When a Galway couple with two children took four newly bereaved orphans into their home, it was the start of an extraordinary personal story that is now rippling out into the public policy arena.
Caitríona Nic Mhuiris and her husband, Séamus Moore, had been on holidays in France in August 2012 with their two children, aged 10 and 13, when she got news that her widowed, triplet sister, Una, had died suddenly. She left behind four daughters aged eight to 14.
The couple had agreed to be named as guardians when Una made a will after her husband had been killed in a car crash. Now, their family of four had doubled in size overnight.
Amid all the trauma and grief, there were the practical problems of having to move home because their house was too small, Caitríona having to give up her job and also trading-in her car for a transporter minibus so they could travel together as a family.
Caitríona and Séamus, as a family support worker and social worker respectively, could have been considered well-placed to cope with caring for vulnerable, grieving children. But still they found it very tough in trying to identify supports and “muddle through”.
It was quite some time after the event, that Caitríona found out that other countries had a name and services for what they had become – “kinship carers”. But here in Ireland she felt they were invisible, being cut off, as guardians, from the financial, practical and emotional back-up offered to foster parents.
She knew that the lack of support wasn’t right – not only for them as the carers, but also for her nieces and their own children. All their lives had been upended.
Caitríona's first step in raising awareness was to tell her family's story to The Irish Times. Five years to the day that article was published in 2015, the first full-time worker in an Irish kinship support organisation started her new job on December 1st last.
The founding of Kinship Care Ireland in 2019 and then the securing of Tusla funding for the appointment of a full-time co-ordinator, has been down to Caitríona's dogged determination since putting her head above the parapet.
"I thought there is something more to this – more than just us a family out there," she says of the response to her stepping into the media spotlight. Contacting local TDs in Galway the following spring, led to her exchanging letters with the then minister for finance, Michael Noonan, and minister for social protection, Leo Varadkar.
It was empowering to realise a conversation with the right person at the right time can change things
She saw the first fruits of her political lobbying when a special increase to the guardians’ payment was included in Budget 2017 – worth €1 million that year for the families who were claiming it at the time. “It was empowering to realise a conversation with the right person at the right time can change things.”
However, at the same time as they were getting an increase in the guardian payments, one of Caitríona’s nieces had her Susi grant for university withdrawn over a technicality, because they were testamentary rather than court-appointed guardians. That was another red-tape battle.
Meanwhile, Caitríona was getting “coffee queue networking” down to a fine art: attending events and, if there was somebody who she thought might be useful, making a beeline for them at the refreshment breaks.
A turning point was hearing about Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (SEI) from a previous participant who suggested she apply. The SEI, she explains, takes the idea of a problem and supports the person trying to provide a solution.
Helpfully, it was running an academy in Galway, at which Caitríona had to pitch her case for the need to do something about getting recognition and support for kinship care, and she got through to the final 20.
With a "marvellous" training programme in 2018, she won a seed fund of €5,000. The following year she invited all relevant agencies, such as Barnardos, Children's Rights Alliance, the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network and Treoir, the national information service for unmarried parents, to an inaugural meeting to look at kinship care in Ireland.
An estimated 1 per cent of children are being raised by a relative or close friend, which represents between 10,000 and 12,000 children. About 1,400 kinship foster carers get formal support, with Tusla being the corporate parent, and just over 2,000 children are covered by guardian payments, which suggests, says Caitríona, that a lot of people still don’t know about this or are afraid to apply.
The foster care allowance is €325 a week, rising to €352 for over 12s, and doesn’t affect the carers’ State or tax benefits. whereas the guardian’s payment is means tested and is a maximum of just €186 per week.
There's a 22-year-old sibling looking after three younger siblings, and not wanting them to go into the care system, yet getting few supports
She knows of one case where 85-year-old grandparents were caring for a 16-year-old granddaughter who had been out of school for two years but, with her grandparents’ encouragement, had gone back into school. They were terrified to apply for a guardian’s payment: one, that they might lose their means-tested medical cards and, two, that the child might be taken out of their care because their age was against them and maybe their housing wasn’t up to what would be required for foster care.
There’s a 22-year-old sibling looking after three younger siblings, and not wanting them to go into the care system, yet getting few supports. Also, a woman whose brother died, his partner having predeceased him, taking on the care of her young niece and nephew, although she had no children of her own and had to give up her job.
She told Caitríona that just talking to her made her feel less alone. Often kinship care arises from sudden trauma like this and it’s “not what you anticipate in your life. So those feelings of ambivalence, resentment, of trauma, frustration, despair, is not what you’d have if you had trained to become a foster carer and made that choice, or if you were an adoptive parent.”
Kinship care is in the UN guidelines on alternative care, which covers all care for children without parental care, she points out.
It was Treoir CEO Damien Peelo who suggested that the fledgling kinship care support group might like to be hosted by an established organisation such as themselves. "That took the huge pressure off us setting up," says Caitríona, as it gave them a governance structure to slot into and opened doors. When approaching Tusla, for instance, as soon as staff there knew Kinship Care Ireland (KCI) was under Treoir, which has a service-level agreement, she was told it would be possible to access funding.
Fresh into the newly-created post of KCI national co-ordinator, Emma Byrne MacNamee says the immediate priority is to give kinship families access to accurate information about help that is available, as well as provide peer support. The organisation will also be looking for changes in policy and practice, so that there is a clear and defined pathway to support for kinship carers.
They are not a homogenous group, she stresses. Like all families they have diverse and different challenges and varying routes into kinship care. “For us it is about the recognition, visibility and empowerment of those families.”
