Fostering: ‘Hard work, heartache and the highest of highs’
New carers are always needed for the challenging job of giving somebody else’s child a home
Ann and Declan Smith from Tralee with their four grandchildren – Noah McMahon, Charlotte McMahon, Kyle Smith (back) and Fionn Smith. Photograph: Domnick Walsh / Eye Focus
Ann Smith’s chance sighting of a leaflet on the noticeboard in a delicatessen where she worked part-time was the catalyst for a life-changing decision for her whole family.
The notice was advertising an information meeting about fostering, which was something Ann had long had at the back of her mind. Having been raised with 10 siblings and her husband Declan being one of eight children, their own family of four was relatively small.
The couple went along to the meeting in Tralee, Co Kerry, and during it “we both looked at each other and said ‘this is something we can do’,” Declan tells The Irish Times. Their four daughters, then aged nine, 10, 12 and 14, were enthusiastic too but none of them really knew what they were letting themselves in for.
“With the training, you think you know what is going to happen. No, you haven’t a clue,” he says. Until you experience it, you can’t really start to understand. And they’re still learning, after 10 foster children and more than 15 years later.
While the Smiths own birth children are reared and they are now grandparents, they are currently foster parents to three other children, one of whom has been with them for 13 years and the other two for seven years.
Nobody would disagree that the 6,500-plus children who are in State care are best placed, if possible, in a loving family environment rather than a residential setting. And as a society we can be proud that, according to latest figures available (see panel), 91 per cent of children in care live with foster families – high by international standards.
But it takes the exceptional selflessness of people like the Smiths, and the other 3,600 approved and active foster carers, to provide that much-needed loving, family environment. The Child and Family Agency, known as Tusla, is always looking for more foster parents, in order to create a pool of carers from which an appropriate placement for each individual child can be selected, a spokeswoman explains.
What would Ann say to any parents considering it? “Do it: but it’s not easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is,” she points out. “It is hard work, it is heartache, but you have the highest of highs when it comes to the kids’ achievements, and the love you get from them and the love you give them.
“You have the depths of despair when a placement breaks down. The whole gamut of emotions goes into fostering.”
In a chapter on fostering that Declan contributed to the recently published book, Learning on the Job: Parenting in Ireland, he compares the emotions they experienced going through their first placement breakdown to those felt when a loved one dies, “the major difference being that in the latter case people are more empathetic and understanding, as the loss is more tangible”.
The girl in question had been with them for five years, was viewed as a daughter and a sister, and the Smiths say they worked so hard to keep the placement going.
“The ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ took the form of a serious incident that occurred in the home whereby the safety of a family member was threatened, this threat being reinforced by the presence outside the family home of numerous members of the child’s family,” he writes. “Events had transpired so rapidly that we were speechless. We were devastated.”
Looking back, he says it was traumatic but, for the sake of all concerned, the placement had to be terminated. Yet the girl they lost now comes back regularly as an adult, still calls them Mam and Dad, and has a very sisterly relationship with their daughters.
Parenting teenagers can be challenging at the best of times but with children in care there are added complexities as they try to figure out who they are and to assert their independence.
“There is a lot of baggage,” agrees Ann. “Even those who come into care as babies still carry a certain amount of baggage. “Some kids will handle it well, others won’t. There are usually a lot of anger issues. And the older they come into care, the bigger the issues.”
In their only other experience of a placement breakdown, they were probably quicker to accept the inevitability, as the child became very angry and disruptive. But as he had been part of their family for nearly 10 years, from the age of four, it was still very upsetting.
Sometimes when one of their current foster sons is acting out, he is inclined to goad Ann by saying: “Why don’t you just send me back, if I am this much trouble?” She tells him, “You’re not disposable”.
The commitment to fostering doesn’t work like that, she says. “This is a person we’ve taken responsibility for until they are 18 and, come hell or high water, we will do everything in our power to do that, regardless of what it takes.”
