For the past 21 years, Michael and Elma O’Neill have opened up their home and their hearts to at least 13 children in need of foster care in West Cork.
When their own children were aged 7, 9 and 11, Michael and Elma decided to foster children in need of a home. The couple went on to adopt one of the children they fostered from the age of one, when he was nine. “He was a joy to rear,” says Elma. He’s 22 now and is a really good person; he does a lot of charity work. His sister lived with us until she was 17. She has moved to Cork but is still in touch and very much a part of our family.”
“There are ups and downs to fostering but definitely more ups than downs,” says Elma smiling. “It’s very rewarding to see children reach their full potential and lead happy and fulfilling lives.”
One piece of advice these experienced foster carers would give to anyone considering fostering is to take on children who are younger than your own.
“It’s better if your own children are influencing them and not the other way around,” says Michael.
“It is a big change to any family and I don’t think we put quite enough thought into that at the time. We didn’t appreciate how much it would impact on our kids. I’d suggest waiting until your own children are in Secondary school.”
Michael and Elma’s daughter, Cathríona, is now studying to be a Social Worker. “She recently shared with us how she felt, as a child, about having foster siblings. She said the biggest drawback was sharing her parents. She also said that it taught her how to empathise with others and made her the person she is today,” says Elma proudly.
The Irish Foster Care Association (IFCA) has offered a lot of support to the couple over the years. Child-centered and rights-based, the IFCA promotes excellence in foster care for all those involved. “I’d advise anyone new foster carers to join the IFCA,” says Elma “it’s a wonderful organisation and very supportive.”
The IFCA provides information, support and learning opportunities for all those involved in Foster care.
The organisation also promotes the development of positive change for children in alternative care and influences policy, legislation and opinion through its Advocacy work.
Catherine Bond, IFCA CEO, has worked in the area of children and family for thirty years and has extensive experience and knowledge of children in care, foster care, educational disadvantage, family support and education.
Catherine says that the challenge at the moment is that “not every child has a social care worker, even though Tusla are working to mitigate that, and also that not every foster care family has a link social worker”.
“You need all the parts of the sum to ensure it’s working well,” says Catherine. Foster carers and children need to be supported and if any issues arise they need to be dealt with in a timely way to prevent escalation. For example, if a child is out of sorts or presenting with difficult behaviour in a foster home and if respite is needed, then it should be given. However, if the foster family doesn’t have a link social worker then there is nowhere to go to request that respite. It’s absolutely crucial that children have their own social workers checking on them on a regular basis.”
“We have faced challenges,” admit Michael and Elma. “One of the children we fostered had suffered early childhood trauma and had mental health issues as a result. Unfortunately it took a while to get the help he needed. He came to us when he was three-and-a-half and we were his third foster family. From the age of eight onwards he received help from CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) but it was a case of too little too late really,” says Michael sadly. “We were told at the end of six years of treatment with CAMHS that we had a complex child on our hands!
“We only heard about early childhood trauma and its effects from an Australian child psychologist speaking at one of the IFCA conferences. We’re not experts and it’s very frustrating when you can’t get the help you need, especially when it’s for a child.”
“We have a little bit of contact with him now and still worry about him. We almost feel we failed him.”
“We have to ensure that foster carers receive support when they look for it, whether for themselves or the child in the case of speech and language therapy, mental health services and so on,” says Catherine. “If children are in care it should be a matter of fact that they are prioritised for all services and if you need help, you get it today, not in six months time.”
Michael and Elma have also done a lot of respite or short-term foster care. This is when one foster care family temporarily cares for another family’s foster children.
“There are so many highpoints to fostering that you overlook the challenges,” says Elma. “When you see a child going on to college or a good job or simply being a good and happy person, that makes it all worthwhile.”
“There are over 6000 children in the care of the State and 93 per cent of those are in foster care,” says Catherine. “The majority are doing very well and there are high levels of children in foster care moving on to third level education on completing the leaving certificate.
“On reaching 18, the majority of young people are not leaving their foster care home; they’re choosing to stay with the family. It’s very indicative of their identity and place within that family.
“There aren’t enough foster carers in Ireland,” says Catherine. We definitely need to recruit more.
“A common theme we’re seeing at the moment is around the number of children placed in foster care outside of their own communities of origin. Because children are being placed large distances away from their own community and family of origin, foster carers are spending more and more time on the road bringing children to and from access. The foster carer plays a significant role in preparing the young person for access, dealing with the anxieties felt by the child and making sure everything is ok for them, before and afterwards. The long distances foster carers are having to travel is something new and emerging.”
Catherine explains that the assessment process in becoming a foster carer can take from five to 12 months. “It is quite intensive and looks at all areas, assessing how you manage situations in your own life. These children are bringing lots of their own issues with them so you do need to be prepared for that.
“The majority of calls that the IFCA deal with are from prospective foster carers looking for more information. Any new foster carer can join the IFCA.
“Our role is very much around education and support and we play a significant role in terms of advocacy for foster care in Ireland. If we see a trend arising from the National Support helpline, we raise that with Tusla and collaboratively try to address it. We also have meetings with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and other relevant bodies significant for children in foster care.”
At a stage in their lives where they’re now ready to hang up their fostering hats, Michael and Elma are looking forward to a slightly less active life and looking back with pride at the wonderful children they have cared for.
The couple love to travel and have always taken their foster children with them on holidays. “We travelled to Norway and took two of the foster children with us. I used to find little notes in their rooms saying, ‘I can’t wait for the holidays’, says Elma smiling at the memory. Perhaps there’s more travel adventures on the cards for Michael and Elma!
IFCA support workers are available on the phone and email five days a week from 11am – 3pm (01 458 5123 / email@example.com). The service is confidential, responsive, and personal. All IFCA support volunteers have completed a Certificate in Counselling and Psychotherapeutic Skills and Practice course.