Foster care is rarely in the public eye. In this article, two former foster children share their profound stories of negative experiences they encountered while in foster care.
After being placed into a foster home, Ross (24) suffered years of mental torture. After years of living with his biological father, who was violent and threatening towards him and his biological mother, Ross was eventually put into foster care by his mother. Spending years in a foster home Ross went through a lot of mental abuse as well as neglect saying he “never felt part of the family”.
Every time Ross would walk into his sitting room his foster family would stretch “an awkward silence”. He never forgot the harsh feeling of judgment in the house. His foster-sister suffered from anorexia and while she struggled with this disease, he struggled with drug abuse from age fifteen. From cocaine to horse tranquilizers, “every drug apart from heroin” was acceptable to him. Ross said “I took drugs to take my mind away from things going on in my life; it was my way out from the hell I remember.” As well as constantly abusing himself with drugs, Ross also tried to take his own life numerous times.
These addictions, suicide attempts and frustrations were all part of his normality until eventually in 2006 Ross’s life turned around. He was re-acquainted with his birth mother. Ross will never forget the day. There was so much he wanted to ask and she had so much she wanted to tell. She told Ross how much she loved him, and explained the drama in her life putting up with his father. He recalls his mother telling him that his father beat her up within an inch of her life time and time again and told her that he was going to kill her and Ross.
Ross’s mother eventually had his father arrested and found a “kind, genuine” man and married again in 2008.
Ross took the honourable role of giving her away at her wedding. He won’t ever forget the emotions of pride and honour that flooded through him when she asked him to do this privilege. After the wedding his mother came up to him and presented him with a small black photo album that inside read: “To Ross, Thank you for being you, All my love always, Mam!” Ross still struggles from the mental confusion and emotional rejection he felt from being moved from one home to another.
Rohana Reading, Assistant Director of Foster First Ireland, a non-statutory fostering agency working in partnership with the HSE has recently said: “Given the crisis in the HSE, social workers should see a child at least every 3 months, but this does not always happen”.
When I asked Rohana if therapy helps children, she couldn’t give a yes or no answer but said “Therapy is not a magic wand, but if a young person can make sense of what happened to them and understand why and how events took place then it may help.”
“Being separated from siblings in general affects children quite badly as it means that they are separated completely from their family and sometimes lose touch with their siblings. There are very rare occasions when the separation might be helpful for a child, like if an older sibling is seriously bullying a younger one.”
One man who has dealt with many of these torments is my second interviewee Francis (41).
Francis remembers how strange it felt living in The Madonna House, run by Sisters of Charity. Although he doesn’t remember much abuse taking place he remembers how quickly and heartlessly they moved him, “out of the blue”. They separated him from his brothers without even talking it over with him, or telling him about the new large family he was going to be placed with in Clondalkin. His new family consisted of 8 children, 5 of whom where his foster-mother’s own and 3 which she took in.
Francis remembers how hard and disruptive it all was for him. He went from having freedom to living in a family with strict rules and very strong religious beliefs. The foster-mother was the main ruler in the home and so he could never see eye to eye with her. At the time he “didn’t really want a new family” and found it hard to become part of a new one, he also hated school; he remembers not being able to stand any kind of authority in his youth.
In his teenage years he recalls asking his foster-mother if she was ever given any money to buy him things and take care of him, and she said “No”, but under the Freedom of Information Act, years later, Francis asked for all his records from the Madonna house and in it he found many receipts for money, given to his foster-mother to take care of him through the years.
Francis claims that he and his brother where mentally abused by the remarks his foster-mother would say about their birth mother. She would talk about how their real mother had a psychiatric illness and remembers her saying “God she can’t even speak anymore!” after a visit with her. According to Francis she even had his brother convinced that their natural mother didn’t want to see them.
Within foster care, Francis wishes “they’d have gone about it differently” and kept the three of them together. Within the last ten years the three of them are now close together again and Francis is overjoyed that they all “came through the storm ok”.
Francis now works as a social worker and has worked as project manager for the Salvation Army house. The Salvation Army demonstrates Christian principles through practical support, offering friendship and help to people of all ages, backgrounds and needs. After working for them he thinks that social workers should be trained to ask more questions to children and be consistent in their visits.
In social work he still sees a majority of kids that run away because of abuse and a lack of research into serious issues within the care system. He supports the upcoming referendum for children’s rights in Ireland and feels that “Kids should be allowed to speak up more.”
He remembers his social worker would always question him in front of his foster mother which put him into an awkward situation, so he’d hold back on the truth about her. “What worries me is that within the social work and projects I’ve done throughout the years, I still see terrible neglect and every few weeks I would hear of a kid dying from suicide or drug abuse”.
He still thinks that the vetting system is extremely weak and that some social workers aren’t trained or doing their jobs properly. “From my experience, social workers are very important in terms of whether you get a good or bad one.”
Fergus Finlay, CEO of Barnardos, a charity for neglected children and former chief of staff of the Labour Party, has been a long-term advocate of the need for a referendum on children’s rights in this country.
News on positive progress on this front came on February 17th when Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Children’s and Youth Affairs, announced that “a children’s rights referendum will be held this year and will stand-alone to ensure people clearly understand what it is about.” This referendum will enshrine children’s rights into the Constitution.
Speaking at this announcement, the Minister stated neglect to be ”one of the quickest growing areas for referral to a social worker”. She added, however, that people were often reluctant to report a neglect case to the HSE because they felt they were “interfering with the family”. Minister Fitzgerald also said that she hopes to publish the report on the deaths of children while in State care “as soon as possible”.
Statistically there are just over 6,000 foster children in Ireland today.