Sarah Cox

Meet Sarah. She’s single and a foster carer—Sarah's story

Sarah Cox says she really doesn’t want to have kids of her own, but acknowledges that there are lots of children who need a foster carer.

Sarah Cox was just nine years old when she decided to become a foster mum.

It was the sort of epiphany that fades away for most children, like wanting to be a wildlife warrior or a superhero.

But Sarah grew into a quietly determined and tenacious woman who never faltered in her ambition to provide love and security for children in need.

“I don’t really want to have kids of my own, but there are lots of children who need a mum or a dad,” she says.

So Sarah set about establishing herself in a position to help others. She completed a Bachelor of Science degree in molecular biology and went to work running clinical trials for a pharmaceutical company.

“I hated every minute of it,” she sighs. “It was in a closed-in room with no interaction with anyone else and it was just not me. So I went back to studying and did my teaching degree.”

A few years ago Sarah felt the time was right. She was financially stable with a good job and a secure home with room for a child. It was time to make the move toward fostering.

Today, she is in her element, teaching high school in the Queensland public education system while raising her 12-year-old foster daughter.

She may be a single foster mum, but she’s not alone.

“I have always felt supported,” she says. Sarah’s fostering agency is there with help, training, advice and practical support when she needs it.

“They were really accepting and really supportive,” she says.

Because her agency supports children with intensive needs, Sarah took on children requiring greater levels of support than most. That often means a background of trauma resulting in frequent, violent meltdowns, anxiety, depression, anger and destruction.

Still, she reasoned, she is a qualified teacher. She has the training and drive to provide the levels of safety, love and scaffolding required. Her main stipulation was that she receives school-aged children; having a full-time job means she can’t be there for a child during school hours.

“The kids that really make my heart sing are the ones with the worst stories,” she said.

“Kids don’t act out in these ways without a reason. When you get to the heart of that reason you see this vulnerable little child and all they need is someone to love and support them. You become the person that little child needs.”

A snippet from one training session stays with her.

“The closest way to describe what these kids have gone through is as prisoners of war,” she says.

“The same people who are abusing them are the ones giving them food and shelter. They are getting mixed messages in their little bodies and it really messes up their internal maps of how to get love and attention.”

Sarah’s first placement was particularly challenging. Emergency care was needed for a “desperately hurting” 13-year-old girl from a traumatic background, who had cycled through 12 different placements in the previous 12 months.

“Her last placement had fallen through and she was living in unsuitable accommodation at a friend’s home. It was all hands on deck (to try to find her a home),” Sarah says.

“It turned out to be the most challenging three months of my life. I filled in a few missing persons reports and I had to pick her up from the police station a few times.”

Property damage, self-harm and drug and alcohol use outside the home were involved. With agency support, Sarah took care of her foster daughter for three months.

“The reason the placement eventually ended was that schooling was not working out for her and she needed to be supervised full-time,” Sarah reflected. “It was really gut-wrenching for me when she had to move on, because we had quite a good relationship.

The “mother-daughter” pair had drawn curious glances because of their obvious closeness in age while they had fun at Brisbane’s South Bank or taking road trips to the Gold Coast.

“I think she knew I cared about her,” Sarah says. “I’ve heard from her since she left my care, and she has regularly said that she regrets some of the decisions she made.

“Sometimes the reality of the system is that you’re not the perfect person for everyone, but you are the perfect person for someone.”

Afterwards, Sarah took some time to process her feelings and adjust to the sense of loss. But she is resilient: a week and a half later she called the agency to report that she was ready to go again.

She received a six-year-old boy who was “a real sweetheart — loves his super heroes,” but found herself struck down by a stomach bug that same night.

“What do you do in those circumstances? You call your mum,” she laughs.

Sarah’s mum came and took care of both of them. She bonded quickly and strongly with Sarah’s young foster son, went through the fostering approvals process and ended up taking the boy into her own home.

Sarah now has a 12-year-old girl who has been in and out of care most of her life.

“She has some challenging behaviours but she is the sweetest little girl,” she said.

Police arrived on her doorstep one evening after neighbours reported hearing the child’s desperate, ongoing screams.

“She wasn’t happy about what I’d cooked for dinner,” Sarah winces. “But this is what I signed up for. She used to have escalations several times a day; now it’s once a fortnight.”

This placement could be forever, Sarah says. But if her daughter's circumstances change and she returns to her family, that’s okay too.

“That’s part of being a foster parent,” she says. “The years you invest aren’t wasted just because they go home. Everything I do is about helping a child become a better, happier person. It makes them better able to manage the challenges they face.”

While most people accept and respect Sarah’s life as a single, working foster mum, a few say they could never choose that path.

“I just reply: ‘Why not?” she says.

“I have the capability, the love in my heart and a spare room. What sort of person would I be if I said no to these kids?”