DANA Johnson’s research on Romanian orphans was picked up by astonished reporters all over the world. The paediatrics professor studied 136 toddlers in six Bucharest orphanages. When half of the children were sent into foster care, the difference between them and those left in orphanages was stunning.
The children had been underweight and undersized. Now, with loving care from dedicated parents, they shot up in height and weight.
Amazingly, their intelligence also skyrocketed, with their ability to learn and remember improving in line with their sturdiness.
“Each incremental increase of 1 in standardised height scores between baseline and 42 months was associated with a mean increase of 12.6 points in verbal IQ,” the study says. “Growth and IQ in low-birth-weight children are particularly vulnerable to social deprivation,” Dr Johnson’s study found.
Deirdre McTeague, director of services of the Irish Foster Carers Association, wholeheartedly agrees. She has seen a child of 12 arrive into foster care taking size 5 shoes, and within three months he grew two shoe sizes and was taking size 7 - with a simultaneous cognitive boost. He’s now a successful professional who took time to come home last year to mind his ill father.
Over 5,500 children in Ireland are in foster care, in roughly 3,500 foster families.
Deirdre moved from social work into fostering in the 1970s, when nearly 90 per cent of children in care were in institutions. Gradually the giant institutions were replaced by smaller group homes. “Now we’ve moved almost full circle, and 90 per cent are in foster care,” she says.
Foster kids - who typically come from troubled homes - can have a hard time with their self-image, says Deirdre. They may feel rejected by their birth families, and conflicted about where they belong - who they should be loving, where their loyalties lie.
The trend today is to try to foster children within their own extended family, so that it is as if the wider family has opened its arms to accept them.
This has its own problems, though, since legally - and quite rightly - children can only be assigned to people with Garda clearance and references, through a court order or voluntary care order.
And foster parents don’t have the same rights as birth parents. Until children have been with you for four or five years, for instance, you can’t apply for a passport for them without a social worker’s ok.
Since there is a long queue for services, some foster families just don’t go abroad on holidays.
There can be huge delays in speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, psychological services for children - even where there are excellent services, like the Mater and Castleknock child guidance service clinics.
Some foster parents, desperate for help for a child they love, have simply - and this is not acceptable - paid for private services.
“They’re living with the child, and living through the difficulties the young person has,” Deirdre says. “You get very attached to the child. You can see the blossoming, and the reward of that is great.”
The best foster parents are down-to-earth people who don’t have specific expectations of a child. “Salt of the earth types, who can absorb a child with its own needs and its own quirky nature - the old kind of family who’d say ‘That’s Sean, he likes to play football, and that’s Tom, he likes to read’.”
Irish Foster Care Association: http://www.ifca.ie
TimeWise fostering for teenagers: http://www.timewisefostering.ie