‘I’ve had 25 social workers. It’s a terrible system’

Young adults with experience of Irish residential care came together with children still in the system for an ‘agenda day’ of pizza and chat, to hear what they think needs to change

First-hand experience of Ireland’s residential-care system: Mark Gray, Lucinda Haines, Oisín Keegan and Sophie Flanagan. Photograph: Dave Meehan

First-hand experience of Ireland’s residential-care system: Mark Gray, Lucinda Haines, Oisín Keegan and Sophie Flanagan. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Sophie Flanagan is 21 this month. “I’ve been in residential care. I’ve been in care with families. I’ve been in care with my auntie,” she says. “I’ve been in many care systems. I’ve been to six different schools and had 25 social workers while I’ve been in care. It’s a terrible system.”

Lucinda Haines, who is 24 and lives in south Co Dublin, says that her social worker was fantastic and would do anything for her. But she adds that her many moves made the social worker’s job harder.

“Yes, some social workers are good,” says Flanagan. But “some don’t know what the hell they’re doing”. She sounds more perplexed than angry.

For the first time Flanagan and Haines are confident that their experiences are important and will make a difference to children and to the adults who care for them. They are now confident that their experiences count.

The two of them, along with four other young people, recently facilitated an “agenda day” for “young people, run by young people”, thought to be the first such exercise in Ireland. Over pizza and fizzy drinks they listened to more than 20 children, aged from eight to 18, who had come to Dún Laoghaire to talk about their experiences and their hopes – and, more importantly, to be listened to.

Mairead Egan of Tusla, the child and family agency, says, “Agenda days, which started in England, explore the areas children and young people want to change. They then lobby adults to make those changes.”

Tusla’s Dublin South East and Wicklow integrated service area aims to improve young people’s participation in its services. “This is part of our attempt to improve that,” says Egan. This may seem ambitious, given Flanagan’s experience, but Egan and her colleagues think it is important.

To find the children they wanted to talk to the multi-agency team co-ordinating the day went through Tusla’s social-work department in the area, local family-support projects and youth projects that work with children and young people there. Then a contact person – a social worker, a youth worker, a family-support worker – approached each young person and asked if he or she would be interested in coming along.

Understanding the life

Sophie, Lucinda and their fellow facilitators, Oisín, Mark, Lynne and Danika, were approached via services that have contact with young people. “All of the facilitators had lived experiences of Tusla and Tusla-type services,” says Egan.

The facilitators knew what they were talking about. So did the children who took part. Divided into two groups – eight- to 12-year-olds and 13- to 18-year-olds – the children found that the young facilitators were indeed the only adults in the room: young adults who understood life in care and, fortunately as it turned out on the day, how pizzas should be carved up.

Mark Geary, who is 26, spent 13 years in residential care. Now hoping to continue his studies in the area of child welfare, he has previously talked to social workers and trainees about what children need from them. “I was five when I went into care,” he says. Geary counts himself lucky that he was cared for in only two institutions. Many young people experience many more moves than he did, he says.

What was it like? “Strange.” Geary says many young people can experience 12 or 15 placements. He now works with Epic, an advocacy group for young people in care.

Oisín Keegan grew up in a family that fostered other children. “When I was very young my mam and dad fostered. Then they stopped when I was about three or four, and then we started fostering again when I got into my teens.”

Why did he want to be involved in this project? “We live in a so-called first-world nation,” Keegan says. “We say that children should be treated equally in our Constitution, but we still can’t take care of some of them.”

Lots of children passed through the home of Keegan and his younger brother. The longest a child stayed in foster care with his family was two years. But being “in care” is different from providing a “place of care”. Of that Keegan is certain.

“If you think you are ever feeling uncomfortable when a foster child arrives,” he says, “think how uncomfortable it would be if you had to go and live in the house of someone you didn’t even know. I will never know what it is like to be homeless. I will never know what it is like to be abused. But I can empathise.”

How does he empathise? “You genuinely listen to people. Unfortunately, in this country, it is often the case that social workers listen to you but don’t hear you. Young people are saying what they need and what they want to happen to them, but it’s just, ‘There, there: this is what is actually going to happen.’ ”

The facilitators recount a lucky and not-so-lucky dip of experiences. The children and young people have had, and are still having, a mixed time with social services.

