'We're a soft touch and we can't complain' - foster carers call for increased payments to cope with complexity of cases

Payments made to foster carers haven't increased since 2009, despite growing demand for foster carers and complexity of cases 
'We're a soft touch and we can't complain' - foster carers call for increased payments to cope with complexity of cases

'The issue of waiting lists for services for children is absolutely up there in the top three [issues]. Psychological supports, educational assessments, access to Camhs – that continues to be a real pressure point.'

It was called the "fiver budget", but even the extra few quid escaped one group who are often in the news but never in the spotlight: foster carers.

While core weekly welfare payments increased in Budget 2022 and other social protection measures were announced, the Child and Family Agency, was also welcoming an additional €41m in funding – money badly needed as it continues to deal with growing demand and increasingly complex case load.

Yet Budget 2022 also marked another year that has slipped past without any increase to the rate paid to foster carers. According to one foster carer who spoke with the Irish Examiner this week: "We're like the guards – we can't go on strike."

They can, however, walk away, and by Tusla's own admission, securing sufficient numbers of foster carers in recent years has been a serious challenge. According to the foster carer, "that allowance has never been index-linked, it's been exactly the same for years. It's reducing in value – and we're paying out more for other things."

The context for these comments are interventions required by the child, which can range from speech and language or other therapies up to acute mental health interventions – after all, many of the young people in foster care, and the care system in general, may have experienced trauma, aside from the very fact of their removal from their original family. 

As the carer points out, there does not appear to be consistent prioritisation for these children when they need these interventions – meaning in a scenario where a child needs to access help through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (Camhs), they can face a lengthy wait – unless they go private.

Limiting the voice of the carer

"We're a soft touch and we can't complain," the carer said, alluding to legislation in place to protect the identity of children in foster care, which they argued can also have the impact of limiting the individual voice of the carer when it comes to their own circumstances.

There were 4,054 foster carers on the panel of approved foster carers at the end of last March, 49 fewer than a year before. Cork had the most, with 495. 

However, Tusla has acknowledged in recent years the growing demand for foster carers, and chief executive Bernard Gloster admitted recently the aim of limiting the number of placements whereby a child is placed far away from their birth family, although with the increasing complexity of some cases – exacerbated by the pandemic – this can prove difficult in some instances.

For Catherine Bond, the chief executive of the Irish Foster Care Association (IFCA), it's not always the case that the foster parents – who in her words are the best advocates for the young people staying with them – are listened to.

She said a recent round of focus groups, aligned with issues raised through the IFCA's support helpline, built a picture of what is working with the current system, and what needs to improve.

Access to birth families

Ms Bond said one "predominant" issue was access to foster children's birth families during the pandemic period, and the related anxiety and stress this caused. She said: "Sometimes foster carers don't feel like they are getting supported."

Regular surveys of foster carers showed that almost unanimously, those who enter the service feel their own lives are enhanced as they help the children who come into their care. Picture: iStock
Regular surveys of foster carers showed that almost unanimously, those who enter the service feel their own lives are enhanced as they help the children who come into their care. Picture: iStock

Aftercare is another issue raised by foster families, and she said: "The issue of the foster care allowance has raised its head of late and that has been raised with the department. It is something that needs to be looked at, it is not index-linked and hasn't been changed since 2009."

She said recent changes to respite for foster carers had been warmly welcomed and acknowledged Tusla can and does provide additional supports on a case-by-case basis, but she said the prioritisation for children in State care to State services, as outlined in the national standards for foster care, was not the experience of some foster families, particularly those who feel they need urgent intervention.

"The issue of waiting lists for services for children is absolutely up there in the top three [issues]," she said. "Psychological supports, educational assessments, access to Camhs – that continues to be a real pressure point.

Foster care is very complex and children have higher needs than ever now. They need it [services] and they need it now, not in six months time or 12 months time. The waiting lists are phenomenal.

"Foster carers do not ask for supports for children unless they think they're warranted."

Regarding waiting times for Camhs, the HSE and Tusla said data for children in foster care awaiting counselling or an assessment was not available. 

Nationally, there were 2,384 children on the waiting list for community mental health services in August 2021. The HSE said that, as of the end of that month, 75.7% of referrals accepted by child and adolescent community teams nationally were offered an appointment within 12 weeks, against a target of 78% and that 94.9% of young people – new or re-referred cases – were seen within 12 months in community Camhs services in the year-to-the-end-of-August.

However, there were still 170 children waiting longer than 12 months in August although nationally, 93.7% of urgent referrals to Camhs were responded to within three working days, above the 90% target.

Fostering system under severe pressure

Green Party TD Patrick Costello, who has worked as a child protection social worker, believes the current fostering system is under severe pressure. In a string of recent parliamentary questions he has charted fluctuations in the number of new carers that have been recruited, and a slow but steady trend upwards in the use of private fostering arrangements.

Green Party TD Patrick Costello, who has worked as a child protection social worker, believes the current fostering system is under severe pressure. File picture:Gareth Chaney/Collins
Green Party TD Patrick Costello, who has worked as a child protection social worker, believes the current fostering system is under severe pressure. File picture:Gareth Chaney/Collins

As for the wait faced by young people in fostering for services, including from Camhs, his answer is simple: instead of them leapfrogging up a general list, provide the therapeutic services in-house within Tusla.

"Dublin North Central has an in-house therapeutic hub – to replicate that around the country I estimate would cost €2.5m," he said. "Currently, Tusla spends €4m on outside psychological services."

Mr Costello believes the allowance issue is one potential factor but said the two-income nature of most households, alongside pressures on social workers and a shortage of allocated fostering link workers are also in play, while also citing the Children's Ombudsman report Unmet Needs in illustrating the difficulties of accessing services.

Tusla said in addition to the allowance, children in foster care received medical cards, and that changes to the national foster care allowance rate falls outside of Tusla’s remit. It also said provision is made to fund supports privately, including educational supports, as identified by a social worker.

"There is a wide range of supports and therapies that children require, and these are supported to the greatest extent possible with specific payments over and above the foster care allowance and other allowances," a spokesperson for the Child and Family Agency said.

"Tusla and the HSE have developed structures within each Tusla area/HSE CHO, to enhance greater coordination and planning with regard to children, including children in care. HSE mental health services are part of these structures and Tusla social workers advocate frequently for children in care to access the required supports including those from HSE and from other State agencies."

Catherine Bond said regular surveys of foster carers showed that almost unanimously, those who enter the service feel their own lives are enhanced as they help the children who come into their care. 

"Foster carers are the best promoters of foster caring in the community," she said. 

It might be time to speak a little louder, or for others to listen.

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