adopt. Excellent. Yes, that book was certainly a hard read. I was working at a bookstore when I was in college and that was recommended to me. And it's like, oh, boy, wow. It's very eye opening. It really stuck with me, you know, so I just like, wow.

01:52

Indeed, indeed, wow. We've had some foster parents on the show before and it's such a selfless act. And Kendall and I both respect what you're doing. But there are certainly challenges there. Can we talk specifically about the challenges in Australia? Yeah, I think first of all, we've been fostering now for 23 years and the numbers haven't really changed much. There would always fluctuate somewhere between 45 and 47,000 kids in care in Australia.

02:21

And just here in New South Wales is pretty much the majority between 17 to 19,000 at any given time. And we need more homes because what really got me going and where I became more of an advocate other than anything else was that I heard that these kids now go into motel rooms when there are not enough homes out there. And this is what I would like to change because I mean when the kids are removed from everything they've ever known in their whole life, that's traumatic in itself.

02:50

So to then be sitting in motel rooms and they're also sibling groups, you know, so we're talking about not just one kid, but maybe two, four, five. Obviously they're not all in one room, but just for these kids to be stuck in a motel room without a family setting and meal times at the dinner table and all of that, that really struck a chord with me again. So I thought, now gotta do something, gotta advocate and just put it out there because a lot of people don't know. Yeah. We all know that there is foster care.

03:20

But a lot of people don't know that these kids have no homes to go to when they come into foster care. And the kids are getting younger and younger that are not being placed. Right, right. Before, maybe teenagers were hard to place. But now we have babies, babies, kids under five, and we have no homes to send them to. That for me is mind blowing in a country where you have so many people. You know, we've been on our IVF journey and all of that as well. And it's good I went on that journey because I can identify with people.

03:49

who think that it's so easy that, oh, now we've decided that the child would fit into our lives and boom, it doesn't happen. And then we have people out there that would love to fill their homes with kids. And we've got kids that are needing homes, but we are obviously not matching them up. So as much as people would maybe like biological kids or this or that, you just gotta be a bit more open and you can help heaps of kids. And it doesn't mean that, yeah, every kid is gonna live with you permanently, no.

04:18

But if you're open to just say, you know what, I'm happy to help kids. And eventually one will not be able to return. We now have adopted two kids and we have our biological son through IVF. And for us, our family is complete, but we could have adopted many, many more because not every child can be reunited with birth family. That's where they belong. That's where they should go. But if it's not possible and it's not for us to judge, it's for the court to judge.

04:45

which looks at all angles and perspectives. And a lot of people don't know that. And especially in New South Wales, adoption have become more streamlined because we know that the kids cannot just keep staying in the system or hopping from family to family before they find a permanent home. They need permanent placements. That's what helps these kids really settle in here. Do you think things are moving in the right direction in New South Wales or? Yes. Yes, they are. They are. Is the system perfect? No, not by any means.

05:14

I also don't think that it should be different from state to territory. I mean, Australia should have one rule and that is that kids should be reunited. But if they can't be reunited, then, okay, let's find a permanent home the fastest way possible. Right. What do you think the challenges are? There are so many kids and certainly families would be parents ready to take them in. What are the challenges? Well, I think that as much as we hear about foster care, we normally just hear the negative stories in the press because that's...

05:42

kind of what sells. So all the positive stories, all the families that have been created and all the kids that have been in foster homes for many years, those don't really make the headlines. It's only when things go wrong, either not all foster carers are great and not all kids are made for foster care. That's also one of the things. So we can only help by providing as many homes. And if a kid gets moved around too much, because each time by being moved, and it could be for all.

06:12

all kinds of reasons. I mean, if you're a foster carer and now maybe you have to look after your elderly parents and you can no longer foster, whatever the reason might be and the kid then moves on, it is always a feeling of, oh, I probably wasn't good enough for them. You know, it's like the inner feeling for a child to be moved each time is not ideal by any means. So the quicker that kid finds stability and knows that, hey, we're going to be together for the good times, for the not so great times.

06:39

But you know, you're not going anywhere. You're staying here. We had a 13 year old and when I said, oh, what do you want to do at your birthday in four weeks? He was like, well, let's see if I'm still here. Oh. I mean, what kind of reaction is that? I was like, what? Okay, let's just assume you're still here. Right. Right. What would you like to do? You know, it's...

