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Caring for the least, the last, and the lost

When asked what inspired them to sign up as foster parents, Maria and Andreas Leinfellners’ answer was straightforward: it was their responsbility to care for the “least, the last, and the lost” in their community.

Earlier this month, Maria and Andreas were the recipients of a 2022 Excellence in Foster Care Award – presented at Government House by Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro and her husband Dr Richard Davis.

The Opaki-based couple, supported by the Open Home Foundation, have been foster caregivers for the past five years, providing children and young people a safe place of refuge from chaos and trauma.

They were among the 10 New Zealand whānau recognised by Caring Families Aotearoa – which, through its annual awards programme, acknowledges the foster, family and respite carers who go “over and above the call of duty” to provide at-risk tamariki with a secure and nurturing environment.

Caring Families Aotearoa, formerly known as Fostering Kids NZ, provides support, guidance and training to the caregivers helping raise the estimated 6,000 Kiwi children in state custody.

Maria and Andreas have been caregivers for nine tamariki over the years – most of whom have needed respite care in emergency situations, though two have stayed on a longer-term basis.

When the children arrive at the Leinfellners home, they are “hurt, traumatised and scared” – often coming from home environments marred by violence, neglect, and addiction.
The couple knows they can’t always heal their hurts, but they can provide safety, shelter, a good meal and some kind words.
“And that goes a long way,” Maria said.
The couple, nominated for their award by social worker Kim Aperloo, admitted they were “a little surprised” by the recognition. They were humble in their victory – being foster parents, they said, is a natural extension of their duties to the community as Christians and residents of Aotearoa.
“Kim must have given us a rave review!” Maria laughed.
“But it was very special. It shows us that Aotearoa is a nation that still looks out for the least, the lost, and the last – and acknowledges those who care for them.
“It shows us this is a community that cares.”
Maria and Andreas, who have four of their own daughters, had briefly considered fostering children in the past, but decided against it.
After a Sunday sermon at church, that all changed.
“I always thought you needed a particular gene to be a foster parent. And I didn’t think that person was me,” Maria said.
“But I was listening to a sermon about God’s will for your life – and I thought of the scriptures which talk about looking out for those less fortunate. The Bible mentions caring for orphans and widows 52 times – it’s black and white.
“A few days later, the word dropped right into my heart. I rang Andreas, and told him, ‘we’re going to be foster parents’.”
“We’ve got a good income and a huge home – why not extend that to others?” Andreas, a paediatrician at Wairarapa Hospital, added.
The couple’s daughters, then aged nine to 16, needed a bit more convincing.
“Foster children need their own rooms so they can have a space of their own. Some of our girls had to give up their rooms, which they weren’t too happy about. Especially about having to clean out their rooms beforehand!” Maria laughed.
“But they came around. They know that it’s what we do – we open our homes and our hearts to those who need help.”
Maria and Andreas enrolled in training through the Open Home Foundation – which taught them to be prepared for “all kinds of scenarios” when children are brought into their care.
When children are brought to their home by a social worker, emotions are often heightened, Maria said.
“We’ve had kids who have been scared to get out of the car. Some have cried and screamed for about an hour. Some are very closed off – even completely mute.
“Some just want to sleep – whereas some are very extroverted, and get right up in your face.
“The key is to try and keep things as normal and relaxed as possible – and give them the time they need to settle down and open up. And usually, they’ll come out of their shell.”
Maria said their daughters also play a key role in the process – as the children often feel more comfortable reaching out to their peers.
“Also, we have a dog – who is a great icebreaker! A lot of our kids feel they can relate better to animals.”
As caregivers, Maria and Andreas are in touch with the children’s families and support them in maintaining relationships with their biological parents.
However, this proves challenging at times.
“It’s hard when their family don’t show up for visits, or if they show up drunk,” Maria said.
“For one of the girls, it was disappointment after disappointment – and if her parents didn’t show up, it re-traumatised her. We just had to be there and give her that safe space.”
It can also be difficult when a child leaves their care – for example, one of their foster daughters now lives with whānau in Manawatu.
“We’ve stayed in touch, and she knows she’s always welcome,” Andreas said.
“We know that if she were to come back this weekend, she’d just come in, grab something from the fridge, and sit down in front of the TV, like she never left. And it’d be wonderful.
“As far as we’re concerned, she’s family.”
Maria and Andreas said they were grateful for the support of the Open Home Foundation over the years – and they enjoyed meeting the “very genuine” Dame Cindy and Dr Davis, and their fellow “absolutely inspirational” awardees, at Government House.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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