Above Left: Mairie Cregan. Right: The consequences of institutional rearing; “So many of the children had ‘cot legs’.
Skibbereen woman Mairie Cregan, 57, is President of the Aurelia Trust, an Irish organisation that works with vulnerable and disabled people in Romania. She is also Chairperson of Féileacáin, the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Association of Ireland. Alongside this, she is an Adoption Social Worker and part-time lecturer in UCC on The Master of Social Work (MSW) course. Marie is the mother of seven birth children, one adopted, and has been fostering children, some long-term, since she was in her early 20s.
As we enter into the second week of Fostering Fortnight, the Irish Foster Care Association’s annual campaign to raise awareness and understanding of foster care in Ireland, Mairie talks to Mary O’Brien and gives us an insight into how important foster care is, not just in Ireland, but in Romania, where abandoned children and young adults grew up in the orphanage system during the Ceaușescu regime. As a result of the trauma that they endured, they have acquired severe mental and physical disabilities and many shut down all but their most basic survival instincts.
Through sharing her own experience, Mairie also helps us comprehend the level of loss and grief suffered by anyone affected by the death of a baby during pregnancy or shortly after. Féileacáin offers support to bereaved parents and families who have suffered such a loss.
“My mother fostered and I suppose I knew too much as a child really,” says Mairie. “When the Ryan Report came out it was no surprise, as my foster sisters and brothers had already told us so many stories. It had a huge impact on me.”
Mairie met her husband David in Skibbereen and they married young; Mairie was only 20. She had her first child, Rory when she was 21 and started fostering a year later. “We fostered for years. I think I just slipped into it really. One thing I knew about growing up was loss. My foster siblings yearned for their other siblings and they were sadly kept apart.”
As a result of this experience, Mairie supported her foster children in keeping in touch with their own siblings.
“One simple and cost-effective project we did was to hire the pool in Dunmanway on Friday nights. It cost us about £60 and all the foster families around West Cork came. There were no social workers, which meant it was informal with no pressure; the kids could be themselves and meet their siblings who were in other foster homes, in a very gentle and normal way. We used to have great craic.”
In 1989, when Mairie was 28, she was asked to go to Romania by a group under the umbrella of UNICEF, to help set up a foster care programme there.
This was the year the Romanian Revolution, a period of violent civil unrest, kicked off, ultimately culminating in the show trial and execution of longtime Communist Party General Secretary Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena. It marked the end of 42 years of Communist rule in Romania.
“It took us 10 years to get a foster care programme up and running,” says Mairie. “The trauma of the children who were institutionalised was too great for any family to take on.”
In the Negru Vodă institution, where Mairie was sent, out of 404 children, 104 died in the winter of 88-89. “It was minus 30 and there was no glass in the windows,” recalls Mairie. The children were aged between three and 18 and the positioning of beds in the ward dictated who would live or die.
“Looking back now, the deprivation was so bad, it feels like I dreamed half of it.”
In the Ungureni institution, located in the mountains of Romania, Mairie witnessed more shocking scenes. “The smell of ammonia was so bad that one of the girls travelling with me started getting nosebleeds,” she remembers. “So many of the children had ‘cot legs’ and suppurating sores, others rocked all day long. The minute they got food, they’d all fall on it.
“I felt so overwhelmed after coming home that first time,” she says. “I remember thinking what can one girl from West Cork do.” However, with the encouragement and support of her family, Mairie decided to go back to Romania, concentrating on one child and one family at a time.
In 1995, disillusioned with the charities she was working with, Mairie, with the help of a Romanian woman Carmen Secareanu, set up the Aurelia Trust.
The main focus of the organisation is to improve the lives of children and young people in state institutions by offering alternative forms of care, such as fostering, adoption and the creation of group homes and by upgrading the institutions in which they live.
In 2006, the campaign to close the infamous Negru Vodă institution in Romania was successful. The children moved to a new centre in Techirghiol, a huge improvement, although it still lacks basic facilities.
“We started the campaign for the new centre before Romania entered the EU,” says Mairie. “We threatened to take full page adverts in newspapers with the photos we had taken in the institutions if the Romanian government didn’t co-operate and help us with it.”
In the meantime, Mairie had also gone back to college in 1998 and become a social worker. “Nobody would listen to me in Romania without a degree, so I went away and got a few of them,” she says.
Aside from all the remarkable work she was doing in Romania, by the time she was 33, Mairie was the mother of six birth children and three long-term foster children.
“Our mother died when we were young so my sister Janette lived with me,” says Mairie. “Her presence made fostering easy, as the children had two mothers.” Janette, who lived with a chronic illness, sadly passed away ten years ago.
“She underwent two kidney transplants and dialysis and she fought and fought right until the end,” says Mairie. “Because of the way she died, I’m now one of 18 Patient Safety Champions in Ireland.”
Ireland’s Patient Safety Champions are a voice for patients in our Health Care service.
In 2006, the same year the Aurelia Trust opened the new centre in Techirghiol, Mairie, age 45, unexpectedly became pregnant. Her baby, Liliana tragically died the day before she was due to be born, on January 6, 2006.
With little support at the time offered for this type of loss, Mairie and some other bereaved parents set up a support group, Féileacáin (Stillbirth and Neonatal Death Association of Ireland – SANDAI). Every bereaved parent in Ireland is now offered one of Féileacáin’s ‘Remembering..’ Memory Boxes, a cuddle cot so they can take their baby home, as well as free counselling and support.
“Losing a mother at a young age and losing a sister was nothing compared to bringing a baby into the world who’d already left it,” says Mairie quietly. “And also trying to make sense of the phantom child who grows up.” When Mairie now thinks of Liliana, she is the 12-year-old girl she would be today.
“It’s very hard to describe the loss to someone who hasn’t gone through it. My heart was broken…I was shattered when we put that little white coffin into the ground.”
“At the same time, you’re trying to support your other children, so you have to put on a mask and pretend you’re ok.”
The reality of the situation Mairie explains is that “putting your two feet on the ground every morning is difficult”.
“I had to fight the bitterness. I had done everything I could for other children so couldn’t understand why my own was taken away.
“At the time, you can only get through the next hour, the next day, the next week. It took me a long time but now when I think of her, it’s not with sadness, but with a smile. She’s with me all the time and I find her presence very comforting. But that didn’t happen easily.”
Mairie says that acknowledgement of the loss by others is so important in the grieving process.
“It’s a loss that’s deeply misunderstood. There’s a belief that if you have other children, that will make it ok,” she explains. “When my sister died, no one told me I was lucky I had another one, or when my mother died, no one said to me at least your father didn’t die too. When a baby dies, he or she is not replaceable by another baby.”
“Grief is transformative but ‘a wound that goes unacknowledged and unwept is a wound that cannot heal’.
“We shouldn’t shy away from people’s pain.”
“Once I started accepting that I was never going to be the same, then I started getting better. January, the month Liliana died in, is now a time of reflection and slowing down for me.”
Mairie still travels to Romania three times a year but she says that she’s ready to let the younger generation take over. Her children and extended family are all very involved with the Aurelia Trust and Féileacáin.
“I do feel I’ve made a difference and now I’m seeking simplicity, a slower pace of life. I’m trying to cut down on my work hours and have taken up knitting again!”
On the next breath, she says that there is still a lot of work to be done in Féileacáin and that she’s also in the process of a longterm PhD on foster care to adoption
“My husband David told one of my friends recently that since meeting me he’s never been bored,” she says laughing.