When my foster brother died, I realised the care system must change
This opinion piece by Annemarie Ni Churreain originally appeared here in The Guardian.
I was abroad when I got the call. There’s been an accident, I was told. You need to come home.
You lose your foothold in the world when you learn that someone you love has been harmed. I remember the coldness that burned into my bones at first. Then, anger. Next, the slow drip of guilt and delusion. I should have been there. I know he will survive. I was sitting under a strip light in a hospital corridor one morning when I finally realised that my 23-year-old foster brother was going to die.
I grew up in north-west Ireland in my biological family, alongside adoptees and foster siblings (most of whom had only sporadic contact with their relatives or original families). For all of us, the question of how to deal with loss was central to our lives. What does it mean to be part of a system in which loss and separation are the cornerstones? How do you prepare to be parted from the person you never expected to have in your life? Where can we process our grief? When a child or adult of the care system is dying, all these familiar questions become further amplified.
One of the greatest resources we have for unpacking these questions is the relationship between a child’s foster family and original family. Within this relationship is the potential to share stories, information and emotional support. In my life I have had more than 30 foster siblings and this much I have learned: no one understands the love you feel for your foster child better than the original family. No one else understands the depth of your hopes, fears, and loss. Even in families where violence or abuse has occurred, there are always other individuals (grandparents, cousins, in-laws) who pose no risk, and who want to participate in a meaningful relationship. It’s vitally important that social workers find these individuals and help care families establish links.
Yet in Ireland some of the 6,000 children in care (and most care leavers, of which there are 20,000) have no social worker. Tusla, Ireland’s child and family agency, has recently reported a massive shortage of staff, and in my experience the dialogue between families often happens in ways that are unsafe and incoherent, such as via social media. This superficial level of engagement, in a society that struggles to understand “different” families, spells disaster. It leaves families completely alienated when a crisis occurs.
In the hospital, I met most of my foster brother’s relatives for the first time. I also saw first-time meetings between biologically-related adults and children. It was a strained atmosphere intensified by the fact that we had no shared history, and no social work support. All this hindered and coloured the very practical business of hospital access, medical care and deciding future plans. In hindsight it seems sad and wrong that this is howthe families met for the first and only time.
Families must be encouraged to liaise, not least because outsiders to the fostering experience may not always understand the unique dynamics around our losses. When a child or adult of the care system dies, even the familiar blueprint for acknowledging or ritualising death is fraught with complication. How does a community console a person whose relationship with the deceased is not clear? How do you reach out to a family whose bereavement may be mired in regret, stigma, or silence?
On the day of my foster brother’s funeral, I stood in a back pew and watched the procession move down the aisle, the coffin carried by members of the biological family – some I had barely met. In that moment, I felt daunted by how much needs to change in the care system. I did not go to the graveside during the burial, partly because I didn’t know if I belonged there, partly because I didn’t feel that at such a young age he belonged there, partly because I did not have the appropriate support.
Growing up in a foster family, I received no support to deal with my losses. I received no proper support to connect with biological families. Yet, I have learned along the way that a respectful and transparent relationship is one of the best ways to make sense of the complexity of the care experience. Social workers have a pivotal role to play in nurturing this relationship. My foster brother died as the result of an accident, but I have been left with the question: unless families are helped to work together, how can we keep anyone safe?
Annemarie Ní Churreáin is a writer and poet from Donegal in north-west Ireland. She is an advocate for family diversity and Irish foster care reform. Support care reform in Ireland by following The Care-Leaver’s Network Ireland
Also by Annemarie Ni Churreain Living with Trauma: Why We Need To Support Foster Carers in Ireland