When Caitríona Nic Mhuiris, her husband, Séamus Moore, and two children headed off to Brittany in a camper van three years ago, they had no idea that a sudden death back home during the holiday would change their family life forever.
It was August 12th, 2012 – the day boxer Katie Taylor won her Olympic gold medal in London – when Caitríona got the call to say that her triplet sister Úna (46) had died, of sudden cardiac death it transpired, in Galway.
Widowed when her husband, Micheál Connolly, was killed in a car crash some years previously, Úna had left four young daughters.
Caitríona and Séamus had agreed to be named as guardians in Úna’s will – and now the unthinkable had happened. They faced the challenging reality of taking on the care of four more girls, aged eight, 10, 12 and 14, with two cats, two rabbits and two budgies in tow.
Caitríona got a flight out of Nantes the next day, leaving Séamus to drive their 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter to catch a ferry home.
She knew the immediate task of organising a child-friendly funeral for Úna was going to be a vital first step in the long journey ahead for her nieces. Her random picking of funeral director Catriona Flaherty from a list offered to her in the mortuary proved an inspired choice.
“The ritual is so important in terms of bereavement and loss for children,” says Caitríona. As her sister was not religious, they organised a wake in St Brigit’s Garden at Rosscahill, outside Galway.
“We were very lucky that we had that space and over 300 people came. It was beautiful – the children could dip in and out,” Caitríona recalls. They had pictures around the room and a slide show reflecting the life of Úna, a theatre nurse who hadn’t let her own previous tragedy snuff out her smiles or sense of adventure.
After the wake, Úna was brought to The Island in Cork – the city’s crematorium in Ringaskiddy, which is housed in a 19th-century stone building once used to store gunpowder. It’s “a very, very special place”, says Caitríona, and the children were fully involved in bidding farewell to their mother.
Having done the best they could with these hastily organised rituals, Caitríona and Séamus set about consolidating two families into one. Neither Úna’s house in Galway city nor their own home in Moycullen 12 kilometres away was big enough for the eight of them, so she moved in with her nieces while Séamus held the fort at home as they looked for a larger place to rent.
The six children attended three different schools between them but they were all in the city so there was no question of anybody having to change when they went back that September. The key consideration in any decisions being made was the best interests of all the children in keeping them in their routine and with their peers.
Caitríona traded in her car for a blue transporter mini-bus “so we could travel as a family”. And, having found a suitable house in the Newcastle area of the city, they were in their new home by November, with the first birthdays and Christmas after Úna’s death looming.
Well placed to cope
Caitríona and Séamus, with jobs as a family support worker and social worker respectively, were relatively well-placed to cope with caring for vulnerable, grieving children. But still they have found it very tough in trying to identify supports and “muddle through”.
From her experience of the lack of help and information for guardians, Caitríona wonders how others are faring.
Guardians are the “forgotten carers”, she suggests. “Aunts and uncles, friends and neighbours, grannies, caring for children and doing their very best and just being left.”
Equally the children can become “invisible”. Who is there to fight their corner?
People assume that they would have a social worker, but that's not the case, says Caitríona. Applying to the Department of Social Protection for the guardian's payment of up to €166 a week per child is a form-filling exercise and triggers no other automatic support, vetting or wellbeing checks on either the guardians or the children in their care.
Compare that with the fostering of children who have lost parents. There is much more financial, practical and emotional back-up for foster carers (about a third of whom are relatives) and the children who go into their homes, both through Túsla, the Child and Family Agency, and advocates such as the Irish Foster Care Association.
Of course it can be argued that the scenarios are different – in fostering the State has taken over as the child’s “parent” and decides whose care they will go to, whereas guardians are in full control. However, the weekly untaxed foster allowance, which is roughly twice that of a guardian’s payment, is said to reflect the cost of caring for that vulnerable child.
What’s more, the foster allowance increases from €325 to €352 when the child reaches age 12, presumably because adolescents cost more – yet there is no such increase for guardians.
In addition, fostered children have an automatic right to a medical card and third-level grants – for those in the care of guardians these benefits are subject to means tests.
In Scotland, the government has recently said it will provide funding to raise allowances for kinship care (for example, by blood relatives) to the same as those received by foster carers, on the basis that “vulnerable children in kinship care families deserve to be treated the same as other children who can’t live at home”.
Here, it is a “two-tier system”, argues Caitríona, who hasn’t been able to work since starting to care for the enlarged family.
She would at least like to see parity in an increased allowance for teenagers, an entitlement to medical cards and clarity over third-level grants as she and Séamus face trying to support six through college.
