Opinion: a high quality of service is essential for the wellbeing of foster children, but the Irish system is failing children in a number of ways

For one reason or another, some children cannot be cared for by their birth parents. The state intervenes and these children will be placed outside of their own family for their care and upbringing, either by voluntary agreement of the parents or by a court order. This involves the children entering the world of the Irish foster care system, made up of multiple agencies and persons including the gardaí, Tusla, social workers, the courts, foster parents, medical practitioners and on and on.

How is the Irish system dealing with these vulnerable children? Is it answering their particular needs? It is only by thoroughly examining who foster children are that it can be ascertained whether the foster care system is working for them. Foster children have been called "children on the edge" and have been described as "on the edge of  society, on the edge of their families, on the edge of the care system and often on the edge of their lives."

A high quality of service is essential for the wellbeing of foster children. In a lot of ways the Irish system is failing children by virtue of lack of consistency in service provision, lack of transparencyfailure to meet the necessary standards of care and gaps in adequate responsibility for foster children resulting sometimes in deaths in care. Systematic protection for foster children must exist to ensure there is not a continuation of abuse and neglect against them. 

From RTÉ DocArchive, a 1982 Documentary On One looking at fostering in Ireland

The lives of these children are unique and it is only by looking at their circumstances, needs and extensive vulnerabilities that it can be seen what is required of the foster care system. There is a risk of labelling children who are in the care of the state as being "vulnerable", but it is irrefutable that a child in the care of the state is there for some reason or another. The home situation will have reached the point where it is necessary to separate the children from their parents. Children entering this system bring with them their own particular history, with experiences of parental alcohol or drug abuse, violence, cognitive impairment, mental illness and sometimes an inability to parent

Often, the birth families will grapple with poverty and many other problems. While poverty alone will not be a direct reason for a child entering the foster care system, there is a high chance that poverty will be a part of a foster child’s background. Often "poverty can affect every aspect of a child’s life, having short and long term consequences on their health, education outcomes and life chances". It has been said that the socio-economic factors forcing children into the care of the State "perhaps unnecessarily" may then work "against them returning successfully to their families".

Hand in hand with poverty come many other negative experiences to be addressed, such as "life on the margins, [being] excluded from opportunities and often [being] unable to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty". Special needs, mental health issues and social exclusion also arise for foster children and require addressing. Children therefore may bring their own behavioural and emotional problems with them when entering the foster care system. 

From RTÉ News in 2013, a report on the HIQA review which found foster children at risk

The Child Care Law Reporting Project found that the parent (normally the mother) was parenting alone in over 70 percent of court proceedings in cases of child protection. In a further 10 percent of cases, both parents were dead or missing. There may have been previous involvement of the state for these families, through support services or intergenerational involvement with the foster care system. Involvement with the foster care system can be cyclical with foster care children’s parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles previously having been foster children themselves. Dysfunctional and defective parenting is passed down through the generations.

The Child Care Law Reporting Project found that the parent (normally the mother) was parenting alone in over 70 percent of court proceedings in cases of child protection. In a further 10 percent of cases, both parents were dead or missing. There may have been previous involvement of the state for these families, through support services or intergenerational involvement with the foster care system. Involvement with the foster care system can be cyclical with foster care children’s parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles previously having been foster children themselves. Dysfunctional and defective parenting is passed down through the generations.

The successes in Ireland of giving children a second chance at childhood together with long-term fostering and adoption attest to the strengths of the system. The failures arising from the gaps in the system - such as non-compliance with law and policy, placement breakdown, missing children and deaths in care - highlight how the system is not working for the children and for society.

From RTÉ Radio One's Livelive in 2014, listeners tell personal stories of how fostering and adoption impacts on children

The rights of children in Ireland are enshrined in our highest domestic law since the 2012 Children’s Referendum when Article 42A was inserted into the Irish constitution.  The law acknowledges and protects the best interests of Irish foster children and the system must be guided by this in making decisions for this vulnerable group. 

Foster children come to the system with needs over and above the basic necessities of being fed and clothed. The intimate facts and experiences of each child must be examined and dissected in order to establish what must be provided by the system to each individual child. Then each child becomes more than just one of the 6,189 recorded children who are placed in Irish foster care. It is time for us to decide to focus on bringing these children back to the centre - to the centre of Irish society, to the centre of their families, to the epicentre of the care system; safely and happily in the centre of their own childhoods.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