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Children in Care

Jeff's story: A worried little boy in care - quiet, kind and deeply troubled

The child had been placed in care because of family violence, parental alcohol use and neglect and remained in care until he was an adult.

AS A SMALL child, Jeff was described as a ‘worried little boy’ who craved attention.

He was taken into the care of the HSE from the age of three and remained in care until he was an adult. At the age of 19, and after a turbulent and troubled childhood, Jeff took his own life.

The boy had been placed in care because of family violence, parental alcohol use and neglect and remained in care until he was an adult. Jeff’s father spent some time in prison; while he was at home he was violent towards the family.

The child’s mother, who a social worker described as being “overwhelmed and isolated”, had a drinking problem. After an incident during which she abandoned the children while drunk, Jeff and another sibling were placed with foster carers.

‘Daddy hit Mammy a lot’

His behaviour as a young child was difficult to manage and his first two placements broke down after a relatively short period during which he made allegations of sexual abuse against his father. These allegations were investigated and deemed credible.

During court proceedings about his care, a child psychologist said Jeff was a friendly child of normal intelligence, with appropriate development for his age.

He was also judged to be happy in his foster home at the time and he had told the psychiatrist he did not want to return to his biological parents “because Daddy hit Mammy a lot”.

Mood swings

Jeff’s third placement with foster carers had lasted for ten years until he was 15. For much of this period, he had no social worker and there are very few case notes on his file during this time.

His behaviour continued to be disruptive, particularly after supervised meetings with his parents when he acted in an aggressive manner. A primary school teacher reported his mood swings, stating he often appeared confused and frightened.

A child care leader was assigned to work with him on his social skills at the age of 14 and to do some work with him about why he came into care in his early life.

This was because Jeff was continually asking why he had been taken into care. He had difficulty at this time making and keeping friends.

At 15 he moved to a different placement and made allegations of emotional abuse about his previous foster carers. The Tusla report says it could not find any evidence that the teenager’s allegations were investigated.

His new foster mother described him as a “lovely gentle person” who became more cheerful when he came to live with her. She told the review team that he had been self-harming for some time and had old scars, which suggested it started in his previous placement.

Though he settled into his new home, it ended after six months when it was discovered he had inappropriate sexual contact with another foster child there.

From accounts provided to the review team by different interviewees, the move was very upsetting and traumatic for all concerned.

Quiet, kind and gentlemanly

Jeff had attended mental health services as a child and at this stage re-engaged with the same psychiatrist because of a tendency to self-harm. The young man was seen regularly over the next few years during which his mental health fluctuated.

When he was 16, he was placed with another foster family where he settled well and remained until he died.

Here he completed his Leaving Certificate and decided to make contact with his biological parents who he had not seen in a number of years. He made contact with them separately as well as some of his siblings.

As a young man, he was described as introverted and quiet, kind and gentlemanly.

He also had a dark side to his personality, with occasional outbursts in his later years. The young man seemed to internalise his emotions and had a tendency towards self-harm.

Once he turned 18, he was allocated an aftercare worker who was helping him to find a suitable FAS course.

Jeff as a young adult was well liked, he had friends and a girlfriend and just months before he died he had become a father. Though he was no longer in a relationship with the baby’s mother, she indicated she was willing to have him involved.

Towards the end of the year, he began to get stressed and showed an inclination to self-harm. An appointment was made for Jeff at a counselling service the following day.

Three weeks later, the child care manager received a call from gardaí to say the young man had been found dead by his foster carers.

‘Invisible to services’

Jeff’s story is detailed in a report published by the child and family agency Tusla.

The report found Jeff was “invisible to services for period of several years in foster care”, including a time which he later described as unhappy.

It appears that a scarcity of resources and a culture which was non-compliant with regulations combined to deprive him of the services to which he was rightfully entitled, ie an allocated social worker and timely statutory child in care reviews.

The review also found Jeff was left in a situation of “great uncertainty” for a number of years as a young child while the social work department tried to improve conditions in his family home and the court deliberated over his carestatus.

It is suggested that this situation hindered Jeff’s rehabilitation from the trauma he had experienced by being exposed to neglect, alcohol abuse and domestic violence and it is likely that this delay contributed to the de-stabilisation of his early foster placements.

Reviews of the deaths of 13 young people known to the child and family agency highlighted the importance of early and timely intervention with children. The agency had committed to a number of new strategies to improve its interactions with troubled children in Ireland and their families.

If you need to talk, contact:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email
  • National Suicide Helpline 1800 247 247 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email – (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

Read: Domestic violence, mental illness and drug abuse: The tragic lives of children in care who died>

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