‘I don’t ever think I will retire from fostering’
Dungannon woman Pauline Hanratty (61) has welcomed over 20 young people into her home during the past 10 years, from countries as far away as south-east Asia, Portugal, Latvia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania and Poland.
Tragically many of the children came here with their families for a better life, only to end up in care.
And it’s thanks to foster parents like Pauline that they are finding support and stability among local families.
There are currently so many children and young people in the care system that agencies have taken to social media to plead with people to become foster parents.
The most up-to-date statistics show that there were 2,673 children living with foster families at the end of March 2020.
With 3,383 children in care and around 2,800 foster families in Northern Ireland, the need for more people to come on board is urgent.
For Pauline, who initially resisted the idea, she found herself not just caring for other children but learning new cultures and getting to grips with new languages.
The grandmother-of-seven and mum-of-three has come a long way since 2011 when she was first approached by a friend who is a social worker and asked to consider fostering.
She recalls: “My initial response was to say no, and I could find a hundred reasons why it wouldn’t work for me.
“But then I went away and thought about it, and I realised that I would be able to care for a young teenager as I had already brought my own up.
“I remember telling my mum I was thinking about fostering and she said, ‘Have you lost your head?’
“I was initially asked to take a child for a few weeks who I knew so that was regarded as kinship care. It was supposed to be for a couple of weeks but a year later she was still with me.
“That’s when my friend suggested I become a full-time foster carer and I decided to give it a go.”
After a successful assessment process, she was approved as a general foster carer in January 2013.
One week later a second young person moved into her home.
Over the years, Pauline has cared for more than 20 young people — some staying for several years and others only a night or two. What they all have in common is that each one of them was treated with dignity and respect and left with fond memories.
There are many different forms of foster care and Pauline has always tried to accommodate whatever the need.
Short breaks foster care is often only required for a short period of time and is usually to support the foster carers where the young person resides.
Pauline has facilitated many periods of short breaks over the years and has also had the same support herself.
However, in recent times she has called upon her adult daughter Nadine to deputise.
Some young people have stayed in Pauline’s care for several years and key to this success is how she has been able to integrate them into the family.
She has fostered children from a diverse range of backgrounds and welcomes every young person into her home regardless of their race or culture.
Currently she has three teenage girls, a 17-year-old from East Timor, 16-year-old from Romania and a 14-year-old from Northern Ireland.
Caring for children from a different culture brings its own challenges, not least a language barrier but Pauline has found a way to make it work.
She explains: “Each day brings its own new learning experiences, and I am now much more educated in various cultures and traditions from around the world.
“I enjoy cooking and I enjoy learning about foods from the young person’s country so I can cook a dish that is familiar to them.
“Food, language and celebrating cultural holidays are all ways in which I have made young people feel valued and accepted.
“This has been a great way for all in the household to learn about the world around them with everyone picking up phrases from various languages.”
The cultural exchange within the household works both ways.
One shining example of this was how Tyrone’s 2021 All Ireland final success was celebrated by everyone in the house.
The young people who were born in far off lands are now enthusiastic members of that ‘Red and White Army’ of supporters who roared Tyrone on to their fourth Sam Maguire.
Pauline said: “Living in Dungannon, it would have been impossible for them not to be aware of the sporting history that was unfolding.
“I’m a fervent Tyrone fan dating back many years so the young people could only be sucked into the hype and anticipation in the build-up to the big day.”
Interestingly, this was not the first foray of the non-Irish contingent into the world of GAA, as one of the young people from south-east Asia was already the recipient of an Ulster Feile medal for camogie and represented her Dungannon club in the All-Ireland Feile series.
Pauline recognises that many young people in need of foster care will arrive at her home having had some negative experiences in their lives.
She expects that some of the young people may display challenging behaviours but soon puts them at their ease by building trust, offering reassurance and having a calm and positive outlook on life.
She says: “I can do ‘calm and positive’ in my own style that I have developed over the years.
“There’s enormous satisfaction when your efforts work out.
“I’ve always chosen to look after teenage girls. Wee ones wouldn’t be a fit for our lifestyle.
“I prefer to care for older children as they are more independent and therefore in turn, I can allow them a little more freedom. The young people can make their own way to school and can come and go to the shops and meet friends — they don’t require lifts to most places as they live in Dungannon town.
“This has really enhanced their self-confidence and independence skills and helps provide them with a sound foundation for life as an independent adult.”
Newcastle, Co Down is a familiar location for Pauline and the young people in her care.
The family-owned caravan has been well used since lockdown rules relaxed and provides opportunities for different experiences for each of the young people.
Covid-19 and lockdown are a chapter that will live long in Pauline’s memory.
With a long-standing history of asthma, Pauline locked down harder than most.
Risks of infection were minimised by remaining at home when possible and on many occasions, it was the support of the young people in her care that helped Pauline.
She said: “As much as I helped the girls, I was grateful for having them as they got me through lockdown. I can reflect now on how the young people contributed to making a challenging period as easy and fun-filled as possible.”
Perhaps some of the greatest rewards Pauline has had is seeing the progression of young people in her care go on to achieve well academically.
She says: “Study time is traditionally a little after arrival from school and all phones must be set aside — a major house rule!
“One young person who had ‘left school’ and did not speak any English upon arriving aged 13, was able to return home aged 17 with nine GCSEs and two years later is still in full-time education. She is totally fluent in English; complete with a perfect Dungannon twang!
“Another who had extremely poor school attendance throughout her first three years at secondary school returned home after three years with eight GCSEs.”
Some young people in foster care return to their own homes when the concerns that existed previously have been addressed.
This is a key goal for Pauline as she understands that a young person should only be in foster care for as long as is absolutely necessary.
Unfortunately, she has also had experience of some young people not being able to go back home before their 18th birthday.
Urging others to consider fostering she adds: “I really would appeal for people to think about it. I know if you listen to others, you can so easily be put off so what I would say to people is to make their own mind up and don’t let anyone put you off, sometimes you just have to take the chance.
“My girls all keep in touch and when you get a call from them to tell you they got their driving licence or met a new boy or got a new flat then you know you have done the right thing.
“They help me every bit as much as I help them. I think you just have to try to treat foster children like your own and take the rough with the smooth. There are many more rewards than down sides.
“I don’t ever think I will retire from fostering.”
If you want more information on becoming a foster carer contact HSC NI Adoption and Foster Care on 0800 0720 137 or visit www.adoptionandfostercare.hscni.ni.net