Children in kinship arrangements don't have the same visibility in terms of their needs and the responses to those needs
While the State may take consolation from family members stepping in, the danger, she suggests, is that the kinship family is left without assessments and access to therapies that other children for whom the State is taking the parenting role may get. “Children in kinship arrangements don’t have the same visibility in terms of their needs and the responses to those needs.”
There is such a strong sense of family and community in Ireland, it’s almost like kinship care is taken for granted, she adds. “But taken-for-granted family support is not effective family support, and that is why Kinship Care Ireland is delighted that we are now able to put some infrastructure in place and develop a response.”
Caitríona feels that, five years on, kinship care is now getting on the political agenda. The organisation has been invited to participate in the review of the Childcare Act, for instance, and contribute to a new parenting strategy.
Cometh the hour, cometh the woman – not just in one Galway family but now for thousands of other kinship families throughout the country.
Róisín Farragher’s experience
After Róisín Farragher ran away from home at the age of 16, she “landed on the doorstep” of her uncle and his wife who already had four younger children of their own.
The couple became her kinship carers and, down the line, formalised it as a relative fostering arrangement. “I always say when I talk about this, I was very, very lucky,” says Róisín (27), who, at the time, went from being the youngest in her own family to parachuting in as the eldest among her kinship siblings.
Even sitting around a family table – I hadn't done that before at meal times
“I do think they looked up to me, especially the youngest who I am still very close to now, and I certainly got the chance to relive what a childhood should be like. I was able to go shopping with them or do the girls’ hair. Even sitting around a family table – I hadn’t done that before at meal times.”
There were many benefits of being with kinship carers rather than going to foster parents who didn’t know her. For a start, she didn’t have to move very far from her home in Co Galway. “I did find it easier in terms of saying that I was living with an uncle and an aunt when I couldn’t live at home any more. I didn’t have to lie.
“It helped me understand my identity a bit more and not have to explain to my carers because they would have some idea of what was happening within the family background.”
She got to know her extended family much better, while her kinship carers also helped to facilitate visits between her and her mother. “They kept the relationship alive there,” says Róisín . “I am still very close to my mum.”
As a teenager, she didn’t realise the great effort her kinship carers were making at the time. But now, “I do see the sacrifices they made, having four young kids, having to uproot them, give me my own room” and support her through her Leaving Certificate and on to university.
Currently, finishing a PhD at NUI Galway on family relationships of young people who have gone through the care system, she knows that other youngsters don't necessary have as good as an experience as she did.
A member of Kinship Care Ireland’s steering group, Róisín welcomes the organisation’s focus on family support as a right of a child, as much as child protection. People forget, she says, that there are still issues that aren’t really solved just because a child is taken into care.
“We don’t value kinship carers enough and there are thousands of them across the island,” she adds. “They are a very unheard and unseen group and I think it is really important that we start valuing them.”
Mona Barry’s experience
“All I wanted to do when it happened was pick them up, lock them in a room and look after them,” says Mona Barry of the two children who came into her home after the tragic death of their own mother, who had been raising them alone. It’s an instinctive, motherly response but being a kinship carer is far from easy.
She was on a beach in Portugal in May 2014 when her husband rang to say her sister-in-law was dead. When she arrived back to Malahide, Co Dublin, the girl (7) and boy (12) were in the house “and they have been there since”. Luckily, she says, there were no huge age gaps between them and their own three children (8, 10 and 13) and “they had been very much in our lives” already.
But she didn’t know who to turn to for advice, not having heard of anybody else who had taken on the care of children in such circumstances. “It’s not like fostering, when you’ve decided to do it and you put yourself forward. This was put on our lap.”
However, she did ring a foster care association looking for support, just needing somebody to talk to, but was told if she wasn’t a registered foster carer, they couldn’t help her. “We went off and took care of ourselves.”
I thought if she took on four then I am going to be able to manage two
But then, by chance, she heard Caitríona Nic Mhuiris on the Ryan Tubridy Show, in the wake of The Irish Times article. “I thought if she took on four then I am going to be able to manage two. I was feeling terribly sorry for myself at the time and when I heard her story, I thought I have to talk to this woman.”
It was Caitríona who told her about the guardians’ payment to which they were entitled. Mona and her husband were going through an eight-month process to become court-appointed guardians at the time, yet nobody had mentioned that they were eligible for financial assistance. “To me the courts should have been linked in to the services and put us in the system to avail of all the services.”
As kinship carers, they had not only the challenge of unexpected extra children, but were going through the trauma of a tragic death. “There was nobody there to help me and my husband. We just winged it and I think we are doing a good job; it is a happy family most of the time.” But if you were in anyway vulnerable, she says, it would push you over the edge.
“I don’t think I have ever sat down and talked to my friends about how difficult it has been,” she says, knowing that only people in a similar situation could really understand.
“The minute they came into our lives, I just wanted to be their replacement mother but nobody prepares you that, while you want to take care of them, nurture them and give them everything their mother isn’t there to do, they are not able to accept that. And that is a big battle emotionally in your head.
“You want to do it but they are not in a position psychologically to accept it. You are not their mother; they take a long time to accept it.”
She has since done emergency foster care of another child and says the services they got for that child were “unbelievable compared to what we got because we were family”.
They were lucky because, financially, they were in a position to take care of the two children. But she is very concerned that for other people out there, there is nothing: “It’s not even the money, it’s the emotional support.” Again, she says she was lucky she was able to pay privately for help there. “We had nobody to say you are going to have these feelings…
“Kinship carers are no different than foster carers,” she adds. “In fact, it’s harder because we didn’t offer, therefore we weren’t prepared and preparation is key.”