Fostering is challenging, there is no doubt about it, says Declan, who is an air traffic controller at Shannon Airport, but he believes the positives far outweigh the negatives. He is quick to reel off “priceless” joyful memories, such as the unbounded excitement of an eight-year-old girl being taken on her first flight abroad; standing on the sidelines as the children play sport; going to Munster rugby matches together; seeing them do well at school and watching as they run into the house looking for hugs.
“The day that the positives don’t outweigh the negatives is the day we stop,” agrees Ann. “There are days when you question your sanity, but definitely it’s worth it – well, it’s worth it today,” she laughs.
There have been stages when one or other of them wanted to quit, says Declan. However, they “haven’t both wanted to quit at the same time”.
Don’t even think about going into fostering if you are attracted purely by what looks like a generous basic allowance of €325 per child per week (€352 for children aged over 12), he says. From that allowance you have to provide everything for the child – physical needs, recreational needs, school, psychological needs, 24/7 care, he points out. It needs to be something you want to do on a deeper level.
After two very short-term placements of children whose mothers were unable to care for them for temporary medical reasons, the other eight children who have shared the Smiths’ home have been long-term placements. The couple acknowledge that they have always had great support from social workers in Kerry, which wouldn’t always be the case in other parts of the country.
However, the transfer of children’s services from the Health Service Executive to Tusla, when it was established as a standalone, national agency for child protection in January 2014, is beginning to have a positive impact nationally, according to the chief executive of the Irish Foster Care Association (IFCA), Diarmuid Kearney.
But the association still has concerns about very stretched resources and the lack of support. For instance, every foster carer should be assigned a “link worker” (a social worker separate to the child’s social worker), but that is not always the case.
“Because numbers are so short, everybody does not get the time and support we feel is necessary for quality practice,” says Kearney. When that situation persists, it begins to change the nature of the relationship between foster carer and social worker, he suggests, from a partnering role to policing on occasional visits.
IFCA and Tusla are embarking on 15 joint consultations around the country over the next three months, funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, which should give both bodies a clearer overview of what the issues on the ground are.
An IFCA helpline set up just over a year ago has already given the association a better insight into the most common problems and where they are occurring. The details are kept confidential but being able to log calls on a county-by-county basis means it has been able to alert Tusla to clusters of issues.
The helpline has dealt with more than 1,700 inquiries, ranging from people interested in learning more about fostering to carers looking for advice about how to deal with allegations of abuse or neglect made against them.
Being open to allegations is one of the greatest challenges for carers, say the Smiths. Their training incorporated one evening dedicated to dealing with allegations and the following week, three out of 10 potential fostering couples did not return.
“There is a responsibility to investigate all allegations and the protection of children has to be paramount at all times,” says Kearney. But the management of allegations, some of which will be unfounded, is really important as it places carers in a very vulnerable position and they are not always supported, he adds.
Ann says they have experienced only minor allegations, such as a birth mother seeing a bruise on a child and complaining that the child was not being looked after. “In a situation like that you just make sure you bring them straight to a doctor and the doctor will look at the bruise and say that’s just normal kid’s play,” she explains.
They haven’t had to deal with allegations by children in their care, but it’s easy to see how it’s a power that youngsters could abuse, now that they, rightly, must be listened to in an era of much tighter child protection.
With your own children you might wander around the house with little thought to your state of undress. But as a foster carer, “you have to be so, so careful,” says Declan.
Things such as, when bringing a young child to the bathroom, making sure you leave the door open, the Smiths take for granted now, but they had to retrain themselves at the start.
Initially, as a father used to snuggling up with his own daughters on the sofa to watch TV he struggled with boundaries for a foster daughter.
“She wanted to come over and wanted to give me a hug. To be honest, I was quite conscious about where do I draw the line. But you can’t hold her at arm’s length and give her a pat on the back, when she’s looking for a hug and wants to part of the family.”
His hesitancy didn’t last too long: soon enough, “she was on my knee like the rest of the kids”. Unconditional love in practice.
Learning on the Job: Parenting in Modern Ireland, edited by Colm O’Doherty and Ashling Jackson, is published by Oaktree Press (€27.95).