06:58

It's heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking for kids that have been moved so much that they just feel that they are unlovable, that they're not worthy of a home. There's so many things that go on inside these kids that it takes weeks and months to find out what really goes on. And yeah, the quicker we can change that and bring some more stability and open up homes, the more we can help. Absolutely.

07:19

You know, we didn't start out with this podcast having a fostering theme, but we've certainly taken that on as we've started to talk to foster families because as you said, they're such a need and it's wonderful what people are doing. And yes, there are the horror stories. We just did an interview this last week with someone who was put into the foster system in the 1960s and it was a bad situation, but she was quick to say, there are wonderful foster.

07:44

families out there and it's a wonderful thing you can do. It's just ultimately there's going to be those situations that aren't ideal, but for someone to be able to open up their home to a stranger, especially a child who's dealing with trauma, you know, that's so important. And look, I think we've learned from it. A lot of things we have learned from in the past. We know that it's not ideal not to check foster carers properly, then again, but you can only do so many checks as you possibly can do.

08:11

But once the kids come, it depends on what behaviors they have, how people have been brought up themselves on what has been going on in their past. It's also some foster carers are open to training and open to expanding and learning and some are not. I think they know it all. It really depends on the matching a lot.

08:30

That's why we're really trying to match the children with, first of all, what the carers want. And this is the bit that also I find so heartbreaking, you know, you can literally pick and choose the age group to sex. I mean, it's like you're picking. It's like, you know, so the more you limit yourself.

08:46

the hard it is to match you. So if you're just saying, all right, we'll just take any kids from any age group and you just tell us what's a good match. We'll leave it up to the people who have a bit more experience and then we'll see where it takes us because just because the kid is very young doesn't mean that it doesn't have maybe behavioral issues. And just because the kid is older, it doesn't mean that

09:06

their behaviors are worse than the one that's younger. It really depends on each child on what has been happening in their lives. And then on how you access support because you do have 24-hour hotline as a carer. You have people from the agency that have vast experience. And even if you get a caseworker that's maybe fairly new, they have an office full of caseworkers that have dozens and dozens of years of decades of experience. So there's so much support out there for you.

09:32

If you just access it and also that you're strong enough to say, Hey, I'm struggling here. I need some help. The people are willing to help because they're so grateful that you are doing this voluntary service, but you know, we have no intention of taking the kids or anything like that. If it's going gets tough, we want to work through issues and we want to see, Hey, okay. So how can we support you? How can we support the child better? And communication is just key and vital. Sure.

09:58

What is the support system like in New South Wales as far as foster parents community? There's a lot. I mean, each, there's a lot now online and I think we've learned a lot through COVID also with putting courses online. It is great to have face-to-face sessions because that's also where you get to meet other carers, you hear their stories, you start friendships. I think the face-to-face part is super important because we all need people who really get it.

10:23

because they know exactly what it feels like to work within the system and to have other people who go through similar situations. So first of all, the face-to-face sessions are there every month. There are sessions offered to carers in New South Wales, then there's a lot of online sessions, then every agency pretty much has online modules now that you can do. There's also modules on all kinds of child behavior and everything that you can find online.

10:51

any which way, so it's not just from the agencies, but it's training that is provided for carers from your own agency, then 24-hour hotline, then support groups. A lot of agencies run support groups so that you have people, preferably even in your area, that you can meet up with. I used to run a kinship and carer support group in my area for five years where we would just meet once a month and then they liked it so much we did it fortnightly.

11:16

We would just get together with the kids and let them play at a playground and just sit and chat and support one another. You know, so it is a kind of a world in itself as well, where if you're open to support, there's plenty out there. What is the screening process like these days? It is very intense because you have somebody come to your house. Of course, we want to make sure that the house is safe, that if you have a pool, that there's a fence around it, you know, all the basics.

11:42

But also I thought it was a really good way to get to know my husband better because we weren't married for long when we started the process. Because, you know, I pretty much came out here, married my husband. And then because I was on a spouse visa, I wasn't allowed to work. I mean, what a silly rule. Sorry. But so but because of that, I read every local paper and I saw all the ads about, oh, do you want to be a foster carer? So my husband was actually abroad and I called him and I said, can we be foster carers? And he was like, wait a minute, we just got married. I said, be.

12:11

are going to try for our own kids. I said, yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, but I always wanted to foster. And he knew nothing about it either. So he just kind of agreed because he knew happy wife, happy life. So he wasn't 100% on board, that's for sure.

