Foster parents discuss `professional' system


Irish foster parents expressed surprise at a weekend conference in Rosslare when they were told of the higher rates of financial support paid in Canada. However, views on the merits of introducing "professional" fostering here differed.

Mr Robert Gordon, a Canadian social worker, told the annual conference of the Irish Foster Care Association that a professional system of foster care, graded according to the abilities and skills of foster parents, was set up in British Columbia five years ago.

He said a foster parent who was recognised as having the highest level of skills received the Canadian dollar equivalent of £2,162 tax-free per month for taking care of two teenagers.

There were gasps of disbelief from the Irish foster parents in attendance, who are paid about £68 a week to look after one foster child under 12 and £73 a week for teenage children.

Of the 3,200 children in State care in Ireland, 2,800 are being cared for by 2,200 volunteer foster families.

The Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Mr Frank Fahey, listened as Mr Gordon explained that the system of different levels of care matched to the varying needs of individual foster children was proposed by the British Columbia Federation of Foster Parents' Associations.

Formerly foster parents had been paid "special rates" if a child had very difficult behavioural problems, but this was viewed as having a stigmatising effect on foster children and it was decided to move instead to a system of paying the foster parent for their level of skills.

The delegates discussed the idea of a professional foster-care system at workshops. Many parents thought it might not be desirable for Ireland to go down that route, according to Ms Pat Whelan, national co-ordinator of the IFCA.

"Here in Ireland, foster care is very focused on the child. People foster because they love children. They are sympathetic to children in crisis one way or another. Some parents would worry about the effect on foster children of knowing they were being cared for by paid professionals," she said.

"I don't think professionalising the service is the next logical step here, but the allowances do need to be raised to a more realistic level. At the moment it costs you money to foster a child.

"We also want better training," she went on. "You need training all the time. You are being asked to take children who have major behavioural problems and that requires on-going in-service training.

"Increasingly nowadays fostering is about dealing with the effects of abuse both sexual and physical and also neglect. But foster parents don't get enough support and training. In many ways they are being set up to fail.

"We need better training and an out-of-hours support service," Ms Whelan said. "Social workers work from nine to five. You need someone to contact if you have a crisis with a difficult child in the middle of the night."

Underlining the importance of fostering to Irish society in general, she said: "Foster parents are happy people who want to pass it on, people who want to share. Fostering is about placing children with families. You are rearing the next generation. How are they going to form families of their own in the future if they haven't had that experience."

She said delegates were heartened by Mr Fahey's address to the conference, in which he said the Government was working towards raising foster care standards in Ireland.

Ms Roberta Manners, a professional foster parent employed by Birmingham social services department, said a national trend observed in Britain in the past five years was being felt very acutely in Birmingham.

There an increasing number of children needed to be looked after, including large sibling groups, and many of them had a multiplicity of needs. These children remained in temporary placements for years rather than months. These factors had resulted in an acute shortage of carers and foster placements, she said.

Giving an added edge to the situation was the rapid development of private- or voluntary-sector fostering agencies which were attracting experienced carers by recognising their skills.

They provided a high level of support, training and good pay and charged local authorities massive amounts for placements.