Family were left to sink or swim in difficult fostering case

They offered their love and support for a troubled child in their care for more than 10 years, but the Jones family were treated badly by the State agencies overseeing the fostering process, writes Michael Clifford.

Family were left to sink or swim in difficult fostering case

THE contents of the email hit Rosaleen Jones like a missile. Her foster child, whom she had nurtured since he was a little boy, had claimed he had accessed gay pornography with her on more than one occasion.

“I had a conversation with Sean [not his real name] recently where he shared some experience whilst in your home,” a social worker wrote to her in January 2013.

“Sean alleged that he watched gay pornography with your knowledge on more than one occasion while he lived in your home. We would like to discuss this with you and are inviting you to meet with us.”

Rosaleen was torn between anger and despair. For more than 10 years, she and her husband Martin had fostered a child with a number of behavioural difficulties. They had, along with their own biological son, formed a close bond with the boy, who was now approaching his late teens.

To be told by Tusla that they had effectively facilitated access to pornography for this member of their family, as they saw it, shook Martin and Rosaleen to their core.

There had been an incident with gay pornography with Sean. It had occurred in a hotel during a family break.

On discovering the incident, Rosaleen immediately contacted Tusla to alert the child and family agency about this development. She had acted entirely correctly and, as always, in Sean’s best interests.

Yet now the inference was that she had not reported the incident, and worse, that she had facilitated the viewing of pornography in her own home.

A meeting was arranged with the social workers and the matter was ironed out. But Rosaleen and Martin came away feeling even more disaffected with the health services than they already were.

Was it necessary to contact Rosaleen with a formal letter as if she was a possible predator or person of ill repute?

Is this how they engaged with people who had invested huge emotion and stress in raising a child who required help?

Was this how they were to be treated for offering love and shelter to somebody who was among the most vulnerable in the State?

It wasn’t the first time the Joneses had asked these questions, and, unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last.

The Jones family believe their experience at the hands of the health services raises fundamental questions on how foster parents are sometimes treated.

In 2001, Martin and Rosaleen Jones moved out of Dublin to the Midlands. They have one son, Matthew, who was six at the time, and they were interested in long-term fostering. They applied, went through a rigorous process, and were told that a boy was in need of fostering.

Sean was just three when he came to live with them. He had some serious developmental issues, but Rosaleen is a nurse by training, and they were confident they could give the boy a loving home.

It wasn’t easy. Sean’s difficulties included issues around speech, balancing, co-ordinating, and toileting. Rosaleen believed that he had either autism or Asperger’s syndrome, and would benefit from a diagnosis.

“Each time I mentioned this to the social workers, I was informed that a ‘label’ could have a negative effect,” she says.

“I looked at it totally differently, in that it would help with his interaction with other children and adults who would have a better idea of why he acted or said things he did. Like in public he had outbursts and some very challenging behaviour.”

Two years after Sean came to their home, Rosaleen requested some respite. She, Martin, and Matthew were invited to a friend’s home in Italy for a holiday. Under the circumstances she didn’t think Sean would manage the trip.

“When I mentioned about the respite, I was told that fostering was about inclusion, not exclusion,” she says.

“That statement sums up the manner in which we were treated by some professionals down through the years.”

In subsequent holidays, Sean always went as one of the family.

In August 2007, Rosaleen became ill with anaemia, a condition that attacks red blood cells. She believes it was, at least in part, brought on by the stress associated with Sean’s challenging behaviour.

By then, Sean was part of the family, but there was a growing need for some respite. She requested long-term respite and this was facilitated promptly. It wasn’t her intention that Sean would be removed indefinitely, but, as it was to turn out, he was gone for more than a year.

By the following spring, Rosaleen had largely recovered. Sean was visiting the family on weekends, and, according to the Joneses, constantly asked to come home.

“I told him I would make sure he did as I was now well,” Rosaleen says. While he was away, he made his First Holy Communion in a neighbouring parish, but the Joneses were told they could not attend in case Sean’s behaviour became difficult.

“We were told we could watch him from across the road,” Rosaleen says. “And we were allowed to collect him directly after it. This was to take him for the weekend because the foster carer went away every weekend. To say that we were hurt would be an understatement.”

Martin and Rosaleen Jones with some of the correspondence they received from the HSE in regard to their fostering of a child.
Martin and Rosaleen Jones with some of the correspondence they received from the HSE in regard to their fostering of a child.

A social worker from outside the area was assigned to investigate the case the Joneses were making to have Sean returned home. This person found the family had not been treated properly and, in November, Sean was returned to the only home he had known.

Rosaleen took a two-year leave of absence from her job to devote more time to Sean readjusting to being back home.

