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.”
After numerous calls, the social worker managed to get her place, initially on an emergency basis, in Chéad Chéim, a house on the North Circular Road that has been converted into 10, one-bed aftercare units run by Focus Ireland.
“It felt like home. I was down in the basement and I felt kind of safe down there. Although any noise and I thought somebody was going to kick my door in – that is what it was like in hostels.”
Some weeks later, Susan had mixed feelings the day she got her Leaving Cert results. While she was delighted she had secured a college place to study travel and tourism, she was sad that nobody in the family had got in touch.
When one of the Chéad Chéim staff asked her that evening was she all right, the flood gates finally opened.
“I just burst into tears – I was so embarrassed. I was upset because my ma wasn’t going to ring me. I was thinking no one cares what I got. I remember her saying to me ‘we all care here what you got’. I felt there was somebody behind me.”
Gradually she began to open up more to people. Unaware she was suffering from depression, Susan could not understand why, even though she had her own place, was getting money and was in college, she was feeling so low. “I started feeling very suicidal.”
Initially she refused to go for help. “Ma had always got help for stuff like that and I didn’t want to be like my ma whatsoever.” But she was persuaded to attend a counsellor, went on depression medication and decided to leave college.
“Then I was completely lost because I wasn’t used to not doing anything. I got more depressed and the old thoughts came back.” She went through a wild patch, drinking.
The staff, she says, pulled her back and told her “that’s not you” and she knew they were right. “Without them I would not have picked myself up, I would have just gone down that route.” Instead they helped her get a work placement in retail.
“I loved working and meeting other people, normal people who hadn’t a clue about my background and weren’t asking ‘are you all right?’”
It was only a three-week placement but management was so impressed that she was told if any jobs came up they would let her know – and sure enough, a few months later they offered her one.
“I nearly died. Everything was beginning to look up again. I took that job and I’m still in it now and I love working,” she says beaming, sitting in Chéad Chéim, dressed in her work uniform before starting a mid-day shift. (She asked not to be identified for this article because colleagues don’t know her background.)
The project manager at Chéad Chéim, Keith Comiskey, says aftercare centres like this provide a “safety net” and try to support the young people in what they want to do.
There is a strong emphasis on education and training “to nudge them towards economic independence and away from social welfare”.
But, as Susan’s experience shows, the right intervention the moment it is needed is vital because a young life can unravel so quickly.
Others have not been so lucky – 32 young people died between 2000 and 2010 while in the aftercare of the HSE.
Still attending Pieta House, which provides counselling for the prevention of self-harm and suicide, Susan says: “I am relaxed in myself, not as wild and not drinking.”
And, now that she can keep her distance, is getting on better with her mother who recently gave birth to a baby boy.
“She is doing great and she has a supportive fella,” adds Susan, who feels that now she herself can offer more support to her younger siblings. “I can show them there is life after . . . ”
‘MY LIFE HAS NOT BEEN TERRIBLE. MY PARENTS WEREN’T BAD PEOPLE’
Linda was just one and a half when she went into care because her parents weren’t able to look after her or her sister, who is a year older.
It wasn’t due to drink or drugs. “My mum has no natural motherly instinct and my dad was working two jobs,” she says.
The sisters were in four different foster families up to the age of four, before being placed in a residential home on Dublin’s northside. It was supposed to be for two weeks but Linda ended up living there for the next 14 years.
Why so long? “Because it was working out,” she says simply. Also it meant they could be together. “It is hard to find a foster placement for one child, let alone two.”
Although her sister moved out some years later because she wanted to be with a foster family, Linda was happy there – “maybe because I didn’t know any different” – and only went to a foster family at the age of 17 during her Leaving Cert year.
Linda appreciates the stability the residential home gave her, enabling her to go to the one primary school, the one secondary school and grow up with friends in the area.
Did she feel institutionalised? “Not until I moved out.” She found it hard to adjust to living with no rules and no routine at the foster family. “You stay up until five in the morning because you can.”
Linda turned 18 in the August before she started a three-year performing arts course. “You are considered an adult but you are not – you’re still a child and you don’t see that until you grow up.” She left the foster family and moved into aftercare with Focus Ireland, first at Chéad Chéim and later at another centre close by, before temporarily moving in with her sister, who is now a mother of three, and then renting with a friend.
Although Linda loved her performance arts course, “I realised at the end of the first year I did not want to be an actor” and gave it up. She then had a web design traineeship with the organisation Empowering People In Care (Epic) and is now volunteering with St Vincent de Paul as well as teaching guitar at a youth centre.
Aged 22 and living independently on jobseeker’s allowance, she wants to go back to college to study photography, she says as we talk in the Epic offices in Smithfield. She has to be on social welfare to qualify for the back-to-education allowance – the only way she could afford college – so she has no choice but to stay out of the workforce until she gets a college place.
“There are so little options for somebody who hasn’t lived at home,” she points out. “My friends have people to fall back on and I don’t.”
With cuts in social welfare and rent allowance, she can no longer afford the flat she loves in Smithfield.
“I hate moving. I moved seven times in the space of two years – so I can only imagine what that’s like for a child growing up in care. That was stressful for me and I was supposed to be an adult.”
How does she feel now about her parents, with whom she has minimal contact? For the first time in the interview, she pauses before answering.
“I don’t know . . . I was angry at them for a while. As I grow up and look at my life and where would I be if I lived with them, I don’t think I would be myself now – and I like me.”
She sees characteristics of the residential home staff in herself. “I think I have taken the best bits of the staff I have loved over the years and made me into me.” But the only way she can contact the people who raised her is to go back to the home.
“I am not allowed their email addresses. I can’t meet up with them for coffee. I have to go back to the house I grew up in to have any contact with them. I would love that to change.”
If Linda had stayed with her parents, she believes her life would have been both similar and different – “similar because I would probably still be on social welfare but different because I actually have expectations and hopes. I want to do something with my life and probably wouldn’t if I had grown up with them.”
She dreams of being able to travel the world, take photographs and have her own photo gallery one day. And she is not going to waste time being angry.
“My life has not been terrible. My parents weren’t bad people – they aren’t bad people – they just couldn’t do something so the State came in and helped. A lot of people have it 10 times worse than I do.”
Now she is an adult, she is adamant that nobody needs to know she grew up in care.
“I do not belong in a box – I fight to stay out of that box. That is not what I am; it is something I had to go through.”
Name has been changed