Mum’s childcare plea for son with learning difficulties

Bernie Devlin with her son Liam (13) and daugher Aine (11)
Bernie Devlin with her son Liam (13) and daugher Aine (11)

A Northern Ireland mother of two has shared her story to highlight the lack of childcare available for children with learning difficulties in the Province.

It comes as Childcare For All – a coalition of charities and voluntary organisations lobbying government for affordable, accessible, high-quality childcare – held a family-friendly campaign day in the Mencap Centre in south Belfast on Saturday, receiving cross-party support from MLAs.

Research from Employers For Childcare who help co-ordinate the campaign shows that a full-time childcare place currently takes up 40% of the average household income. The campaign’s other lead partner, the Women’s Resource and Development Agency, claims that lack of available childcare is the single biggest factor preventing women from returning to education and employment as well as driving the gender pay gap.

Parents of children with a disability can often find it more difficult than other families to access suitable and affordable childcare. Key factors include a lack of specialist childcare provision, and information to help parents make informed decisions. It can also be challenging for parents to balance work with the often unpredictable nature of their children’s needs and disability.

One of those involved in the campaign, Bernie Devlin, said that childcare for special needs children “doesn’t really exist anywhere in Northern Ireland”.

She has two children – Liam, 13, and Aine, 11.

Bernie said: “Liam has a severe learning disability and refractory epilepsy and requires one-to-one full-time supervision. Liam’s needs have a big impact on him and our family life – we’ve never been able to have a family holiday for example – but we do our best to live a full and normal life.

“My husband works full-time and I work part-time. I consider myself one of the lucky mums to be able to work as many of my friends in similar circumstances have had to leave work altogether. However, it is made much harder by the fact that childcare for special needs children doesn’t really exist anywhere in Northern Ireland.

“I am entitled to childcare payments because of Liam’s disability but I can’t use this as there are no providers who can meet his needs. I have tried to seek a registered home childcarer who could look after Liam in our home but even this isn’t available for a child with his complex needs.”

She added: “Liam goes to a great school but he doesn’t have access to the same after-school childcare that his sister has and he can’t take part in the range of stimulating activities during school holidays.

“The only way I am able to go to work is because I receive respite care provided by the health trust and I use this payment for a carer to look after Liam when my husband and I are at work.

“It doesn’t seem right that I should have to use this time, which is meant to be a rest for me as a carer, to go to work but it’s important for my own mental health to be in a job.

“I can only work term time however as the payment from the trust for respite wouldn’t be enough to cover my normal working hours during the days that Liam isn’t in school.

“I look after him myself throughout school holidays with help from my daughter. By the end of the summer I can feel my mental health suffering and I know that Liam is missing out on stimulation also.

“It upsets me that mainstream children are spoilt for choice with the amount of activities they can take during the long school closures. I hope to see equality for the kids like Liam.

“It would also make such a difference to parents and prevent a lot of stress and mental health issues. I’ve been trying to get childcare for my child for years and have come to accept that it just doesn’t exist.

“I think there should be a lot more done to support childcare provision through the special schools as they are fully adapted and able to provide the right care for our kids.

“Childcare is the one thing missing right now for our family that would make life much easier for all of us.”