I thank the Chairman and committee members for their invitation to address the committee this morning. My name is Karla Charles and I am the policy manager in EPIC. I am accompanied by my colleague, Ms Fidelma Guinan, who is an advocacy officer.
EPIC is an independent organisation established to advocate with, and on behalf of, children and young people in care and with care experience. A core part of the work of EPIC is the provision of an individual advocacy and support service for children and young people with care experience. EPIC welcomes the opportunity to discuss issues of foster care with the committee today. EPIC would like to draw members' attention to a number of issues that we feel merit further attention. These issues have been brought to our attention through our direct advocacy work with children and young people in care.
The first issue is the cost of private versus Tusla-registered fostering. There are a number of private foster care organisations operating in Ireland. Placing a child through one of the private foster care organisations costs the State an average of €58,000 per child per year versus €17,900 for children fostered with foster carers registered directly with Tusla. EPIC would encourage the committee to look into the disparity of cost between private providers and State agencies. We would like to see greater analysis of costs versus service provision for children. Currently, it seems to be more attractive for foster carers to register with private providers because they offer services like 24 hour phone support, which is particularly helpful for new carers and link foster care workers seem to have smaller caseloads. Therefore, they are able to provide a higher level of support to foster carers.
I would like the committee to bear this in mind.
Placement breakdowns are sometimes inevitable but in order to learn from such breakdowns there needs to be greater oversight on the number of placement breakdowns, the reasons for the breakdowns and what could be learnt from such breakdowns. It is imperative that such data be collected and analysed as a matter of priority. EPIC is calling for a national review of disruptions to maximise early intervention, and that all have a foster link worker.
Placement breakdowns should also be challenged. In EPIC’s experience some breakdowns can and should be avoided. Lack of training and poor management of difficult behavioural situations can lead to damaged relationships. In foster families this can sometimes result in placement breakdown. More consistency needs to occur when matching the needs of the child with the strengths and abilities of the foster carers. Unfortunately this does not always occur. Furthermore, adequate supports must be provided to children and foster families to ensure that stability and placements are maintained, where possible.
Many foster families have lifelong relationships with the children that they foster even after the children leave their home, but some placements do break down and come to abrupt endings. EPIC believes there should be built in support mechanisms to prevent this from occurring, and that where it does, young people are supported through this difficult transition. Children approaching their 18th birthday are particularly vulnerable because they are going through a lot in their own lives from sitting leaving certificate exams to aging out of the service. It is a turbulent time. They may be pushed to make independent decisions with little support or preparation. EPIC has experienced several cases of children approaching their 18th birthday and having to abruptly leave their foster placements and move back in with their birth parents on some occasions, who were previously deemed unsuitable carers. The fact that such decisions cannot be challenged or that supports or interventions did not occur at an earlier stage is unacceptable. All children experience difficulties and challenges during their teenage years, particularly in the home setting, but these can be more difficult for children and young people in care. Such problems should be pre-empted and relevant supports provided to avoid the tragic abrupt ending of placements at a crucial time in a young person's life. If a placement is going to end, child-centred planning must be a priority. It is not simply a matter of finding another bed for a child.
EPIC is aware that Tusla runs targeted recruitment drives for specialised carers. Similarly, compulsory training for foster carers does occur but it is EPIC’s opinion that more of it should be of a specialised nature. EPIC recommends for example that Tusla develop a training module on LGBTI issues. The need for such training is evident through our advocacy work and our publication on this issue entitled ‘Coming Out in Care’, which was a collaborative piece of work between EPIC and BeLongTo, was extremely well received. More consistent support of targeted recruitment of foster carers would be beneficial as children placed in foster care often have specific needs. More options, for example, for older adolescents going into care, such as supported lodgings, should be promoted.
Through our practice, EPIC has noticed that there is an increasing number of younger children under the age of 12 years being placed in residential care. We are aware of nine, ten and eleven year olds being placed in residential care. While there was a dip in the number of younger children going into residential care for a number of years, this appears to have reversed of late. There was a clear practice by Tusla not to place children under the age of 12 in residential care because it was deemed inappropriate. If would be of grave concern to EPIC if this was no longer the case.
If a child is in care under a voluntary care agreement, Tusla must consider the parents’ wishes in relation to how aspects of the care are provided. It is EPIC’s opinion that a child who has been in care for a number of years should have their voluntary care agreements reviewed and a decision should be made as to whether or not it is in the child’s best interest to remain on a voluntary care agreement or if a full care order should be sought. The birth parents of children on voluntary care agreements can adversely disrupt the lives of their children in foster care, and there are instances where the mothers and fathers, often due to their own personal difficulties, may seek to disrupt their child’s foster care placement. Keeping children on voluntary care agreements in the long term does not provide the child with a sense of security or permanence in their foster care placement. The following are examples of where birth parents sought to exert control over the lives of their children and the foster family, causing disruption to the detriment of the care placement: a mother insisting that permission should have been sought from her before giving her daughter a birthday cake on her third birthday; a mother insisting the foster carers use her buggy and not the one they already had; a mother refusing to allow her son’s very long hair to be cut; and a mother refusing to sign passport forms because she did not want her child going on his first holiday abroad with the foster family.