Some 1,411 people are currently receiving the guardian’s payment as income support for an “orphan”, according to the Department of Social Protection – 963 of these are receiving contributory payments (based on PRSI contributions by one of the deceased or absent parents) and 448 non-contributory.
In social welfare legislation, an “orphan” is not just a child whose parents are dead.
The term also covers a child “one of whose parents is dead or unknown or has abandoned and failed to provide for the child, and whose other parent is unknown, or has abandoned and failed to provide for the child, where that child is not residing with a parent, adoptive parent or step-parent”.
Those applying for a guardian's payment, as well as having to provide documentation, may be interviewed to establish the circumstances that led to the child being in their care, the department tells The Irish Times. And under the Children First policy, any child-protection concerns during the application process are notified to Túsla.
“Social work only becomes involved if there is a concern about a child,” confirms a spokeswoman for Túsla. “However, Túsla may provide support to families where a private arrangement is made for a child to be cared for by another family member.”
Lack of peer support
Due to guardians' lack of visibility, peer support is hard to find. Few would identify with members of The Carers' Association, or the Irish Foster Care Association (IFCA), although that organisation's helpline is open to them, says its chief executive, Diarmuid Kearney.
He agrees that guardians and the huge upheaval in their lives when they step in to care for other people’s children can be overlooked.
“We would be aware that there are a number of situations where there is a lack of support, either financial or in terms of a lack of special services, where people have not formally fostered but are guardians and who, through no choice of their own, are carrying an additional burden,” he adds.
Orphans too can feel isolated. Although we’re familiar with fictionalised ones, such as Harry Potter, Oliver Twist, James Bond and Annie achieving against the odds, the term is still laden with negative connotations – and it’s one Caitríona and Séamus avoid using.
Jojanneke Van den Bosch, whose parents died within five months of each other in the Netherlands when she was 14, set up WesternOrphans in 2007, to gather and share information for and about orphans in this part of the world.
It was when she heard Irish actor Gabriel Byrne say in an 2012 interview: "We lie by silence. Silence is the enemy," that she resolved to finish a book she had started, to raise awareness about "invisible" children like herself.
In So, you're an Orphan Now she writes: "In the life of an orphan something irreversible has happened. It touches fundamental life issues. Every orphan has to find his or her own way in facing these issues. And sometimes it's impossible for a child to find a way, or the child even gets lost while trying." To those around orphans, she says: "Looking away is negligence."
As is a common experience of bereaved people, Caitríona has seen some friends and relatives disappear from their lives, while others have stepped in to help. Although one of eight children, none of her surviving siblings live in Galway.
She has worked hard at informing herself through books and other sources, such as the Irish Child Bereavement Network, on the support her nieces need.
The younger ones attended a Rainbows programme for coping with loss but there was no adolescent equivalent available when they went into secondary school.
The Barnardos Children's Bereavement Service has specialists based in Cork and Dublin. At any given time, it might be working with children from three to four families where both parents have died, says the service's project leader, Gina Cantillon.
“Given the enormous amount of change that children who have lost both parents, or more than one primary care-giver, have endured, the support offered needs to be consistent, gentle and carefully paced,” she explains.
“Intense focus on the bereavements can mean a lack of space for carving out a ‘present’ or even a future, but there also needs to be sufficient space for slowly facing the enormity of the losses.”
Cantillon says Barnardos offers support and guidance to the carers of children who have been bereaved in this way, adding that often it is older siblings who become guardians to younger siblings.
“This provides stability for the family, but can also create some difficulties, perhaps where a carer now has to straddle the role of ‘older sister/brother’ and ‘parent’, all while having to cope with their own sense of loss and devastation,” she says, adding that she is not aware of any peer network for children who have lost both parents.
More than three years after Úna’s death, all the children seem to be thriving, although Caitríona is “hyper vigilant” to signs of anything other than normal adolescent angst. And she is very mindful of her own health too: “I can’t be sick,” she says simply.
But “day to day there are huge joys”, and she loves to have everybody around the dinner table each evening, catching up through chat and banter. Yet the heavy burden of responsibility she feels is evident as we talk, so too her craving for informed advice and reassurance that she and Séamus are doing the right things.
“I want the very best for these girls and my own children,” she points out. But there needs to be support, she adds, for guardians like them, “so that it doesn’t all come crashing down”.
Support and advice
The Irish Childhood Bereavement Network on tel. 01 679 3188 or childhoodbereavement.ie
Barnardos Children's Bereavement Service on tel. 01 473 2110 or barnardos.ie
Rainbows on tel. 01 473 4175 or rainbowsireland.ie
The Irish Foster Care Association helpline is 01 458 5123.