Judy Bai­ley

Mar­garet Chung has fos­tered more than 50 abused, fright­ened chil­dren, giv­ing them safety and love. She tells Judy Bai­ley about her own tragedy that drove her to open her heart and home.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

meets amaz­ing foster mum Mar­garet Chung

“I’m your Marge.” That’s what she tells the dam­aged lit­tle peo­ple she cares for. And what a com­fort that must be.

Mar­garet Chung is an ex­tra­or­di­nary woman. She has cared for more than 50 chil­dren in the past nine years. All of them taken from their fam­i­lies for their own pro­tec­tion by CYF, or The Min­istry for Vul­ner­a­ble Chil­dren as it is now called.

The first thing you see as you stand on the doorstep of Marge’s ram­bling west Auck­land home is a word paint­ing. It pro­claims, “In this house we’re a fam­ily. Love each other, laugh a lot, sing out loud, do hugs, smile, share good things, for­give quickly, do I’m sorry, show re­spect…” Hers is that sort of home.

Marge greets me with a baby cra­dled in her arms. His big brown eyes solemnly take me in, and then, af­ter a bit of en­cour­age­ment, he gives a ten­ta­tive smile. He is safe in those en­velop­ing arms.

Marge doesn’t judge the fam­i­lies who need her help. “Peo­ple who have been poorly par­ented them­selves have no role mod­els in how to par­ent ef­fec­tively. If you only have lim­ited knowl­edge and lim­ited school­ing you just do your best.”

“My de­sire is for these chil­dren to have some hap­pi­ness in their lives.”

Mar­garet Chung was born 51 years ago in Taupo to a Maori dad of Nga­puhi de­scent and a Pakeha mother.

She re­mem­bers her own child­hood as be­ing idyl­lic. Like most coun­try kids, she played out­side all day with other chil­dren in the neigh­bour­hood. She and her sib­lings were loved and cher­ished. Theirs was, she ex­plains, an open house.

Ev­ery­one was wel­come. “Dad was from a big fam­ily. There were al­ways cousins stay­ing and aunts and un­cles. Mum had a big heart. There was a fam­ily of young chil­dren in our street whose mother had passed away. They spent a lot of time at our house.”

It’s that gen­eros­ity of spirit that they have passed on to their daugh­ter.

“We didn’t have much money [Marge’s dad was col­lect­ing rub­bish at the time, while he waited for a job to come up at the Port­land Ce­ment Works near Whangarei], but we didn’t re­alise we were poor.”

The fam­ily even­tu­ally moved north to Port­land when Mar­garet turned five. And then, at 12, her par­ents sep­a­rated and Mar­garet moved to Auck­land with her mother.

It was her mother who first sus­pected Marge might be preg­nant at 15. “She saw me in the bath one day. I had no idea I was preg­nant. I never thought I’d get preg­nant at 15. It never en­tered my head.”

Her mum was sup­port­ive. “She helped me a lot but she also made sure I stood up to my re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. I knew, though, that she had my back. I could rely on her be­ing there for me.”

But Marge’s school was not so sup­port­ive. She felt like a pariah. So at 15 she gave up on the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and de­voted her­self to bring­ing up her baby, largely on her own, the young fa­ther not yet ready to face that tie. “He was my first love, part of me loves him still.”

Marge would go on to have an­other child at

17. And then be­gan her own spe­cial tragedy.

She was find­ing it hard to cope with two young chil­dren on her own and so she agreed to have her sec­ond child adopted by an ex­tended fam­ily mem­ber. But, un­easy with the de­ci­sion, Marge went to col­lect her baby daugh­ter 10 days later. The adop­tive fa­ther would have none of it and threat­ened to call the po­lice. He told her she didn’t have any right to her child. A naive 17-year-old, she be­lieved him. Five years later she ended up es­sen­tially fos­ter­ing her own daugh­ter. It turned out she had been ter­ri­bly abused by the adop­tive par­ents. She re­turned to live with Marge, her birth mother. “We went through some very painful, hard times,” Marge tells me, “but she is now hap­pily mar­ried with a beau­ti­ful daugh­ter and son of her own.”

Her own early strug­gles have left this warm­hearted woman with a real un­der­stand­ing of what many of the fam­i­lies she’s deal­ing with have suf­fered. “I was abused by a fam­ily mem­ber when I was young. I know the heartwrench­ing feel­ing of giv­ing up a child to what I hoped would be a bet­ter life, only to find her be­ing abused by peo­ple I thought I could trust.”

Marge tells me al­most all the kids who come to her are ob­sessed with food. “They’re used to not hav­ing enough. I keep the pantry door open, so they can see the food. I also put a menu up so they know what’s com­ing.”

What is their mood like when they come? “Of­ten they’re vile, an­gry that they’ve been taken from their fam­ily. You’re the bad guy, even though you’ve taken them away from hunger, from beat­ings.”

Her eyes fill with tears as she tells me of one fam­ily who came. “The lit­tle boy was raw from the neck down with eczema. He had rick­ets and both he and his sis­ter were cov­ered in lice. I had to bath and shower them three times just to clean

Of­ten they’re an­gry that they’ve been taken from their fam­ily. You’re the bad guy, even though you’ve taken them away from hunger, from beat­ings.

them. The boy had a pair of shoes his dad had given him. They smelt so bad but they were his most pre­cious pos­ses­sion. He would hug them and get anx­ious when he lost them.”

