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Helping transform young people's lives through fostering

As the number of children in care in Northern Ireland continues to rise, these couples tell how they have helped transform young people's lives through fostering.

By Kerry McKittrick

Last year in Northern Ireland more than 2,500 children and young people were in foster care. This number was a 5% increase on the year before and in the last decade figures have risen by 8.5%.

Last year in Northern Ireland more than 2,500 children and young people were in foster care. This number was a 5% increase on the year before and in the last decade figures have risen by 8.5%.

Care may range from long term placements lasting years until the child reaches adulthood or it simply may be respite care lasting a weekend to give both the child and his or her natural parents a little space and a rest. Of those in care, 75% live with foster families but The Fostering Network recently made an urgent plea for more foster carers. The organisation says that four new foster families are needed every week to provide shelter for vulnerable children.

We talk to four foster parents about the vital job they do, and one foster child who maintains his life wouldn't be the same if he hadn't been fostered.

Josephine McClelland (61) lives in Banbridge with her husband Sean and was recently named as Foster Carer of the Year. They have four children; David (40), Sharon (38), Erin (35) and Roseanne (31). She says:

It never crossed my mind to foster children, when I was younger. I was busy enough with my own life. My sister fostered though and through her I was asked to provide respite care for a young child about 15 or 16 years ago. That fell through at the last minute -- we felt quite a sense of loss as we had been expecting a new child in our lives and it didn't happened.

For the next year we thought about it and then decided to take the plunge. All of our own children had grown up at that point anyway. Roseanne was the only one at home and the time just seemed right to go with it. Our very first placement was long-term, a girl called Donna Marie. She's 22 now and has her own house and job and we're very proud of her.

We don't get to see her as much as we would like as she lives quite far away and doesn't drive but she's part of the family. She calls me if there's anything she needs. We're currently looking after Angela, Donna Marie's little sister and doing respite care too. That's just for a couple of days here and there or maybe a week during the summer.

I can't see us giving it up fostering any time soon. The high points are the same for us as they would be for any family -- when the children pass exams and get jobs.

When children come to you often you find yourself crying with them over their experiences. You can't help but get emotionally involved with children in your care. Fostering means you can change a child's life or at least have a positive influence in the little time that they're with you showing them that it's possible to make a change.

I was awarded Foster Carer of the Year two weeks ago -- it was Angela who nominated me with the help of Roseanne. I'm surprised more people don't consider fostering. For me it's a very natural thing to do. I also look after my six grandchildren, so being surrounded by children is normal for me.

I would fill the house with children if I could."

Mary McGrane (55) lives in Keady with her husband John. They have three children; Nick (23), Liam (18) and Damien (16) and have adopted Sophie (13). She says:

I wasn't working because I was at home looking after our children. I saw an advert in the local paper looking for foster carers and that was that.

Our children were so young and so accepting that it seemed to be the right time for us to do it -- that was 14 years ago and we still haven't stopped.

We started off as short-term carers and then we fostered three brothers long-term. I think when you can keep a family together for the long term they'll be more settled and it will suit everyone better.

It depends on the situation whether children keep in touch with us or not.

Sometimes children will only be here for a few days before they go back to their families.

Other times they'll stay for longer and become close to us. We're happy to hear from all of them if they need us, though.

We took Sophie straight from the hospital as a 5 lb baby.

She stayed with us for two weeks before she was returned to her birth mother but it didn't work out and so she then came back to us.

When she was one-year-old we applied to adopt her and everyone agreed that it was in her best interest.

She still sees her natural family once a year though and when she turns 18 she can see them as often as she likes.

The highs are being able to provide a child with a good home and stability and seeing them flourish within that environment.

We've had children who have completely turned themselves around within our care which makes us feel so proud.

In saying that of course it can be a bit of a wrench when a child has to leave you but it's usually the right time.

Either they'll be going back to their natural family or they will have turned 18 and want to move on to independent life.

Fostering is so important as children need stability, boundaries and a good family life to enable them to thrive.

We have three other children on short-time placement with us at the moment."

Marshall Donaldson (54) is a full-time fosterer and lives in Ballyclare with his wife Damaris (54), a civil servant. They have two of their own children, Victoria (27) and Denise (23), and one adopted daughter, Kelly (20). He says:

When I was a child I was sent into residential care for 18 months because my mum was ill. She got better and I went back to live with her but I remember the other kids there telling me it was much better to be fostered than in a home. They all wanted to be fostered.

