‘I thought I wasn’t a lovable child’: the life of a care-system kid
Six people who grew up in State care in Ireland talk about the challenges of their childhoods and early-adult lives
Care-system kid: “It’s scary,” Jasmine Mooney says, “the idea of living on your own without a ma and da.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill Jasmine Mooney recalls sitting in social workers’ offices for hours as they tried finding a home for her. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
“I always wanted to be a waiter or a secretary,” Michael says, “but people in hostels don’t get jobs.”
“People don’t realise how lonely it is to be ripped away from your family,” Shannon says.
“It’s scary,” Jasmine says, “the idea of living on your own without a ma and da.”
The Wellington Centre aftercare hub is a drop-in centre run by Crosscare in an old, refurbished schoolhouse. Crosscare, an agency of the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin, provides a range of social services in the city. Every day between 11am and 5pm young adults come to hang out and use the facilities.
All have grown up in the care system, and their upbringing has been partly or entirely managed by the State – in residential units or foster homes – because their parents were absent or unable to care for them.
At 18 the levels of State support for these children reduces dramatically. Every care-leaver in Ireland gets an aftercare worker assigned until they are 21 (or 23 if they are in education), but the quality of aftercare services varies around the country, and many fall between the cracks. Facilities such as the aftercare hub are crucial.
“Imagine being told at 18, ‘You’re leaving this home, and you won’t get to come back here. This part of your life is over, and you’re on your own,’ ” says Kevin Conlon, a Crosscare social-care worker.
“That’s a big ask for anyone, even if they’ve come from a stable family. The odds are that they’re going to fail . . . They need support through those adult wobbles. They need someone to go to bat for them, and listen to them, and advocate for them or to say, ‘I don’t think that’s the best idea, but you’re an adult, so make up your own mind’ . . . This is a place they can come and feel safe.”
At the hub they can talk to counsellors, take part in activities and get general life advice from the staff. The hub has a gym, a therapy room, a meditation room, a garden and a big bright recreation room with a kitchen, couches, computers, a dartboard and a pool table.
Alot of young people [from the care system], when they get to 18, are tired of people being around them
Young people wander in to banter and to play pool with staff. They occasionally retreat into a little side office if they have forms to fill in or something to discuss. The staff are as unobtrusive as possible.
“I think a lot of young people [from the care system], when they get to 18, are tired of people being around them,” says Peter McCormack, a social-care manager (and a “jammy bastard” when it comes to pool, I’m told).
I am here to ask them about their lives now and their experience of the care system in the past.
They also have questions for me. “Are we going to get paid for interviews?” one asks.
“No,” I say.
“What will the headline be?” another asks.
“I don’t know yet,” I say.
“Can I have my name in glittery pink?” a third says.
“We don’t really do that,” I say.
“What good will talking to a journalist do?” a young woman whose name is Shannon asks.
“It will tell people who don’t know anything about it what it’s like in the care system,” Conlon says. “And they might get politicians to make things better.”
“I’ll do it so,” she says quietly.
Shannon’s story: ‘I come here to feel normal’
Shannon is a young Traveller woman from Co Wicklow. She’s funny and quick. She was first taken into care when she was about two years old. “It was meant to be temporary,” she says.
The first and longest foster placement was with relatives. “They were cruel people. They’d beat you. Not just a slap: full-on fists.”
I hated being treated like an innocent child. At that stage I’d practically reared two children
She says she had to care for her siblings, was kept cold and hungry, and has scars on her head from being knocked against a radiator. After this she lived in a staggeringly long list of foster and residential homes.
“I was totally unsettled being thrown into places left, right and centre,” she says. “I hated being treated like an innocent child. At that stage I’d practically reared two children. I knew how to do things.”
It all came to a head in one unit where they confiscated her things and she began acting out. “They restrained me wrong and broke my arm.”
She sighs. “People who are lucky enough to have their families,” she says. “They don’t realise how lonely it is to be ripped away from your family and put in scary places you don’t understand . . . You don’t feel like you’re part of society. You don’t feel wanted.”
She has a lot of praise for her final placement, where, she says, “the staff actually listened. They didn’t talk at you or down to you. It was lovely. It was tidy. There were no cameras or locked doors.