What emerges during the day is that the children and young people just didn’t know what a social worker is or what a social worker is meant to do.

“How on earth, if you’re five or six, do you understand what you will be getting from Tusla and your social worker, or what you should be getting?” asks Geary, who found that the young people at the agenda day were just as perplexed.

The children and young people said that they thought a website would help them.

“They felt it was a way of putting all of the answers to all of their questions in one place,” says Flanagan. “At least with a web page everything they want to know will be answered. They are our age or younger, so they are using the web on their phones; they are using their laptops. Answers need only be one click away.”

The project certainly has legs, says Keegan, “because even though we were focusing on south Dublin and Wicklow it will work for the rest of the country – and even internationally. It’s not a thing that will just affect a small group of kids, either. And everything about this agenda day came from the young people. All we were there to do was to get the information from them.”

The participants will now produce a web page, a visible, usable result from their agenda-setting day. “We can now show them that what we said is going to happen is actually going to happen,” Keegan says. “It will give them more of a belief that we are listening to them and that what they say will have an effect.”

The website will take time, and there are lots of hurdles still to jump, but “the best thing to come out of this – even if we didn’t ever get a website, which we will – is that the Government is finally recognising that children have a voice. Children need to be listened to.”

The facilitators knew when they entered the room that the project would be used to secure €10,000 of funding from Atlantic Philanthropies before the organisation shuts up shop in Ireland. They decided not to tell the children about the money.

That decision, and the choices the young people made, surprised Egan a bit.

“The interesting thing was that, as adults, we might have thought that what the young people would want was lots more expensive activities – and the younger ones did say they wanted more days out with their social workers. But they didn’t want expensive days out. What they wanted was something very sustainable.

“We may think that we already give the young people we encounter the right information,” she says, “but they are clearly saying that we don’t. They didn’t want money for away days; they wanted money to make more information about what was happening to them accessible.”

Flanagan was proud to take part in this first agenda day in Ireland, but she really just wanted to give the children “what we didn’t have when we were in their situation”. Haines agrees: “We got asked to do something that would change the service for kids, and I was proud that we could help make a difference for them.”

Begin with listening

Making a difference began with listening. And they will continue to listen, the facilitators say.

“When I was in care,” says Flanagan, “I was good, I was quiet, but I had to run away. I had to do things at the age of 13, 14, 15 to be heard. You actually have to do something drastic for your social worker to come out and talk to you. That was my experience.”

The day has both taught her a lot and, sadly, taught her nothing at all.

“I learned that there are still kids that have the same questions that I had back then, and they are still not getting answered. So I was upset about that. But to get the children’s voices heard, so that they are not just a number to their social worker, made me feel good. Because I thought, Well, I didn’t get that, but I know other people are getting heard.”

They all agree that some social workers can put themselves in a child’s shoes and answer questions well. The website, produced by the people who will use it, will answer many of the questions a child in contact with Tusla or any other organisation might have. Questions that seem obvious can be ignored or not answered clearly, they say. For example: what is a social worker?

“At the end of the day you are in care,” Flanagan says. “This is your social worker. This is how it has to be. Deal with it. You’re not asked what you want, what kind of social worker you might want, what they can do for you. There’s none of that. At the end of the day it’s about time and paperwork.”

Geary agrees but thinks that “a lot of it is to do with the social-work structure itself”. Being a social worker is “tough-assed job: you’re dealing with a lot of children, and there’s a danger that the loudest voices are the ones attended to first.”

For every voice to be heard and for every question to be answered are what all the young people on the agenda day want. They also want to spend more time with their social workers, not swimming and paintballing – and not in cafes where they might bump into people who know them, says Haines – but talking in places where they feel relaxed, and can be listened to.

If any social workers are disheartened by the views of the young people in their care, Egan says that the value the children place on spending time with their social workers, just talking, shows the positive role that social workers can play.

“The children’s biggest problem was that every time they had a question, and asked a social worker, they either got big words they didn’t understand or no answers at all,” Flanagan says. “So the web page will give young people answers to the questions they say they want answered in words they can understand.”

At the end of the agenda day the facilitators are inspired and energised by the young people they have met. Some of them plan to train in this area now.

“There’s this idea that young people are the future,” says Keegan. “Young people aren’t the future: young people have a voice now.”