When I unexpectedly had the opportunity to become a temporary foster parent, I was shocked to see the inner workings of a system in real trouble. While the number of foster families is declining, the number of children requiring alternative care has increased. Social workers are overwhelmed and underpaid. Just like foster parents.
The most recently released figures from Tusla showed that in 2020 there were almost 6,000 children in care; 5,445 of them are in foster families and 525 in homes. Each of these children deserves a loving home with people who care and care for them.
There is a serious shortage of foster families in Dublin and the surrounding boroughs. Foster care is so poorly supported and funded that it is not financially or emotionally viable for people to play this critical role that transforms and saves lives. In the city of Dublin, a simple practical fact is that many people do not have the home size required to be successfully assessed for foster care.
Caring requires a full-time commitment, which usually comes from women, but many women cannot afford it due to a lack of support and financial resources.
That means children taken into care from these counties are placed in dormitories or have to move far from their siblings, schools, friends and communities. This adds more emotional upheaval and anguish to the trauma they have already experienced. And by the way, Tusla doesn’t even provide them with a suitcase or box to put their little clothes in if they have any.
It is important to remember that these are real children, many of whom had lives, friends, people they care about and who care for them before their world was turned upside down through no fault of their own. These children should be with caring, loving, and supportive foster families who are well supported and within reach of their former friends and communities. Not in dormitories or scattered far across the country.
A practical reality of this situation is that social workers spend hours driving from one sibling to another and back again to give them time for one another. With too many families in their care, social workers cannot do this every week or even every month, leaving children without the comfort and support they were used to. This harms their mental health.
Foster parenting is extremely rewarding; it also takes up the time, skills and financial resources of foster parents. Many foster parents have real and desperate concerns about the lack of services, support and resources they can access for their foster child(ren) and struggle to obtain and ultimately have to find those resources and support elsewhere.
This battle is often fought with frustrated social workers whose hands are tied by managers whose budgets are a priority and claim there is no money. But is it really the case that the money is not there? No, it’s not – the money goes somewhere else.
In 2019, Tusla’s most recent public finance report, private nursing home owners received €63 million for caring for just 194 regular children. That is €324,740 per year and child. Each year. Compare that to funding for foster families – €139 million for nearly 6,000 children. That is €23,495 per year and child.
This is to pay for a social worker, a care worker, a child in foster care and any resources they may need. Nursing homes operated by Tusla received €36 million for caring for just 103 children. Nursing homes take care of 6 percent of the children and receive almost half of the available funds for this. No wonder the system is broken.
Inpatient care is the fallback when nothing else is available. They are not a home and cannot adequately meet the needs of the children. Tragedies happen every day in dormitories. There are horrifying stories of children being neglected, abused, missing, living behind closed doors, isolated, friendless, in fear for their lives and cared for by people on rotating shifts. There are even a number of children who live alone in large houses.
Inpatient care websites boast of individualized care plans, integrated therapy, music therapy, and trauma-trained staff. Although there can be numerous diagnoses of mental health issues in children in their care, there is concern that these diagnoses are not fully addressed.
The charity Empowering People in Care, in its recent Pre-Budget Submission (2023), expresses concern that “evidence from other jurisdictions has documented significant gaps in oversight, standards and child protection practices in privately operated services”.
A look at the financial reports published by these private nursing home companies makes it clearer where the government funding is going. It seems there is a fortune to be made in this business.
Tusla is crying out for social workers and foster parents. Adequate pay, funding, access to resources, and support would quickly resolve this problem, and rather than an approach of stingy contempt, it would be a show of appreciation for the children in their care and those who care for the children.
A reallocation of funds is urgently needed; from the bank accounts of nursing home operators to the children; support families before their children are taken into care; to the foster parents; and to social workers, resources and supports.
As one foster parent put it, “Imagine there was a gift from Tusla on her birthday, a little appreciation, or a bonus for Christmas celebrations. Imagine if we could afford an occasional babysitter and the therapy they refuse her. Imagine if we could afford to take them on vacation this summer. There are so many things that would easily change this child’s life.”
dr Sarah Sinnamon is a psychologist and lecturer at UCD
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/our-foster-care-system-is-failing-as-funding-and-support-dries-up-41925781.html Our care system is failing as funding and support dries up