For the first time I felt like a human being
“My big issue when I first went there was that the kitchen was locked. Within two days the manager had that kitchen door open all night. That made me feel loved, and wanted, and cared for. They started looking after my teeth, my health, bringing me to the doctor, getting my hair done, getting me clean new clothes. For the first time I felt like a human being.”
Coming up to her 18th birthday, however, she went into denial. She didn’t engage with staff about life after care, and on the day of her birthday she disappeared for a few days. When she returned she found that her stuff was gone, transferred back to her parents’ house.
“I didn’t want to leave. I felt so loved there I thought they would have gone the extra mile. But I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t sit down and do the aftercare work.”
Tears come to her eyes. “It just breaks my heart now because of the situation I’m in.”
Shannon is living in a tent with her partner. After leaving care she lived with her parents before becoming homeless after a series of family bereavements.
She spends every day at the aftercare centre. They help her with accommodation issues and applications for jobs and college courses. She’s trying to get into a course that’s simply called How to Cope.
The main reason she comes here, she says, is “to feel normal . . . I feel like they care about me. I’m here most days. I’ll stay here until my fella collects me. Then I go and sit in my tent.”
Eileen’s story: ‘Mam wasn’t able for me’
Shannon can’t remember her phone number, so she goes over to Eileen, her bestie, who recites it to her.
Eileen is 21. She has an intellectual disability and lives in a supported hostel for homeless people, although she’s having some problems managing bills. Crosscare staff are helping her with that. “Moving so often [as a child] was a nightmare, and now I can’t settle,” she says.
I never used to mix. I found it very hard
Eileen has been in care since she was eight. “Mam wasn’t able for me,” she says. She never liked living in residential units. “You’re with others, but I never used to mix. I found it very hard. There were some nice staff, but others I couldn’t connect with.”
Still, leaving the care system was a shock. Because she was particularly vulnerable she was initially placed in a high-support mental-health unit in another county. Everyone there was much older and sicker.
Eileen hated it and was frightened by it and ran away, first to her mother’s house, then to the streets, where she found her older brother, who had also come through the care system. Their other siblings were never in care. She laughs. “We’re the bad ones.”
Eileen’s brother looked after her. He had a serious drug problem, so they would separate during the day. She would come into Crosscare, exhausted from carrying her stuff, and they would meet up at night, so “he could mind me”.
She had some friends through the system – former care workers – but she lost phones and numbers over the years. The aftercare hub is very important for her, even now that she has accommodation. “If I have a problem I bounce it off these guys.”
It’s not just the staff, Eileen says. The other young people also look out for her. She points out a bearded young man called Michael Lee Sattell. “When I was on the streets he used to find me and give me food,” she says. “We’re a family here.”
Michael’s story: ‘I live with every junkie under the sun’
Michael is web surfing. He has an easy charm and a nice way with words. “So what are you journalising about, my good man?” he asks.
Michael is funny. “People say, ‘You’re not really homeless, are you?’ and I say, ‘No, I just like doorways.’ ”
And he’s philosophical. He talks about the difference between empathy and sympathy. “Try and be in my shoes, not feel bad for me.”
They wanted you to aspire and prepare for the world
Michael entered the system at about 16, when, he says, he got into weed and alcohol. “My mam didn’t understand that, and I had to leave”. He ended up in “a lovely place”, a semi-independent residential centre. “Like Crosscare, they wanted you to aspire and prepare for the world.”
He didn’t quite do that, he says. He’s had addiction issues with cannabis and alcohol. He has moved between housing, hostels and the street. Last year he had a bad accident and needed several operations. He has a metal rod in his ankle and stitches across his jaw. Another bar in his arm became gangrenous and had to be removed.
He is living in a hostel, “with every junkie under the sun”. He really wants to find somewhere else.
“This is the only place I feel warm and welcome,” he says. “No drugs, no alcohol, just honest people who take you away from the streets.
“You know the way Kevin and Peter are being really nice? Well, they’re like that when there are no journalists visiting. But they’re not afraid to say if someone is being rude or is unsettling other people.
“Crosscare is not big on spoon-feeding. They give you the spoon and the food. And the longer you come here the longer they can keep an eye on you.”
