In the first of our series on LGBT parenting, EILE Magazine takes a look at fostering in Ireland
Fostering has always had a special place in Ireland, to the point where it is an integral part of Gaelic mythology – Cú Chulainn himself was fostered by King Conchubhar of Ulster. Fast forward a few thousand years, and fostering is just as important in Irish society. In fact, it’s quite possibly more important today, as some 6,500 children are in need of foster care here, and same-sex couples and single LGBT people are warmly welcome to step forward.
Lillian Benson and Paula Kearney are one such couple, who decided to become foster carers a little over two years ago, and got in touch with the Dublin-based agency, Fostering First Ireland. Their decision, they explain to me, was a natural one; “It was something we always wanted to do”, explains Lillian. “We felt we had a lot to offer.”
“We come from big enough families,” Paula adds. She agrees with her wife’s explanation that they felt they had more to offer than just a spare bedroom in their home in north County Dublin. “We’ve been raised well enough, where we had fun growing up. We wanted to be able to give something back, and give other kids that chance.”
The experience of fostering is one that Lillian and Paula clearly consider rewarding, but there are children in dire need of foster carers like the Dublin couple. “We just can’t meet the demand [for foster carers] at the moment”, says Barry Ward, fostering advisor at Fostering First Ireland. “It’s a very hard thing to market, though. It’s something you need to be willing to go into it, rather than reacting to [an advertisement on] the net”.
“You have to be ready,” Paula advises, “because your life totally changes. You’re used to having three or four holidays a year – that goes out the window!”
“It’s nearly a vocation”, Lillian adds.
Barry explains that for those who are interested in becoming foster carers, the process can be quite strict in terms of requirements.
“Only about six to seven percent of people who call [to apply to be carers] actually go on to be approved,” Barry says. “It’s quite strict.”
This surprisingly low number, however, is due to the fact that requirements are not met by those who are curious about fostering. For example, a foster carer must be over 25 years of age, and have at least one spare bedroom in their home. Sometimes it’s just a case of timing, Barry explains, and for many people, applications are welcome when such minimum requirements are met.
Being a foster parent is a truly rewarding experience, according to Lillian and Paula. If any challenges arise, though, Barry explains that a strong support system is in place for foster carers, including being able to call FFI for advice. That’s something that biological parents typically don’t have, he adds.
One of the main differences with fostering, of course, is that caring for a child isn’t always permanent. The periods of time involved depend on individual cases, and can last from a few weeks to several years. On top of that, and also to prepare for such a system, foster carers must go through extensive and continuous training. Paula does note that fostering is “totally different” to parenting in those aspects, but because such routines and practices become second nature, it becomes “the norm” for both the foster carer(s) and the child.
One could be forgiven, though, for wondering if fostering can be emotionally hurtful, especially if a child moves on to another foster home, or in an “ideal situation”, to be reunited with his/her biological family. Lillian explains that such an experience can be bitter-sweet, there is also a satisfaction in knowing that that child has been made feel safe while in their care, and that the change provides the carer or carers with an new opportunity to help another child, by providing them with stability and care.
“No matter what”, Paula explains, “they’re only kids, and all they’re looking for is somewhere safe. That’s what people need to understand”.