'It was as if she didn’t know how to play': Almost 7,000 referrals to Barnardos last year

Children’s charity Barnardos dealt with almost 7,000 new referrals about children and families in crisis last year, up 10% in one year.

Between new and existing cases, the charity helped a record 15,300 children and families — it is now demanding political action to stop the problem from getting worse.

Chairman David Beggs, in the charity’s annual report to be published today, urges voters not to be swayed by promises of tax cuts in the next election but to insist the money goes to helping children.

To a child, poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn’t commit. We have over 138,000 children being punished by consistent poverty,” he states.

“All too frequently, we see outcomes for children that prove they are not a political priority and childhood is not generally valued. As our economy recovers, we need to remember that the economy in itself is not autonomous and the dimensions of society, politics, morality, and social relations must all be given attention.

“So the next time you hear politicians offering you tax cuts to garner your vote, you might remember the lack of adequate investment in services for children and act accordingly.”

Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay, who will give his farewell address today after 13 years at the helm, described as “frightening” the number of children in poverty, homelessness, or deprived of basic health and psychological services.

Fergus Finlay

Throughout my time with Barnardos, I have seen countless things you could describe only as heart-breaking,” he said.

“The number of those we helped has grown over the last 10 years to reach a staggering 86,585 children and families. It is only with such a strong and dedicated team that we can reach so many.”

Barnardos provides practical and emotional supports and training for children, parents, and carers in 40 centres across the country as well as in families’ homes and through schools.

Most of the families involved come to attention because of emotional, developmental, or behavioural problems affecting children, often as a result of struggles with poverty, family break-up or bereavement, low educational attainment, or poor parenting skills.

The annual report for 2017 shows 41% of referrals came from Tusla, the state’s family and child agency, while 26% came from parents.

Schools, the HSE, and public health nurses were also important sources of referrals.

Child welfare concerns made up 13% of referrals, followed by behavioural issues, 12%; bereavement, 9%; parenting needs, 7% and child protection concerns, 6%. Parental separation, poor parenting skills, domestic abuse, and adoption-related issues accounted for small numbers of referrals but 37% were described as other reasons, reflecting the wide range of difficulties children and families encounter.

One third of the children assisted had been five years of age or younger while almost half (44%) had been aged six to 12 years. The kind of supports they or their families received ranged from counselling and parenting skills to practical training in running a household to participation in breakfast clubs, after-school clubs, parents and toddler groups. and individualised sessions to help children learn to play, interact, form friendships, and handle emotions.

The charity spent €25m on its network of services part-funded by the HSE. Over €8m of its income last year came from donations and legacies. It employed 440 staff and was also supported by 329 volunteers.

Suzanne Connolly, director of services, will take over as chief executive next month. She said the charity is guided by a mission to “transform children’s lives through our services, support parents, and challenge society where it fails our children”.

Case study 1: Lone father

Sean is a father of three young children.

The children’s mother left the family home unannounced almost a year ago and has hardly contacted them since. She was the primary caretaker and when she left, Sean was suddenly a lone parent.

He left work temporarily to try and get a handle on his new role, but he was struggling to cope not only with the level of care that his children now needed, but also with his own shock and emotions.

The children’s school noticed the children had started arriving in tired, often in dirty uniforms, without lunches and without their homework complete. The school referred the family to Barnardos.

Sean met with Barnardos staff and explained he didn’t know how to cook a meal, clean the house, or use the washing machine and he was finding it all very overwhelming.

He also didn’t know how to best support his children as they dealt with their own feelings over the loss of their mother.

His daughter would regularly sit on the stairs with her coat on, waiting for her mam to walk back in the door.

Barnardos project workers taught Sean the basics: Cleaning, cooking, clothes washing etc. They worked with him to establish individual daily routines for all of his children.

Most importantly, Barnardos provided guidance to Sean as to how he could support his children’s emotional needs. Together they figured out age-appropriate answers for the children’s questions and ways that Sean could reassure them that he was there to care for them and he was not going anywhere.

Sean embraced his new role wholeheartedly, working hard to learn all of these new skills.

He was able to put a routine and structure in place which not only supported his children’s practical needs but their emotional wellbeing too. He listened, he hugged, and he gave reassurance.

After a while his daughter stopped waiting on the stairs. 

Sean gave each child a weekly time slot that was just for them to spend time with him. 

This meant that each child felt special, supported, and secure.

Case study 2: Learning to play

Molly was three and a half years old when Barnardos first met her. She lived in a small house in a large estate with her mother. 

The house was cold, damp, and mouldy and Molly was often sick. But given rapidly rising rents across the country, Molly’s mam was just happy they had a roof over their heads.

File photo of a girl playing with a doll

Molly’s mam had been going through a difficult time after leaving an abusive relationship with Molly’s dad. 

She was also now the sole earner, working long hours in a low-paid job to try to make ends meet.

She loved Molly more than anything, but between work, financial worries, and her own emotional challenges, she often didn’t have the time or energy to give Molly the attention and care she needed. 

Molly had long ago stopped asking her mam to play with her as she knew she would be too tired and sad.

Molly was minded by an elderly neighbour when her mam was at work — she didn’t get much attention there either. Molly didn’t have many toys to play with.

When she first came to Barnardos she was quiet and withdrawn, she rarely made eye contact and didn’t speak. Despite the best efforts of project workers to get her to play with some of the toys in the centre, Molly wasn’t interested; it was as if she didn’t know how to play.

Molly began to attend the Barnardos pre-school service, Tús Maith. Slowly she began to learn how to play, first on her own and then gradually with other children. Molly also received support from a Barnardos project worker who taught Molly how to talk about her feelings and that it is ok to feel sad sometimes.

At the same time, Molly’s mam received parenting support from Barnardos. She also got budgeting support.

Most importantly, Molly and her mam attended a workshop with a project worker once a week where they played together, talked, and listened to each other.  

She is now an energetic and outgoing five-year-old. While there are still some challenges, Molly and her mam are much closer and Molly feels safe, secure, and happy in herself.

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