A Special Report is content that is edited and produced by the Special Reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report, but who do not have editorial control.

‘When Liam attended our centre, he was almost emaciated’

Barnardos case study: Liam’s mother died before Christmas, the family was in chaos

‘When we are working with younger, pre-school children, usually they’re very quiet at first’ File photo. Photograph: Istock.

‘When we are working with younger, pre-school children, usually they’re very quiet at first’ File photo. Photograph: Istock.


“Liam lost his mam last year, just two weeks before Christmas,” says Mary Gamble, director of fundraising at Barnardos. “Liam is now eight years-old and his mother had been sick for a while with an inoperable brain tumour. The kids saw someone they love so much lose her health, her speech and eventually her life.”

Last year Barnardos worked with almost 18,000 children and families, primarily with very vulnerable children who are living in disadvantaged communities.

“Things had always been a little tough for Liam’s family,” says Gamble, “like so many families all over Ireland, they were living day-to-day, sometimes really struggling to make ends meet. While Liam’s dad had done his best to keep the household running while his wife was so unwell, when she did pass away, he couldn’t cope.”

Gamble explains more about the case, how the house had become run down and chaotic until a teacher at Liam’s school got in touch with the organisation after noticing the boy seemed pale and hungry.

“Two of our team visited Liam’s house to chat with his dad, to see if there was any support that could be offered to Liam, and to the rest of the family,” says Gamble, “and during that visit, they were able to see just how bad the situation had gotten. They returned later that week to help clean the house from top to bottom, to restore a sense of order before any of the family’s deeper issues could be dealt with.”

“These are the kind of cases we face each day,” says Gamble. “We have 41 different centres across the country where we offer quite intensive support to children like Liam, and their families. There are a number of different reasons why a child would be referred to Barnardos but it’s usually because the relationships within the family have broken down, and underlying that is almost always issues of poverty. The kids we work with are very often living with the effects of poverty. There can also often be domestic abuse in the homes. There’s very often issues with parental substance misuse.”


Barnardos works with children from infancy up to 18 years, but the majority of the work is in the six-12 age bracket, explains Gamble. “So we have our centres where children and families can come in, but we also go out to work in communities, in homes, and in schools as well.”

“When we are working with younger, pre-school children, usually they’re very quiet at first,” says Gamble. “If you saw them and you looked in their eyes, you can see that there is not so much fear, but there’s no real hope there. The work we tend to do with them is getting them to bring back that sense of childhood to them and build up their resilience and ultimately make that huge step to enter primary school.”

With older children like Liam, a different model of support is given. “When they are older it is usually the case that something is broken within the family, so we work with the children as much as we can, but there’s really no point unless we’re working with the parents as well,” explains Gamble. “We need to know that when we go the same patterns don’t happen again, so a lot of that work is about supporting and building a family unit again.”

“When Liam attended our centre, he was almost emaciated,” says Gamble. “He’s a bright, brave boy, but he was literally sick with worry. We worked with him intensively, from tearful one-to-one sessions to group sessions with his siblings where they were able to talk together about their wonderful memories of their mam. They created a memory box to keep at home so they could regularly reflect on their feelings of joy and love for their mam.”

“Christmas time is always a very tough time for kids,” says Gamble. “We feel really privileged to be able to help families like Liam’s. They’re still attending our services this year, and thanks to the support of our generous donors, we can be there for them as long as they need us.”