For this months 10 Questions we sat down to talk to Steve Jacques, current CEO of Key Assets and former Director of Fostering First Ireland. Steve tells us about what it was like when FFI was set up almost 13 years ago, the challenges faced at the time, those early feelgood moments and how things have changed over the years since.
1. What would you say lead to the formation of FFI?
Our chairman’s entrepreneurial passion underpinned by a big desire to make a difference in the lives of children and young people. Additionally the HSE at the time were referring children for placements in the UK and we felt that it was important to offer a local service to keep children in country.
2. Back when FFI was launched back in 2005, what challenges were faced?
I think the greatest challenge was probably convincing people that we weren’t some ruthless business that wasn’t focused on good outcomes for children. Back in 2005 there were only two independent foster care providers in Ireland so I think there was a lot of suspicion about us and our motives. Additionally there was some regulatory challenges which required ministerial directions such as who would approve foster carers. To be honest at that stage everything we did was new and so we had introduce ‘ways of doing things’ as they arose. A big challenge was our inability to process Garda Vetting but we were fortunate to have some support HSE colleagues who provided a resolution for us eventually.
3. When you look back now is there anything that you would have liked to have done differently?
I don’t think there is really. I think we tried really hard to build our reputation and we did everything properly including seeking permission from the HSE to develop services. I think we invested a lot of energy and effort in showing that me were committed to delivering good quality services. One thing I would have done differently is on my first trip to Donegal I would have flown to Derry instead of Donegal airport – I ended up getting lost in Glenveagh National Park!!
4. How difficult was it to recruit Foster Carers and what was the feeling when we eventually had our first family approved?
I think recruiting foster carers is never easy because sadly the wider community are not falling over themselves to become carers. I believe that we did everything we could to generate interest and the phones started ringing! At the time we took enquiries from anyone from as far up as Donegal right down to Wexford. Our first family appointed lived in Donegal and our first family approved by the HSE were in Dublin. In our early days we didn’t have a process for legally approving foster carers and so we relied on the HSE approving a carer when they placed a young person with us. It was so exciting to have finally got to the point of having carers available to care for children – in fact it was beyond exciting! Our first carers were appointed in July 2005.
5. What would you say the main differences were in Ireland in comparison to the UK for Independent Fostering Agencies?
The main difference was the UK had a longer history of engaging with independent fostering agencies and had introduced legislation to regulate these services. The first independent fostering agencies in the UK started in around 1991. I think the development of independent agencies in Ireland brought with it increase in placement choice for children and young people, and in particular those with more complicated needs or who needed higher levels of support in a foster care placement. The first young people placed with FFI where young people whom the HSE had found it really hard to maintain in a more general type of foster placement and we were able to provide stability for them.
6. Over the last 12 years FFI have had over 500 children placed with our families. Can you recall the feeling when we had our first child placed?
Yes I can and I will always remember this. We did have one of those ‘sinking heart moments’ a couple of days before when we were on our way out to the carers home to place a young girl but on the way there we got a call to say that the senior manager in the HSE would not approve a placement with an independent agency. Two days later, on the 5th September 2005, we got a call from one area who were struggling to find a foster placement for a 7 years old boy who had been moving around different placements. He was really distressed and angry and his behaviour was proving really hard to manage. On the day of the call he was actually causing damage in his classroom and the carer he was living with decided they could no longer care for him. We talked to our carers and that evening he was placed – we were so excited and also totally nervous, all in one! He went to school in South Dublin and his carers lived in North Dublin and in order to keep him in the same school we all took it turns for the next 16 weeks to drive him to and from school. When I first met him I couldn’t get quite match up the little boy with the challenging child we were told about. He had us all frightened one night when he decided to ‘run away’ which involved hiding in the bushes near his carers home for a few hours! We had the police, helicopters and search parties out looking for him. He eventually came home when he was ready for bed! This September he turned 20 years old and we are still in touch and his carers still look out for him!
7. What do you think is your best memory from your time as FFI Director?
Wow there are so many; first enquiry, first panel, first carers, first children but I think the best memory was probably our first children and young people’s award ceremony where we recognised every young person for their achievements. The celebration and positivity was just amazing and in some ways epitomised everything about what we had set out to do and a true reflection of our culture and mission. It was of course the first of many events to celebrate children’s achievements.
8. Do you think perception of Independent Fostering Agencies had changed in Ireland over the last 12 years?
Yes it has, although I am sure there are still some colleagues across the sector who have suspicions about the motives of independent agencies or who are ideological opposed to non-government agencies delivering services such as out of home care or family support services. I think the regulating of the sector and our demonstration of positive outcomes have played an important part in improving the perception.
9. What do you think the biggest challenges are facing young people today?
The dominance of social media in young people’s lives is a particular challenge and in particular the fact that their lives are on constant show and subject to scrutiny! I think the usual challenges like fitting in and finding your authentic you are still there for all young people!
10. What would you say to anyone thinking about becoming a foster carer?
I would say do it! I would say that fostering is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things and there are vulnerable children in our community who need people like you!