ON Monday, Merryn Wilson and her partner Jade welcomed a new foster child into their Bendigo home.
Ms Wilson and her partner are now among several Bendigo families taking part in a Victorian-first foster care trial program called 'Mockingbird'.
Coordinated by Anglicare Victoria and Life Without Barriers, the program will provide a 'constellation' of six to ten local foster carer households that work together and support one another like a traditional extended family would.
Early research from trials in the UK showed the approach increases placement stability and foster carer retention.
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Ms Wilson has been around the foster system for some time, her parents were foster carers and she subsequently worked in emergency and respite care in New South Wales.
"When they first told me about it, I got goosebumps," Ms Wilson said.
"There's a central home hub provider, so like an aunty or grandmother figure, providing respite.
"And then there's up to ten foster families."
The group will meet once a month, and Ms Wilson said it will function much like a traditional family system.
"We'll ask who needs school pick up help," she said.
"There's often so much red tape in care, so to give foster kids the sense of a big extended family is a wonderful opportunity - the kids will get to know each other as if they were cousins."
"They will be able to be around other kids like them who have been through the system too," she said.
"When they go to school they might be the only child in class in care so they don't always get that."
On top of the benefits for the children, Ms Wilson said foster families were desperate for more support in what can be a 'difficult gig."
"It's great for the carers too," she said.
"We need that support and it's not always easy to get on a regular basis."
Ms Wilson said carers used to have to advocate for support from friends and family, even if they were also accredited foster carers.
"I used to have to push the department to be able to let other accredited carers take care of my foster child for only a few hours while I did something," she said.
"Whereas this gets rid of the need to advocate for that, the barriers are gone because it's recognised as one big family."
Regional director of Anglicare Victoria North Central Michael Oerlemans said at its core, the program is designed to support foster carers.
"High numbers of children have entered care over the past two years, but worryingly, the number of foster carers we have available to take on these kids is declining," he said.
"As an organisation, we need to shake up the way we're looking after both the children and carers."
The Mockingbird program pulls groups of families together and links them to one central 'more experienced' carer.
The program aims to encourage families to network, support and provide advocacy and advice to each other.
Mr Oerlemans said both children and families in foster care would benefit from the program.
"The way the model will work is that that central hub home carer will be the main resource for providing respite for families," he said.
"The care environment will be familiar to all the children and they won't be with carers they don't know."
The Bendigo trial is Victoria's first, and one of only four in Australia.
"We're quite keen to explore this and expand it," Mr Oerlemans said.
According to Anglicare, foster carers have been desperate for more support.
"Foster caring is a tough gig," Mr Oerlemans said, "but we hope this model will be allow families to share with each other the challenges and the joys of foster caring."
In the UK Mockingbird trial, more than 90 per cent of foster carers felt well supported, and it is estimated one in five placements would have broken down without the system.
For now, Ms Wilson's foster child is settling in, and the couple are looking forward to networking with other foster families in the region.
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