12:27

and we started it and I also had the first few kids pretty much on my own. I mean we did the assessment together obviously because you get people coming to the house, they do a few assessments mostly with you together. If you have kids that can actually answer questions they will be a part of that too because you gotta have everybody on board, you gotta see how they feel about it and it is a quite intense process because it looks as okay how was your upbringing?

12:52

What came up in your family was the mental health, was the alcoholism, was there any drugs issues? So they talk a lot about what was going on in your past, how was it dealt with? Did you have any obstacles or grief or loss or anything neglect, anything happening in your life? It really talks a lot about your past. Then you learn a lot about your partner because you hear stories that you wouldn't have normally asked in a dating situation. And I got to know my husband really well.

13:21

Very quickly I knew if he did something wrong, how was he punished at home kind of thing, you know, so what were the consequences? And that was really interesting to find out more about each other. I thought it was very interesting. And you learn a lot about your own parenting style and how you would do things and yeah, it makes it just really clear. And when you talk about looking at it from a trauma perspective, then how do you look at the behavior on where it might be coming from? Why do they do what they do?

13:51

So yeah, I thought it was very interesting, but yeah, it's also very intense, very detailed, and it has to be. Because we wanna make sure that we get the right people. So if people think that this is all too much, then okay, then it's probably not a right fit anyway, because at the end of the day, we want these kids to go to homes where it has been checked. Because we don't wanna have another headline with things going wrong, you know? Exactly. Well, clearly he didn't get into this and stay with it just to make you happy because you've had...

14:20

more than 70 kids come through the last 20 plus years. We're probably 80. Okay, all right. Wonderful. Yeah. Yeah, and I only know this. I mean, you don't sit here in the foster care and count. But when we hit the 20 mark, our caseworker actually went back and had a look at how many kids we had fostered. And we also fostered in Singapore while we lived there for five years. That's also where we adopted our daughter from. And then we came back here, continued fostering.

14:47

and one kid could also not be reunited. So then we were asked if we wanted to keep her. So we said, okay, then of course, we don't want her to keep moving or to keep going anywhere else. So yeah, we've got two adopted daughters, one from overseas, one locally adopted, and yeah, our boy. How old are your kids now? One has just turned 18, the other one is 17, and the last one is 14. So they've really never known a time when you weren't fostering. True.

15:14

Right. Which I imagine that that's helpful when you've got kids that understand the situation and know that it's not necessarily going to be forever. Even if there's bonds there, if they're going to go back to their birth family, then that's, you know, for the best if it's possible, right? Oh, look, I think it does teach your kids a lot. It really teaches them that when these kids come with literally just the clothes on their back very often, because we've done emergency.

15:41

you know, there's different types of care that you can do, but we've done all types. And in emergency, they pretty much call you and they say, look, we're at the house, we need to remove two kids. Can you take them? And then you say, yep, okay. And then they come within the hour and they often literally come with just the clothes on their back. And my kids would immediately try and make the kids feel comfortable. They would be able to redirect if there's anything, they would look over here and so on. So they've been so good with kids. It's unbelievable. My boy really surprised us. He was not even three.

16:10

and we got a one week old baby. And he was the first one to say, mommy, I wanna give the bottle, I wanna give the bottle. And I said, oh, Ricky, she's really fragile and very small. I can do this, I have seen it many times, I can do this. So it was so beautiful to see how involved he got with it. And yeah, this little girl stayed with us for 13 months and it was just absolutely beautiful. So I think our boy will be so ready to be a parent. He has no problem holding a one week old, you know, at the age of three.

16:39

I think these are also really lessons for life that they are learning. And they also learn, you know, how to be compassionate. When they complained about getting their newest phone or this or that, I was like, well, you know, these kids here, they just want their favorite blanket that they're missing or this or that that we still have to get. And it's like put it all in perspective of your needs and these kids' needs. So as much as they didn't always want to hear it.

17:03

I think it was really an eye-opener for them and they've done placements in school in year 10. They've done placements, for example, at the child care center and they were always very impressed with their skills and how they could really help these kids in so many ways and it comes naturally now to them and these are again skills for life because at the end of the day once they start their own family our eldest now wants to be a primary school teacher.

17:29

I think that says a lot as well. So she said, yeah, I want to help other kids. I want to see the vulnerable ones. I want to make sure that they get a good education. I think it all goes in a certain way because of what they've learned in the past. Yeah. Right. For me, I think that would be the biggest challenge is having a one week old come into your house and live with your family for the first full year, which is definitely at a time when babies are bonding and to have to say goodbye. I don't know. I don't know that I could do it.

