‘Fostering is an exceptional job and demand in Northern Ireland outstrips supply’

One woman shares her story of fostering and Barnardo’s NI talk about the difficulties of placing children during the pandemic

Wednesday, 3rd February 2021, 2:06 pm
Gillian Cassidy and family. Gillian is proud to be a foster carer

Gillian Cassidy lives in Bangor with her husband and their five children. As part of Barnardo’s NI fostering week, Gillian is sharing her very honest and compelling story of being a foster carer and how this has fitted in with her unique family life.

“Well, I currently have five children. Three are birth children: two daughters and a son, we also have a son through planned adoption and our foster child, a little girl, who is the youngest in the family.

“When people find out that I am a foster carer and adoptive parent they assume that I couldn’t have children of my own, because “if she can have her own, why would she need more?” I don’t need more. They need more.

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“My eldest was born with a genetic condition called 22q (also known as 22q Deletion Syndrome), which means she has a lot of medical and learning differences. My birth son also has a genetic muscle condition that means he fatigues easily and his speech, eating and hearing has been impacted. My other biological daughter was the one who never slept and the one you couldn’t take your eye off for a second!

“My husband and I had always talked about adoption and knew it was something we both wanted to do. When our youngest biological child was three, we decided it was time to start the process and we planned to adopt another son.

“When we adopted our second son, he struggled a lot.

“He was only 18 months but he experienced real grief and loss having to leave behind his foster parents and coming to live with us in his new forever home. He was gorging on food and refused to let me touch him, he was hyper alert at all times, he wanted all doors to be kept closed and wanted everyone to have their shoes off and stored in the shoe box. As a baby he was removed from his birth home, where he experienced neglect and physical trauma as a baby. It took him a number of years to truly settle, to stop flinching when I kissed him goodnight. This taught us that the scars of trauma can take a long time to heal, if ever.

“Three years later we started fostering our ‘Cherry Blossom’ baby, nick-named as such because she arrived in early spring, just as the beautiful cherry blossoms were in full bloom. She came to us straight from the hospital and she has a range of complex needs. Having another child in our family with these needs has certainly brought its challenges, but it has also enriched our family beyond what we thought possible. We have to remind ourselves everyday that this baby is ours to love big, but only for a little time.

“For both our adoptive son and foster daughter we constantly tell them that their birth parents love and miss them very much, they just couldn’t care for them in the way they needed. It is important for our children to have this narrative and truth, and to understand why they came to join our family.

“We believe that having our biological, adopted and foster children all living under one roof has enriched every one of our lives. When you are welcoming children into your home it is a huge advantage to already have children living there. The children can watch their peers and quickly learn that they get their needs met and that the adults in the house can be trusted. We are teaching each of our children that they deserve love and that they can learn from the community that is all the other children in our household. I hope this community long outlives myself and my husband.

“For anyone that is thinking about fostering, it is totally worth it. These children need you and if you have space to love, please consider it.”

Whatever the issue, from drug misuse to disability; youth crime to mental health; sexual abuse to domestic violence; child poverty to homelessness; child bereavement to refugees; Barnardo’s NI believes it is possible to bring out the best in every child.

The charity works to transform the lives of the most vulnerable children and every year helps thousands of families to build a better future.

Co-ordinating matches between children in need and foster carers is just one important part of their remit.

Helen Browne, assistant head of fostering at Barnardo’s, said: “We always have fewer foster carers in Northern Ireland than we need. The demand always outstrips the supply. At the moment, for example ,we would have approximately 100-200 referrals across all five health trusts that we are looking to match with foster carers. The pandemic has not made finding homes for these children any easier.

“In terms of the criteria foster carers have to meet, we would be looking at anyone over the age of 21 who has a spare room and the time and space in their lives - whether working from home or perhaps in part-time employment that frees them up to be able to provide the necessary care. The children we place in homes can range from 0-18 but the majority of our referrals at the moment are in and around the eight to 12 age bracket, which is a challenging age group, where the child is just on the cusp of adolescence and the difficulties that brings. It’s also important to us to keep siblings together if possible, so a lot of the time we are trying to find the right home for more than one child.

“Fostering is an exceptional job. We are looking for people who can do a lot of juggling between work, care and home schooling under lockdown. We need people who have a real understanding of the process of a child’s development, the impact of trauma in their lives, people with a sense of fun and those who really enjoy children’s company. They need to be able to make that commitment to helping a child settle for a set period of time.

“We do work hard at Barnardo’s trying to get matches right - finding the right home for the right child by looking at the needs and profile of both carers and children to ensure needs are met and things are the correct fit.

“It could be about where the carer lives, their proximity to school, the job they do, the hours they can devote to childcare, their family make-up - whether there are other children in the household and would there be the risk of any clash in age and so on. It’s not just about the carer’s strengths - it’s also about the existent family structure.

“At the moment it is particularly challenging because children are coming out of the past nine months having had their routines and school attendance disrupted and in that sense it is an unsettling and uncertain time which could lead to children presenting with complex needs. They might have been at home with birth families in difficult circumstances where there have been job losses, poverty, substance abuse or deepening mental health problems. So carers are having to deal with stressed out children who have been weathering a chaotic time in their lives.

“We need carers to be able to respond to and deal with that.

“We want to match children with carers where the situation will prove harmonious and lasting.

“We must limit moves for children because repeated jumps from one home to another will have adverse consequences for their wellbeing and development. We see children fretting, who are up during the night, who are bed-wetting and struggling to adjust to a new and unfamiliar home setting with new people and new routines - so you always want to keep that level of disruption to a minimum.

“A lot of these issues about acclimatising to a new home environment will not disappear over night and so we need carers who are prepared to really commit to helping children settle and feel loved and cared for,” concluded Helen.

Interested in becoming a foster carer and really making a difference to a child’s life? Then visit the Barnardo’s NI Fostering website at www.barnardos.org.uk/foster/northern-ireland or contact the team on 028 9065 2288. You can also email [email protected] or follow Barnardo’s NI on Twitter at @BarnardosNI.