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Northern Ireland needs more foster parents to help children in crisis

By Jane Hardy

The need for foster homes in Northern Ireland is startling. The Fostering Network, whose annual Foster Care Fortnight campaign ends this weekend, says 100 new foster carers are urgently needed to provide long-term homes for children in need.

The campaign, called 22 minutes, got its title because apparently every 22 minutes a child somewhere in the UK comes into care and is in need of a foster home.

Translated into Northern |Ireland terms, as Margaret Kelly, director of The Fostering Network NI, points out, that means that two local children every day find themselves in desperate need of a stable home for a long term placement.

She says: “Fostering is still needed and is different from adoption as children are encouraged to keep in touch with their biological parents. It means keeping the links open, and the child’s biological parents still have some parental responsibility.”

Fostering covers respite care involving young people with special needs, and long placements which sometimes turn into adoptions, as happened with 2012 Northern Ireland Foster Carer of the year Irene McKay who with her husband Andrew adopted her first ever foster child, Emma-Louise, who has Down’s syndrome.

At the moment, there are 1,800 foster parents in Northern Ireland looking after 1,850 children and young people. They step in at times of crisis for the children and are the sort of parents we’d all like to have in our lives. There are still 100 Northern Irish young people, mainly teenagers and children with disabilities, looking for long-term care. It’s worth considering since as Ashley Houston, foster son of Samantha Wilson, put it: “Fostering (has) changed everything, and when I get older, I’d like to be a foster dad.”

We talked to three foster mums and one of their foster sons about what this special relationship really means.

‘ All children come to you with a lot of baggage’

Jennifer Burtonwood (52) was one of eight Foster Carers of Distinction chosen by Fostering Network NI this year, and lives in Carrickfergus with her son Philip (25), her twin daughters Rebekah and Annalise (16) and her foster son Paul (19). She’s fostered over 30 young adults. She says:

I’ve been fostering now for 19 years. I never thought I’d be doing this but I did youth work with various churches in Belfast when I was younger, and found I loved working with young people and children.

I did youth camps and then when I was working in the Royal (Victoria Hospital) as a nursing auxiliary, it was Fostering fortnight, just as it is now, and I saw the poster and thought I’d sign up. We had a three-bedroom house and I felt as a Christian, and this is something I’d prayed about, that we should share it. It was something I was meant to do.

Our first foster child was a little girl of five, who stayed six months. All children come to you with a lot of baggage, psychological and physical, and she had problems. But it worked well. My son was seven but whatever decisions we made about the family, we involved him from the beginning. All his life, he’s known children in his house and he really gets on with Paul, to the extent that he’s now his second carer. He looks after him when I’m not around.

Children who are fostered are encouraged to keep in touch with their biological family and what’s good is that they can learn social skills with you. I’ve also learnt to be an advocate for them when it comes to education.

In terms of which background the children come from, I’ve had foster children from both sides of the divide. At the end of the day, they’re children, although they try to keep them in their own culture.

If you get attached, at least you know when they go that you’ve done your best and that they’re going on to long-term fostering or adoption or back to their family.

One child who came to us returned to his family, but would come back to us at weekends. I keep in touch with three children in particular and am proud of the job I’ve done but it’s a collective thing. You’re embracing the child you foster as a family.

Paul has curvature of the spine. He used to be in a wheelchair but had an operation six years ago, which really helped his mobility, and he’s on his own two legs now. Today, we had lunch together in Larne — he’s my wee companion. Although he can’t communicate very well and suffers from aphasia, he understands 100% and is a happy fellow. You always know when he’s in a good mood as he smiles.

Teaching a child to be a mature member of society is terrific.”

‘It’s changed his life ... and ours as well’

Samantha Wilson (34) is mother to Blake (10) and lives in Newtownabbey with two foster sons, including Ashley Houston (19). She has fostered eight young people in the past six years. She says:

Ashley came to me four years ago but I suppose my interest in fostering began with my parents, Sean and Karen Wilson, who’ve been fostering for 20 years and were originally missionaries in South America. They had three sons and one daughter, me, when they first became foster parents.

It all started with the twins, Joanne and Catherine, who are now 25 but came to us 23 years ago. I was nine at the time and can remember Mum and Dad sitting us down and saying ‘You’re going to have two new sisters’.

Later I discovered my mother had seen an ad in the paper about two little girls needing foster parents, and it just broke her heart so she said to my father: ‘We must do something’. But those girls had already been placed, so we ended up with the twins, who were ready for placements.

Fostering seemed natural, and I started off doing respite care, to give parents of children with special difficulties a break, as I had room in my house. I took in children with different behavioural problems, including kids with foetal alcohol syndrome and autism. I did weekends then felt this wasn’t proper fostering so I applied to do longer placements, and my assessment as a respite break provider was topped up.

My friends encouraged me, and I opted to look after teenagers rather than young kids as my son Blake was young and demanding attention. I wanted to help someone who didn’t have conflicting needs.

