A home away from home - ‘The majority of people said they had something good to offer children’
With over 6,000 children in care in Ireland, the demand for foster parents is greater than ever. Katie Byrne meets a couple who have opened up their lives to kids in need
Niamh Bonner always knew she wanted to do something altruistic after she qualified as a nurse. She saw herself volunteering in Africa but the pressure to meet mortgage repayments and the precarious nature of work kept her and her now-husband David closer to home shores.
Dublin-born Niamh and Bedford-born David were living and working in the UK when they first considered foster caring. They were happy, says Niamh, but coming from a family of six, she found the house quiet - especially when David was working.
More than that, she still felt compelled to do humanitarian work and had decided: "If I can't do something somewhere else, I'll do some work at home instead."
It was Niamh who suggested the idea of respite foster care to David. He agreed and the couple, who were then in their mid- to late-20s, began caring for children at weekends.
Being young and energetic, the couple cared mostly for difficult teens. "It was a wild time," recalls Niamh. "There were lots of trips to police stations picking up teenagers who were high."
They enjoyed the work but it was as challenging as it was rewarding and after five years of foster caring, they decided it was time to move on to the next stage of their life.
The couple moved to Ireland in 2000 and began trying to have a child. After a few years of trying unsuccessfully, they started to tentatively explore adoption. Their minds were made up when they were told that the process would take five or six years. "We were 40 at that stage," explains Niamh, "so we decided not to proceed."
After their UK experience, the couple had no intention of fostering again but friends told them the Irish system was different. So they went along to a training course - "just to see what the Irish set-up was like" - in October 2012. They were approved the following April.
In the five years that have followed, Niamh and David have cared for 19 children. Some stay for a few weeks and some, like the spirited sibling group they have at the moment (ages 12-17), stay for years.
The number of Irish children in care at the end of November 2017 was 6,182. Of these, 92pc are in foster care (65pc in general foster care and 27pc in relative foster care).
The other 8pc, explains Catherine Bond, CEO of the Irish Foster Care Association, are in special care and residential care facilities.
Those in residential care tend to be teenagers. "The odd time there may be a child placed in foster care who finds it is not for them," explains Catherine. "They might decide that small home residential care is better.
"There is always a stream of children coming into care," she continues, "and Tusla say they never have enough foster carers."
Catherine describes the recruitment of foster carers as a "rigorous" and "robust" process. "Carers need to be Garda checked, they need to have medicals - all aspects of the person's life is really scrutinised."
Weight is another consideration. An applicant's BMI is measured during the health screening and obesity is one of the many factors considered when assessing the overall physical health of an applicant.
"From a health perspective, we ask is this person healthy enough to meet the needs of a child," explains Catherine. "And we have to make sure that having a placement wouldn't adversely affect the person's own health."
Up until recently, there was also an age gap guideline - foster carers couldn't be 40 years older than the child in their care. This restriction was lifted when it was highlighted in the Dáil by Minister Katherine Zappone.
However, the age of the birth children in the prospective carer's household is still relevant. In most cases, they prefer not to place older children in family units where the birth children are younger.
"The rationale is that you cannot in any way fracture your own family," explains Catherine. "If you have your own children, you need to make sure their lives are enhanced by foster care. You have to look at foster care as an ecosystem," she adds, "and make sure all the parts of it are working well for everybody."
Foster carers receive an allowance of €352 per week for over 12s and €325 for children under 12 to cover food, clothing, school meals and travel expenses (depending on the type of care order, foster carers may be responsible for bringing the child to regular arranged visits with their family of origin). They can also apply for child benefit and the children in their care have their own medical card. It is, says Bonner, a "fairly generous allowance", but financial gain is not the prerogative of foster carers.
When the Irish Foster Care Association carried out research amongst its members in 2017, the survey results overwhelmingly proved that foster carers see their work as a vocation rather than as a career or a profession.
"The majority of people said they had something good to offer children and they wanted to give something back," says Catherine.
This makes sense to Niamh and David who are still in contact with many of the children they fostered in the UK. "One of the girls calls me her Irish Mammy," says Niamh with great pride.
For her own part, Niamh says fostering is all about giving children your time and energy.
"I wouldn't say love because love doesn't come immediately," she says. "But you care about kids as soon as they come into your home... although you do keep the guard up a little because you don't know how long they are going to stay with you."
Foster carers also need to have broad shoulders, she says. "You need to be able to roll with the punches. They're never going to be the best kid in school. They're always going to have issues."
And like any parent, a foster carer has to be comfortable with uncomfortable conversations.
"If an incident arises, you deal with it," says Niamh. "I can remember an incident with a child who was exploring pornography.
"You can't just say, 'that's not for me to sort out'. They're living in your home, they're your family so you can't just say 'hold on a minute, I'll wait for the social workers to come out to deal with that one'.
"My husband has a good analogy - with every child, you get a piece of paper and you make the drawing with them as they grow. With foster kids, half the picture is drawn when they come to you, so you have a bit of rubbing out to do. And a bit of colouring in too."
Fostering Fortnight 2018, an awareness campaign run by the Irish Foster Care Association, runs until March 9. IFCA will be hosting events nationally and locally. You can find out more by visiting the IFCA website, ifca.ie.