Another Mother's Love Karen Scott | Book Review | Professionelle

By Nicola Rowe

“Karen and Mark were great foster parents, they had a tough job, and sometimes, sadly, these things go wrong.”

– CYF, responding to a Seven Sharp news story about a five year-old boy placed with a couple near Auckland – and taken back two years later, after repeated pleas for support had gone unanswered.
Another-mothers-love-coverThere had to be more to it, I thought. And there is. In fact, there’s a book: Another Mother’s Love is the story of a small child and a loving family who scissor past each other in New Zealand’s foster system, and one thing shines through it from the start: Karen Scott and Mark Finlay, who foster five year-old James, are bloody awesome parents. They’re the kind of parents Child, Youth and Family (CYF) should be sending on roadshows up and down the country as proof that the system could work, that fostering isn’t a maw that chomps up kids. That won’t happen: after two years with their foster son James, the only one left standing is CYF itself.

Karen’s book is a haunting story of the love that grows between her family and a five year-old child, and it would be worth reading for that reason alone. But it’s the contours to that story that stood out for me: Karen’s interaction – and repeated pleas for more interaction – with CYF.

When we meet them, Karen and Mark have a blended family of six children, and live happily and capably on a lifestyle block near Auckland amid bush, streams and a slew of animals. They want another child, and their family, they think, would offer a closely-woven net to a newcomer with baggage to leave behind. So they apply to CYF to become permanent-placement parents – to take a child whose relationship with his or her parents has been severed for good.

What follows is the story of a lot of people trying to do their best in a system gone badly awry. CYF, as I interpret what Karen sees, is an organisation gone bad, without clear goals or processes, without transparency, but with a milling army bent on protecting the best interests of the child. Giving a lot of power to well-meaning, poorly-governed people on a mission creates an illusion of omnipotence and a climate of fear.

Over and over, Karen tells the reader that CYF could take James away at any moment – if she gives him a haircut without permission, if she takes him for psychological assessment without permission – there is nothing, she repeats, that you can do. Technically, CYF’s decisions are subject to review – ultimately, to judicial review, if you have money, and time to follow through, but foster parents live with the reality that

any day, without explanation or notice, CYF could simply uplift him from our home. They would not have to give me a reason for doing so and there is nothing I could do about it.

The results are bizarre, as Karen’s fight to enable James to take up a scholarship to the school her other children are attending shows. First, CYF denies permission, the social worker having decided with a psychologist that change “would not be good” for James. Pressed, the social worker admits to Karen that the psychologist hasn’t actually met with James, but has made her recommendation on the basis of the file notes. Karen (who’s the kind of person you’d want to have your back in a firefight) escalates it, and is told by the social worker’s supervisor that allowing James to accept the scholarship would be a breach of CYF’s own obligations to him. She explains:

While James is in CYF care they are obligated to pay for his education. If James were to accept the scholarship, CYF would not be seen to be fulfilling their obligation to James. (Is she serious? Incredibly, she is.)

What begin as skits from Monty Python quickly become Kafkaesque: soon, Karen is no longer trying to get James a haircut or a scholarship, but medical and psychological help: animals are tortured, then killed; eventually, despairing of support or permission to intervene, Karen and Mark see the risk to their other children spiral, and lose any sight of a future in which James can stay. CYF, accepting this, explains how to communicate the news:

I must not blame anyone, not him or CYF, for the fact that he has to leave.

I have to say that we – his mum and dad for the last two years – have decided he has to go. She says we should tell him that we are just not able to look after him any more, we don’t have the skills to give him all he needs.

Karen says what the reader is thinking:

What a textbook load of crap. It is one of the most cold-hearted things I have heard through all this and I cannot, will not, sit that child down and deliver that message to him. I do not believe that is the right thing to say to James and I will not do it. I hang up from the call, numb.

The final pages are almost unbearable for the reader; it is impossible to imagine what the days can have been like, and still must be like, for Karen, Mark and James. Looking back, no one could say that the system worked – not for James, and not for Karen and her family, who will never be allowed to see James again. But perhaps it worked for CYF, which moves imponderably on, atavistically avoiding any sunlight the book might have brought. (Its first reaction, on learning of the book? To seek legal advice on whether it could stop publication.)

I can’t think of a better family than Karen and Mark’s, if I ever had to place a child. But, having read Another Mother’s Love, I know I’d be playing Russian Roulette to get there.

You can listen to an interview with Karen here.


Based in Auckland, Nicola Rowe is a strategy consultant with a strong focus on healthcare.

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