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Foster to adopt scheme: ‘We are looking for people who want to make a real difference to the life of a child’

Priscilla McLoughlin from Barnardo’s Northern Ireland talks about the charity’s new Foster to Adopt scheme, and a local father shares his experience


David, Rachel and Lorraine Moorhead

David, Rachel and Lorraine Moorhead

David, Rachel and Lorraine Moorhead

Every year there are children across the country who have been approved for adoption but aren’t placed, as prospective adopters often feel that they are unable to meet their specific needs,” says Priscilla McLoughlin, Operations Manager of the Fostering and Adoption Service at Barnardo’s Northern Ireland.

If we can find a family for even one of these children every year, we will have hugely impacted the life of that child and of their adopters.”

Priscilla hopes that the new Foster to Adopt scheme will make a difference for children who are in need of a safe and loving home.

“Foster to Adopt focuses on finding families for some of the most vulnerable children in the care system who are waiting to be placed for adoption,” the Operations Manager explains.

“These are children with a range of complex needs who are unable to live with their birth families.

As such, they require substitute families who can provide them with a safe and supportive home environment.

“We are using the term Foster to Adopt for our new service as most children will be matched with their prospective adopters on a fostering basis in the first instance,” she says.

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“This will ensure that the child has a stable family and the opportunity to develop positive attachments without having to endure further placements, whilst the legal process of freeing the child for adoption is undertaken in court.

“This will also provide the prospective adopters with an opportunity to get to know the child before making a commitment to adopt, so they can be sure that adoption is the right choice for them and for the child.

“All of our adoption applicants are assessed both as foster carers and as adopters, so that children can be placed with them as early as possible in the adoption process.”

There are a number of reasons why prospective adopters may feel that they are unable to meet a child’s specific needs, Priscilla says:

“These may be children with physical disabilities or learning difficulties, or children with significant health concerns or developmental uncertainty.

“They may also be children who are traumatised because of early experiences of abuse and neglect, children who are aged four years and above, and those who require placement with a sibling.

“Over the last six years, around 12 percent of our foster carers have gone on to adopt children in their care. Many of these children have had complex needs or were comparatively older at the time of their adoption, so might not otherwise have had an opportunity to be adopted.

“We want to use the skills and experience that we have developed in recruiting and supporting foster carers for children with higher levels of need who have been approved for adoption but are waiting to be matched with adoptive parents.

“At Barnardo’s Northern Ireland, our focus has always been on recruiting foster carers for children with complex needs and we are now extending this to recruit families who are also open to adoption.”

Prior fostering experience is not required in order to apply to the scheme, as full training is provided.

“Whilst a significant number of our foster carers have gone on to adopt children placed in their care, previous experience of fostering, or indeed of parenting, is not required,” Priscilla says.

“Our service provides training and support to all applicants to help them understand the role of a Foster to Adopt carer. We also help them to develop the skills needed to care for children with complex needs.

“We are looking for people who have a strong commitment to supporting children and a desire to make a real difference to the life of a child.

“Whilst prior parenting experience isn’t necessarily a requirement, they must have the time and space, both physically and emotionally, to give to a child and must be able to provide them with a sense of belonging and security.

“Foster carers and adopters also need to understand and respect the child’s identity and connection to their birth family and must be able to support the child in understanding their history and in maintaining contact with birth family members.”

With a social work career spanning more than 35 years, Priscilla has witnessed many changes to the service over the years — most recently the launch of the Foster to Adopt initiative and she is optimistic about its potential.

“Barnardo’s Northern Ireland has over 40 years’ experience as an independent fostering agency in this country — an amazing legacy that we want to preserve,” she says.

“We will always be a fostering agency first and foremost but becoming a Voluntary Adoption Agency allows us to extend what we can offer to children referred to the service.

“By continuing to focus on placing some of the most vulnerable children in the care system, we hope that children who might not otherwise have been matched for adoption have the chance grow up within loving families.”

‘There’s a world of support and training available’

David Moorhead (54) lives outside Tandragee, Armagh, with his wife Lorraine (53), daughter Rachael (19) and a young foster child.

