I look forward to the Minister being as positive in response to my query as she was to the previous one.
I thank her for taking time out of a long and busy day to be here so late to deal with this issue. I will start by introducing her to a woman I know. Her name is Kirsty. She has been a foster parent for more than 13 years. She, and her then partner, started fostering, and they were a regular family, with employment and a home. As with many people, however, life intervened and Kirsty is now a single parent. In those 13 years, she has fostered more than ten children. Her eldest, who is 15-years old this year, has been with her since the child was a young baby. Kirsty has, however, also fostered children for shorter periods, emergency stays and mid-length stays. In doing that, she has made an enormous contribution to the lives of children who, for a variety of reasons, may not have had the opportunities to succeed in and flourish in life as they now do. She has also made an enormous contribution to the State because otherwise those children would have ended up in State care at a much greater cost to the taxpayers. The nature of some of our State care facilities also means that experience would have been at a much greater cost to the children themselves.
By all accounts, Kirsty is an exceptional mother, absolutely dedicated to the children she loves, rears and cares for. The problem, however, is that she is a single parent. From what I can see, she is in the only category of single parents not eligible under the existing legislation for either the one-parent family payment, OFP, or transitional jobseeker's allowance. That creates an enormous anomaly. A payment does come from Tusla to cover the specific costs of the child. It is a non-means tested payment, paid to all foster parents regardless of income.
Kirsty now finds herself out of work, however. Tusla wants her to continue to foster children, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, it even wanted her to take on additional fostering responsibilities because the organisation was trying to alleviate some of the pressure in care homes. At the same time, though, officials in the Department of Social Protection are doing their job. Kirsty is eligible for a jobseeker's payment and, therefore, the officials want her to apply for employment, engage with Seetec and do a range of things not compatible with a single parent to do under that payment.
I know what the official response of the Department will be because the Minister's predecessor gave it to me in 2018. I also received the same word-for-word reply from her and her officials in September. When the legislation was originally drafted, it included a list of categories of single-person households eligible for one-parent family and transitional jobseeker's payments. Foster parents were not included. I suspect that was because when that legislation was being drafted there was just a general assumption that foster parents were two-parent households. It was, therefore, an omission or an oversight in that original legislation. I cannot imagine any real reason foster parents would be treated differently from widows, widowers, guardians, etc.
We can do two things now. The Minister can read the same response I received twice previously, and the small number of people I suspect are in the same position as Kirsty will be stuck in this bind. Their choices are to return these children to care, which is not something anybody in this House would support, or to go without means. That is the position in which the State is putting Kirsty. I am not asking the Minister to change the law in this Topical Issue debate. I am not even asking her to commit to changing the law. I am just stating there is a compelling reason for the Minister, instead of giving us the stock response, to ask her officials to review this situation to see if there are legitimate grounds for considering legislative reform, perhaps in a future social welfare Bill or similar legislation.
We just had a valuable discussion regarding the Tidy Towns competition and the volunteers who do enormous work for their communities. My mother and father were foster parents. My youngest sister had been with us since she was two. She is now a schoolteacher in Africa, has her own family and is incredibly successful in her own way. I know from first-hand experience, therefore, the transformational impact of fostering. Let us not continue to discriminate against single-parent foster parent households. Let us find a way to fix this issue.