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Kids don’t see our sexual orientation: Northern Ireland same-sex couple on rewards of fostering

Partners Una Mulgrew and Anne O’Reilly at their home
Partners Una Mulgrew and Anne O’Reilly at their home
Partners Una Mulgrew and Anne O’Reilly at their home

By Stephanie Bell

A same-sex couple from Belfast have encouraged more people from the LGBTQ+ community to consider becoming foster parents.

Una Mulgrew (52) and Anne O'Reilly (62) have been fostering with Barnardo's as 'short break' carers for the past eight years.

They felt that the Pride events would be the perfect platform to make their appeal.

"We just want to encourage couples to step forward and reassure them that they will be stepping into an open and welcoming space where they can help meet the real needs of children and young people in our community," said Anne.

Una added: "The system is now ready for same-sex couples; it certainly didn't feel like that a number of years ago."

Una works in community development and Anne had a career in the charity sector, but now sits on the board of a health and social care trust. They have been together for 11 years.

They celebrated their love in a civil partnership in Belfast six years ago and then travelled to Scotland to get married.

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Una said she grew up wanting to have children of her own but opted not to, because of the attitudes in society towards the gay community.

She said: "I think if I was young now I would make the choice with greater ease because society has changed so much.

"When I was younger, society here was a very cold place and it took me a long time on my own journey to accept myself and be comfortable with who I am.

"There is a real joy for me in seeing how society has changed and there is a lot of equality legislation now.

"It is lovely to see young people having opportunities and being able to be comfortable with who they are. We still have a bit to go, but things really have changed."

Anne and Una first got involved in fostering after they attended a Barnardo's information event at Pride.

They provide short break fostering, which is usually a weekend or week to give long-term foster carers a break.

Over the years they have welcomed five children and two sets of siblings, aged from three to 18 years, into their home.

Una said: "We had been thinking about fostering for quite a while, but our early experience was that the system just wasn't ready for same-sex couples. We went along to the Barnardo's information event, where same-sex couples were warmly welcomed, and this gave us the final nudge we needed.

"We initially became short break foster carers because we really enjoyed the mentoring side of things, had some free time and we felt we had lots to offer. Eight years later, we can confidently say that we get as much out of it as the kids, if not more."

Applying was tough, Anne explained.

She added: "The process to become a foster carer is lengthy, but it has to be to ensure the children will be safe.

"The courses and training that you get from Barnardo's really prepare you. All you need is positive attitude and a desire and motivation to help children; you will grow into the role.

"An important thing for LGBTQ+ people to know is that not being a parent isn't a gap or a barrier, sometimes it's easier to support these young people when you're not parenting them.

"It's all about relationships, building trusting and nurturing relationships."

Being short break foster carers also offers greater flexibility for couples and it is a service which plays a crucial role in helping prevent many long-term foster relationships from breaking down by giving parents a much-needed break.

The couple say they thoroughly enjoy their time with the children in their care.

Anne added: "What really amazes me is that these kids have gone through a lot of change and had to get used to new adults and new homes and if you are just warm with them, they respond so well. Some of them can be distressed, but the training really helps prepare you for that and helps you to be able to play a very important and meaningful role."

For Una, it is about creating fun for the kids in their care.

She added: "For me, I have had very good self-reflection out of it and I really enjoy meeting the kids and trying to be fun for them, as some of them have had a lot of trauma in their lives."

Anne added: "The joy of it for me is that these kids don't see our gender or your sexual orientation. We have never faced any kind of prejudice or been judged for who we are and the kids just see us as carers.

"They see people who are caring for them, playing with them, looking out for them and talking to them.

"Society is missing out on a group of people who have something to give and there is so much need for foster carers that for the LGBT community not to be part of that is foolhardy."

Michele Janes, head of Barnardo's NI, said: "We embrace and promote diversity in all aspects of our organisation and that includes our wonderful foster carers.

"We have many same-sex couples who are incredible foster carers and we want to encourage more people from the LGBTQ+ community to foster.

"There are still so many children in need of care.

"So if you are considering becoming a foster carer, please get in touch."

To find out more about fostering with Barnardo's visit www.barnardos.org.uk/fosteringandadoption/fostering/fostering_in_northern_ireland.htm

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