“These chil­dren need great male role mod­els. I make a real ef­fort to bring good men into the house.”

She’s found a won­der­ful role model in her hus­band, Michael Chung. They met 20 years ago on a phone line dat­ing ser­vice. She gives an em­bar­rassed laugh as she tells me this. It turns out her chil­dren en­cour­aged her to try the ser­vice. It proved to be a win­ner. Marge and Mike have been mar­ried for 15 years. “He’s the best thing I’ve ever had in my life be­sides my chil­dren. He takes ev­ery­thing in his stride.”

Mike shares Marge’s big warm, gen­er­ous heart. Three years ago some lit­tle boys came into their lives. They came ini­tially for short-term care. The baby was just two days old and suf­fer­ing from se­vere jaun­dice. “He looked like a lit­tle yel­low bum­ble-bee,” Marge says. It turned out there was no one who could take the boys to­gether. The lit­tle broth­ers would have had to be split up. So Marge and Mike have given them a home. A photo of them, sport­ing the broad­est of smiles, lights up the liv­ing room wall. “Some­times I think with my heart,” Marge ex­plains sim­ply.

“Some­times chil­dren freak out. When Mike goes to work they say, ‘Where’s Mike go­ing? Why is he go­ing to work?’ Many of them have never known a man to go to work. They say, ‘Why is he kiss­ing you [be­fore he leaves for work]? What’s he done? Is he go­ing off to get drunk?’

“None of them have had rou­tine in their lives. Most of them have come from chaos and mad­ness, that’s all they know, so for the first few days I just ob­serve them. And then grad­u­ally they come to un­der­stand that we get up in the morn­ing and brush our teeth, then we have break­fast and go to school. We make time for talk­ing to­gether.”

With Marge, these chil­dren have a refuge from the chaos un­til they are placed in a “home for life”. A home for life is not a full adop­tion. They still have con­tact with their birth par­ents.

She makes a real ef­fort to teach them man­ners. “In life you need man­ners. Please and thank you. Their thank yous are so gen­uine. “I teach them about re­spect.”

How does she gain the trust of these chil­dren? “They know I’m al­ways here, I’m straight-up, I’m staunch. I will al­ways lis­ten to them and give them the ben­e­fit of the doubt. I’m in their cor­ner. If they have trou­ble at school I go in to bat for them.”

She’s well aware of the per­ils of la­belling chil­dren. “They’ll say, ‘We’re dumb eh? Cos we’re CYFS kids’. ‘Are you?’ I’ll say. ‘You are only what you think you are. Marge thinks you’re awe­some.’

“We had one lit­tle kid with a wonky eye and he came home from school hav­ing been teased about his eye. I told him, ‘If that’s all they can see, they’re miss­ing out on some­thing beau­ti­ful.’”

Many of the chil­dren have ter­ri­ble night­mares when they first ar­rive.

It’s Marge who gets up to com­fort them. “I have a lit­tle bag of glitter. I call it my mon­ster dust. I tell the chil­dren, mon­sters don’t like pretty things, so we sprin­kle the mon­ster dust in their door­ways and it helps keep the mon­sters away. It’s a pain in the vac­uum cleaner though!”

Marge and Mike have a daugh­ter to­gether, Michelle, a strik­ing 17-year-old with a gen­tle grace about her. It was Michelle’s idea that the fam­ily should open their home to needy chil­dren. She came home from school one day with a Life­wise brochure about fos­ter­ing chil­dren. Life­wise is an Auck­land-based com­mu­nity so­cial de­vel­op­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion. Its roots trace back more than 150 years in the Methodist Church. Michelle is car­ing for the baby, feed­ing and play­ing with him while Marge and I talk. She wants to be a nurse. Car­ing, it seems, comes as nat­u­rally to her as it does to her mother.

Marge finds it hard when her lit­tle charges move on to per­ma­nent place­ments. “It re­ally gets me, every time. I hate to see them go, but I never cry around the child. It’s tough. I don’t nor­mally stay in touch for their sake. They need to set­tle in to their new life.

“The kids keep me go­ing. I’m blessed I get so much from them. I learn new things every day. I hope I give them love and in­ner peace. I want them to get their child­hood back.

“Chil­dren can be great if they have great peo­ple to fol­low.”

Marge’s hope is that more peo­ple will be­come foster par­ents. “Put your hand out and help a child out if you can. These kids may not be from our blood, but they’re from our heart.”

If you are in­ter­ested in be­com­ing a foster par­ent or wish to sup­port Life­wise’s work, email life­wise@life­wise.org.nz, visit life­wise.org.nz, or call (09) 818 6834.

None of them have had rou­tine in their lives. Most of them have come from chaos and mad­ness, that’s all they know.

OP­PO­SITE: Mar­garet Chung wants the chil­dren in her care to get their child­hood back.

ABOVE: Marge hopes that more peo­ple will be­come foster par­ents.

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