Too old for care; too young to be left alone
When young people in care reach 18, they are no longer entitled to continuing support, and many fall through the cracks at a very vulnerable time in their lives
THIS TIME last year, north Dublin teenager Susan was homeless and in danger of becoming another grim statistic in the State’s discredited care system.
She had had a chaotic childhood moving in and out of care as her alcoholic mother was variously adjudged to be incapable, or capable, of looking after Susan, her sister who is five years younger, and another three siblings who were to follow.
After intermittent placements with foster families, there was a time when the whole family was homeless – living in “scary” hostels by night and walking the streets during the day. At 16 Susan was in a care centre on her own for a while before moving in with an aunt on her father’s side, where her siblings joined her.
“It was good to get to know my da’s side. But my ma hated us living there.” Her relationship with that family became difficult and, after turning 18, she decided to go back to her mother.
“My ma used to have a hold over me. I felt sorry for her and felt I had a responsibility for her,” she explains. The sisters were sent back a couple of months later, while a younger brother remained with the aunt.
Somehow, between mothering the younger children and her mother, Susan managed to sit her Leaving Certificate. But, a few weeks later she left home for good, after being woken by her six-year-old sister saying, “Ma has gone mad.”
As she watched her mother “really losing it” and smashing up the place, she had in her mind the often repeated warning from her mother: “If I start hitting you, I won’t stop.”
Having told her sisters to go upstairs, Susan later found the youngest one cowering on her bunk bed. “It reminded me of myself when I was younger and my ma and da used to fight. I realised then that things hadn’t changed after all them years.”
Downstairs their mother was roaring that she was going out and wanted the house cleaned from top to bottom. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘when she goes I’m going’.”
She rang her father to tell him to come over and mind the younger children although she wasn’t sure he would. “He’s not a junkie but he is on loads of prescription medications.”
Susan hastily packed a bag and walked for hours, ending up at a friend’s house. Because it was after 5pm on a Friday, it was Monday before she could ring the social worker who had dealt with her in the past – although it turned out to be Wednesday before that staff member was back at work.
When the social worker did ring back, she pointed out that because Susan was 18, she was not sure if anything could be done for her.
While few parents these days push their offspring out of the nest to fly or fall straight after their 18th birthday, it is different when the State is your parent. Children in care are deemed to be “adult” at 18 and have no legal right to continuing support.
There is a hit-and-miss aftercare system for those aged 18-21 but, as the recent Independent Child Death Review Group’s report highlighted, many fall through the cracks at this very vulnerable stage of their fledgling adult life.
Focus Ireland found that two-thirds of young people in its Left Out On Their Own study in 2000 were homeless at some point in the first two years of leaving care.
As the report into deaths in care was published last month, Focus Ireland renewed its call for the legal right to aftercare and welcomed the indication by the Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, that her department would seek to strengthen legislation.
“I felt suicidal,” says Susan. “I couldn’t go back to live with my ma – she would have killed me for leaving. I had no options. My friends were trying to make it all right but I just felt horrible in their house – like a burden.”
She recalls walking for miles one day in the city centre. “I was thinking will I just jump into the Liffey, as I had nothing else to do.”
When the social worker got back in touch to see how she was getting on, “I told her I was walking the streets with a bag in my hand and she came and collected me. All this time I didn’t cry, I just couldn’t.”