“That Christmas was enjoyable,” she says. “But nothing could have prepared us for what occurred at the end of January 2009, and is still ongoing up to the present day.”

Sean, who was 10 at the time, often visited nearby children in their homes. One afternoon that January, he returned home as usual, but was soon followed by one of the parents from the house in which he’d been playing.

The parent related that Sean had displayed “physical inappropriate behaviour” towards two of the children. The news was devastating on a number of levels.

Rosaleen attempted to contact social services but there was nobody available, as it was the weekend. She managed to contact the head of an advocacy group who came out to their home and offered support.

The following week an investigation was initiated. Martin and Rosaleen believed — and it was subsequently confirmed — that Sean had been involved in an incident of a sexual nature in a residential setting he’d spent time in while he was absent from the Joneses.

They weren’t told that at the time. This represented a failure to inform the couple of crucial information regarding the boy’s welfare.

The following years were laden with stress.

“Sean had to be monitored 24/7,” Rosaleen says. “It became a nightmare, our home, which was once our sanctuary, had become a prison.”

In the summer of 2009, the Joneses left the family home and moved into rented accommodation in a nearby town.

They felt they had no option but to give up the idyllic home they had left Dublin to establish. There was no acknowledgement from the HSE that this move was directly related to their role as foster parents.

Around the same time, a child psychiatrist diagnosed Sean with ADHD. This was at least six years after Rosaleen had first mooted the idea of a diagnosis.

The next three years were difficult, with Sean displaying further challenging, and in some instances, sexualised behaviour. Martin and Rosaleen have no complaints about his school, where they say huge efforts were made to address Sean’s issues.

However, both claim to have detected in the social services an attitude that saw the Joneses as much a problem as a solution to Sean’s issues.

This is against the background where both the Joneses continued to regard Sean as family, and he, by all accounts, reciprocated the feelings.

Sean’s birth father, with whom he has continued to have contact, has also fully supported the Joneses, as he believes their involvement to be hugely positive for Sean.

The family wrote a number of times to the HSE about the challenges and their perception of a lack of support.

Martin and Rosaleen Jones with their biological son, Matthew, in the home they rent in Co Westmeath since issues with their foster child prompted them to move.
Martin and Rosaleen Jones with their biological son, Matthew, in the home they rent in Co Westmeath since issues with their foster child prompted them to move.

In a letter in 2011, one HSE manager responded saying: “I am disappointed that you feel disrespected by the HSE. It is not the intention of staff to convey this in any form.

“We acknowledge your commitment to Sean and your strong bond with him. I recognise that, as a family, you have had significant challenges over the last few years and caring for Sean is considerably demanding.”

The challenging behaviour continued and the Jones continued to feel that they were being treated shabbily by the health services. In 2012, they were told that a new plan was now in place for Sean. He would be placed in residential care.

It was on a weekend break just before he moved out that the incident occurred in a hotel with the pornography.

The parting was not easy.

“The manager of the house [residential centre] he was moving to went to the school to ask about Sean and his needs but nobody came to us to ask about him even though he’d been here for 10 years. It was devastating the way they drove in and took him.”

Sean moved to a residential unit in Dublin in September 2012. At first, the Joneses had great difficulty in being allowed to visit.

Relations with the child and family services did not improve. The letter received in January 2013, suggesting that Rosaleen had facilitated Sean’s use of pornography was a low point.

“Apart from how it cast us as foster parents who had a love for Sean, there was my livelihood,” Rosaleen says. “I work as a nurse, I need garda clearance and then I am effectively accused of that.”

The meeting with social workers cleared up the confusion, but there was no written apology, nor any acknowledgement that the Joneses had reported the incident in question in a prompt manner.

Instead, the follow-up letter from Tusla merely set out what had occurred at the meeting.

“You acknowledged during the meeting that this incident did occur and you very clearly stated that this is the only incident of this type to your knowledge and we accept that you gave no consent to Sean to access the site,” the letter read.

Two months later, on St Patrick’s weekend 2013, they visited Sean for only the second time since he’d left their home the previous September. The Joneses felt that their access was being curtailed.

In a letter to them a few days later, it was suggested: “I understand that you had a scheduled visit with Sean for 16th March… I understand that you cancelled this visit.”

This was entirely inaccurate. The meeting had taken place and gone well. Obviously, somewhere along the line, somebody had got communication mixed up.

Once more, the Jones were devastated to be cast as people who did not have Sean’s best interests at heart.

Inevitably, the matter ended up in the children’s court. The outcome was that the Joneses’ access to Sean was greatly improved. The family continues to have a close relationship with the child they first brought into their home at three years of age.

