Matt Twigge

From empty nesters, to foster carers—Joyce and Matt's story

The Twigges believe that “people come into your life for a reason” and that kids come into their lives and they leave being able to count, or say the alphabet.

Joyce Twigge was heavily pregnant overseas when she first became concerned about children born without the love, safety and stability awaiting her own son.

She was in hospital on bed rest due to a difficult pregnancy, but was helping to wash, dress and care for a newborn baby who would be adopted from the ward.

As Joyce prepared the baby to be shown to potential adoptive parents, she thought of all the others in the same position.

“That planted the seed,” she says. “It just really opened up our eyes to children out there who needed homes. We thought: ‘We could do this. We’ve got a lot of love, even though we were just starting out in life. My husband is amazing — he’s great with kids.”

Joyce is from Scotland while her husband Matt is a New Zealander. The couple moved between their two home countries for some years before settling in Queensland to raise their two children.

When those grown-up children left home, Joyce and Matt felt they had more to offer.

“We had empty nest syndrome, and I thought: ‘We’re way too young for this’. So I made a phone call one day to find out what was involved in foster caring,” Joyce says.

Matt, a mechanic, encouraged Joyce to leave her stressful job as a health practice manager to follow her heart.

The couple made inquiries through a Queensland fostering agency, representatives came to interview them and within days they were in pre-training sessions.

“They take you through the basics of foster care, why kids come into foster care, they talk about different types of abuse — physical and sexual — drugs, alcohol and all the different reasons why care is needed,” Joyce says.

“We had a fantastic training group with about eight different couples.

“After that you need to do more assessments. That was actually really hard. They ask a lot about your upbringing: what makes you happy in life, what makes you sad. They ask about your anger, how you dealt with it in the past and how you deal with it now. It really tests your mind on how you handle things.”

After home safety inspections and further assessments, a panel determines whether to approve the couple for foster care. Then there are regular mandatory re-approvals and optional ongoing training.

The couple has taken in children of every age from babies to teenagers.

“Most of these children haven't experienced unconditional love. We’ve had kids who have opened the fridge door and gone: ‘Milk!’ The next day they open it again and say: ‘Milk!’ On the third day they open the fridge and are amazed that there is still milk there.”

Joyce believes the most important thing they can provide for the children is safety, commitment and unconditional love. The bonus is that everyone learns something in the Twigge home and Matt provides countless moments of hilarity.

“My wife will say: ‘Matt in his fifties but he carries on like a two-year-old’,” he laughs. “I love being a big kid. I have a blast! We have a lot of fun with these kids.

“There’s happiness, laughter, smiles. You’d have been tickled under the armpit when you were a kid, or under the soles of your feet, but little Billy-Bob or Mary-Jane have never had that.

“I shout: ‘I’m a crocodile — here I come!’ and we’re running around and the kids are laughing and cackling.”

It’s those moments, when a child laughs for the first time, that start Joyce’s heart pounding, bring tears to her eyes and elicit an enormous smile.

“It’s beautiful to know that, for whatever time you have them — a week, a month or a year — that you can make a difference,” she says. “These kids need to know they can do this. They can turn their lives around, they can go to school, they can learn to drive a car and get an education. They just need someone to support them and help them get there.

“We’ve had a couple of children who have reunified with their families. The children came such a long way in the time frame. They’re really joyous outcomes.”

Setting boundaries is a crucial first step, Joyce says. Children initially rebel against household rules — such as no snacks immediately before dinnertime — but they soon appreciate the stability, security and predictability they provide.

Matt believes more people would test the waters of foster caring if they just understood the range of options available. Carers can choose to accept only babies up to the age of one, or only children of a certain age range, or only respite care — which can be for as little as an hour at a time or one weekend a month.

“It’s a great thing,” he says. “These children have had clothing, food and shelter of some description, but the main thing that they seem to be missing out on is love.”

Matt and Joyce try to see from the point of view of each new arrival. Two hours previously the child might have been taken from their home by social workers and police amid a melee of shouting and tears, then deposited at the home of strangers.

“We shouldn’t be quick to point the finger,” he says. “Dad could have lost his job and it can all turn pear-shaped. It can be a domino effect and in the end everything comes down.

“People come into your life for a reason. God puts people in your path for a reason. Kids come into our lives and they leave being able to count, or say the alphabet.

“For 80-90 per cent of the population that’s easy, a walk in the park. But not for these kids.”

Joyce acknowledges there are bumps in the road. When a child returns from a contact visit is the most common time to act out, emotionally, verbally or physically. Knowing about the abuse or neglect a child has suffered can also be confronting.

“If I was to really go into the nitty-gritty of it, you’d cry,” Joyce says.

“Sometimes I’ve needed help. I was the child’s rock and I couldn’t crumble. I have an awesome case worker who has been so supportive and good for us. If I need more training or research, or I need to just sit and cry, it’s there.”

Matt believes that keeping busy, working hard to help others and feeling the joy can deflect the boredom, isolation and depression that has become common in society.

He takes inspiration from his father, in his eighties with two hip replacements, who spends his days riding his bicycle and “chopping wood for the old girl around the corner” in New Zealand.

“I think we’re always better to be doing a bit more than not enough,” Matt says.

“In another two, five, 10 or 12 years, instead of being fulltime carers we might become respite carers. At least for one weekend a month we can still encourage, motivate, teach, show and learn.

“We’ll be in our 60s,” he muses. “Grandparents are awesome.”