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EPIC’s Opening Statement was delivered by Lauren O’Toole, EPIC Youth Council
We would like to thank Committee members for inviting us here today, and we are pleased to be joined by our colleagues from IFCA, the Irish Association of Social Workers and Ms. Aoife Bairead.
EPIC is a national children’s rights organisation that works with, and for, children in the care system, young people in aftercare services, and with care-experienced young people up to the age of 26. We work with children in foster care, kinship care and residential care, including high-support and special care, and those sentenced or remanded by the courts in Oberstown Children’s Detention Campus. We are the only organisation in Ireland providing a direct, independent advocacy service to these children and young people, and their experience and perspectives inform our submission today. I am joined today by the CEO of EPIC, Marissa Ryan, and a member of the EPIC Youth Council, Rory Brown. Marissa can answer any questions on EPIC’s policy on fostering, and Rory and I will share our views based on our experience of living in foster care.
At the outset, we have several key messages we urge the Committee to consider, and we are happy to discuss these in more detail throughout this meeting. We particularly hope that these and other issues raised in EPIC’s submission to Budget 2023 are acted on.
- Foster carers who open their homes to children that can’t live with their birth families save and change lives. They need to be celebrated and supported by the Government. The state relies on these people to look after the children in its care, but foster care is not invested in, and carers do not receive the support they require. Foster carers are often responsible for supporting a child that’s been traumatised, while they also need to look after their birth children, manage the logistics of family life, engage with social workers, birth families and other professionals. Politicians should regularly and vocally support fostering in their constituencies and at national level. The fostering community must see that they are recognised and valued, and that foster parents and foster children are an important part of our society. As we say in EPIC “It takes a village to raise a child.”
- Fostering allowances have not been increased since 2009 and there is now a cost-of-living crisis, a housing crisis and other factors which mean foster care numbers are decreasing rapidly. It is far cheaper for the state to support children in foster families than in residential care. Research shows it is better for children to be placed with families than in residential care which is an institutional setting that lacks stability and a family environment. The Government should use the annual budget to increase the fostering allowance to ensure fosterers can afford to offer homes to children that need them, and to ensure that foster children have the best possible opportunities to thrive with their foster families – including by having the means to attend extracurricular activities, go on family holidays, and enjoy being a child.
- Being taken into care is traumatic. Children can lash out, be angry, upset and feel incredibly isolated and vulnerable. This can cause problems in foster families, including with the birth children of foster parents. Both foster carers and their birth children should be given regular training on trauma informed care, as well as access to counselling, as should the child in care that is living with them. The Government should ensure additional funds are ringfenced in Tusla for the provision of counselling and therapeutic interventions to children in care and foster families, and that children in care are prioritised by the HSE for timely access to mental health services.
- Foster families often do not receive enough support from social workers, fostering link workers or aftercare workers. They can be left responsible for managing everything in a child’s life and find this overwhelming. For example, where a social worker isn’t available to drive a child in care to see their birth family, or when a social worker needs those hours for something else, this can often fall on the foster parents, and they must deliver all the logistics and manage the emotional issues that can arise during access visits between a child in care and their birth family. This is on top of all the other work that needs to be done in a family home. Tusla has a shortage of social workers and other professionals whose role it is to support foster families and children. More investment and political support are needed to allow Tusla recruit and retain social workers and other professionals who can assist children in care and foster families and have regular contact with them.
- Normalising foster care is very important. Many foster children in EPIC were brought to local events for foster families run by IFCA to meet other foster children. This helped fight the stigma and isolation around fostering and was often a place where children in foster care could see their siblings that were placed in other foster families in the area. Politicians should work with local authorities, city councils, IFCA and others to run days like this regularly, attend them and publicise them. Simultaneously, the Government should examine other ways to normalise foster families – for example, through inclusion on the census forms.
- When a child is taken into care, the state is acting “in loco parentis” – in the place of a parent. At the very least, a child should only be removed from their home when the state can guarantee that they will be better cared for elsewhere. In Ireland the state has not been acting as a parent should. There are many cracks in the care system that politicians have ignored or are not aware of. It is this lack of investment and support that has led to the current fostering crisis, with the number of fosterers decreasing every year. This has a real impact on children in state care and those around them. It is nearly 10 years since the founding of Tusla and the development of our current child protection and welfare system. Perhaps it is time for the government to invest in reviewing the care system, as has happened in Scotland and England in the last couple of years.
- Children in care can often be marginalised and their voices are seldom heard. In addition, they may lack regular access to a social worker or other professional. Independent advocacy which helps a child to have a voice and be heard, is very important. Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that all the children have the right to be heard and to participate in decision making about their lives. At present, EPIC is the only organisation providing a direct advocacy service to care-experienced children and young people. We believe that independent advocacy for children in care should be enshrined in legislation, and that organisations like EPIC should be fully funded to meet the needs of all care-experienced children and young people who may require an Advocate to help them have their views heard and acted on.