That Seanad Éireann commends the Government, the Health Service Executive and the Irish Foster Care Association and acknowledges the measures taken for the continued successful provision, development and support of foster case services which give children the opportunity to experience life in a supportive family setting during particularly vulnerable times in their lives; Seanad Éireann further commends the foster carers undertaking this valuable role and supports the Government and the Health Service Executive in their continuous efforts to encourage and recruit new foster carers into the service.
It gives me great pleasure to move the motion on foster care. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Barry Andrews, to the House and thank him for coming in to take the debate this evening.
When I was preparing for this debate I started to wonder for how long there had been fostering in Ireland. It is certainly as old as I am, and I will not divulge my tender age — I am a lot younger than Senator Glynn, who is sitting behind me. I asked somebody when we started fostering children in Ireland and the person, who I thought was an expert on the matter, said she did not really know but that it was before 1970, when the health boards were set up and took over the process. She told me a lovely story. She said that before it was called fostering it was called "boarding out", and that it was the responsibility of county councils throughout the country. She said that one still hears people today affectionately talking about being boarded out with Anne, John, Paddy or Mary. Obviously there are good memories of that.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this motion. I notice that the last part of the Government motion states: "Seanad Éireann further commends the foster carers undertaking this valuable role and supports the Government and the Health Service Executive in their continuous efforts to encourage and recruit new foster carers into the service." We have just seen a national fostering recruitment drive across the country, which has been a great success in my area of Sligo-Leitrim and west Cavan. It is heart-warming to see such a huge response from families who want to help other families that are in need of care or that are suffering pain in these difficult times. It is difficult for the family whose child is going into foster care, but it is equally difficult for the family taking in that child, particularly in the current economic climate. Perhaps it is not as easy for some families to take in another child, yet they open their doors readily.
I asked what was the profile of a foster family and I was told that foster parents are as different and as unique as the children they bring into their homes. I thought it was lovely that no stone was left unturned to make sure the right child got into the right home and that the parents and the child bond, in the interest of the child more so than the parents.
Although this is a good subject for discussion and there are good things happening in the area, on which the Minister will elaborate when he addresses us today, there are areas that are still causing concern. Everybody loves babies and small children, and particularly at this time of year everybody looks out for small children. However, there are problems — perhaps it is wrong to say problems, but there are issues — with older children, from around the age of ten to the teenage years. As a mother of four, I can certainly understand that. I always loved the birthday parties until they became ten-year-old birthday parties. I have two boys and two girls, and while I could contend with the girls, the boys were nightmares, and the half a dozen little fellows they would bring in were even worse than the two I had at home. I know what it is like to have teenagers, the problems, the worries, the troubles, the heartache that teenage children bring, whether they are one's own or foster children. There is no doubt about it, the challenges are immense.
I commend the foster parents who take on children and take on those challenges. I know as a parent that it is a challenge, but the rewards are immense also — that big outburst of love, in a very simple way, whether it is a hug or a kiss that lands on your ear instead of on your cheek when you embarrass them as they are coming out of school. It is all worth it in the end.
The people I spoke to who are working with foster families have told me they are always humbled by the people they meet who are prepared to open their homes and their hearts to children in need of care. It is hard to find families to take children with high level complex issues and children with special needs — perhaps a teenager who is in trouble with drink, drugs or whatever. Perhaps we should consider running a campaign to look for families to take such children. I am sure it would mean taking more money out of an already very pressed Exchequer, but the results would certainly be worth it. There is no doubt that foster care is a positive experience for any child or young person. These children will go through their lives like the people I spoke about earlier who have nice stories about being boarded out. I am sure that when they come to tell their stories in 20, 30 or 40 years' time they will remember fondly the people who were kind and took them into their homes.
There would not be a need for foster parents if there were not children whose lives were in some kind of danger or who were experiencing pain in their own family environment. Whether it is physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or perhaps none of those three, there is still a huge need. Such children require dedicated care and attention and this is given to them in a foster family and through the wider family consisting of a social worker, a child care worker or whomever the child encounters as a result of being in that environment. Everyone involved wants the best for the child.
It is only right children would have that back-up because some of them are very traumatised by what has happened in their home or family environment. We know some children carry that trauma into adulthood and sometimes, sadly, do not even seek help for whatever might be bothering them until they are well into their adulthood and may have acquired other problems as a result of what happened in their childhood.
Foster parents play a very significant role in the life of a child in their care. They become his or her main educators. They are the ones who liaise with the teachers and go to the parent-teacher meetings. There are six-monthly or annual reviews for the child, depending on how long that child is in foster care.
There is a need for swift implementation of the Guardianship of Infants Act, according to those to whom I have been speaking. The Minister of State and I have talked about this Act in another arena at an Oireachtas committee. Under the Act, foster parents would have the right to sign for a child in the case of a medical emergency or for something as simple as permission for the child to go on a school tour without referring back to someone else. This helps to make the child feel the same as any other child going on a school tour or when any issue arises regarding the child's health.
I will be somewhat parochial and say that I spoke to the team leader of the foster care team in Sligo. She is a good County Offaly woman like myself. She said the best Christmas present for her would be the implementation of the 2009 service plan which is the national foster care standard. She would like to think that what we have just published could be implemented. Her team has been up and running for the past ten years. It has not received any additional resources. The team has five or six social workers and one team leader for all of Sligo-Leitrim and west Cavan. I take my hat off to them because I know at first hand the wonderful work they do and which they want to continue doing. I ask the Minister of State to consider implementing the national foster care standards.
Sligo-Leitrim and west Cavan have 100% allocation of social workers to children but I am aware this is not the case everywhere else. I also spoke to people in County Mayo and they have a wonderful facility with 100 families giving foster care to 110 children.
I wish the Minister of State well and ask him please to keep an eye on this area. I hope he can see his way to implementing the Guardianship of Infants Act and the national foster care standards.