Sally and Donal Daly have been fostering for 30 years, they are there for children in a time of crisis, writes Catherine Shanahan.
Sally Daly is just shy of 75, but despite being well beyond official retirement age, shows no sign of any desire to call a halt to the job she loves: fostering children, who, for all sorts of reasons, cannot stay with their birth parents.
She’s the original Supermum, but instead of “leaning-in” to earn her stripes, she bent over backwards to offer sanctuary to more than 150 children at her Skibbereen home over the past 30 years.
“When I open the door and I see a little child on my doorstep, I just want to help them in their time of crisis. I’d do it for nothing. I love being there in their hour of need,” she says.
Sally’s fostering adventures began in her 40s, when she was asked to care for a little boy whose mother was ill and whose father was working and not in a position to look after him around-the-clock.
“It struck me at the time that there were other people in the community who had a similar need to this little boy’s family.
“To be honest, I don’t think I’d ever heard of fostering. But someone said to me I should think about it and so I contacted the health board and I never looked back.”
Sally had the support of her husband Donal, 70, from the get-go.
“She liked the experience of looking after that little boy and she was very, very keen to foster and I went along with it,” he says.
“We are fairly laid back most of the time and we are very much OK about opening up our doors.
“Besides, one extra person in the house doesn’t make that much of a difference. Mealtimes are the same, we have plenty of room, so it’s not huge extra work.”
Their relaxed attitude extended to their own four children.
“The two older children went on to college shortly after we started fostering, so it was mainly the younger two that were at home.
But they never voiced any opposition to having additional kids around,” says Sally.
“They just sort of took it for granted, it became part of their lives. And we’ve been very lucky with the children we took in. We’ve had lovely children.”
The Dalys signed up for short-term foster care placements but Sally says it “didn’t always work out like that”. One little girl was placed with them at four months and she’s still with them, aged 23 — they ended up adopting her just before her 18th birthday, at which point her foster care would have ended.
Sally says they’ve seen a big improvement over the years in aftercare for children who do turn 18, the point at which the State’s statutory duty to look after them ends, although each child has a right to an aftercare plan prepared by the Child and Family Agency, Tusla.
This plan, mandatory since last September, is supposed to identify transitional supports such as education, training, financial support and social network support and it must be provided before the young person leaves care.
“That service wasn’t there when we started out,” Sally says. “But now they get help with housing and education and that’s good.”
Some of the children who arrived at the Daly’s house were very traumatised.
“They were dealing with the trauma of leaving brothers and sisters behind, of being separated from their parents and of being brought to a stranger’s house,” Sally says.
“They mightn’t talk for a while when they’d arrive or they mightn’t eat. I wouldn’t rush them into talking, I’d never put any pressure on them to tell me anything they weren’t comfortable with.
I’d just let them know we are there for them and that we have their best interests at heart.” Her approach was to imagine how her own child would feel if they found themselves in a stranger’s house and what it would take to reassure them.
“We are effectively representing their parents. I’m very conscious of that, so we’d look after them as if they were our own.
“But you also want to make sure you don’t make the birth parents feel undervalued, because it mustn’t be a nice feeling for parents to have a child in care.”
The youngest child the Dalys took in was just 15 days old. A number of years ago, they switched to emergency placements, where children are placed in care at short notice. These days, most of the kids they take in to their home are teenagers.
“They could be with us for three weeks or three months, even though the emergency placements are meant to be short term. But it depends on the situation and we are pretty flexible,” Donal says.
Sally says there is support available to foster carers, particularly through the likes of the Irish Foster Carers Association (IFCA), but she worries that the children themselves don’t always get enough support.
“What upsets me most is when children can’t get in contact with their social worker. I know the social workers are overworked and under resourced, but the children can have a lot of questions that I can’t necessarily answer like ‘Where am I going from here, what’s happening next?’ I can’t answer those questions.”
Sally would also like more effort made to keep brothers and sisters in touch when they are placed in foster care.
“Sometimes the whole family has to go into care and the siblings are split up and that’s very tough on everyone. It can make it very difficult for them to maintain relationships.”
Sally has seen improvements over the years in the access arrangements put in place by Tusla to help children maintain family links.
She is also appreciative of support groups that meet once a month, facilitated by social workers, where foster parents can trade experiences and learn from each other.
DONAL says training of foster carers has also improved hugely. Training is now compulsory.
“It wasn’t really there in the early days. You need a lot of specialised knowledge when dealing with kids so I understand where Tusla and the IFCA are coming from.”
Catherine Bond, CEO of the IFCA, is currently gearing up for Fostering Fortnight which gets underway on February 26. It will be “a celebration of all that’s good about fostering”, she says.
“When you look at the statistics, 92% of more than 6,000 children in State care are with foster families, as opposed to institutional care, and that’s a very significant success story for the Irish Government and the Irish State.
“But we need to mind our foster carers and support them in doing very critical work. And that support needs to be timely,” Catherine says.
Foster families don’t always have an allocated link social worker, whose role is it is to provide supervision and support for the foster carer and the child on a regular basis. Similarly, not every child has an allocated social worker, the individual responsible for the child’s safety and welfare. However the statistics are heading in the right direction, Catherine says.
She says foster care is “without doubt a successful model of care for children”.
“All the evidence shows they do best in a family environment,” says Catherine.
Sally says fostering enriched their lives.
“But it’s a decision people shouldn’t take lightly. It is a big commitment.” Nonetheless, she says she’s “loved every kid that’s come and gone”.
“I do hope they are all happy and settled wherever they are,” she says.
Fostering Fortnight, runs from February 26 – to March 9. The theme this year is ‘Fostering Changes Lives’
For more information see www.ifca.ie