Renee Allan

Tiny triumphs lead to everyday success—Jim and Renee's story

Jim and Renee Allan say team-work is the key to succeeding as foster carers. “Trust your partner. You have to be so consistent and you have to have a game plan.”

It’s the little, everyday triumphs that shine for Jim and Renee Allan.

It’s teaching a young girl how to tie her shoelaces or brush her teeth, because she’s never learned how to do these things. It’s taking her camping for the first time, walking along a river or helping her build friendships.

“We’ve only been in fostering for a few years, but there’s a great deal of joy in being able to help someone who hasn’t had a lot of help,” says Jim, who runs his family’s IT company.

Taking one of their foster daughters horse riding for the first time, Jim and his wife Renee, a speech language pathologist, watched her “go from zero to so happy just through being on the back of a horse for half an hour.”

“We do get satisfaction; we get a kick out of it,” Renee says.

The Brisbane couple, originally from New Zealand, married in 2009 and took their first tentative steps toward becoming foster parents about four years later.

“We chose not to have our own children but we still felt that we had something to offer to young people, and that this was something that would enrich our lives so that we weren’t all about ourselves,” Renee says.

They discussed the potential of starting with an Aunties and Uncles Queensland program, where they would have been matched with a struggling local family who needed support. In the end, though, they decided to leap straight into fostering.

Through a Queensland fostering agency, Renee and Jim learned about foster care, the needs, backgrounds and sensitivities of foster children, completed their training and submitted themselves to a review panel.

“We started in 2013 and it took at least a year. We didn’t rush it. We thought about it and talked about it with our families.”

They could have chosen to foster babies, young children or teenagers for periods from overnight to years.

“We chose primary school age, and started out with the five to eight age group,” Renee recalls. “Then we raised the age range to 10. We both work more or less fulltime, although Jim works from home so that helps us with flexibility, and we needed a child who would be in school.”

They had been warned there was such a great need for foster carers that they might receive a placement call as soon as they were approved. Sure enough, within hours of being approved, the Allans received a call.

On a day that Jim describes as “very exciting — but nerve-racking at the same time,” the pair welcomed a five-year-old girl who would turn six during her few months with them. Thrilled, Renee ran out and bought an armful of ‘welcome’ items for their first child.

“All the training in the world can’t prepare you for that first moment,” she says, likening it to a couple bringing home their firstborn and thinking: ‘Now what?’

“Ultimately she was quite traumatised, but she didn’t present as quiet and withdrawn. She was animated and active. As time went on that wore off. As opposed to being cheerful, ‘out there,’ animated and chatty, she started to struggle with controlling her emotions. When she was feeling negative, for example after a visit with her family, there were different reactions that you needed to manage.”

Jim and Renee credit strong support from their agency for helping them to understand what was going on with their young placement and work to help her.

“They were just amazing,” Jim says. “They couldn’t have been better. They look after us and make sure we’re okay. If we need respite they sort it out, if we need help they sort it out.”

The couple took a year off between placements, renovating their home, taking a holiday and going through the regular mandatory re-approval training.

In late 2016, they welcomed their second placement, a 10-year-old girl who is still with them. Through traumatic early years, Renee says this “fun, quirky” child has developed extreme resilience, self-reliance and a high level of organisation.

“But these are things that a 10-year-old girl doesn’t need to be,” she says. “She just needed a place to be safe.”

As foster parents, Renee and Jim have acquired a school-based community of neighbours, guidance officers, special educators and have developed easy relationships with families of school-aged children in their area. They delight in helping their little girl navigate the world of friendships and social groups.

“She’s less watchful now; she’s become more relaxed at home,” Renee observes. “One of her strategies has been to please adults, so she would be agreeable almost to a pathological level. Now she is not necessarily trying to ingratiate herself — and that’s nice to see.”

"Living in a stable, supportive home has improved her grades at school. She has gone from getting C's and D's to getting B's and even the odd A."

Renee and Jim have found that the process, from training to caring, has fostered in them a new closeness through insight into each other’s strengths.

Jim, Renee has learned, is calm and virtually unflappable even under the most intense conditions. Conversely, Renee brings her clinician’s mind to bear in child rearing. If there’s research in the field, or pertinent evidence-based results, she’s across it.

“Trust your partner,” she advises. “We didn’t realise the extent to which we work as a team. You have to be so consistent and you have to have a game plan.”

Jim and Renee believe the real joys of fostering are to be found in the everyday: a sense of giving back to their community, making a real difference in the life of a young person who needs love, stability and safety, and the satisfaction in small but significant achievements.

“With our current placement there were a lot of fine motor skills that hadn’t developed,” Jim says. “A good example was tying her shoelaces. She was quite keenly aware that she couldn’t do that and she would just push her shoes on and off because she didn’t know how to tie them.

“Now, to be able to do that is pretty cool!”