Le Bernadette Tamasese traced her journey as a social worker to her days as a youth leader in the 1990s for her then-parish of St John the Evangelist in Otara.
“In retrospect, as a young person growing up in Otara, we were exposed to some traumatic incidents in our community and families. I can only speak from my own experience and acknowledge the impacts of poverty on my own family,” said Mrs Tamasese, practice leader of the Specialist Caregiver Programme of Youth Horizons | Kia Puāwai.
Youth Horizons | Kia Puāwai is a national charitable trust that helps improve the lives of children and young people dealing with behavioural, emotional, mental health or development issues, by providing evidence-based and biculturally-focused programmes.
Though not a particularly Catholic organisation, she and another of the trust’s manager, Natasha Tamiano-Savea, are Catholics. This is why she is reaching out to the Catholic community.
Mrs Tamasese said there are more than 6000 children in New Zealand who need to live in foster care, but there are not enough people willing to open their hearts and homes to help them.
“You can say that the harvest is great, but the labourers are few,” she said. “Personally, I am concerned that I grew up in a faith community that was always drilling into me the importance of Catholic social justice teachings and yet, there seems to be a huge gap or unawareness for the most vulnerable children in our country.”
Mrs Tamasese said there is a need to raise awareness on this issue within the Catholic community.
“I do not think many people know that there are these children who need a place to call home and to be loved,” she said.
Those who are aware, but know these children come with challenging behaviours due to the trauma they have been through, tend to think “not my child, so not my problem”, she added.
“As a Catholic, I strongly believe that we have an obligation to take action by either making it known to people that this is a real issue in our country and by opening up their homes and lives to answer this calling,” she said.
Mrs Tamasese said Christmas is particularly hard for the children.
“Christmas is often a very sad and hard time for children in foster care. While most families celebrate Christmas, children in foster care find this time of the year very challenging,” she said.
Children who have not been placed in foster homes remain in the care of Oranga Tamariki.
“Often it is not the best situation, as it causes more stress and trauma for the children. Stepping into the unknown and waiting can be a scary process to go through as an adult. Imagine how our children feel waiting for a caregiver placement,” she said.
Mrs Tamasese recalled being a member of the (Catholic) South Auckland Core Youth in her teens, as well as being involved with Challenge 2000 as a young adult, being immersed in the culture of promoting social justice issues and loving one’s neighbour.
Mrs Tamasese said there is a need now to “step out of your comfort zone and live the Gospel”, and act on one’s faith.
She reiterated the need for foster caregivers nationwide. “In Auckland, we only have five children in the programme. We are really, really desperate for caregivers,” she said.
She said caregivers will be given training as well as compensation to help in paying for the child’s physical needs. They will also have a phone number they can call for help anytime day or night as well as support from a social worker.
“We are looking for people who have the heart for these children, who will never give up on them, no matter what. We’re looking for people who believe in miracles, people of hope and people of faith. I know these people exist in our Church. It’s just a matter of finding where they are,” she said.