Fostering a child

Foster Care

·        What is foster care?

·        Children who need foster care

·        What are the responsibilities of foster carers?

·        Who can foster?

·        Different kinds of foster care

·        What do foster carers enjoy about fostering?

·        Becoming a foster carer

·        Supports for foster carers

·        Who to contact to proceed for further information on foster care

·        What is foster care?

Foster care offers alternative family care to children whose parents cannot provide this for them in their own families. This can be due to a number of reasons. Foster care gives children a second chance to experience family living, while helping them to come to terms with what led to them to leaving home. In most instances, it also facilitates them to keep in touch with their birth families.

·        Children who need foster care

Children who need foster care come from families with a variety of personal difficulties. Their families are often lacking in the supports needed to help them through the crisis times that any of us can face.

Of the children who are received into state care:

-34% come from families with alcohol and/or drug addictions.

-14% have experienced child neglect and/or physical abuse.

-11% have been abandoned on a temporary or permanent basis by their birth parents.

-Children whose parents experience a physical or psychiatric illness make up 9% of those in care.

-9% are in care due to insurmountable difficulties in the child/parent relationship.

Contrary to public perception, only 5% of children in care are admitted due to their experience of child sexual abuse within their families.

Most children in care will have a combination of these circumstances in their backgrounds. For example, parental addiction problems often result in child neglect, or in physical or psychiatric illness.

Children can be fostered up to the age of 18 years old. Generally 40% are aged between zero and five, while a further 40% are aged between six and 12. A further 18% are aged between 13 and 16, while the remaining 2% are aged from 17 to 18.

At least one in four (26%) of children in care have at least one brother or sister with them. Some come from families of up to five children. According to the National Standards for Foster Care (2003), there should be no more than two foster children in any one foster family in order to allow them the best chance of settling in. Exceptions can be made for some sibling groups however, once it is agreed that the foster families have the capacity to meet the children's needs.

Some children who need foster care have special educational needs or particular health requirements. A small number will need therapy to help them come to terms with the reasons that led to them coming into care and to address the grief they feel at the separation from their families. For most children in care, the experience of living in a foster family with people who are sensitive to their needs is enough to help them through this difficult time, especially if they can have supportive contact with their birth families.

·        What are the responsibilities of foster carers?

In addition to the ordinary tasks of parenting, fostering involves some extra responsibilities. These include having the best possible relations with the child's parents and extended family members and co-operating with contact arrangements between them. Foster carers must also help the child to understand why he does not live at home. The child's grasp of this difficult area of life will change as he/she gets older and he/she may need support to come to terms with the longer-term consequences of the separation from the birth family.

Foster carers need to have a good working relationship with their local health board social workers and to agree to attend training and occasional planning meetings about the child's care, as required. They must keep the health board informed of any significant events in the child's life or in their own lives, which may effect their ability to continue to provide alternative family care.

·        Who can foster?

Foster carers come from all walks of life. They may be married, single, separated or divorced. They may or may not have children of their own. Many people who do not have their own children foster very successfully, as long as they realise that foster care rarely leads to adoption and that most children in care have some level of contact with their own birth families.

People who foster may be employed or unemployed. If both partners in a couple are working full time however, the health board will need to discuss suitable child care arrangements and availability.

Foster carers come from a variety of educational backgrounds. Many have not completed secondary education, while others have third level qualifications. All that is required in this regard is a commitment to help a child reach his full educational potential.

If foster carers do not own their own home, security of tenure still leaves them eligible to foster. A foster child will not always need a single room, though it is important to have enough space to offer adequate accommodation.

Foster carers need to pass a medical examination carried out by their own general practitioner. Health boards encourage a non-smoking policy in all foster homes.

Garda clearances are required for all persons aged over 18 years living in the household. Health boards also carry out local authority checks to see if applicants are already known to them in any capacity.

Foster families need to have relatively stable and secure family relationships. This does not mean there is an expectation that they will never have had any challenges in their lives. Sometimes the experience of having overcoming personal adversities can be of assistance to them in fostering someone else's child. It is important that everyone in the family is in agreement with the decision to foster, as all will be affected by the changes it brings.

Applications are welcomed from all religious persuasions. Birth families may exercise their right to have their child cared for by a family of their own religion. However, the extent to which foster carers practice their religion varies from family to family.

Foster carers are required to co-operate with health boards in providing for the child's care. The guiding rule is that the child's best interests are the over-riding consideration in all plans made in foster care.

