Supporting the foster carers

The Irish Foster Care Association’s helpline is a life support for those caring for the 6,000-plus children in State care

 

On the wall of a small, nondescript room in a Tallaght office building, a purple poster exhorts all who behold it to “Keep calm and carry on”.

While the origin of the text lies in very British stoicism in the lead-up to the second World War, it’s sound advice for people on both ends of the confidential helpline that the Irish Foster Care Association (IFCA) runs from this room.

Everyday, from 11am to 3pm, two trained volunteers sit here ready to help deal with whatever has prompted somebody to make that call. It may be a wish for simple information in a conversation that lasts a few minutes, or a desperate plea for advice that might kickstart weeks and months of involvement by IFCA’s support service.

Every call is logged and the recorded data provides an insightful picture of the state of fostering in Ireland. Collation of this anonymised information is shared with Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, if it suggests there are recurring problems in certain areas within the State.

“It allows us to have a snapshot at anytime of the items that are focusing the minds of people within foster care, not just carers, but researchers, social workers, teachers and the general public ,” says Catherine Bond, who was appointed chief executive of IFCA last May.

Just over 60 per cent of the inquiries come from general or relative foster carers and another 11 per cent from prospective carers, according to the support service’s recently published 2016 annual review. The rest of the callers range from social workers and other professionals to birth families and children in care. Awareness week Despite a common misconception, the “C” in IFCA stands for care and not carers’, says Peter O’Toole, head of support services at the association. And it is the collaborative nature of this care that is being celebrated in Fostering Awareness Week, which runs until March 3rd.

“Communities Fostering Together” is the theme and a reminder that the old saying “it takes a village to raise a child” is never truer than in the case of the 6,000-plus children in State care. Bond says it is a time to acknowledge not only carers but other people in the lives of these vulnerable children, such as teachers, psychologists and sports coaches, who “go the extra mile” for them.

The fact that 93 per cent of these youngsters are placed in the homes of general or relative carers, rather than residential centres, is something of which Ireland can be proud. But there’s no doubt that taking somebody else’s child into your house can be highly challenging.

Foster carers would say that the rewards far outstrip the challenges, says Bond. But, inevitably, it is more the latter that the helpline hears about.

“The majority of people are not ringing us to say they are having a great day,” says O’Toole wryly. But the 2016 report shows the diversity of the reasons behind the calls.

Queries The most prevalent topic after requests for general information on fostering (10.3 per cent), are access (7.3 per cent), financial query (6.4 per cent) and allegations (6.4 per cent). Other issues raised range from assessments and placements ending, to child protection and birth families.

The support service managed a total of 932 cases last year; some of those may have been once-off inquiries, others much more complex situations, involving multiple calls, that would have been referred by the helpline volunteers to national support volunteers for dedicated, one-on-one follow-up.

The second most raised issue, access to birth families, is something which can clearly be problematic. There is a higher demand on foster carers in relation to more frequent access, explains Bond, and they are expected to transport the child to and from visits where it is possible and appropriate.

If you look at it from children’s perspective, she says, they need to be supported in moving from one scenario to another. “They need to feel safe and secure, so the foster carer is the natural and obvious person to bring them to access and receive them back from access as well.”

However, IFCA is concerned that foster carers are being required to attend unsupervised access, “which may compromise the relationship between the carers, foster child and birth family”, it notes in the support service review.

In the cases of babies, “It is very important that the baby has as much access to the birth mum as is possible, in terms of developing secure attachment,” Bond says. But this has to be balanced with the needs of the carers’ own children and family.

Often it is practical considerations that have to be ironed out. Sometimes children are placed very long distances away from their families of origin and travelling to and from access is longer.

If the team around the child is working well together and has open communication, all these things can be surmounted, she says.

Challenges The issue of allegations and related child-protection queries was one of the most pressing challenges for the IFCA in 2016. Some 16 per cent of the work by its national support volunteers was assisting cases where an allegation had been made against a foster carer.

One of the key difficulties at what is obviously a very stressful time for any carer is the lack of information on the process and a wide variance around the country in the management of such allegations. IFCA “strongly recommends” that a national policy, currently under review, is finalised and, meanwhile, it has recently published its own information booklet entitled Safe Care and Dealing with Complaints and Allegations of Welfare Concerns and Abuse.

An inconsistent approach to the breakdown or ending of placements is also highlighted in the review, which reports that those who contact IFCA about this issue often need a lot of emotional support.

“IFCA has supported a number of foster carers during 2016 where a child has been removed from their care without preparation, notification or with any concise follow-up with regards to the reasons for such actions. This is an area of concern as such an experience may be damaging for both the child and foster carer, with the potential to leave both traumatised as a result,” it adds.

Social workers On the positive side, provision of social workers for the children and link workers for the families has “improved incredibly” in recent years, says Bond. According to the latest Tusla figures, 326 children in care, or just over 5 per cent, had no allocated social worker last November.

