Foster mom’s struggle

Jasper during a session at the neurology clinic.

Hours of screaming, aggressive behaviour and frequent hospital visits are just some of the obstacles faced by an Ocean View foster mother with a special-needs child.

This is the stark reality for many foster parents of children damaged by drugs and alcohol.

Frieda* and her husband are one of 259 foster families in Ocean View, and their three-year-old son, Jasper, is one of 378 foster children in the community.

He was placed in their care when he was six weeks old.

Since then, Frieda and her husband have been through deep waters caring for Jasper: the sensory side of his brain is damaged because his biological mother used drugs while she carried him.

He also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), 30% vision loss and suffers from allergies and sensory sensitivity.

Frieda feels many foster parents struggle to care for special-needs children because they don’t get enough support from the Department of Social Development.

She wants to change that, and is planning to start her own support group in the community.

When Jasper was placed in Frieda’s care, he had no birth certificate and only three items of clothing; he couldn’t keep any food down; and was so traumatised, he cried for days.

Frieda says he was such a sweet baby, but at seven months, his behaviour changed, and he started convulsing and screaming without stop.

A False Bay Hospital paediatrician dismissed the couple’s suspicion that Jasper was suffering drug-withdrawal symptoms.

But then it came to light that his mother was a drug addict and Jasper had spent some time in prison with her as she had been jailed shortly after his birth.

When Frieda returned to the paediatrician, insisting on help, she was referred to Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.

But there was a three-month waiting list, and during that time, Jasper’s condition worsened.

“He did not sleep at all and would scream for hours on end,” says Frieda.

She took Jasper to a private doctor who arranged for an earlier appointment at Red Cross. It was then doctors confirmed what she feared: Jasper was suffering from drug withdrawal.

And that wasn’t the worst of it: various doctors and a psychiatrist who assessed the child confirmed he had brain damage.

Jasper is 3 but he has the mental capacity of a 2-year-old and is still in nappies.

“We have tried everything to potty train him but have had no success,” Frieda says.

He has also developed epilepsy, displays aggressive behaviour and becomes disoriented when exposed to people and noises in social settings.

It soon became clear to Frieda that it would be impossible for her to work and still give Jasper the care he needs, as his long-term treatment plan includes visits to the hospital every three weeks.

He takes between 10 to 15 tablets a day, including a Ritalin equivalent and allergy tablets, and needs to use eye and nose drops and an asthma pump.

Treatment and medication at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital is free and Frieda says more should be done to make foster parents aware of the service.

Because of Jasper’s condition, says Frieda, he was rejected by two nursery schools, although he has since managed to get into one and is doing well.

Despite everything the family has been through, Frieda considers herself lucky because she says she, at least, has financial and emotional support from her husband. But there are times when she despairs. And it worries her that the social workers, while being very mindful of Jasper’s difficulties, didn’t pick up on her own anguish. They never once asked, she says, if she needed help, if she was okay.

“This is of great concern to me because it means that other mothers like me are not getting the help they deserve,” she says.

“The community needs someone they can relate to and who can help and educate them.”

Johann Kikillus, founder of the Ocean View Care Centre, says he deals a lot with foster parents battling depression over children carrying cruel inheritances from prenatal exposure to tik or mandrax.

They often come to him when the child is between Grade 2 and 6 and falling behind at school or been suspended for bad behaviour.

“It is clear the foster parents who look after these children do not receive the necessary support to address the problem and unless they have several thousand rand to their disposal every month, the children generally go undiagnosed and no therapy takes place.

“I strongly feel that Ocean View, Masiphumelele and the rest of the far south needs special intervention from government.”

Department of Social Development spokesman Darryn Allan says it funds various NPOs that help people with disabilities and their caregivers and that manage daycare centres for both children and adults.

The department, he says, also subsidises the salaries of carers and the transportation of children with severe and profound intellectual disabilities at 44 day care centres across the city.

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the child.