Spiral of children in care at its worst in 25 years, warns chief
The number of children placed into care in the Western Trust area has reached breaking point –putting demand for foster families at a critical level.
A total of 468 children were being looked after by the trust in March this year, but this figure is expected to break the 500 mark by the end of 2013 – marking an increase of more than 70% in two years. Among those affected were six siblings who were split up because there was no one in place to care for them all together.
The head of adoption and foster services with the trust said he had never seen anything like this rise in demand. Pat Armstrong added that he did not believe the high figures was an unusual blip, but a worrying trend that had increased significantly over the past two years.
No specific reason for the rise in numbers has been identified but the economic downturn is thought to have exacerbated the circumstances that result in children being removed from the family home – such as poor parenting, drug and alcohol dependence and a lack of support from the wider family network.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Armstrong said: "The number of children in care in the Western Trust area has risen from 292 less than two years ago, and while I would have seen a spike in numbers over a month or two in the past, this hike shows no sign of levelling out and I feel the numbers haven't peaked yet.
"In 25 years this is the worst I have ever seen things and what worries me most is that I don't see it declining, so we desperately need more people to consider fostering. There are 120 kinship carers in our system at the minute and this is where a member of the extended family has stepped in and is caring for a child that has had to be removed from the family home.
"If we did not have these carers we would have reached breaking point within the trust and would have had to consider placing children outside of the trust area.
"This is very detrimental to the children and is what we try to avoid at all costs, and it is only something we do in very exceptional circumstances when a child needs specialised care that may not be available in the Western Trust."
Mr Armstrong added: "The truth is that anyone can put themselves forward to be considered for fostering because we do not discriminate on any grounds. Single people, male or female or a couple who are cohabiting regardless of age are all possible candidates for fostering in the Western Trust.
"So long as someone thinks that they can provide a loving home which is safe and secure for a child in need, that is all the qualification that is needed.
"We need people who can care for children from babies to the age five-plus bracket right up to the 12-plus age bracket. We will provide detailed training and will give all the help and support that the foster carer will need."
Joan McGarrigle began fostering for the Western Trust four years ago after her own three children had grown up. During that time, she has had a young boy living with her family and she finds the process very positive. She would recommend the experience and said: "It is challenging but very rewarding. It has been a good experience for everyone in my own family and they have adapted very well."