17:58

It doesn't get any easier. I think for me it was always the minute they hit the three months mark. It's really hard to let go. And hey, I mean you can see the rings under my eyes at the moment. I'm not getting too much sleep because we also have some kids here that get up at 5.45 at the moment. So yes, I mean there's always a bit of lack of sleep. There's no doubt about it.

18:22

It was very hard to let that one go, but we were very, very lucky because we continued being in contact with her family. And she moved with extended family and we see each other every year. So they come and stay here in our guest room. They stay with us for a weekend and we've visited them as we have a really great relationship. So that one had, thanks God, a really good, happy ending because it's not normal that you get to see kids once they leave your home. Right.

18:49

We really worked at this relationship and we were hoping and they were very open to it. And it was really funny because when she left she couldn't speak yet. She was 13 months and when we saw her like a year later she actually ran in and said mom and dad. We were like what? You know so it was really cute and now she knows we're not and whatever but you know these are the things that they would have picked up from just the other kids saying it. You know we've had one kid that when the hubby said darling darling then

19:18

that kid would say darling to me thinking that was my name. So, you know, so they just copy what they hear. So, yeah. What were the challenges for you in those early days with the first few kids? Just having kids on a 24 hour basis because that already in itself is so different from babysitting where you go for a few hours and you come home. Right. No, and I think the biggest challenges that I always thought was before we were a couple, when we said, oh, let's just.

19:46

go somewhere for coffee or something, we would just get the car keys. And once we had kids, it was like, okay, have you got the bottle? Have you got the wet wipes? Have you got the diaper? You know, it's like that changes. There's no more spontaneous, let's just go. Uh, it's like, oh, can you go toilet first? And can you do this? No, it's like, uh, before you even have them in the car, you think, oh, is it all worth going?

20:12

Yeah, so you know, it does change just from that aspect a lot. Where did your love of travel come from? From being an expat child. We started traveling and I was very young. The first time I really remember was probably when I was around six and I was on the plane and I just looked at the stewardess and I said, oh.

20:33

mommy one day I want to be a stewardess. And that was it. And we traveled a lot. I had seen many, many countries at a very young age. We lived in Turkey for four years. I lived in France for two years. I actually worked there as a nanny as well. So that was after school. But we also lived in the States for two years. I lived in Dubai for eight years and I became actually a flight attendant with Emirates Airlines. I became a flight attendant trainer for cockpit and cabin crew. And then I also worked full of Tansa once I went back.

21:03

worked in the hotel industry. So hospitality is very much my thing. I love meeting new people. I love working with different nationalities. And that's also another thing. You got to be open as a carer to take kids from any cultural background, any nationality. And I find that great. I find that an absolute beautiful challenge. I've got kids that are from different backgrounds. All our kids have extra passports anyways, but our daughter is Chinese.

21:30

Bangladeshi and Singaporean and the other one has a bit of Lebanese background. My husband is Italian. I'm German. Father was born in Russia. So it's like, it's a real mixture here in the family and I love it. I think every culture has something to bring to the table and the more we're open to it, the better for everybody involved. Absolutely. What did your parents think about you becoming a foster parent? Oh, I think my mom was a bit like...

21:56

Oh, you can have such a nice cushy lifestyle. Why would you now bring in children that might just make it more difficult? And I was like, well, because that's what I want to do. Something I always wanted to do. And yeah, she's grown with it and she's accepted our two adopted children. No problems. Even my husband's family, I'm sure they would have wanted an Italian woman for his Italian boy.

22:22

But he actually 30 years ago before he met me and everything, he went to Hamburg on a business trip, came back and he said, one day I'll marry a German. There we go. And then it took him a while longer to find me. But yeah, so that was a surprise for his family too. And yeah, they've been open.

22:42

They would sometimes invite us for dinner and boom, we rock up with another baby. So nobody was ever surprised. You know, you got to have extended family on board as well, because we would just bring another baby, bring another high chair. And there was another one and everybody was always welcoming and flexible. And that's really great as well. That's wonderful. How long have you been in Australia? Since 2000.

23:05

But in between, my husband took work in Shanghai, China. So he went for almost two years. I went for about a year, because I was waiting for my permanent residency to come through. So that was quite at the beginning. And then we went five years to Singapore, and we fostered there as well. We were actually the second Caucasian couple that fostered in Singapore.

