Ireland is at a “critical juncture” for fostering due to insufficient numbers of people coming forward as potential carers for children who need to live somewhere other than with their parents.
The percentage of these children who can be placed with an alternative family, rather than going into a residential centre, is slipping. It is a trend that Tusla, the child and family agency, is trying to reverse.
Decades of research and UN conventions, never mind common sense, tell us that the ideal setting for a child to grow up is within a nurturing and loving, family environment. The number of families here prepared to open their doors to take in vulnerable children is still exceptionally high by European standards, but anybody involved in fostering knows how important it is to keep it that way.
“This is a wake-up call for everybody,” says the CEO of the Irish Foster Care Association (IFCA), Catherine Bond. “In 2018, 92 per cent of children in care lived with foster families and that has now gone down to 89 per cent.” (Tusla says it is 89.8 per cent right now.) While the number of children in care has dropped over the last decade – being at 5,219 in mid-October compared to 6,332 in 2012 – the pool of foster carers has been shrinking faster. Not only are recruitment and retention rates causing concern, but so too is the narrowing of their “geographical footprint”, as ideally any child needing alternative care would be placed within their own community.
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What foster carers would tell us is that it is really rewarding, but it is really challenging— Clare Murphy. Tusla’s regional chief officer for the southeast
Unhelpful myths persist about who will be accepted as foster carers and what is involved. Not only is a diverse range of adults needed for this vital service, but also varying levels of commitment. Traditionally, in Ireland, to be a foster carer you had to be married, own your own home and one of the couple not be working.
“This has completely changed,” says Tusla’s regional chief officer for the southeast, Clare Murphy. Single people, same-sex couples, renters and those with other jobs can all be approved for the role. “People tend to think they have to commit 24/7 for years and you absolutely don’t have to do that.”
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Adults are needed to provide emergency foster care, which might be just a night at a time; respite care to give another foster carer a weekend break; short-term care of up to six months and pre-adoptive foster care, as well as long-time care.
Undoubtedly, it is a difficult job. “What foster carers would tell us is that it is really rewarding, but it is really challenging,” says Murphy. “You are caring for a child who has come from some traumatic life experience, who has been exposed possibly to neglect, domestic violence or substance misuse, so some of those children are going to have behavioural issues as a result of early trauma. But almost 4,000 carers are doing that job day in and day out and a lot of them say they are happy doing it and tell Hiqa (the Health Information and Quality Authority which inspects foster services) that they feel supported.”
However, they do have issues, she acknowledges, as does Tusla, with lack of staff. As a result, not every foster carer has a link worker, who is independent of the social worker who should be allocated to every child in care.
There isn’t a foster carer in the country doing it for money, but, that said, it does cost them— Clare Murphy. Tusla’s regional chief officer for the southeast
Then the failure of Budget 2023 to deliver any increase in the foster care allowance, which has remained at the same level since 2009, was hugely disappointing. IFCA had lobbied strongly for a rise, which was also advocated by Tusla, in recognition of how living costs have gone up. Instead, the budget provided for a once-off additional cost-of-living payment, to be paid at the current weekly foster care allowance rate of €325 for a child under-12 and €352 for a child over-12.
“There isn’t a foster carer in the country doing it for money,” says Murphy. “But, that said, it does cost them, so they should be paid appropriately for the role.” The alternative, care in a small residential centre, costs the State more than €6,000 a week per child, on average, to provide.
Bond says foster carers were “dreadfully disappointed that they were not recognised in the budget” and stresses that the allowance is for the children, foster carers don’t get any payment. Another issue is that, despite doing this invaluable work on behalf of the State, usually sacrificing paid employment in the process, they do not get any credits for the contributory pension, unlike their counterparts in the UK. They are, she suggests, the “silent and forgotten” carers, while Tusla’s website refers to them as “invisible heroes”. The nature of fostering means they don’t draw attention to themselves, to protect the privacy of the children.
After Tusla recruited 200 foster carers in 2021 but saw the same number cease fostering, the agency consulted with 500 representatives of all those involved – from children in care and their carers, to social workers and policymakers – to see how services could be bolstered. The resulting strategic plan for 2022-2025 has 29 recommendations, of which number one is increased efforts for recruitment and retention of foster carers.
