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Dublin: 3°C Tuesday 7 December 2021

Column: ‘I didn’t really know my own Mam’ – why one woman became a foster mother

Mary Downey, a foster parent for almost 20 years, describes the ups, the downs and the heartbreak of being a mother to other people’s children.

Image: Dave Thompson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

MY MOTHER DIED the day after my tenth birthday. I didn’t know her very well because she was in Dublin, in hospital a lot of the time – she had tuberculosis. So I didn’t really know my own Mam.

One Sunday when we were at Mass I saw a poster in our local church looking for foster parents. I thought I’d like to be a mother to children who couldn’t be with their own mothers. That was 19 years ago, and we have been carers ever since. The assessment to become carers took a while, and it involved getting Garda clearance and filling out a lot of forms before we were approved.

One of our first placements was a girl who had a lot of problems. It was a bit of a shock in ways, because she had been abused and we had no training in how to deal with that kind of situation.We had children of our own, and she would have told them things they shouldn’t have known about. She had some unusual ways but she was a lovely girl. She stayed with us for a few months.

Fostering is difficult because you’re supposed to treat them as your own, but you actually can’t treat them exactly as your own. The HSE make all the important decisions regarding the children. They are not treated the same in everyday life. In schools, they’re treated differently because they don’t have the same surname as their foster family and when they get forms to fill in you have to try and get the birth parents or a social worker to sign them which causes a delay in giving them back to the school. Foster carers can now apply to the court for Increased Autonomy if the child has been living with them for over five years.

‘Your own children have to be very understanding’

Your own children have to be very understanding. They have to accept that some of their property may get damaged or taken, stuff like that. They have to share their parents and their home and they have to accept the fact that the foster children might get lots more Christmas and birthday presents, because they get them from two families sometimes. You can spend so much time looking after the foster child and trying to help them, that your own children can get neglected a little bit if you are not careful. If birth children are old enough to be given a choice they need to be totally in agreement with your decision to foster.

There were times that were stressful. There are no social workers on duty from Friday evening until Monday morning. Nobody there if you need help in an emergency, nobody except the guards.That is not very nice for a young person, they shouldn’t have to be confronted by a guard if they happen to leave home in a tantrum, or whatever the situation. The gardaí are very helpful but it is not an ideal situation.

Emotionally, it can be really, really hard. You grow to care a lot for the children, and it can be heartbreaking then when they leave. We’ve never had anybody here that we didn’t care deeply about. A lot of people used to say to me,‘I couldn’t foster, I couldn’t let them go’. I would to say to them,‘sorry, but it’s not about how you would feel’ You’d never do it if it was.

‘We have been heartbroken over a foster child’

We have been heartbroken over a foster child, really badly. My birth children were really upset when that child went back home.You worry about how they will be treated when they return home, you just want them to be happy and safe.You just have to accept it and you just keep going. I am in touch with most of our foster children, I send birthday cards and Christmas cards and I visit them when I can.

We have had our current foster son for a long time. Legally it is until they reach 18 years old, but he’s not going to be shown the door. We just hope that everything turns out well for him, that he can manage when he finishes education, that he can find a job and be happy.

In some ways you worry more about your foster child than you do about your own. You are more protective of them, I find, because you know that they need protection so much. They need somebody to advocate for them all the time. So you would do everything possible to fight for the services and help they need. Being in care is very hard for a child or young person, they have to put up with so much adult interference in their lives and can make very few decisions for themselves.

It is very rewarding. It’s not easy, but I think once you start, once you get into fostering, I would think it would be very hard to give up. You’re emotionally caught up in it, and it would be very hard to walk away. I know people who have, but they haven’t done it lightly. You need a lot of patience and understanding. But of course no foster parent is perfect.

Mary Downey’s name has been changed.

About the author:

Mary Downey

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