Ireland needs far more foster carers

Number of approved foster carers down since 2016 due to lack of supports and services

The Child Law Project continues to provide valuable insights into child-protection cases before the courts. The latest volume of reports was published at the end of July. While the reports each tell their own harrowing stories that are the reality of this work, their true worth is in highlighting overarching themes and challenges.

This year a consistent thread, and indeed one highlighted by the project in its introduction to the recent volume, is the ongoing challenge of providing for young people in State care with a suitable placement. Tusla – the Child and Family Agency – takes children into care to protect them. It should not be contributing to the child’s trauma by failing to provide the security and safety they need.

We have over the years been deeply fortunate in this country to have highly committed and excellent foster carers. This is reflected in that fact that 91 per cent of children in State care in Ireland are in a foster placement. This compares favourably internationally – in the European context the average is 59 per cent, with only Malta higher than us. The reality is this won’t be the case for much longer. Foster carer recruitment has become slower and more challenging. The number of approved foster carers has been dropping since 2016 and since then is down about 11 per cent. The results of this are clear to see in these reports.

The recently published case reports describe a young boy of primary school age waiting two years in a residential unit for a placement; they describe children placed in holiday homes and hotels. One young person faced a three-month stay in what should have been an emergency placement. Previous reports published by the Child Law Project have also described cases of children left in risky situations due to the lack of foster placements.

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Appropriate placements

Typically, children under 12 should not be in a residential unit, and it should be a placement of last resort. Tusla reported that the number of under-12s in residential units grew 88 per cent between 2020 and 2021, highlighting too the issue of the lack of appropriate placements.

If we want to improve this, if we want to provide young people in State care with the placements they need, we need more foster carers. The best recruiters of new foster carers are existing ones. We must show them respect and provide support to foster carers, only then will they be the best advocates. This will also show potential carers they will get the support they need if they join up. The upcoming budget is a chance to show this respect and provide the needed supports.

No carer fosters children for the money, but the foster care allowance we pay to carers needs to be increased. The allowance hasn’t been increased since 2009 and that increase was a very modest one. Increasing the allowance would not only support carers and young people directly it would also send a strong signal that we value the work foster carers do. It is worth noting that, even after significant increase, the foster care allowance will be considerably cheaper for the State than a residential placement.

A significant stress for carers is the lack of services for the children they care for. Children in care often carry trauma or a history of experiences and can present with challenging behaviours as a result. If Tusla provided therapeutic supports to children in care, it would help them to overcome this trauma and settle in their new home. The programme for government commits to establishing in-house therapeutic supports in Tusla, a model that can provide this support to young people and carers in a responsive flexible way. Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman has been working with Tusla to develop this much-needed service but ring-fenced funding in the budget would add the weight of resources and funding to his support.

Carer recruitment

Holding the foster care system together is the fostering link worker, the social worker allocated to support foster carers. Fostering link workers also play a role in recruiting, assessing and training foster carers. Recent reporting shows Tulsa is losing social workers. More are leaving than they can recruit, causing an overall loss of staff. This creates a vicious circle where understaffing leads to greater pressures which lead to more staff wanting to leave.

In respect of fostering services, this means the level of support provided suffers due to carers going without an allocated link worker. Foster-carer recruitment also suffers due to the pressure on the link workers’ caseloads and the lack of time to dedicate to recruitment assessment and approval of foster carers. Meaningful funding to improve recruitment and address retention will help keep staff and so enable the support and recruitment they provide. Workforce planning and the universities have a role to play in ensuring adequate numbers of social workers are trained in the first place.

Private foster care companies are not the answer. While the carers with private companies provide an excellent and dedicated service, the nature of these private companies leads to real problems for fostering in general. The marginal cost of a placement with a private foster care company is three times that of a Tusla placement. Private placements tend to be further away from the area of origin of the child. In one area, 90 per cent of private placements were outside the area of origin of the child, compared to 20 per cent for Tusla placements in the same area. Removing a child so completely from their community will have an impact on the child and also drains the social workers’ most scarce resource – time. Each private placement that Tusla uses might be profitable for the provider, but it drains Tusla of the resources to recruit and support foster carers of their own, leaving them more dependent on private providers.

Fostering in Ireland in something we can generally be proud of. Let’s give it the support it needs.

Patrick Costello is TD for Dublin South Central and a former child protection social worker. If you want to know more, visit fostering.ie