You may decide it’s not for you, we may decide it’s not for you, but have that conversation— Clare Murphy. Tusla’s regional chief officer for the southeast
Tusla ran its latest recruitment campaign in September, in a year that the war in Ukraine has brought an unanticipated demand for foster care. Some 150 unaccompanied minors have come in from Ukraine, all of whom required a placement, and 65 of those young people are still in foster care, says Murphy.
She also reports that 188 people responded to the September campaign but, inevitably, some have not continued the process, for various reasons. These included having a child under three years old, as going into fostering is not recommended if you have children that young, some were working a significant number of night shifts and would not have been available enough during the day, while others didn’t have sufficient space in their accommodation.
“We encourage people to come and talk to us. Sometimes in the talking they cancel themselves out, or they go on and do the assessment. The assessment is very robust and puts a lot of scenarios to people, who might then say ‘fostering is not for us’,” Murphy explains. “For every 100 inquiries, we only get about eight foster carers from that.”
Nearly two-thirds of children taken into care live in general foster care directly managed by Tusla; around one-quarter are in relative foster care, also supervised by Tusla, and the remaining nearly 10 per cent are placed with private fostering agencies. One of these is Orchard Fostering, which is currently working with 97 general foster carers and supported lodging carers but is trying to recruit more.
The best advice for potential carers wondering which route to take is do your homework— Catherine Bond, CEO of the Irish Foster Care Association
Its director of operations, Orlaith Treacy, explains how in September more than 120 referrals of children came in and they did not have the capacity to place them. Anybody considering fostering, she says, must be stable in various aspects of their life if they are going to be able to provide a secure and loving home for a troubled child. Carers must have enough financial and emotional stability to enable the giving of time to children, who are likely to need to attend therapy appointments, and to cope with the challenges.
Bond says the IFCA hears from foster carers about how they have to fight for services. She suggests there has been “collective amnesia” about clause 11.6 in the National Standards for Foster Care that stipulates children in care “have prioritised access to medical, psychiatric, psychological, dental, ophthalmic, therapeutic and other specialist services and treatment when required”. Last year, Tusla paid about €8.2 million to 800 foster carers in order for children to attend private therapeutic services. Murphy agrees that Tusla should be able to access these services through their HSE partners, “but we’re not”, she says.
Now Tusla is hiring more of its own therapists. In each of the organisation’s six regions, it is employing a therapeutic manager who will operate a team incorporating psychological services, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy.
[ Tusla issues urgent appeal for people to foster children ]
“For every new child coming into care we are going to have a robust assessment of that child’s needs – we have never had that before,” says Murphy. “Hopefully we will grow those teams.”
Orchard Fostering is one of five private agencies contracted to recruit, assess and train carers. The assessment/training takes 16 weeks and a report then goes to those individuals’ local Tusla foster care committee for approval to be added to the list. Treacy says her agency offers a huge amount of support to the carers on its books. In addition to providing a link worker, there is a social worker available at the end of a phone line 24/7 “as crises tend not to always occur 9-5″. It also has a social care team who work directly with carers and young people, including sessions with the carers’ own birth children.
The IFCA is there for all foster carers, regardless of whether they are working with Tusla or a private agency. However, Bond believes it is “unfortunate” and “unhelpful” that this dichotomy has been introduced into fostering. The best advice for potential carers wondering which route to take is, she suggests, “do your homework” – talk to Tusla and to private agencies, then also to foster carers recruited through both.
“Everyone has a role to play,” she adds. “What might suit one family, mightn’t suit another family.” Tusla prefers to recruit directly, says Murphy, but “we would have very good governance and oversight when we place children in private companies”. She urges anyone who thinks they have something to offer a child, to come and talk to Tusla.
“You may decide it’s not for you, we may decide it’s not for you, but have that conversation.” A vulnerable child’s future welfare may depend on it.
For more information see fostering.ie. The Irish Foster Care Association, which runs a national helpline on 01 458 5123, will hold its annual conference, Wrapped in Relationships, in Athlone, Co Westmeath, on November 4th and 5th