Fostering in Northern Ireland

Have you ever wondered what growing up with out a parent could be like? No-one to teach you your ABC or count your 123. No-one to tickle your toes and no-one to clean your nose. Fostering in Northern Ireland is at an all time low with 100 long term foster careers needed. Carla Bowyer reports.

On any given day in Northern Ireland there are approximately 2,500 children and young people in care. Of this number approximately 1,700 children and young people are living with foster families. Fostering can range from short term to long term and can last for days, months or even years. Many children return home to their birth families however, many receive long term support.

Foster care can play a critical role in the lives of children, who for various reasons can’t live with their birth parents. Fostering allows children and young people who are unable to live with their parents the chance to live in a secure home environment. If a child wishes to, they can keep in contact with their own families.

Children who are placed in foster care are from a diverse range of backgrounds. Many children and young people have been faced with much uncertainty throughout their lives so far and others have been neglected or abused. The Fostering Network’s Advice and Information officer, Doris Dickison said, “Children coming into care have often had difficult experiences in their early lives, hence they tend to have very specific needs. They require highly skilled foster careers to help them work through many of the issues in their lives and to reach their full potential as adults.”

The Fostering Network said in December 2011 that one hundred new foster careers are needed in Northern Ireland. The Fostering Network highlighted the significance of having foster careers and with the growing numbers of children; they may be forced to live in residential care. They may also have to move a long way from their family home or be separated from their siblings.

Powys in Wales this year tried to recruit foster parents in a bid to help foster children. They used Council vans with a slogan encouraging people to become foster parents. The slogan states, “We foster for Powys… could you?” The slogan has been printed on the sides of more than 40 council vehicles in Powys. It has been added to vans and pools cars belonging to the country council.

Could something like this help fostering in Northern Ireland? Anna Lo from the Alliance Party stated, “I think anything to boost the pool of foster parents is worth trying. Coming from a social work background, I am aware of the desperate need for more foster parents in Northern Ireland.”

The Fostering Network said that the number of children in care needing foster homes had risen five years in a row from 49,700 in 2005 to more than 59,000 in 2011. The Fostering Network said that last year about 8,750 new foster families would be required in the UK in 2012.

Powys council said foster careers were welcomed from all backgrounds, irrespective of race, religion, sexuality, age or marital status. However, in Northern Ireland, this is not the case.

In November l2011, it was revealed in the High Court that there was a law stopping gay couples in Northern Ireland from adopting.

The difficulty lay in the fact of Article 15 of the Northern Ireland Adoption Order as amended by the Civil Partnership Act, which gave people who were neither married nor in civil partnerships the right to adopt but only as single persons, they couldn’t adopt jointly.

Article 14 which was not amended by the Civil Partnership Act gave married people only the right to adopt jointly. In all, the law that stands at the minute means that people in civil partnerships can’t adopt jointly, because they don’t fit into either of the specified categories. A gay person in a civil partnership was disadvantaged in relation to adoption compared to a gay person not in a partnership.

The Human Rights Commission is attempting to force a legislative change which would bring adoption laws into line with the rest of the UK. The Commission has launched a judicial review as it argues the law in Northern Ireland is ‘discriminatory’ and differs from elsewhere in the UK.

Doris Dickison, from the fostering network said, “We have same sex foster carers in Northern Ireland and it certainly does seem to me personally to be a bit of an anomaly in that we can have same sex foster careers but not same sex adopters.”

A Stormont consultation five years ago showed overwhelming opposition to extending adoption rights. Of those who responded, 95% did not want to see unmarried and same sex couples given the chance to adopt. Anna Lo from Alliance Party said, “In terms of gay couples fostering/adopting children, I believe what a child needs is a secure home environment with parents who are in a stable relationship whether it be heterosexual or gay/lesbians.”

In England and Wales the restriction was lifted by the Adoption and Children Act 2002 and since then gay couples can adopt. In Scotland, there has been a similar relaxation of the law, allowing unmarried and gay couples to adopt and register a child with their partner. However, it is only in Northern Ireland, which has seen the same growth in stable partnerships outside marriage does the ban on adoption apply. Kate Gilmore, a mother of four, who is also a foster parent said, “It is a disgrace that gay couples in Northern Ireland can not adopt, we are out of sync with the rest of the United Kingdom, and frankly we are living in the dark ages.”

Interview with Kate Gilmore

In keeping with this and the issue of same sex couples. The government has launched a 12 week consultation on allowing gay couples the right to get married. The law that stands allows gay couples to have a civil partnership, this gives gay couples similar rights to that of couples who are getting married. However, the government wants them to be legally allowed to declare they are married before the next election in 2015.

Many people have welcomed this decision. Despite this, it has come under scrutiny from Church leaders and Conservative politicians. Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland said the plans were “grotesque” and would “ shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world.”

However, Amanda Willis is in a civil partnership. She stated, “The law is discriminate against same sex couples. What it boils down to is, we are second class citizens. We just want to be treated in exactly the same way as everyone else. I am disappointed and unhappy about the continued ban on religious same-sex marriages.”

The Home Office consultation papers proposes, “to maintain the legal ban on same sex couples marrying in a religious service.” This means that religious leaders who want to conduct same sex marriages can not.

The hot topic has caused quite a stir amongst many people. Countries which have already allowed same sex couples to marry include Argentina, Canada, The Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, Sweden, Belgium and Spain. In Spain they have changed birth certificates to say, ‘progenitor A’ and ‘progenitor B’ instead of mother and father since same sex marriage was legalised there.

With this ongoing debate there is plenty of evidence in Britain that marriage is no guarantee of stability – where one in three end in divorce.

Interview with Kate Gilmore

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