One result of the fall-out from the conflict between the Joneses and the HSE bodies was the commissioning of a report by Tusla in 2015 on Sean’s care. This was undertaken by an external agency, the Child And Family Institute.

Among the report’s observations were the difficulties that the Joneses had experienced.

“Mr and Mrs Jones acknowledged that they have had a difficult relationship, at times, with the HSE/CFA [child and family agency] and this has led to misunderstandings and conflict, which at some points have ended up in court.

“It also led to a break in their access to Sean. This has only recently been renewed. Mrs Jones emphasised that they did not wish that Sean permanently leave their home, they were only looking for help from the HSE and said that if they’d had the ‘proper help’ it wouldn’t have been necessary to have Sean placed in residential care.”

The report also noted the situation in which the Joneses found themselves.

“While all the professionals interviewed by the writer view Mr and Mrs Jones as being important, not just to Sean presently, but to his future, he was struck by their ambiguous status, as they are neither birth parents nor official foster carers, yet for Sean they are his ‘family’,” read the report.

“The writer is of the view that any remaining ambiguity concerning their status should be dissipated by making them officially ‘family’.

“At present the Jones are in a type of ‘no-man’s land’ which does not facilitate good communication or collaboration.

“It is [the writer’s] view upgrading their status officially, granting them ‘family’ status, could improve their sense of inclusion and partnership.”

However, despite the recommendation, no moves were made to ensure that the Joneses be reinstated as official foster parents.

Last August, Sean turned 18. He is currently studying at a third-level institute and doing well by all accounts. The Jones are in constant contact with him.

During the summer, they attended as a family a concert by Aslan in the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin, and earlier, one by Nathan Carter. On these outings, they have the appearance of a family with two grown sons.

The experience, however, has left a bitter taste with Rosaleen and Martin Jones. They brought a little boy into their home, made him one of the family, but, as far as they were concerned, they were largely left to sink or swim thereafter, with no proper help or support from official bodies.

They have paid a high emotional price over the years, and they also lost their home, with very little support forthcoming.

“We wouldn’t like anybody else to go through what we had to,” Martin Jones says. “There appears to be no safety net when things go wrong and if there is one it certainly wasn’t supplied to us.”

Foster parents need safety of regular complaints protocol

Fostering has long been the preferred choice of care for children who are placed in the care of the State. The option allows for children to be cared for in a family environment with a family that is deemed suitable for the purpose.

By February of this year, there were 6,309 children in care, of which 5,822 were placed in foster care. Those who want to provide foster care can do so for the short-term, which is under six months at a time, or long-term which, as with the Joneses, can stretch into years if all concerned are happy with the arrangement.

Rosaleen and Martin Jones sought some support over the years for what they believed was their unfair treatment at the hands of the health service agencies. Their principal port of call was the Irish Foster Carers Association (IFCA).

The IFCA is a nationwide support group for foster carers which was set up in 1981 by carers and social workers. It provides a number of services for foster carers, including advice and a helpline.

At the beginning of this year, there were 4,537 foster carers on Tusla foster carer panels. To qualify as a carer, applicants must go through a rigorous process of vetting for suitability.

The Joneses were disappointed with the support they received from the IFCA. Rosaleen said they believed the association were willing to assist only up to a point, in case the case might discommode the HSE, from which the association gets funding.

In fact, the IFCA receives three strands of funding: from Tusla, the community group An Pobail, and membership fees.

Catherine Bond, chief executive of the IFCA, says she cannot comment on an individual case and would not even be familiar with cases that might have been dealt with prior to taking up her role in recent years.

However, she makes a general point that the association sees itself exclusively as an advocate for the children in question and the foster carers.

“We work in a constructive and proactive way,” she says. “But that does not mean we are in anybody’s pocket. We have to maintain the role of being critical friends [to State bodies].

“Everybody is working in the best interests of children in these relationships and we have to make sure that we are all striving for that.”

One recent development for which the IFCA advocated is the implementation of a policy which ensures a uniform approach to problems and complaints right across the state.

In the Joneses case, for instance, Rosaleen was under the impression that some of their problems could be attributed to the approach taken by some local elements within the child protection services, yet when social workers outside their area intervened the result was somewhat different. Under the new policy, all areas will be governed by the same procedures.

In a submission to the Oireachtas Committee on Children earlier this year, the IFCA laid out the importance of support for foster carers.

“It is critical that foster carers receive timely supports by social workers and other professionals when they seek support,” the submission stated.

“They know the child, they are aware when behaviours chance and when a timely intervention such as a time away during the day, or a short respite will alleviate the tension in placement. Foster carers must have access to on-going support, information and training and IFCA plays a central role this.”

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