The couple were introduced to Rachael via Barnardo’s Northern Ireland in 2012 when she was nine years old, and their second foster child in 2019 — two children who they are, “very, very proud of and love to bits”.

“Both my wife and I love kids and unfortunately we didn’t have any of our own, but we felt that we had something to offer to those in need of a home, to those who found themselves in the care system,” David says.

“We though first of all of adoption, then of fostering. We looked at both and thought fostering would give us an opportunity to help more than one kid.

“As it transpired, we ended up with Rachael in a very long-term situation, which maybe wasn’t the original plan but it’s the one that has one that has worked out for us.

“We started our training early 2011 and were approved just around Christmastime that year. We then had our first placement, which was with Rachael at the end of May 2012.”

David smiles when he recalls “an awkward moment” that occurred during that first meeting with his daughter.

“We were matched with Rachael and we received some information on her, we got a little storybook and pictures of her,” he says.

“The first time we met would have been at Barnardo’s children’s home in Belfast. The in-house cook made a meal for us, I remember it was lasagne, which turns out to be Rachael’s favourite. We were introduced to Rachael and the tea was served, and then Rachael gave us a tour of the home and her room and different things.

“Then as we were leaving, we were saying our goodbyes in the carpark and Rachael came over to hug my wife, they instinctively hugged, but there was this awkward moment between Rachael and myself where we didn’t know what to do.

“We both laugh about it still today. We did eventually hug after she made me do races around the house, and once she had won, she gave me a quick hug.”

Rachael is now doing a retail course with People 1st and David is extremely proud of her accomplishments:

“I’m very proud of what’s been achieved because I’ve watched Rachael overcome so many battles. She’s still only 19 and the battles she’s been through in the last 10 years is unreal, and the determination and the resolve that she’s shown amazes me. I don’t know how she does it.”

The father-of-two has found his fostering experience to be an overwhelmingly positive one, despite facing challenges along the way.

“From speaking to other foster carers, a lot of kids that are placed in the system would have undiagnosed conditions,” David says.

“In our case with Rachael, she is autistic and has dyslexia, which were both undiagnosed when she came to us.

“My wife was originally a classroom assistant and specialised in kids with learning difficulties and she said straight away that Rachael was exhibiting signs of autism.

“It was an extremely difficult process getting a conclusive diagnosis for her. It took three or four years to get that, but I have to say we were greatly supported by Barnardo’s and Rachael’s school at the time.

“Once we got the diagnosis it was a relief.

“At least then she was able to get the support and help that she needed for her condition. She lives brilliantly with them, but now with the added support and understanding from teachers and other people in her life.”

David says that fostering has enriched his life in numerous ways.

“It’s given us a family experience we might never otherwise have had as a family unit. It’s given us a better insight into what kind of people we are ourselves, and I’ve found a few strengths that I never knew I had.

“It has certainly brought my wife and I even closer that we ever have been before.

“The kids have given us an additional bond, I suppose like any couple, and we’ve learnt to rely much better on each other when we need support.

“Most of all, it’s given us two kids who we are very, very proud of and love to bits.”

David recalls a fond memory of being handed a birthday card by Rachael that contained a handwritten note with the words, ‘Will you adopt me?’

Although David and Lorraine had hoped to adopt Rachael, they hadn’t discussed this with her.

“My wife and I had the conversation, but we’d never actually spoke to Rachael about it because we always wanted it to be her choice and not something we had put in her head,” David says.

“So we started the process and then Rachael realised what that entailed.

“She said, ‘Is there another way we can do this?’”

Instead of going through the adoption process the family decided to change Rachael’s surname by deed pole to Moorhead.

“Rachael’s not officially adopted but by the time it came around she was 18, she was an adult then so she didn’t need to be adopted as such,” David explains.

“Rachael is Moorhead legally and she was delighted when she was able to change her bankcard and all of her information.”

To prospective foster carers, David says: “Go for it. There’s no doubt it’s challenging and it’s really hard work at times and you get self-doubt and wonder, am I doing the right thing? But at the end of the day, the rewards far outweigh any of that.

“And there is an absolute world of support and training out there to help you.”

For more information on Foster to Adopt, see  www.barnardos.org.uk/what-we-do/fostering-and-adoption or call 028 9065 2288

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