Being gay foster parents: ‘You just need to be good enough’

‘The children have never heard any negative comments about our gender or relationship’

Growing up, Dean Dlamini O’Carroll might have liked the idea of having the whole package: “partner, children, house”. But it didn’t seem to be something that would ever happen for him, so he put it out of his head.

“I thought I missed all of those opportunities. Because the marriage equality referendum hadn’t happened yet. I was 12 or 13 years of age before being gay was decriminalised. I thought I had missed the chance.”

He looks around the neat modern kitchen of his home in the south east, where we’re having tea and a plate of fruit scones is arranged on the table, as though he’s still trying to take it all in. There’s a pine dresser cluttered with family photos, a map on one wall with the names of significant places written in pen, and a “Mr & Mr” sign on another one. Sitting beside Dlamini O’Carroll is his husband of two years, Bonga. Their two children are in school.

The path from there to here began when Dlamini O’Carroll was 28. He was “single and getting on really well in a job”, when he found himself having to consider whether he could be a temporary foster carer to two small children. He already had a close relationship with the children, but providing full-time care was a much more daunting prospect.


'Here I am 13 years later. And I've gained so much more than I've lost'

“It wasn’t something I prepared for or planned ahead for. It kind of landed on me. Thinking about it over a couple of months, and it wasn’t a very easy thing to process, I decided that I could help out.”

So he took a year off from his job. “Here I am 13 years later. And I’ve gained so much more than I’ve lost.”

There are currently 4,254 foster parents in Ireland caring for 5,521 foster children. Just over a quarter are related to the children they foster.

One of the aims of National Fostering week, which runs until October 20th, is to tackle the notion that you need to be the perfect parent to be a foster parent, or that only certain kinds of people should apply. These days, people from all walks of life are successfully fostering.

Foster parents include couples and single people. Travellers and people from other ethnic minority groups are foster parents. Homeowners foster. So do renters. There are older people too, and people like Dlamini O’Carroll, who was still in his 20s when he became a foster dad.

Initially, he says, becoming the stay-at-home parent to a baby and a toddler was as overwhelming as you might imagine. “Literally, I had my family overnight,” he says.

Money was tight because there was a delay before the foster carers’ allowance came through, and in the meantime, his schedule was full of “meetings with social workers, visits to childcare venues, parenting courses, assertiveness courses”.

His family rallied round, helping out with money. And his late mother, whose photo is on the dresser, offered “a huge amount of emotional and moral support. She really, really believed in me – a little bit more than I did myself at the time.”

He has had to learn to be very assertive on behalf of himself and the children, he says. “I’ve had to be very clear about being the person who is involved with these children.”

Bonga smiles at this. “He told me straight out, on the first day we met,” he says.

“I said you’re second, and I’m second. Because I have something else that’s first,” says Dean.

It didn’t put Bonga off. “When he mentioned it, it was interesting. It added to his value because, when I thought of it, somebody with that much capacity to care for somebody else – who would do that much for somebody else – must be really good inside.”

Bonga had come to Ireland to get a degree, work for a couple of years and see the country. Becoming a husband and father were unexpected bonuses.

When Dean told his social workers that he had met someone he was serious about, they began a process of vetting Bonga so that he could meet the children. During the first year of their relationship, Bonga underwent 10 hours of interviews with social workers, and several training courses. When the couple got engaged in March 2016, the natural next step was to apply for Bonga to be a foster parent.

To be a good foster parent, says Dean, “you just need to be good enough. You need to be good enough parents to take care of them, to love them, to provide for them, and to structure your life around them. You need to get it right seven times out of 10, or so. If you can do that, that’s good enough.”

The family has never experienced any discrimination or negative comments. He thinks Ireland is much more accepting than it was when he was growing up. “The children have never had any negative comments made to them about our gender or our relationship. Once they have their information, it’s difficult to get past that.”

'To Dean, I love you all of the numbers in the world. I hope you will grow some hair'

For me, says Dean, “the high point is the love you get daily. That love and respect and the connection with the two children. Knowing they have your back; just knowing they’re yours. They have their mother too, but I’ve given every fibre of myself for the past 13 years towards them. It’s lovely knowing that I’m a good bit responsible for what leaves here in the morning going off to school.”

“And the little notes,” Bonga adds. They both laugh. Dean takes out his wallet and unfolds a note. “To Dean, I love you all of the numbers in the world. I hope you will grow some hair.”


Joan Ryan has had more than 50 children through her door

Joan Ryan had no idea how many children she had fostered over the past 34 years until a social worker counted it up for her. It wasn’t that she had not formed a bond with each of them, but counting them up made her feel like she was looking for points. The social worker told her the final number was higher than 50.

These days, just one foster child still lives at home, but she also helps look after her grandchildren. On the day I meet, she’s minding the child of one of her grown-up foster children, feeding the baby lunch in the spotless kitchen. “This child, to us, is our grandchild.”

Sometimes, Ryan would get just a few hours’ notice that a baby was on their way for her to foster. “I could get a call on Tuesday that they’re coming with the baby on Wednesday. Once or twice I might already have had a baby in the house, and the social worker would say the parent wants that baby back, but they would be bringing me another one.”

What was that like emotionally? “It was very hard to give them up. I used to be devastated. I used to make such a scene crying and bawling, I was afraid of my life they wouldn’t give me any more. But the amazing thing about that was, give it a few weeks, and you were ready again. You got the urge to go again.”

Initially, she did pre-adoptive fostering, “so the babies came straight from hospital. Some of them might stay for a week. More might stay for a month. Some could say for seven months. You wouldn’t be able to relax all week until Friday came around.”

Because you knew you weren’t going to get a phone call on a Friday saying the baby was going back home. “I would have let them all live with us. I felt the same for them all.”

The priority was always to reunite a baby with the birth mother, which meant giving them every chance, including helping the birth mother and allowing her to visit. “For some of them, that turned around her decision, and for some of them it didn’t. You have to remember back then, 34 years ago, it was a big thing, it was a shameful thing” to be a single parent.

Four years in, a social worker told her that they were looking for long-term foster care for a particular child, and Ryan decided to apply. She later became a long-term foster parent to two more children. Children came and went on respite placement too.

And it wasn’t always like the Waltons, she says. Her own children “whinged a bit. And it got to the stage where the long term foster children whinged too. Some of them they liked, and some of them they didn’t, which is human nature. That’s okay. It worked and it was a happy time.”

'The main thing is give a child plenty of love, give them laughter, let them know when they're being fed'

Being a foster parent is largely common sense, “but it is a disruption to your family. There is no point in saying it’s going to be a bed of roses. These children that are looking for a bit of help and that are in a bad place at that time and need to be a support will have issues. You have to be mindful of that.”

She feels that some of the regulations on foster families today – having the right temperature of the fridge or the need to have a separate room for each child – might be well-intentioned, but they risk putting off people who are interested for the right reasons.

“The main thing is give a child plenty of love, give them laughter, let them know when they’re being fed.”

The highlight when she looks back, says Ryan, “is that we survived, we did it. We all did it. One thing I need to really make clear is that it’s not just you who is fostering. It’s your children. It’s the foster children. You’re all in this together. We’re family. That’s what it’s all about.”