23:24

And then when we heard about a little girl that needed a home, she wasn't in care with us. And we said, yeah, so that's when we adopted her. And that was a super efficient Singaporean adoption. So that was all done within a few months. Oh, wow. Okay. They're very efficient Singaporeans. So it was really great to see. How is Australia with people from other countries wanting to adopt? You definitely need to be a citizen.

23:50

on here. And other than that, there are requirements in terms of age. And I think that is something that should change all over the world. Because I think if you have somebody in their 40s or 50s nowadays, it's a whole lot different from what it was before. Nowadays, people until they find each other, until they get married, until they realize that maybe they cannot even have children or that it's all a bit more difficult than they thought, people are often already in their end.

24:16

30s or beginning 40s, you know, so I think age wise that should really change because you know the people nowadays in their 50s, 60s are not what they used to be a few decades ago. Other than that, each state and territory has its own little regulations which is unfortunate as well. I think it should be more streamlined and it should be one rule for everybody here in Australia. Right, right. And it should be in the best interest of the children to find stability in permanent homes. So if they cannot be reunited, which is...

24:46

always the first aim. And if they can't go to extended families, then yeah, it should be definitely more streamlined in all states and territories. Do you think you and your husband will retire in Australia? Oh yeah, definitely. Oh, I don't think I can do the weather in Europe anymore. And also because, you know, I lived in the Middle East where it was always hot for eight years and I lived, you know, in other countries where it was warmer. So for me, I really can't handle them.

25:13

weather anymore, so no, definitely. No cold rain for you then. No, definitely. We're happy here. And you know, the thing is always, it depends a bit on where our kids will end up as well, you know. True, true.

25:29

We have European passports, so it is okay for us to, if they do end up in Europe, then we can stay there a bit longer, but I would definitely always only stay during the summer months. Oh, for a few weeks for Christmas, but just because it's Christmas, other than that, out of the... It's beautiful for a few minutes. Yeah, no, I need to stay somewhere that's warm up.

25:53

Wonderful. Well, I applaud you and your husband for doing the hard work. It's so heartwarming to hear about the successes that you've had.

26:00

Thank you, but there are also a lot of people who are doing really even more than us. I mean, we have taken the kids that do not necessarily have physical disabilities and this and that. And I really also applaud those people who are out there who are saying, yeah, that's okay, you know, we take kids that, you know, in wheelchairs or kids that, you know, and that is super because that brings another dimension to it. People just often really overthink it, you know, people really think that it's all.

26:25

in the too hard basket is all too complicated. But even if you can do respite, if you can take kids with a beginning and end date and just help out, just even on a weekend when other families have to go somewhere, I have to go to a hospital and they need help and somebody taking these kids for a certain period of time, there's so many other ways to help. It would be just wonderful if people spread awareness and make sure that people who would like to have more kids in their home, that they are actually open to it and say, you know what, let's just give it a go.

26:55

Right. For those who are considering it, where would you point them? Where should they begin? Well, there are plenty of agencies out there, but just also first of all, you know, I would like to think that all agencies answer pretty quickly. Unfortunately, that is not the case, which is also really surprising. But if you look around in your area,

27:15

what kind of agencies are there, and then pretty much send them all a message, see which one responds fairly quickly, which one has no issues in answering any kind of questions. If they have questions, they can also connect with me, and I'm happy to guide them in the right direction, because a lot of agencies do different things. Some work with children that have disabilities, some work with the babies that come up for adoption, and each state has different rules on that. Here in New South Wales, for example, there are five

27:44

that I know of agencies that are doing the adoption process as well. Sometimes you can even get dual authorization. You become a foster carer and a possible adoptive parent at the same time. You get authorized and then it just depends on what kids come to you. And once they are with you and if it ends up being a case that could come up for adoption, then you have already been approved and then the process is even faster. Excellent. Excellent.

28:10

Well, thank you so much for sharing your story. Again, I think it's wonderful what you and your family have done and continue to do. Thank you. And I really appreciate you giving me the time to create a bit of awareness around it and for what you do here with the podcast to bring it out there to the people. Thank you for that. Absolutely. It's completely our pleasure. It's not an area that we knew too much about when we started this and now that we're learning more, we realized how important it is. It's a global issue.

28:38

we're happy to try to shine a little bit of light on the situation. Thank you, I really appreciate it.

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