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Real Life

Weekly people: Foster mum on the boy she couldn't save

When Karen Scott took in a foster child, she had no idea she was putting her family at risk.

By Alice O'Connell
Looking in from the outside, Karen Scott really does appear to have it all. The successful former model and trained nurse lives an idyllic life with her husband, former All Black Mark Finlay, and their blended family of six children on a sprawling rural property just outside of Auckland.
But in reality, this is a family rocked by a four-year ordeal, after Karen attempted to achieve her lifelong dream of adopting a child in need.
After completing Child, Youth and Family (CYF) training, Karen and Mark began their wait to be granted a permanent placing of a young child.
Living on a gorgeous lifestyle block, complete with roaming chickens and pet pigs, they believed they were up to the challenge of parenting a child in need. "We already had this blended family of six kids, five of whom are from our previous relationships," explains Karen. "We'd each experienced loving and parenting a child that you haven't given birth to. It just seemed the right thing for us to do."
Karen Scott with husband, former All Black Mark Finlay and their children.
But when the phone rang asking if they could urgently take a five-year-old boy into their home, they were truly put to the test.
Arriving with nothing more than the clothes on his back, Karen and Mark were completely in the dark as to what had happened to the young boy they refer to as James.
"He was such a gorgeous wee boy," tells Karen. "When I saw him getting out of the car, he looked so small. All I wanted to do was to give him a hug, but we had to take things slowly."
At first, everything seemed to be going well as James quickly became a member of the family, calling Karen and Mark "Mum" and "Dad", and expressing his love for them. It was a love that was shared by the whole family.
"He became a brother to our children. They loved him to bits and they'd rarely be apart. Our youngest was so small, she can't remember a time before James being with the family."
But as time progressed, James began to exhibit some troubling behaviours. Although there was the occasional violent outburst in public, it was the quiet, concealed behaviour that really began to concern his new family. Other siblings found their toys cut up, which over time escalated to chickens on the farm going missing and the family dog being injured.
"Knowing James was to know a kind, gentle little soul," assures Karen. "If you knew that lovely boy, you would have a hard time being convinced that he was capable of these terrible things."
Concerned, Karen and Mark asked CYF for assistance. "This child needed a kind of help we were unable to give him," says Karen. "He needed to speak to a psychologist."
Eventually, Karen was granted two counselling sessions. "It was great, useful information for which I'm very appreciative, but it was purely to talk to me about how to manage his behaviour. He needed the help himself."
Their case worker, while being excellent, says Karen, was extraordinarily overworked. At one point, he admitted to Mark that he had 60 children on his books, while CYF recommends a social worker be given 12-18 children to care for.
Unfortunately for Karen and Mark, things continued to deteriorate. James' behaviour, which included cruelly killing the family cat, left them so concerned for their family's safety they were faced with an horrific decision.
Calling CYF to have James picked up was heartbreaking for Karen, whose eyes well with tears as she recalls the moment a car arrived to take him away.
Karen with husband Mark.
"I will never, ever forgive myself for that," says Karen, shaking her head. "The kids ask every day where James is, why he left and why they're not able to see him. While that is utterly heartbreaking for us, it's James who has it the worst, and that just kills me. It's not right."
Now Karen is desperate to extract something positive from the situation, spurring her to chronicle her experiences – good and bad – in the memoir Another Mother's Love.
"After talking to others, I don't believe this was an isolated incident. There are some wonderful, caring people at CYF, but I don't believe it is a structure that is currently working. It's a system that failed us. It failed James."
Karen, who has been unable to contact James since he left, desperately hopes she can one day explain to him the decisions they made. "I'll never give up on trying to see him again," she says. "I will tell him we've always loved him and never stopped. And I hope no other family has to endure what he, and we, have."
Another Mother's Love ($38, Penguin Group NZ) is available now from leading book retailers.

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