I started out with childlike wonder, and I want to remember what that’s like
Michael feels as if he has his life more under control nowadays. Crosscare has a new dental scheme, and he’s getting his teeth fixed. They also mind his money for him. He leaves it with them and gets it as he needs it.
He’s learning to cook, and he’d love to be a chef. “I’ve lost a lot of interest in stuff. I started out with childlike wonder, and I want to remember what that’s like. I always wanted to be a waiter or a secretary, a very simple hourly job, but people in hostels don’t get jobs.
“But I’m not as bad as the people out on the street with a cup in their hands. Those people have given up on life. I still have things to fight for.”
Trevor’s story: Living independently and working
At about 1pm the staff and young people make lunch – sandwiches and burgers – and young men in football gear start drifting in. There’s a tournament involving several aftercare services, and this afternoon the staff and clients of the aftercare hub are playing a match.
It’s important to stress that many care-leavers are doing very well. A young man called Trevor Merren is here out of a sense of solidarity with the service. (“I haven’t played soccer in a while. I’ll probably die,” he says.)
Trevor spent most of his youth in foster care and his late teens in a residential unit. He went from an aftercare placement to supported living. He now lives independently and has a job at a supermarket. He’s still very thankful to Crosscare and the other services that helped him.
Rahman’s story: Direct provision was ‘very difficult’
Rahman says he wants to find someone to help him to write a play about his life. It’s pretty dramatic. The 22-year-old arrived here without family or any English at the age of 16, after being smuggled circuitously from Afghanistan to Europe.
When he was placed in the back of a truck with four Kurdish people he thought he was headed for the UK. He had barely heard of Ireland. “I was really afraid.”
He lived in a unit for separated children until his 18th birthday, when he was moved to a direct-provision centre.
“It was very difficult there,” he says. He was studying for his Leaving Certifcate while sharing rooms with older men who stayed awake all night, looking at their phones. He was alone. He missed his family. (His mother passed away last year.) He had very little money – €19.10 a week – so couldn’t socialise.
Rahman is studying social-care work. “I had much inspiration”
After getting his residency papers Rahman took up a course and moved into a low-rent care-leavers’ houseshare organised by Crosscare as a successful experiment on the North Circular Road. What’s he studying? “Social-care work,” he says, and smiles. “I had much inspiration.”
Jasmine’s story: ‘I began to think I wasn’t a lovable child’
Jasmine Mooney is a bright, bubbly young woman with a remarkably positive outlook. “You want to talk about the care system?” the 19-year-old says. “You’ve got the right person.”
Why was she in care? “My ma took a bad turn. But she’s great now. She turned her life around and is always by my side.”
Like many in care, Jasmine had a high number of placements. She recalls sitting in social workers’ offices for hours as they tried to find a home for her. She lived in foster homes initially but then was put into a residential-care unit.
I was a different sort of kid. I was the kid that stayed in her room, reading books
“With all the moving I began to think I wasn’t a lovable child,” she says. “Then you come into a house with a group of kids from all different backgrounds. Some are real tough kids, robbing cars and getting in trouble.
“I was a different sort of kid. I was the kid that stayed in her room, reading books, and did a bit of singing. I liked singing competitions. That’s how I got my anger out.”
It was frightening sometimes, she says. “If things got a bit hectic they had to call the guards.”
She recalls periods when kids acted up and they all ended up locked out of their rooms, sitting on the stairs and eating their dinner, “like in Annie”.
She went back to foster care for a while. One placement went well, but another did not. “They were very strict.” She’d spend hours sitting in the local church rather than staying at home. “I prayed: ‘Can I get out of this house?’ ”
Things that happened in the past don’t define me as a person
Jasmine really liked the unit where she lived for her last years in care. The staff were very active in helping her sort out services for life beyond care. Now she is at college, studying health and fitness, and living in pleasant aftercare accommodation.
She regularly meets the manager from her old unit, has a good relationship with her mother and comes to the hub after college, to make dinner and to chat with her friends.
“It’s scary for an 18-year-old,” she says, “the idea of living on your own without a ma and da. But then I hear some of my friends in college complaining about their parents, and I think that in some ways it’s not so bad.”
She laughs. “Things that happened in the past don’t define me as a person. I know what I want, and I know where I’m going.”