Blake was six when Ashley came to us and he was very excited about the possibility of a brother or sister. Having other people around, with different backgrounds and issues, has taught Blake empathy and one placement we had involved a young person with severe learning disability. This child would sometimes get confused and couldn’t say what he meant, which taught Blake not everybody is the same. That young man is still with me now.

I have two long-term placements and I do get money to cover expenses, but it’s not going to make me a millionaire. If a child has particular needs, the authorities try to help with certain aids and with education.

We try to go away as a family, and we find somewhere suitable if the child’s disabled. We’ve been to Legoland and Disneyland in Paris, and we go to the family caravan in Newcastle when we can.

I can’t tell you what the worst aspect has been, although I’ve had pretty scary experiences and when placements end it’s sad. Even if a placement is tough, there’s always something positive there, and I feel I was meant to have that young person.

But Ashley has been my best experience of all. I don’t like to think about where he was heading before he got a placement. It’s honestly changed his life — and ours.”

‘I’d like to be a foster dad’

Ashley Houston (19) lives with his foster mother Samantha Wilson and her family in Newtownabbey. He says:

My experience of fostering has varied — it depends who you’re with. I’ve been in the care system for six years and in a home for two and a half years, so that’s eight years or so in all. And when I was six-months-old, I had a short foster placement. Most of my foster homes have had a mum and a dad but I’ve been with Samantha, who’s a single parent, for four years now.

Samantha and I get on really well. I don’t call her mum, I call her Samantha but I do see her as my mum, if that makes sense. You can tell her anything and she comes out with good advice. And I get on well with my foster brother Blake, who’s brilliant. We don’t play football together as we’re not sporty but he’s very into beetles and snakes. When I first came here, I met his snake, Linda, and wasn’t that keen but then I got a snake as a present and found they’re nice creatures, warm and dry and never slimy.

At the moment, I’m coming to the end of a two-year BTech Unit 4 course in public administration. It’s the equivalent of three A levels and I’m hoping to use that to join the police. I have an interest in suicide prevention, from knowing people who were depressed in the children’s home, and would like to be a negotiator.

I keep in touch with my father now and then, but not with my biological mother. My brother and sister who I’m in touch with, were fostered too and my eldest sister, who is 25 and has a different father, was fostered but has now left the system and lives in Birmingham. It would have been nice for us to be fostered together, but that’s difficult.

Being fostered, particularly now, has turned my life around. When I was in the children’s home, things weren’t going very well and I was getting into trouble with the police. Fostering changed everything and now I know what I want to do with my future. I know that when I’m older, whether I have my own children or not, I’d like to be a foster dad.”

‘Emma-Louise has such a lovely personality’

Irene McKay (52) lives near Magherafelt with her husband Andrew, her adopted daughter, Emma-Louise (30) and one foster son. She has fostered 240 children and has six grown-up children of her own, two sons and daughters Geraldine, Helena, Cara and Emma and 12 grandchildren, aged from eight months to 19, by her late husband Kenneth Neill. She says:

When Andrew and I became Northern Ireland Foster Carers of the Year earlier this month, I was all chuffed and really pleased. But I couldn’t understand how I got it when there are so many great people fostering. Emma-Louise came along and was thrilled we got the award. We received a crystal plaque and a cheque for £1,000 but I haven’t decided what to spend it on. Possibly on a meal with my grown-up daughters who help me and their families, or maybe even a short break. I married Kenneth in the Seventies and we had six children, which was a lot of work, but they were all spaced out. Emma was a year old when my husband died and I had to go out to work so I got a job at a local adult centre where I trained young adults with special needs. Then I started doing respite care with them and then Barnardo’s asked me to work with them.

I seem to get on well with young people with special needs. I haven’t thought about why, but I like helping them and their problems would never put me off. I see the person first.

After Barnardo’s I started fostering and worked mainly with special needs kids. Our first placement, Emma-Louise who has Down’s syndrome, came to us when she was about 11 and attended a special school. We also fostered a young boy who was going to the same school.

Emma-Louise is bubbly and has a lovely personality, and our wee man is the same. He’s a lovely young person in his own right. By the time I met Andrew, who’s a surveyor and was working in our village, I was already fostering. We got married 16 years ago and although Andrew didn’t have any family, he didn’t take much persuading to join in.

We’ve also looked after individuals with special medical needs and I’ve learnt to cope with drip feeding — we were taught how to do everything but it was a little nerve-racking the first time.

It’s great when you foster somebody who is going up for adoption.

Of course you miss them when they go but we all have our own value, and it’s good to see somebody get a permanent home.

Some of my boys and girls keep in touch and one boy who’s just turned 11 visits me once a year in the summertime. He says he still has good memories of living with us. The best times, I guess, are when all the family and grandchildren come back and we’re all together. My grandchildren are happy to play with the foster children when they visit and share toys. It works well and the wee man I have here is very good — he’s holding my baby grandson Noah in his arms as we speak.

I survive by making time for myself and pursuing my hobby of making greetings cards. But I do love fostering and as soon as one of my children got married, I’d fill the room.”

To apply to foster children, visit

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