'I was embarrassed to tell people... there was a stigma' - woman who grew up in State's care
A woman who spent time in the foster care system has said she feared being judged.
There are currently 6,200 children in State care for a variety of reasons - from neglect and abuse to family breakdowns and mental health issues.
The majority of children in care are placed with a foster family, while around 8pc are placed in residential care centres.
Anne* (29) experienced both of these settings throughout her nine years in care. While children in care are faced with many challenges, she says one of the biggest hurdles she faced was overcoming the stigma.
“As a child growing up in care, the issue I faced was being a child in care and people knowing I was a child in care,” says Anne, who went into care at the age of nine.
Anne’s biological mother battled an addiction and in the years prior to entering care she had moved around homeless with her younger brother as a result.
When she was separated from her brother, who was placed in a residential care centre for boys, she expected to be reunited with him and her mother shortly after. Two years into her stay however, a social worker called into the centre to deliver the news that her mother had passed away.
She and her brother instantly became reliant on the state care system for the rest of their childhoods.
“One of the things I remember about my mam dying was my line worker at the time coming on shift. She was off that day and she had come in to tell my brother and myself that she had passed. I thought it was nice at the time that she had come to tell me herself.”
She says she was naïve to think things could go back to the way they were before she was in care, but realises she was just a child at the time.
“Looking back now I know that wasn’t really feasible. My mam was really struggling to give up her addiction. We weren’t seeing her as often or she was presenting drunk at the time, it wasn’t always appropriate.
“The circumstances we were living in beforehand weren’t appropriate for children and there were levels of abuse happening. My brother and I suffered a lot of neglect and we didn’t have anywhere to live. We had one hostel in town that was our go-to place if everything else failed.
“We had lived in some flats in town, we had lived in Focus Ireland accommodation due to the circumstances but a hostel was our safe haven really.”
When she was 12, a social worker decided to place an advertisement in the local newspaper calling for families or couples to foster Anne and her brother.
A couple came forward who were willing to foster both Anne and her brother.
The move from a residential care unit into a new home can be a daunting experience for children in those situations and the fear of being judged can be overwhelming.
“I didn’t want people to judge me for it and I didn’t want people to be asking me questions about why I was different; asking me why my surname was different than my foster carers or about how I had just arrived in this area, on this street with two people who had lived here for 20 years already. Now I’m their daughter who has just rocked in at the age of 12.”
The reaction when people hear that she grew up in care today as an adult is the same as it was when she was a child in care, according to Anne. She calls it ‘the pity factor’.
“People either say ‘ah God love you’, or ‘ah you had a terrible life’," she laughs.
“I came into care when I was nine years of age and prior to that I had lived with my mam and brother in homeless services.”
“There is that image of what a child in care is, what they look like, or how they behave and what they dress like. That isn’t what’s actually correct. My care experience is part of my life but it’s not the only part”
Anne speaks confidently about her experiences now, embracing everything that she has come through but in the past public perception did impact how she saw herself.
“I wouldn’t have always been open about it because I was, to some degree, embarrassed by it,” she says.
Peter Lane who is Advocacy officer with EPIC, an independent organisation that offers support to children during and after care, says there is a misunderstanding of the people who come through care.
“First and foremost we have to see them as children,” he says of those in care, adding "children who are going through the same things that any young person is going through.
“Sometimes, there is neglect and abuse but sometimes these things may not be the case… It could be mental health issues that parents have and it may just be for a short time that a child is in care.”
“There are 6,200 kids in care so that’s 6,200 totally different stories. They’re not all working class, some are middle class and there are so many different stories”.
Negative Coping Mechanisms
Speaking of her own experiences of foster care the now 29-year-old Anne admits at times she found it difficult to engage with others and felt misunderstood. Children in care experience life in a way that other children don’t, she says.
Often this experience leads to “negative coping mechanisms” as a result of circumstances out of a child’s control.
“I was always trying to figure out what people wanted from me. If they were giving me something, was there something I would have to do in return?”
“Foster children mightn’t have contact with their birth family, they mightn’t know what weight they were when they were born, they don’t know all the stories that got them to where they are now.
“All the other children get to go home and ask those questions, to see those pictures and to relive the memories. Foster children don’t often have that because of the circumstances.
“For children in care a lot of children have placement moves so they learn not to trust people, they learn to push people away and they learn that the biggest voice is the loudest voice and the one that gets the support. “
Despite all of the challenges she faced as a child in foster care, Anne says her foster parents provided a safe space to come to terms with everything.
“My mam said she understood where we had come from and what had happened. She knew she would never replace my [birth] mam but she was going to love me like my mam and that for me was just a lovely piece for her to say.
“I had good relationships with staff in residential care but it wasn’t the same care as they would be gone the next day. Then here was this man and woman who were there 24/7 and just wanted the best for us.”
Today Anne works as an advocate for children in care. She has concerns that the negative images of children in care could discourage people from being foster carers as demands in that area increase.
“All you hear is of the lack of planning… and there is a need for more training for foster carers,” she says.
“There is no incentive there."
If you've been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact EPIC on 01 872 7661.
*Name changed to protect the identity of her brother