Here's a scenario: You have two children — one in their teens, the other a few years off second-level — and you’re a single parent. The obvious thing to do is to then foster two babies, including one sent straight from the hospital.
Yet it happened. Sinead (not her real name) is living in the south of the country and has been fostering for the past two and a half years, ever since a boy, then only a few months old, came into her care.
He has since been joined by his sister, and Sinead has been positively overwhelmed by the experience.
“They are like your own,” she says. “You love them more, to be honest. It’s a totally different kind of love.”
Her biological children wouldn’t be appalled at this statement, as Sinead explains that they are a little older and can look after themselves a little bit.
“You know they are going to be fine, whereas there is a vulnerability about them [her foster children].”
A few other foster carers I spoke to said the same thing to me — it’s a bigger love with their foster children.”
Today marks the start of Tusla’s first-ever foster care information campaign.
With the support of the Irish Foster Care Association (IFCA), the aim is to recruit more foster carers, and to dispel myths around foster care eligibility, with Tusla, the child and family agency, seeking a diverse range of foster carers to respond to the need for carers.
The most recently-published Tusla quarterly report, for April-June this year, shows the vital role played by foster carers around the country.
At the end of June, 6,017 children were in care, the vast majority of them (5,521) in foster placements.
Much coverage of foster care tends to focus on instances where it goes wrong, but Tusla and the IFCA have been at pains to remind everyone that the vast majority of foster placements work, on a daily basis, for years.
What prospective foster carers may not know is their level of eligibility.
Sinead says that, as a single parent, she did not think she would be able to foster, only to be proved wrong. One of the few issues she faced was the length of time it took to get the green light.
“Definitely patience and dedication,” she says when asked about the qualities needed to be a foster carer.
Before embarking on the road to becoming a carer, she spoke about it to her children, both of whom were hugely supportive.
“They love them,” Sinead says. “From day one, it was ‘my brother’ or ‘my sister’.”
She says that fostering just fell into place, but the circumstances were somewhat unusual.
The boy arrived at a few months old and at first, Sinead was to care for him for a fortnight. But when the end of that time came, Tusla asked whether she could continue and she was already head over heels, so the arrangement continued.
When the boy’s sister was born, Sinead’s biological children were leading the drive to have her come and live with them as well, with Sinead describing them as a great help.
That is not to say that there aren’t issues. For example, Sinead says she was supportive of efforts to maintain regular contact with the children’s biological mother but it “fizzled out”.
The children do see their biological grandparents once a month and Sinead has followed advice by informing both her foster children, young as they are, that they have ‘other’ parents.
“Tusla want you to tell them even now,” she says. “They are babies — they haven’t a clue.”
She introduced the idea through sentences such as “you didn’t come from my tummy” and “your mummy is not well” — “rather than hitting them with a bombshell when they are seven or eight”.
As she says of her two youngest children, laughing: “They have three sets of grandparents — they are luckier.”
Sinead has a “great” support worker and has also got to know other foster carers.
“We have a support group every month where we all meet up with a couple of social workers and get advice off people, which is a great help,” she says.
Fostering can be an onerous responsibility, so it can be easy to forget that many of the issues faced by foster parents are the same as in any other family.
“I would not treat them any different than I would treat my own,” she says, and if she were to seek an assessment for either of her foster children, she would face the same waiting times as anyone else.
Her youngest boy is attending playschool but hasn’t developed verbal skills, so Sinead says she will go for a private assessment if she needs to. She also aims to return to work once her foster children are established in school.
While she takes it is “one day at a time”, she can see both placements becoming long-term, already considering the idea that, once they have each been fostered for five years in her care, she can apply in court for enhanced rights, meaning she could take some decisions on their behalf without having to go through Tusla.
Arguably, it is part of a process to normalise fostering, with Sinead referring to foster children now being able to feature in group or class photographs, whereas previously even that was seen as out of bounds.
She knows of one foster family where a placement didn’t work out, but stresses that “it wasn’t a disaster”, with the child going back to her original family.
“Tusla get a bad rap,” she says. “You see it on newspapers and on television. A child is taken [into care] and it’s Tusla’s fault. I know from my experience that a child isn’t taken [into care] until the very last minute.
Tusla is keen to expand the roster of foster carers it can call on, with those qualities of “patience and dedication” as much in demand as ever.
Sinead’s experience has been one of unexpected joy, turning what was a difficult situation into a fresh start for two children. She has no regrets and would choose the same path again: “For myself, absolutely, I would a million times over.”