Speeches

Address by Mr Brian Lenihan T.D., Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children at the Annual Conference of the Irish Foster Care Association

Introduction

I am delighted to have been invited here today to open your Annual Conference and would like to welcome all of you who have travelled to my home town for the event. I understand that the last time the Annual Conference was held in Dublin was 20 years ago, when 40 people attended – quite different from to-day!

Irish Foster Care Association

Since its inception in 1981, the Irish Foster Care Association has endeavoured to improve the services provided for children in foster care. Over the years this has been achieved in partnership with my Department, the Health Boards and other relevant agencies.  The Association played a key role in the development of the “Placement of Children in Foster Care Regulations, 1995” and in the Report of the Working Group on Foster Care.  The Association was also ably represented on the group that developed the National Standards for Foster Care.  In its 23 years of existence, your Association has moved from being an organisation of mutual support for those involved in foster care, to an organisation that provides training programmes on many aspects of foster care. Such programmes are aimed at foster carers, children and young people in foster care and people who wish to explore the possibility of fostering.

I was happy to launch ‘New Beginnings’ in May of this year, which was another example of the invaluable input of your association into the foster care area. The course was jointly developed by young people who have grown up as part of a foster family, foster carers and social workers, in response to requests from these groups. I was really delighted to see a training programme for the children of fostering families. The children of foster carers are often the unsung heroes of the fostering service. They play such an important role in the foster care service and, up to now, have often been overlooked. Who knows, these young people could be the foster families of the future.

The pilot which ran in the Southern Health Board received excellent feedback from the children and young people who participated. Comments such as ‘brilliant’, ‘worth doing’ and ‘fantastic’ are indicative of the enjoyment and understanding of fostering gained by the young people. Consultation with children and young people on issues which affect them is a recent development which I applaud as it acknowledges that a policy of children being seen and not heard does not work – young people see issues very clearly and have opinions which are often invaluable.

Child Care

Child care policy is grounded on the principle that children who cannot, for whatever reason, live with their own family, are provided with an appropriate alternative. As you will be aware, studies have shown that the development of a child is best achieved in a loving family environment, which foster care can provide.

As foster carers you all play a vitally important role in the lives of children by providing a welcoming place in your home at a vulnerable time in their lives. As parents and carers, our role in the care of our children is to ensure that we facilitate them in every way possible to achieve their true potential. It is, therefore, vitally important that foster carers are recruited on an ongoing basis.

Standards in Foster Care

The National Standards for Foster Care, published last year, focus on:

  • the quality and consistency of services for children and young people in foster care;
  • standards and practices related to foster care;
  • guidance to health boards on how they can effectively meet their statutory obligations.

These standards have been the subject of intensive discussions between key players involved in the child welfare and protection area.  As I indicated earlier, the Irish Foster Care Association was represented on the standards group and you the members played a major role in the consultation process.  I would like to thank all those involved for such a comprehensive response.

Following the publication of the National Standards for Foster Care, the Social Services Inspectorate (SSI) carried out a national audit and pilot inspection of foster care services.

The pilot inspection was conducted in three community care areas between February and April 2004.

The pilot inspection was limited to Standards 5, 6 and 7 of the National Standards for Foster Care Services.  These are based largely on the Child Care Regulations 1995. The national audit consisted of questionnaires being sent to all health boards requesting information about their foster care services.

The results of the national audit and pilot inspection are being collated at present and will be launched to coincide with the publication of SSI’s Annual Report on November 30th.

Children in Foster Care

As I said earlier, our function as parents and carers is to do whatever is in our power to allow the children who depend on us achieve their true potential. The challenge for us is to provide an appropriate response to children who are particularly vulnerable. This response must respect their rights to a childhood in a secure family environment so that they may fulfil their potential in adulthood. While the ultimate objective of the foster care service is to enable a child to return safely to his or her own family, data indicates that many remain in care on a long-term basis and some until they are 18 years of age.   It is important, therefore, that we continue to work in partnership together in the best interest of these children.  One of the ways we can do this is to continue in our work of implementing the Working Group’s Report on Foster Care.

Adoption / Guardianship

I am aware that the adoption of children who have been in long term foster care is an important issue for many of you. In my address to your AGM in 2002 I undertook to put in place a consultation process on adoption legislation in Ireland.

In both the written and oral stages of this consultation, the issue of providing a wider range of guardianship options for children was considered.  There was widespread agreement that guardianship should be available in certain situations, and I am including these in the proposals that I hope to bring to Government before Christmas.  The proposals in relation to guardianship include the possibility of guardianship for children who have been in long term foster care with the same parents for at least five years.  The aim is to provide a greater degree of permanence for the child where there has been continuity of care within the same family.

Aftercare

I was pleased to meet with your representatives during the summer in relation to Aftercare for young people in foster care. I am aware of the difficulties which can be experienced by children on leaving Foster Care. During the meeting I outlined some of the developments which have taken place in the area of Aftercare.

The Report of the Working Group on Foster Care highlighted the need for aftercare policies and services to provide support and advice to those young people at a vulnerable time in their lives. In relation to children with disabilities the Report also highlights the need for a seamless transition into the adult disability services. The development of a leaving and aftercare policy is required under the Objective 4 of the Youth Homelessness Strategy. Both the Standards for Foster Care and Residential Care set out standards in relation to the preparation of the child/young person leaving care.

In line with this Strategy many of the boards have developed aftercare policies and appointed Aftercare workers or teams to work with young people in the preparation for leaving care.

The Youth Homelessness Monitoring Committee recently completed its work in devising “Guidelines for Health Boards – Developing a Leaving and Aftercare Policy”.  These guidelines have been circulated to the Health Boards. I would like to assure you that I will continue to emphasise the importance of the development of such services for the benefit of all young people leaving our care system.

Conclusion

The Irish Foster Care Association plays a very important role in Irish society and in child care. I commend the work of the Association in developing training programmes such as “Fostering – A New Horizon  for new foster carers, New Beginnings” which I mentioned earlier and programmes relating to Multiculturalism and Aftercare.

I now look forward to hearing Mr Ian Sinclair from the University of York speak on his research study “What makes a difference in foster care” and to hearing the findings of his research, which I imagine will be very relevant in an Irish context.

Finally, I would like to wish all Foster Carers and the children in their care well, and to assure you of my support.  Thank you again for inviting me here today. I hope that you have a very successful and enjoyable conference.