Gaps are noticeable in aftercare planning and service provision for those young people on voluntary arrangements versus full care orders because these supports and services can be court-appointed. That is very important for young people's transitioning out of care and into aftercare. Parents of children growing up in foster care have been a largely neglected group in policy, practice and research, in spite of the fact that these parents are often vulnerable adults themselves who experience a profound loss and threat to their identity when their child is taken into care. Parents’ involvement through contact is also likely to have an impact on children’s stability and security in the foster family. Where foster parents and birth parents have a good relationship, research has shown that there is a far better outcome for those children. Birth parents should therefore receive greater supports in dealing with the trauma of having their child taken into care, as well as learning coping mechanisms to help them to focus their attention on what is in the best interests of their child.
The recently published HIQA inspection report of Dublin South Central found that foster care reviews were not taking place as required and this presented a significant risk. This is unacceptable and reviews should occur sooner and more regularly to ensure that the child is being well looked after and that any difficulties are overcome before they escalate. All children and their foster families should be treated equally in terms of the minimum level of supports that they receive. Unfortunately this does not always occur with some people receiving a better level of support than others. Where children require extra interventions the foster families should be supported in providing these. EPIC recommends that Tusla is adequately funded to have the full complement of staff nationally and that staff receive adequate training to provide these interventions and adequately support young people and their foster families.
All young people should know that they are entitled to make a complaint and how to go about making one. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has developed an outstanding resource known as TACTIC, Teenagers And Children Talking In Care. These are packs which should in fact be distributed to every child in care. These packs are a tremendous resource for children in care, be it residential or foster care. However, EPIC is aware that this does not always occur.
Some 15 fora have been set up around the country by EPIC with the support of Tusla to hear the voice of the child in care. These are proving to be a great success. One forum with 11 children and young people based in Donegal, for example, is creating and producing a booklet that will be given to all foster carers to fill in prior to a new child or young person moving into their home. The booklet contains questions and information that young people feel is needed to help support them in moving to a new placement and to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety about the move. Some of the questions in this booklet include the following: "Do you go to mass and, if so, is this expected of me?", "If there is Wi-Fi, what is the code?", Who visits the house regularly that does not live there?", "Can I decorate my room?", "Is the house in the country or in a town?", "Do I get extra pocket money if I do chores?", "Can I go to events like discos or school trips?", "What activities, sports clubs or youth clubs could I join?", "What are the top five house rules?". These are simple things that young people themselves feel would make their transition into a home easier.
Where possible siblings are placed together in a foster family, but this is not always possible, especially with larger families. A good level of access with a sibling is considered to be about one visit a month, perhaps for a few hours at a time. This is not, in our opinion, nearly enough time on which to build a strong and lasting relationship with a sibling. Siblings should be placed within a maximum radius in order to maximise the opportunity for sibling contact. This is of particular significance in rural foster care placements because it can greatly impact on the foster carers' ability to support access. Financial considerations should not be a limiting factor to maximising sibling contact. This contact is invaluable and must be given greater focus. For example, 18-plus year olds who are no longer in foster care may not be financially supported to attend sibling contact with younger siblings in care and this makes contact difficult for them to maintain.
EPIC has had experience of several cases where situations were allowed to reach a crisis level before funding was found by the HSE disability services to provide full-time disability support for a young adult leaving care. It is very welcome that Tusla and the HSE have recently agreed a joint protocol for inter-agency collaboration between the Health Service Executive and Tusla Child and Family Agency to promote the best interests of children and families. The new Child Protection and Welfare Strategy also clarifies and sets out the respective roles, duties and legal requirements of the HSE and Tusla in relation to children and vulnerable adults with a disability or mental health issue. This will help to address many of the co-ordination difficulties and will improve inter-agency working between Tusla and the HSE. This strategy is a central part of Tusla’s ongoing programme of transformation and Epic supports this transformation. It includes a new national approach to practice, the Signs of Safety. EPIC looks forward to seeing the impact of such developments on the ground.
However, EPIC would also like to see dedicated mental health teams, for example, for children in care who should receive a priority on CAMHS lists. Provisions should always allow for exceptions and flexibility if it is deemed in the best interest of the child and this should be borne in mind in any holistic system.
We have highlighted many of the challenges around foster care that have been brought to our attention through the course of our advocacy work. However, we also acknowledge the positive developments that continue to occur in foster care in areas such as cultural awareness and identity. These improvements should be highlighted and EPIC acknowledges all the positive work being done by foster families, foster care organisations, including the Irish Foster Care Association, Tusla and the social workers working directly with these children and families.
I will close our presentation with the words of some children and young people about the positives of foster care: "I have two families"; "My foster brother is funny"; "There is another foster child here"; "Having someone to talk to"; "Getting more presents"; "Someone else to talk to"; "Having no worries and feeling safe"; and "Knowing someone is there for you when things go wrong".