·        Different kinds of foster care

Children need different kinds of foster care, depending on why they have had to leave their families and on how long they may need to be out of home. The priority is to provide them with the kind of foster care which best meets their needs. This can be for a few days or until they reach 18 years of age. Health boards aim to return children to their families as soon as possible, if this can be done safely.

The most child friendly form of fostering is open ended, whereby a family agrees to care for a child for as long as the child may need care. This saves the children having to change foster families.

-Short-term or emergency foster care may be defined as lasting from one day to six months or until a longer-term plan can be made for the child. Many families enjoy this type of fostering as they get satisfaction from helping a large number of children along their way to recovery from difficult experiences. Short-term families can take breaks from fostering if they choose to, between having particular children live with them.

-Long-term fostering offers family care to children for periods of longer than six months and up to and including the children reaching adulthood. This form of care is chosen for children who are unlikely to be able to return home. It is important to point out however, that fostering gives no guarantee that children can stay until they are reared, though many do so.

-Weekend and holiday fostering is usually best suited to children who live in residential centres, whose involvement with their birth families does not allow them to avail of living full time in a foster family. It can also be useful for children who have experienced many moves in care and for whom full time family life can demand more than they are able for. This type of fostering can also be offered to children who live with their families during the week but who benefit from alternative care at weekends.

-Day fostering is a flexible service which allows children to remain in their own homes by night and at weekends, while receiving alternative family care during the day. This kind of fostering gives birth families the time and space to address their difficulties without their children having to separate from them full time.

-Respite foster care provides a service to other foster carers who need to take breaks from the children they foster on an occasional or regular planned basis. This type of care works best when the child can have a guarantee of going to the same family to whom he/she has been previously introduced.

·        What do foster carers enjoy about fostering?

Foster carers experience significant benefits for the children they foster and for their own family life. The children are often seen as a source of love and joy, especially for those who have no children of their own. Most foster carers find that the worries they had about the impact of fostering on their family life are alleviated once they adjust to the changes this way of life brings. Carers value being able to offer stability to children who are vulnerable. Many foster carers report that their own children gain a more mature and balanced outlook on life through the experience of fostering.

·        Becoming a foster carer

Prospective foster carers enter an assessment process with a health board social worker, which educates them about what fostering will involve both for them and for the children concerned. This involves a series of interviews, usually in their own homes, where consideration is given to whether fostering is a good option for the children in care and for the particular family. Fostering Regulations and Standards require that the assessment be completed within 16 weeks. Where this is not possible, the time scale will be discussed with them and an estimated date of completion will be agreed between both parties. The Health Board Foster Care Committee considers completed assessments for approval. The National Standards for Foster Care (2003) outline the applicants’ option to meet the committee, should they desire to do so.

·        Supports for foster carers

All foster carers are entitled to have a fostering link worker to support them in their care of the child. They are training before they start fostering and are offered further occasional training when they have children in their care. Foster carers can avail of support through attendance at their local carers network, run by their health board and through the Irish Foster Care Association, (IFCA) a charity organisation which advocates on foster care issues and provides practical advice and training to those involved in foster care. Information on the IFCA can be found at or through email at . The postal address is: IFCA, 1st Floor, The Pharmacy Corner, 14 Mayfield Terrace, Ballinteer, Dublin 16.

Each foster child is entitled to have a social worker, who visits them in the foster family and has responsibility for maintaining links with the child's birth family. Children are provided with a medical card to cover physical health needs. Specific standard child care equipment can be provided to assist with caring for the child. Foster carers receive a maintenance allowance to help them meet the cost of caring for the child. This allowance is linked to inflation and is set by the Minister for Health and Children. Since January 2004, this allowance is €289.50 per week for children under 12 years and €316.50 for those aged between 12 and 18 years. It is not means tested and does not affect unemployment benefits or other allowances. All foster carers are covered for public liability insurance by their health board.

·        Who to contact for further information on foster care

If you live in the Northern Area Health Board of the Eastern Regional Health Authority, you can contact your local community care fostering social worker at the following phone numbers:

-Community Care Area 6 (Dublin Northwest) at 01 - 8825066

-Community Care Area 7 (Dublin North Central) at 01 - 8556871

-Community Care Area 8 (Dublin North) at 01 - 8900455

If you live outside the Northern Area Health Board catchment area, you can phone your own health board to get in touch with your local fostering social work team.

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