Young people voice their stories of disruption and damage in foster care

 

Access to birth parents and siblings one of the main issues identified by those in State care, writes JAMIE SMYTH, Social Affairs Correspondent

KAREN CONLON cannot remember exactly how many foster families she stayed with during her 12 years in care. But she says she lived in most counties while under the care of the Health Service Executive.

“When people think about moving around too much when they are young they tend to think about moving houses. But we have to move families, friends, schools and everything. Your whole life is gone in one day,” says Karen, who bears the physical scars of her chaotic life on her wrists.

“That is all self-inflicted,” says the 19-year-old as she points to scores of knife marks and cuts that run up and down her arms.

Like many young people in care Karen spent much of her life moving between different foster homes and residential care units.

“Foster placements broke down. One day everything was grand and the next I was moved for no reason . . . Now I just don’t get attached to people, I don’t trust people. I decided myself not to make friends. There was always the hassle of having to leave again and say goodbyes,” she says.

Karen is one of 220 children and young people who took part in a consultation process designed to record the views of children and young people in the care system.

Listen to our Voices: Hearing Children and Young People Living in the Care of the State – a report based on the consultation – highlights the damage that disruption and a multiplicity of placements can have.

One 17-year-old girl who participated in the consultation said she had at least 20 and possibly 30 placements while in care. She said she had been very happy in two of the foster families. But she was moved from both families even though she felt both wanted her to stay. “Basically I was loved . . . and I am still in touch with the two foster families,” she said in the report.

Other common themes identified in the report are: the importance of access to birth parents and siblings; the importance of vetting foster families and training; a lack of information on aftercare for young people in care; the importance of having one agency or person who will listen and “be there” for a person in care; and being treated as “one of the family in foster care”.

Craig Byrne (17), who took part in the process, says he was put into care when he was one year old because his mother had “drug issues”. “I’ve been in 15 foster placements, two residential units and have had 19 different social workers. There has been no structure in my life until now and I got involved in drink when I was young,” he says.

But Craig’s life has been turned around through a very successful placement in a residential care unit over the past few years.

“The staff are great. They listen to you,” says Craig, who has an ambition to go to college and get work helping other children in the care system in the future.

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald, who launched the report, said she was saddened to learn young people in care had rarely been asked for their opinion before. She invited 50 of the children who took part in the consultation to sit on a group overseeing reform of the childcare system.

Karen, who moved to live in Derry when she left State care, says big changes are needed to make the care system work.

“They need to train foster families properly . . . I had foster parents go on holiday with their birth children and leave me behind.

“They also need to make sure the children are appropriate to the foster family. I would have been considered one of the hard kids but they sent me to some first-time foster families,” she says.

Karen also believes more effort needs to be made to enable siblings in the care system to stay in contact.

“I have 14 brothers and sisters . . . I’ve not seen my family in over two years. I don’t really know much about them.”