When Damaris and I got married we decided we'd have a quite a big family. We were going for four but after our second daughter was born Damaris was advised not to have any more children. Friends of ours were at that point fostering with the aim of adopting and they suggested we try it.

Obviously we talked about it as a family although the girls were only about three or four years old at the time and we decided to do it. We live in the country and have lots of space.

We had to go through a rigorous screening programme that lasted for about a year. We were getting visits from social services almost every week as well as undergoing police background checks and facing an interview panel, so it was something we had to know we were committed.

At first it was completely new to us and every child comes with their own issues and personalities. It can be a struggle on both sides, for us and the children.

In the early days we fostered children on a long-term basis. Some of them were with us for years. We actually had three brothers come to stay for 13 years.

That's how we got Kelly. We had been fostering for about nine months when she came along at 13 months old. When she was six it was the health trust that suggested that we think about adopting her. They felt it was the best option for her and we didn't object. We just hadn't thought of it before as Kelly still saw her mum and siblings.

There was never any animosity with Kelly's family although Kelly's mum made it clear that Kelly was a wanted child but she felt that she couldn't look after her due to illness.

Kelly's part of the family now. She is now studying chemistry in England but this is her home and she still comes back here.

These days we provide emergency and short-term care. We've been able to do that because Damaris went back to work and I gave up my job to be a full-time fosterer. Having children here on a short-term basis means that we get the chance to assess them and what they've been through as they'll open up to me once they get settled here.

My favourite thing about fostering is seeing the children flourish. A lot of the children we've looked after have gone on to third level education which is great as children in care are often low achievers educationally. On the other hand it can be a wrench when children need to leave us and move on but we've kept in touch with many of them."

Jillian Dalton (44) is a social worker. She lives in Bangor with her husband Gary (47), son Connor (11) and her foster son Jonny (18). She says:

It was my parents who were foster carers initially. Jonny started coming to them when he was nine-years-old for some respite care -- just for weekends or a few days. We had been living in England but had moved home. We started to take Jonny swimming or do other activities on days out.

It came to a point though that Jonny needed emergency care and the only place to put him was in a care home for adolescents which wasn't the ideal place for him to be. At that point we stepped in and fostered him.

We had actually planned to provide emergency or respite care for those who needed it and we've not fostered any other children. We wanted to focus on bringing him up and providing a stable home for him. We still had to be screened though.

Jonny is now part of the family. He calls me and Gary mum and dad and even when he goes away to university this will still be his home for him to come back to in the holidays. I can't see us fostering again even when he does go away for good though. I think we're happy with the life we've been able to provide for Jonny."

Jonny Leetch (18) lives with Jillian and her family and has sat his A-Levels at Bangor Grammar School. He says:

Having a foster family is really important if you're not able to live with your birth family. My foster family provided me with a proper, structured home and emotional support.

If I didn't have that long-term placement I wouldn't be the person I am today. Jillian and Gerry have been more like parents to me than my birth parents were and they're the ones I call mum and dad.

I remember the night I went into care and the few days before it. I was taken to an emergency placement in the middle of the night and it was quite scary because I didn't quite know what was going to happen to me.

Over the years I've talked about adoption but I was the one who decided against it. My birth parents have passed away now so I feel that my name is all I have left. Even though I absolutely feel part of the Dalton family my name is the one link I have to where I came from. Adoption wouldn't really change much. But I admit that if long-term care is needed then adoption is probably the best route.

Long-term foster placements aren't necessarily for life though. Kids can still be in contact with their birth parents and go home for Christmas.

I feel I've had a great upbringing in foster care. I've just sat my A-Levels and I'm hoping to go to university in England to study chemistry.

I'd like to do a Masters degree, a PhD or possibly go into medicine. I don't think that's an opportunity I would have if it wasn't for my foster family."

Could you be a foster carer?

There is no legal minimum age to become a foster carer., Most services will accept applications over the age of 21.

Single people, cohabiting couples and gay and lesbian couples can foster as well as married couples. You can also have a job and foster too. The fostering assessment takes about a year and include background checks. To find out more go to


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