After care aftershock: what needs to be done to assist care-leavers
‘Foster care should be an intervention that is rare and brief’
‘Each year, about 500 young adults leave foster, institutional or residential care for a new life on their own. Therefore, it is reasonable to estimate there are about 15,000-20,000 care leavers in Ireland.’ Photograph: Getty Images
As someone who has been in care, I identified with the struggles of the four care leavers on Monday night’s programme Aftercare – The Story of Ireland’s Care Leavers. I remember similar emotions as I left the care system, and I remember the support I received to help me through it.
Like the positive endings to the documentary, I attended university, received four degrees and am fortunate to have a career and family of my own. The story of the care leaver, though, is fraught with the reality of coming to terms with a care system and a past that is deeply troubled.
We don’t choose to enter the care system. I am left with one question: is the care system really working? On the evidence shown on the RTÉ programme, no. Let’s look a little closer.
More than 6,000 children and teenagers are in State care in Ireland and the numbers are growing each year. There is a backlog of cases of children who need to be assessed for potential placement.
While in care and until they turn 18, the State is responsible for a child in care’s welfare – from a roof over their head to schooling, along with their health and emotional wellbeing. Ninety per cent of these children live in foster families.
Each year, about 500 young adults leave foster, institutional or residential care for a new life on their own. Therefore, it is reasonable to estimate there are about 15,000-20,000 care leavers in Ireland.
Foster care should be an intervention that is rare and brief. There should be earlier intervention to troubled families, where there is a window of opportunity for meaningful help, to prevent children from entering the system.
The child-protection system needs to be fully scrutinised and evaluated against best international practice, to see what should be done to improve it. And there should be full accountability from top to bottom of decisions made.
Tusla , the child and family support agency, needs more resources and more social workers. Too many Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) inspections show significant shortfalls in the quality of care that children receive. The private fostering and residential sector, receiving multimillion euro contracts a year from the State, should be fully regulated.
There is no obligation on the State to provide aftercare services. Young adults leaving the care system, regardless of age or length of time in care, should receive financial, practical and emotional support, including access to therapeutic services.
On turning 18, many of these young people are left to fend for themselves and are unable to cope.
I accept we have made significant progress in the past three years, but more needs to happen. This Government, and particularly Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, has made huge strides in protecting Irish children.
In 2012 the Irish people voted for the rights of children to be enshrined in the Constitution. The Government established Tusla in 2014, a dedicated State agency responsible for improving wellbeing and outcomes for children.
The Children and Family Relationships Bill will soon be published, which will strengthen children’s rights even further by dealing with long outstanding family law and children issues in relation to parentage, including parentage in assisted reproduction, guardianship, custody, adoption, access and maintenance.
The Children First Bill 2014 provides for a number of key child-protection measures to keep children safe and its measures are being implemented in organisations throughout Ireland. Many of these initiatives are a result of the work of Christine Buckley and other care leavers who, at considerable personal cost, brought to public attention some of the most painful and disreputable wrongs that happened to children with the authority of the State.
I’m proud to be a care leaver. I’m proud of lots of other care leavers and I am in good company. Barack Obama, Charlie Chaplin and Paul McGrath are all care leavers, as are lots of superheroes – Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and Harry Potter were all fostered.
All of these care leavers spawned thousands of other books and other films. It seems that writers know that the child outside of family reflects on what family truly is. These care leavers have taught us, in so many ways, that our destiny is to be who we truly are.
Let’s hope we can create an improved care system for the most vulnerable children in our society, but let’s not leave it to someone else. We can all play our part in helping those who lack family life, which is so crucial to wellbeing. We can learn from the Irish-American Jim Casey, founder of UPS (United Parcel Service). In 1948, he established a foundation that now helps to build better futures for disadvantaged children and their families throughout the US.
“What is needed is a renewed determination to think creatively, to learn from what has succeeded and what has failed,” he said, “and perhaps, most important, to foster a sense of common commitment among all those concerned with the welfare of children.” Wayne Dignam is the founder of the Irish Care Leavers Network (ICLN) to support and advocate care leavers throughout Ireland.