I was a kid who wasn’t much fazed by the idea of a promiscuous rock-star from outer space. By thirteen I’d already seen and heard quite a lot. It was a very strange time in my life and anything at all seemed plausible. I remember standing in line that December with my younger foster siblings, puce-faced and on my period, waiting for Santa. I was shuffled in the way of an elf who gave me a rectangle wrapped in silver paper. This is how I came into possession of my first ever CD – Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and that I tried to play my first CD on the record player says something about the kind of world I grew up in.
When you’re a kid, you don’t know what you know. You mainly know what you don’t know. When you’re a kid in care you don’t know quite a lot. You don’t know why whatever happened to you happened in the first place. You don’t know who the people are who’ve come to your rescue. You don’t know what planet you’ve been landed on. You are, basically, an alien. I, however, was an earthling, which is to say that I grew up in my birth family alongside kids in care. I was the temporary thing the state provides when the ‘real’ one breaks down, making me – by default – a fiction of sorts. I was, variously, the oldest kid, the middle one and ‘the youngest of the teens’. In just a few short years, I accumulated thirty siblings.
When we talk about kids or adults of the Irish care system, we’re usually talking about the experiences of the 6000 children who have been separated from their original families. We might also be talking about an estimated 20,000 care-leavers in Ireland today. What we’re generally not talking about however are all the other people whose lives are fundamentally intertwined with the Irish care system. What we barely talk about at all is what happens when foster carers and their families are not supported and how in failing to protect them we’re yet again – for a second time – failing our most vulnerable children.
Most worrying is the withering silence that exists around the work that foster carers actually do. In the current TUSLA fostering recruitment campaign for example, you really must dig quite deep to find the word ‘trauma’. You could easily miss the fact that every child who enters the system has trauma (not least that of familial separation) or that every child has uniquely complex needs. Or that every child requires what Art Therapist Marianne Adams refers to in her work as “psychological containment”. Consider this for a moment: a child in care needs the space to learn to trust again and deserves the right to test the security of their new environment by rattling the relationships around them. Unless a foster family is properly equipped with ongoing training, mental health supports and supervision, to withstand these tests, the effects can be disastrous. Unless families can cope with trauma, they should not be fostering. Yet, we continue to act like risks in fostering do not exist. In The Impact of Fostering on Birth Children and Their Involvement in the Fostering Process: Invisible, Vulnerable or Valued (2013), Duffy explores the many impacts of fostering on a family. Some of these include loss, grief, confusion, separation-anxiety, learned behavioral patterns, conflict and estrangement. In a care system that often relies on families to navigate trauma without professional help, Duffy describes the carer’s children as the “unsung foot-soldiers”.
I don’t for a second regret growing up with children in care. In that world I learned resilience, empathy, responsibility. In that world I formed my most meaningful relationships with truly exceptional people. But what I do regret is they way in which the current system exploits families, forcing adults and children into unsupported roles. I grew up playing therapist, social worker, incest and rape counsellor. I grew up struggling with what to do with important (often harrowing) disclosures. As a child I lay awake at night wondering how and where to draw the line between confidentiality and secrecy; trust and collusion. As a teenager I stopped eating one summer until I could run my fingers over my poked-out ribs. As an adult I still today live with the old anxiety that those around me will at any moment leave. In the era before social networking, I lived in a family where people packed their bags and disappeared, over and over again. You can’t live with a child of trauma and not be changed by the experience.
Crucial to understanding the problems of fostering is understanding that we have a culture of removing children, instead of problems, from families. Our long-standing nasty habit of protecting abusers, allowing social problems like addiction to fester, and failing to help at-risk parents, means that birth families are neither supported to stay together or to later reunite. Family reunion is the great white unicorn of the Irish care system that floats on overhead, as the kids who dream of it get shuffled from placement to placement until they “age-out” of the system – too often into cycles of poverty, homelessness and poor mental health. All this sets the tone for an intervention that should – as so perfectly surmised by Care Leavers’ Network – be in most cases “brief and rare”.
Over recent years Ireland has managed to reform the state adoption system by putting in place ethical standards and procedures. Next up needs to be fostering. We need a frank dialogue about trauma and the needs of trauma-carers. We need better mental health and therapy supports for children and carers. We need closer monitoring of individual fostering placements; fewer placements at any one time within families; spaces between placements. We need a better emphasis on building relationships between carers and birth families. We need more social workers, more foster-families, more specialised training for those working with survivors of rape, children with disability, challenging behaviours. We need independent child advocates. Also, this new approach to welfare needs to cover child and family into the care-leaving years.
Foster carers are one of our most valuable assets. In a country that has repeatedly failed children, they provide evidence of a desire to try and put things right. But unless proper safety-guards and supports are in place, fostering can also go very wrong. And when fostering goes wrong no amount of apology can make up for a child’s placement breakdown (or several). No remorse can cover the cost of long-term family burn-out. No legal inquiry or reports will negate the shame of a country that continues, time and time again, to leave children and families vulnerable. Children in the Irish care system today are what I have come to think of as ‘black hole jumpers’ – those who according to Ziggy “spend their whole life catapulted from one universe to another”. When recently I listened back again to my first CD, I thought of my thirteen year-old self in my bedroom with a scratched disc in my hand. I was an earthling, but I too was being catapulted into the unknown.
Annemarie Ni Churreain is a writer and poet from Donegal.