Address to the Irish Foster Care Association Annual Conference
7 November 2020
May I begin by thanking Catherine Bond, your Chief Executive of the Foster Care Association, for the invitation to be with you today. I had no hesitation in accepting her invitation as it gives me an opportunity, as President of Ireland, Mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, to acknowledge the wonderful, vital work in which foster families are engaged, week in, week out, in a quiet, continuous way and, thus without perhaps, in my view, the due recognition and appreciation from society that it deserves, for the most generous and fundamental act of citizenship that is fostering.
As some of you may be fostering in our Gaeltacht or the wider Irish language-speaking community, may I reflect in our first language my pleasure at receiving an invitation to be with you in your discussions. Fostering has very ancient roots in Gaelic society.
Tugann sé an-sásamh dom a bheith libh inniú agus sibh ag tabhairt aghaidh ar na dúshláin agus na féidearthachtaí at rómhaibh agus sibh ag plé cúrsaí maidir le Chúraim Altrama.
Is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le Catherine Bond as ucht an cuireadh a thug sí dom a bheith libh inniú. Chun an fhírinne a rá, ní raibh aon leisce orm an cuireadh sin a ghlacadh chun mo aitheantas, agus mo bhuíochas mar Uachtarán na hÉireann a chur in lúil daoibhse ata ag tabhairt faoin an obair rí-thabhachtach seo, lá in ndiaidh lae.
Next year, I am aware, is a special year for you, as it marks your 40th anniversary. Over four decades providing advice and support, the Irish Foster Care Association has helped many families to welcome into their homes children in need of care.
Across these four decades since its establishment by an inspired and committed group of foster parents in 1981, the Association has grown and developed and now encompasses foster and relative carers, social workers, child care workers, academics and so many others involved in the critical area of foster care.
Your work has been invaluable in creating a supportive landscape and the promise of a future with fulfilment for the many children in Ireland who, for a variety of reasons, cannot be cared for in their family home.
Figures last year indicated that there were approximately 6,000 children in Ireland in foster care, with over 4,000 foster families involved. All of you gathered for your conference know that behind those figures, as I have said and recognise, may lie for children significant trauma, sadness and difficulty – and in responding as you do, much joy has been created for the many children and foster families who have found together a pathway towards a better future for the child in their care.
The decision to become a foster parent is not an easy one, but may I say, as President of Ireland, it is such a meaningful act of citizenship. The child you will be opening your lives and hearts to is a greatly vulnerable one. Despite their young age, their life experiences will often have been tough, complex and sometimes harrowing, thus requiring deep wells of compassion, patience and generosity from their foster family.
As a nation we can be deeply grateful to those thousands of citizens who have made that generous fostering decision and, in the process, have become the backbone of how our society cares for children requiring care away from the original family.
Fostering at the present time provides 90 percent of all child placements, offering safe and caring homes to so many children in great need. What you do is a profound expression of solidarity with those in our society who are so vulnerable, and, after all, is it not the case that the best definition of a Republic is that it is a community of shared vulnerabilities?
The theme of your conference, ‘Families who Foster’, acknowledges the vital role of families in our society. Families, as we know, come in many shapes and sizes, but at the heart of all functioning family life is a sense of care, support and belonging. Foster families provide that critical environment for children who, for many, and very different, reasons, have been temporarily or permanently removed from their original family.
Fostering a child is, I am well aware, about so much more than providing the basic and necessary levels of care. It is also about providing a supportive, stable and warm family life to the child in your care. Foster families can ensure that the children who are fostered have opportunities to pursue their interests, develop their talents and make friends, thus building their confidence and self-esteem, by attending their school plays and concerts and matches.
Through the setting of appropriate and understood boundaries, foster children are given the stability and certainty that may have been absent from their lives before. Most of all, foster families make sure that the children entrusted to them are included and made feel wanted at all family occasions and events.
I do not for one minute underestimate the skill and emotional resilience that is required to do this well. Foster parents are often called upon to walk that most difficult line between opening up their family life to their foster child while understanding the unconditional love that such children so often maintain for their own parents, and their natural yearning to go home. It is so admirable that, as foster parents, you stand in solidarity with your foster child, putting their needs first and playing your part in ensuring that the difficult situation in which they may find themselves can also be a rewarding experience for a foster child.
May I, at this point, also mention the children within the foster family who so generously share their parents and their family life and who do so much to welcome new arrivals and put them at ease. Theirs is also an act of compassion and friendship with children who are in difficulty, and I want to thank them in a special way for what they do.
What a wonderful journey of discovery it is for any family to open their homes and their hearts to children who are in crisis. I can think of few better interventions or ways of preparing any child for a life of security, hope and the possibility of an active and engaged citizenship and a sense of connection with the world around them.
Reading your conference brochure for 2020, one couldn’t but be greatly impressed by the range of topics covered, topics that reflect the various challenges and rewards of foster caring. I congratulate you, traoslaím libh, on providing for a central place for children and young people within the conference with their own dedicated workshops. Enabling our young people to use their voice and to know they are being heard is vital and will truly empower the citizens whose futures are at the heart of the discussions that will be held at your conference.
Guím gach rath oraibh in bhur n-imeachtaí thar na comhdhála seo agus gabhaim buíochas libh arís as ucht an méid atá á dhéanamh agaibh do na paistí seo agus dá bharr do mhuintear na hÉireann.
May I wish you all a most successful conference and again thank you all, past, present and in the future, for the light of hope and possibility that you shine into the lives of vulnerable children by giving them that greatest of all gifts – the knowledge that they are part of a loving family.