Nanny Nette has cared for 73 kids at risk, and she's not done yet

Nanny Nette has cared for 73 kids at risk, and she's not done yet

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Loving arms: Annette Holmes with the baby born she's cared for since he left hospital, and who she will soon say goodbye to. Picture: Adam McLean

Loving arms: Annette Holmes with the baby born she's cared for since he left hospital, and who she will soon say goodbye to. Picture: Adam McLean


Wollongong foster carer Annette Holmes has cared for 73 kids. She is urging others to open their hearts and homes as part of National Families Week.


ANNETTE Holmes' hallway is lined with photographs of the children she has fostered - 73 of them to be exact and she fondly remembers each one.

Some were brought to her straight from the maternity ward, still withdrawing from the drugs passed on to them by their birth mothers.

Others come clinging to a bag of meagre possessions, having already been through several placements.

And some have taken months to break into a smile, or sleep with the light off, because of the trauma they've endured.

All of them hold a special place in the heart of the Wollongong woman known to her charges as 'Nanny Nette'.

During National Families Week, the 64-year-old is backing a Foster NSW campaign which is highlighting the urgent need for more families to help vulnerable children by becoming emergency, respite or restoration carers. Or by considering open adoption from care.

For Ms Holmes, providing a safe haven for these children has been the best decision she's ever made.

"I could never have children - I knew that from an early age," she said.

"When I married my husband Brian we planned on adopting but he was too old, so we looked to fostering but when he died I thought that was the end of that.

"I didn't know then that any type of family - single people, older couples, same sex - could foster. One day I found that out through a chance conversation and I signed up the same day.

"And while I wish I wasn't needed - it's the best thing I've ever done."

That was 23 years ago. Since then, her doors - and her heart - has been opened to over 30 newborns, to seven sets of twins and to several groups of siblings, up to four at a time. Some have been placed with her overnight, some for several months and a couple have turned into long-term stays for up to three years.

"When I started, there was a great need for short-term and emergency carers and so I made the conscious decision to do that," Ms Holmes said.

"So many people say to me 'Isn't it heartbreaking to hand them back?'. It does break my heart, but I always say goodbye with a smile on my face when I hand them over to their birth, or adoptive parents."

According to the Association of Children's Welfare Agencies (ACWA), more than 60 children enter out-of-home care across NSW every week because they cannot live safely at home.

Many are suffering neglect or abuse due to their parents' incapacity to properly care for them because of mental ill-health, substance abuse, poverty, domestic abuse or the effects of intergenerational trauma.

ACWA CEO Andrew McCallum said NSW's new Permanency Support Program aimed to give every child a loving home for life.

"While every child deserved to have the protection, warmth and stability of family, unfortunately not all parents are able to fulfill this most fundamental of human needs," he said.

"This is why it is critical our community has a strong pool of carers who are able to step in and fill the void, either by providing a place of healing and hope until the child can be reunited safely with their own family, or creating for them a permanent family through adoption or guardianship."

Ms Holmes, who looks after two relative's children permanently as well as being a carer for CareSouth, welcomed the new push to get kids a "forever home".

"It's so important that more people are willing to adopt these children. I've had some children who've had nine placements before they come to me - that's heartbreaking," she said.

"I had two boys who'd been shifted so many times they didn't even have a schoolbag or lunch box - I went out that day and bought them some, and that night I found them sleeping with their lunch boxes under their pillows - they didn't want anyone taking them back."

Short-stay carers, like herself, are also vital. "I'm selfish," she said with a laugh. "I do it because I love all the hugs and attention. And when I see that first smile - which might take months - and I know that these kids feel safe and happy, then it makes all the tears I shed when they leave worthwhile."

While those smiles and hugs form the best part of her role, what is much harder is dealing with the effects of the addiction, or trauma, a child has been subjected to.

"I remember a little girl who wouldn't sleep without the light on for the first three months because of the trauma she'd gone through. The first night she felt safe enough to sleep through the night without that light was very emotional for me," Ms Holmes said.

"Many kids are wary of affection because for some it's been associated with abuse, so when they feel safe enough to accept a hug - and I always ask permission - then that's a wonderful thing.

"And when babies - who've screamed for nights on end because they're going through withdrawal from drugs - finally relax and are content in my arms, then that's especially rewarding too."

She'll soon say goodbye to the latest child in her care, a nine-month-old baby boy who's been with her since he left the hospital.

"I'll take him out with my two 'grandkids' to celebrate his time with us and then I'll say goodbye with a smile," she said. "When I go back inside I'll have a cry, and that's okay.

"… I'll never forget any of them, and I hope that even if they don't remember me, they'll remember the place where they were loved and safe."

Illawarra Mercury