'The best place for a child is in their own home'
Over two decades, the O’Gorman family home in rural Wicklow has been periodically redecorated. There is, however, one bathroom wall that is untouched.
Painted there is a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-type family tree, with dozens of names hand-written into the outline of various leaves. These are the names of the 48 foster children for whom Avril and Mark O’Gorman have cared over the past 18 years, some of whom are still with them.
When they started fostering, their own children were two and four. “We had hoped we’d have placements with children younger than our own, but there was a need for teenagers and young adults; 15-, 16-, 17- year-olds,” Avril O’Gorman says.
They have fostered children and young people of all ages, including babies, children who need respite, short-term or long-term care.
“You’re minding the child until the parents are able to take them home. That could take weeks or months.”
Or years. Many of their placements lasted some years, with at least one for eight years.
The children they foster are placed with them for a number of reasons. “The best place for a child is in their own home,” she stresses, “unless that is not a safe place for them to be. Home might not be a safe place for the child . . . There could be physical, emotional or sexual abuse. And neglect is also abuse.
“It’s not always wilful neglect on the part of the parent – more that at that time, they are unable to meet the child’s needs and safeguard the child.
“Some parents lack a support network and that could be compounded with their own illness: addictions, mental illness or special needs. It’s not from lack of love for their child that the child has to be fostered.”
O’Gorman, who tends to a toddler as she talks, takes time to think before answering each question, choosing her words with noticeable care.
She is aware that everything she says publicly about fostering is open to scrutiny: by the parents of the 48 children they have fostered; the children themselves, many now adults; and by ever-changing social workers who are a constant presence.
Many of their foster children have come from previous multiple placements. “A lot of the teenagers we had, they would have been in and out of care from infancy,” she says.
“They lost the chance of a permanent home. They would have had a better chance of stability if they could have been adopted. The constant changing is very unsettling for a child.”
If the referendum is passed, it is proposed to introduce legislation to amend the Adoption Act 2010. Parents “will have to have failed in their duty towards the child for three years” before the High Court can authorise the adoption of a child in foster care, according to the official referendum information.
“A child is only a child for 18 years, not even that,” O’Gorman says. “After three years of continuous care, their childhood is slipping by. In my opinion, after three years of continuous care, the child is living in limbo. If they don’t go home permanently after a reasonable amount of time – a year, two years – the longer a child spends in short-term care, the more likely it is they will end up in long-term care.”
O’Gorman says children in foster care do not have a voice.
Over the 18 years she has been fostering, she has seen a pattern. “There is a need to stop the cycle of care. Sometimes, the reason that children are in care is that their parents grew up in care. Their idea of how a family operates is skewed by their experience at home when it comes to them rearing their own family. We have to do something to stop this perpetuating.
“We need to give every child an equal chance, regardless of their birth circumstances.”
How do the families say goodbye to their foster children?
“You have to trust the social workers when the child is going home that all the supports are in place at home. Once I know that and I’m reassured that this is the best plan for the child, I have to support that plan . . .
“And then you bawl your eyes out when they’re gone. That’s the hardest thing: because to respect the family’s privacy, you don’t have any ongoing contact with them.”
O’Gorman has been lobbying for years for the referendum. “Our Constitution doesn’t protect children adequately,” she says. “It enshrines the family and, sometimes, in very rare situations, the family is not the safest place for some children.
“I’ll be voting Yes because if it is only one child who is saved and protected, it’s worth changing the Constitution. That’s why I foster; to keep children safe. Even if it’s only for one night, I can protect a child and keep them safe for that night.”