Of Ngapuhi descent, I was raised in Ahipara, a small town in the Far North. It's a beautiful area but there's a lot of poverty, a lot of unemployment. Growing up in a place like that, you see it all, but my mother and father always had a real heart for the community. If there was a baby crying down the road, my mother would go and offer help, on many occasions breaking up fights. She was pretty fearless and very non-judgemental, and I think I took that on board from a very young age.
and it's not something that went away when I moved to Auckland and established a very different life here as a personal stylist.
Around the beginning of 2018, I had what I thought was a great idea for a fashion show that would fundraise for vulnerable children. I took this idea to a fostering organisation called Immerse, thinking, 'Lucky you, I'm going to do this amazing thing for you'. Instead, they were like, "Come to one of our information evenings, learn a little bit more about us, and then we'll talk." So off I went.
Babies don't just get handed to people – the process is rigorous, as it should be. There was psychometric testing, personality profiling, police checks, verbal references, written references – not just for me but for my flatmates too. Then came the training, which I did through Immerse. They call it Trust-Based Relational Intervention or TBRI, and it teaches you how to relate to and establish trust with children who have suffered trauma.
You can get anywhere between two hours' and two days' notice that a child is coming your way. My first baby arrived late one Friday night. Social workers from Oranga Tamariki brought her from the hospital, still wrapped in her hospital blanket and with the tiny little identification band around her wrist. She had multiple injuries and was very scared, but I took one look at her and said, "Is that Aunty's girl?" She looked up at me and she just knew I was her person.
My friends, whanau and neighbours were incredible. I have a sister who's a midwife and a special care baby nurse, so she was fantastic at helping me wash and dress the baby, which was difficult with her injuries.
Considering how much it's impacted their lives, they've been amazing. It's certainly disruptive – our home is more peaceful and relaxed when there are no children here and it's definitely a lot tidier! But I make sure to keep the noise levels throughout the night to a minimum. My flatmates have said it's been an incredible, eye-opening experience for them, one commenting that it's shown her the true meaning of 'it takes a village to raise a child'.
I'm sure it's the same for all new parents – you have these ideas about making everything beautiful all the time, but that's not how it works! The day the baby got her cast off her arm, I had a romantic notion that we were going to go home and I was going to give her a gorgeous bath, but when I put her into it, she screamed blue murder. It was the same when we got dressed up
to see Santa last Christmas. She wasn't having a bar of the cute clothes I picked out for her, so a singlet and nappy had to do! But if she was happy, that's how we'd roll.
I've had no qualms about doing it as a single person. The children who have come to me have all needed undivided care and attention, and my situation has enabled me to give them that without the distractions of a partner or other children. Of course, bringing a foster child into a fuller household can work well too, but interestingly, at that first information evening I went to, I learned that single people make some of the best foster parents. Yes, there's a lot of sleeplessness, but when you see the results you're getting, there's no hardship in getting up 10 times in a night or not going out any more. It's an absolute privilege to put all of that aside and focus on healing and restoring the whole wairua or spirit of this baby.
I was always rushing around with the baby on me in a little front pack. For months we were a package deal, and it became a familiar sight to everyone and a very natural feeling for me to have her attached to me.
You can certainly question why it is that some people have that life, and why this child was born into those circumstances, but it's not helpful to do that, and I've never seen my career as
shallow or frivolous.
When I began considering fostering, many people told me to protect my heart and to hold some of myself back, but I couldn't do it – I have to give these babies everything I have and love them with all my heart. Of course, that does put you in a very vulnerable position, and the one mistake I made with my first baby, which I've never made again, was hoping that I would get to keep her.
I just had to keep saying to myself, 'You've done your job, Stacey, and you've done it really well'. I could see that the family members who took her in were selfless, and they were very open to coming to my house and spending time with her, learning her routines and the things that were familiar to her, letting me show them how I put her down at night, anything to make the transition as easy for her as possible.
Exactly. My job is to keep my babies happy and safe, to help them heal, and to advocate for them – to act as their voice with their caregivers, social workers, lawyer and whoever else is part of their team.
She lives about an hour away from my parents, so I see her about every three weeks. The family bring her to see me whenever they visit Auckland, usually leaving her with me for a few hours
or even the whole day so she has that time with me. Her mummy and I share a real understanding of the importance of 'aunties' in people's lives – sources of friendship and encouragement and strength and wisdom.
It was very traumatic. It was about a week after she'd left me and she cried and cried, and clung to me and tried to bury herself in me. It was very primal, like, 'Where have you been?!' But then a few moments later, she was overcome with joy, looking back and forth between me and her mummy like, 'Look, she's here!' Her mummy said to me once, 'I wish I could bottle you for her, Aunty, and always keep her happy like she is when she sees you'. It was a hard transition for everyone, but the time I spend with her now is so precious.
You have to trust the process and know that being with her family is the best thing for her. There's a lot of putting your own feelings aside, and not just mine – I have a huge amount of respect for the families my babies have gone to. It's very self-sacrificing taking on a new whaˉnau member like that, and they're amazing people, all of them.
In some ways I think it would be easier to just go cold turkey, but there's something to be said for maintaining that relationship with them and their new families. I always make sure I'm available to them to offer support or insights into what the baby might like, and I've continued to encourage them all to come to the house and be a part of my life. Knowing how they're progressing on their journey encourages you to keep going and keep your heart open about fostering.
You only ever hear the bad stories, but there's an enormous amount of time and effort that goes into restoring a child and I think the professionals behind that need to be given more credit. They're doing the best they can within the frameworks we have. I made up my mind really early on to focus on the positives of the system, not the negatives, because I think if you get disillusioned with the system, it's over.
I don't have all the answers, but I believe that stronger family units and re-education would be a great start: teaching young people – girls especially – to value themselves and their bodies; getting alongside the people who have not had great parenting role models and showing them how to parent their children with love; helping people to learn how to cope with their anger and disappointments in life.
Any parent of a child who has suffered any kind of trauma or been hospitalised will know you need to look after yourself so you can look after them. And that means asking for help. There are coffee groups and support networks and ongoing training opportunities where you can connect with other foster parents, so you never need to feel like you're isolated. I really see the value in that sense of community and highly recommend others seek it out.
Signing up to be a respite caregiver is a big one. You might not be in the position to take on a child full-time, but perhaps you could spare one afternoon per week, or one weekend per month to being an 'aunty' or 'grandparent', so the child's foster parents don't get burnt out, and there's still that consistency there for the child. If you know a foster parent within your community and have a heart to help, offer to do the training and the police checks so you can give them a break.
It's my dream one day to have a foster home for Maori and Pacific Island girls, somewhere they can be nourished and become who they should be, and take their rightful place in the world.