A Belfast mum opened her heart today about the "rewarding but challenging" experience of being a foster carer in the hope of encouraging others to consider opening their home to a child in need.
Anne Finlay, from east Belfast, has been caring for a six-year-old boy for more than a year now after deciding to take up fostering with her husband Shaun and 13-year-old daughter Tammie.
Mrs Finlay (45) now hopes to encourage other parents to think hard about the difference they could make to the life of a child facing difficult circumstances.
She was one of a group of local foster carers who were at Stormont recently to mark the launch of the Regional Fostering Recruitment and Training Co-ordination Service and a new Regional Fostering Helpline.
She said: "Shaun and I had thought about fostering from quite some time. It reached a time when Tammie was old enough to understand what it was about and contribute to what we were doing, so we finally made the decision to look into it seriosly."
After being approved as foster parents about 18 months ago, the Finlays welcomed a little baby boy into their home for temporary respite care.
After he left, another boy was placed with the family about a year ago and has been an important part of the family ever since.
"Fostering is a very challenging but rewarding thing to do. Everyone in the family has their role to play, right out to grans and grandas. You have to keep in mind that the children coming to you will have baggage and may be very scared.
"But it's wonderful to be involved in their life and to watch them beginning to relax and become part of the family.
"The kids get along now just like any other siblings, including fighting the bit out!"
Mrs Finlay and her husband, a 47-year-old businessman, said they would thoroughly recommend fostering to other families.
"The positives massively outweigh any negatives. It's something you need to think long and hard about but if you can open your home to a child, particularly when they need it most, it's a great thing to do."
Staff from the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and a number of MLAs were also at the Stormont event. It was sponsored by SDLP health spokeswoman Carmel Hanna.
The new Regional Fostering Service aims to assist social workers with the recruitment and training of foster carers.
This entails working with the five HSC Trusts and foster carers across Northern Ireland to create a more joined up foster care service.
The Fostering Helpline (Freephone 0800 0720 137) will provide extra support to foster carers across Northern Ireland outside office hours if they have concerns about their foster placement. Social workers with fostering experience will be on hand to discuss any worries foster carers may have and provide them with help should difficulties arise.
Marian Hall, manager of the Regional Fostering Recruitment and Training Co-ordination Service, said there is a "pressing need for more foster carers in Northern Ireland".
"Approximately 1,600 (64%) children and young people being looked after by Social Services are in foster care," she said. "There is a particular need for long term carers for children of all ages and also short and long term carers for boys of 10 years plus."
Ms Hall said that foster carers come from all walks of life.
If you are interested in finding out more contact your local fostering team on 028 9024 5000 or call freephone 0800 0720 137 during office hours.