There are thousands of children in state care in Ireland, for whom the Irish state is supposed to act in place of their parents.
Yet “the state is a very bad parent,” says Neil Forsyth of the Irish Aftercare Network. “In fact, the state is a cruel and heartless parent.”
That’s visible in the dysfunctional packages of aftercare supports it offers, some say. Those leaving state care at 18 years of age get, on paper, a package of supports the make-up of which depends partly on what they are going to be doing next. But some say those supports are under-resourced and unfairly distributed.
Those advocating for children leaving state care have tried repeatedly to raise these and other issues with the aftercare system that risk the futures of young people for whom the state is supposed to be acting in loco parentis. But they can’t get the Minister for Children to meet with them, they say.
“To be a parent means taking on an enormous moral responsibility,” says Forsyth.
But if the Irish state won’t act when some of the children raised in its care become homeless, then that moral responsibility is lacking, he says.
What Is Aftercare?
Aftercare is the term used to describe supports given to those leaving state care at 18 years old to help them transition to independent living. But “aftercare” can mean two fairly different things to different young people.
For some, it might mean getting a support worker from Tusla. For others, it means getting €300 a week from the agency.
According to legislation introduced in 2017, as an amendment to the Child Care Act, Tusla conducts an “assessment of need” for each young person leaving care and then creates an aftercare plan based on that assessment.
The aftercare plan covers all aspects of their transition into adult life, including education, accommodation and finances.
The Department of Children and Youth Affairs is conducting a review of all aspects of the Child Care Act, says the spokesperson.
“All young people or young adults assessed as eligible for aftercare supports are offered support … in line with current legislation,” a spokesperson for Tusla said.
Around 90 percent of those assessed as needing an aftercare worker have been assigned one, the spokesperson said.
That leaves 187 young people across Ireland who need the support but don’t have it, according to the data supplied by the spokesperson.
Says Forsyth: “There are scores of young people on waiting lists for aftercare across the Dublin region and we do not know how many of them will not be allocated an aftercare worker.”
Young people with the most complex needs are usually prioritised for access to an aftercare support worker, says Edel Weldon of Empowering People in Care (EPIC). They might have mental-health problems, disabilities or addictions.
That said, even for that group, there are no guarantees. “While they might be assessed as ‘priority need’ there might not be enough workers,” she says.
Weldon says that the aftercare service has greatly expanded and improved since she worked there, in Dublin city centre back in 2011. Back then there were very few aftercare staff but the job was easier because there was more accommodation available, she says.
She regularly helped young care leavers find apartments to rent, especially bedsits, she says. “I had the numbers of landlords in my phone. I didn’t even know what homeless services were.”
Then in 2013 or 2014, the situation suddenly changed. The housing shortage hit at the same time as the bedsits were being taken off the market, she says.
“I had a lovely young girl, she was going to college, no drug use,” she recalls. “I suddenly realised there was nowhere for her to go.” All the professionals including council staff were caught off guard, she says. “Everyone was just in shock.”
Nowadays, a lot more young people have an aftercare worker, but the job has changed. Some aftercare workers have such big caseloads that they don’t help young people to try to find private rented accommodation, says Weldon.
Says Forsyth: “We know in some areas that aftercare workers have enormous caseloads so the quality of the service provided to young people is very poor.”
There is no maximum number of cases that can be assigned to each aftercare worker, says the Tusla spokesperson.
“Case allocation is overseen by the local Aftercare Manager or designate taking account of complexity which is monitored in the context of case management under professional supervision,” he says.
Tusla is currently developing a standardised case management tool for aftercare, he says.
The other aspect of aftercare is a financial package, which is only provided to those young people who are in full-time education.
“A major priority in Tusla’s aftercare policy is encouraging and supporting young people leaving care who wish to pursue further education or training,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
“As such, continuing in further education or training entitles the young person to receive the standardised aftercare allowance even after they turn 21,” they said.
This means they get €300 per week from Tusla, which they can use to help fund their accommodation and living expenses, and they are usually entitled to a full maintenance grant through Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) and to have their educational fees paid.
Aisling Bruen, who has a history of state care and an interest in advocating for care leavers, says that financial package should be made available to all care leavers – whether or not they are staying on in education.
She says the system reminds her of the Victorian poor laws, which distinguished between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor and favoured the former for charity.
Those who do not get the financial package from Tusla and are not in employment can apply for social welfare, at the full rate of around €200 per week and for the housing subsidy, HAP to help pay rent.
But some landlords won’t take tenants on HAP, and the limits are too low to cover rents on many homes.
Since many young people are trying to get rooms in shared houses, the cash payment from Tusla might provide more flexibility, says Weldon, rather than the HAP system where the council pays the landlords.
Tusla stops paying foster families when the children turn 18. So, for those who are in full-time education, the aftercare payments go to the foster parents and they work out how to split that with the child, says Forsyth.
For those who are not in education, there is no money. Despite this, many foster families keep the kids living with them after they turn 18, says Forsyth.
But “very sadly and quite shockingly, some young people are asked to leave and this is especially heartbreaking for kids who have been with foster carers most of their lives and thought they were part of the family,” he says.
The most at-risk young people are often in residential care, rather than living in foster homes, and may not have good options for moving on, says Forsyth.
“Unfortunately, it is usually those who are not in education who have the greater need and have had the most damaging childhood experiences,” he says.
And yet these are the ones who might get an overworked aftercare worker, if there’s one available, but wouldn’t get a financial package.
Meeting the Minister
The Irish Aftercare Network, which represents professionals working with young people who have recently left state care, has requested a meeting with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone on four occasions since July 2017, but her office has declined.
In one approach, they noted that aftercare practitioners have a wealth of knowledge of how legislation, policy and practice are impacting on the lives of young people – and asked for an opportunity to express those views to the minister.
The minister’s office told the Irish Aftercare Network in an email that their concerns were “operational” and should be raised with Tusla instead.
In April 2019, she again declined to meet them, this time citing scheduling concerns.
Zappone “has shown very little interest in young people in care,” says Forsyth. “The shutters just come down when you mention young people in care or aftercare.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs didn’t respond directly to questions as to why Minister Zappone had declined to meet the Irish Aftercare Network.
“It is essential that all young people leaving care are provided with the type of transitional support that their individual situation requires,” he said. Aftercare is one of the areas Zappone has highlighted to Tusla as a priority, he said.
Zappone believes there have been many positive outcomes for young people in aftercare, while also “noting the vulnerability of young people leaving care, particularly in the area of accommodation”, the spokesperson said.