“All the research would indicate that where high levels of support are afforded to foster carers, the frequency of placement breakdown is less,” she says.

While O’Toole welcomes the efforts Tusla has made to assign social workers and link workers, he believes there are still problems over the level and frequency of support they can offer. Some 77 per cent of cases referred to IFCA’s support volunteers cited communication difficulties with social workers as their secondary issue.

The facts and figures gathered through the helpline tell only part of the story, he says. The emotional component of the conversations is vital and callers’ willingness to engage helps to inform the association’s work.

“Without people sharing their individual stories, then everything is theoretical,” he says. He likens IFCA’s relationship with Tusla as that of “critical friends”, stressing that the objective is always to find solutions.

“It is a very Irish thing to be focused on what’s wrong and what can’t be done,” he says. “Sometimes we have to showcase what is working in one particular area so it can be replicated.”

The association doesn’t deal directly with children – if you don’t count the occasion a boy turned up on its doorstep in search of a new family after having a row with his mother down the street – “but everything we do,” adds O’Toole, “affects children”.

The Irish Foster Care Association helpline, 01 458 5123, operates 11am-3pm, Monday to Friday, or through email: support@ifca.ie. For more information on fostering see tusla.ie and ifca.ie

Experience and advice Helpline volunteer Georgina Bryan never knows what she’s going to hear when she picks up the phone at the Irish Foster Care Association’s office but, having been a foster parent herself since 1981, she reckons she’s “unshockable”.

“Well, I think I am; I could be proved wrong,” she says with a smile. Knowing well the stressful, 24/7 nature of caring for somebody else’s child, she believes passionately in the importance of the support the helpline offers.

“I want to let them know they are understood and listened to, even if I don’t have any answers. No matter what the call is, I would try to be calming, prop the person up and give the most important information too.”

Foster parents can feel they are in a “vacuum”, she suggests, and need somebody to turn to other than a social worker “employed by the firm, so to speak”. One of the motivations to become a volunteer on the helpline was the “weak response” she experienced in years past when approaching IFCA for help with issues.

Rising standards Now she says she sees standards being raised all the time in the association’s work and she is appreciative of the professional training she received to become a volunteer, sitting exams in counselling and psychotherapy and peer support.

“It’s getting the skills to draw out from people the information you need to help them,” she explains.

Having adopted two children from the age of 2½, Bryan also did a variety of short-term and long-term fostering. She sums it up honestly as “sometimes rewarding and sometimes disastrous”.

Since the 1990s, she has specialised in providing supported lodgings to troubled teenagers in aftercare and has a two-bed apartment attached to her south Dublin home. They must stay in education to qualify for the scheme and this can be challenging if there are addiction issues.

Bryan believes in being blunt with her placements, telling them: “Even if we don’t like each other, we can make it work. This is a platform for you to launch yourself and I will do everything to support you.”

Carers’ rights Trish Ryding from Co Westmeath, a foster carer for 22 years with two boys on long-term placements, has been on the other end of the helpline on several occasions looking for advice. The first time was when she was being forced to facilitate access visits in her own home and “it was becoming uncomfortable”. She wanted to know what rights she had and how to proceed to sort the situation.

Another time was when a boy was leaving her long-term care and she was not happy with how it was handled and the questions she was being asked.

Now she is in the midst of a “huge battle” over the youngest boy who has special needs and has reached 18. After trying for some time to ensure a place was lined up for him when he reached adulthood, she first contacted the helpline about a year ago and her case was referred to a support volunteer who is still working with her.

“I am looking for him to have sheltered living and it is an absolute nightmare. If I hadn’t got the foster association, I would have just folded by now, they have been such a support.”

Ryding has a natural child in between the two foster children and the situation was having such an impact on him that he “put pen to paper and we passed it on through the foster association and they were very willing to help him and put him in the right direction as well”. She is still awaiting a resolution and meanwhile continues to do “a lot of shouting and letter writing”.

In all three scenarios that she turned to the IFCA support service, she adds, she got “great, sound advice, a listening ear and a helping hand every time”.

Lifeline Pauline, who has fostered more than 50 children, says the helpline proved to be her “lifeline” when she became embroiled in an allegation of “neglect” over the care of three young children. While it involved disagreements over clothing, she believes the root of the problem was that she and the children’s social worker didn’t get on.

IFCA supported her every step of the way, “keeping me sane”, and now that she has been successful in appealing an attempt to deregister her as a foster carer, she is hopeful that she will one day be able to take children into her home once again.

Children in care by numbers

6,276 in care

4,112 in foster care

1,727 in relative foster care

314 in residential general care

11 in residential specialist care

112 in other care placements

€325 is weekly fostering allowance for children aged 0-12 years

€352 is weekly fostering allowance for children aged 12-plus

Source: Tusla, as of November 2016

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