These are personal stories, from childhood to adulthood, of loss, poverty, resilience and hope; stories that have been written as a result of collaboration between Catherine Dunne and Focus Ireland.
Jasmine is young and vivacious, and feels passionately about what she describes as her ‘mission in life’.
‘I want to be a social care worker,’ she says, ‘because there are very few social workers who come from a background like mine. One of the staff in my residential care home did – and all the kids connected with him immediately. He got it. He knew us.’
Jasmine’s mother had a serious health breakdown when she, Jasmine, was very young. She moved in with her father and his new partner, but there were eight of them in a two-bedroom apartment, and the situation was not sustainable. After nine months, she was taken into care, aged eleven, and left the system when she was eighteen.
She says that the staff in her care home understood that she needed the structure of a family: that she would have better opportunities to thrive in an environment that was more intimate, less institutional.
But her first foster home didn’t work out. Back then, she says, there was no process of ‘easing in’ to a new family. Today, the system is better: there are overnights, then weekends, and gradually the child and the foster family become used to each other. But her first experience was of being dropped into a totally new environment without any preparation. It’s no surprise, she says, that it didn’t last more than a few weeks.
And so for several years, Jasmine experienced a back-and-forth between foster care placements – which frequently broke down – and residential care.
For the past two years or so, Jasmine has lived in an apartment at Chéad Chéim, Focus Ireland’s supported living accommodation for those in transition, located on Dublin’s North Circular Road. She is full of praise for the staff there, but she knows that at some stage in the near future, she will have to move on. Really, she says, she is homeless – as are so many young people transitioning from the care system.
‘It’s so hard to find anywhere to live,’ she says, ‘the housing crisis is madness.’ No young person can afford the rates being charged. And the shortage of accommodation, she says, ‘forces young women like me to have babies.’ Many young women, she says, become pregnant so that they and their partners will have a better chance of being housed. ‘And they’re not ready,’ she says, ‘but the shortage of accommodation makes people desperate. The pressure is terrible.’
Jasmine believes that Focus Ireland should be grant-aided by the Government to such an extent that it can purchase apartments, and provide good-quality, secure accommodation for young people like her so that nobody is forced into homelessness, or to have a family before they are ready. Jasmine says that she knew from the age of sixteen that her care would end as soon as she reached her eighteenth birthday. ‘But I didn’t understand what that meant at the time,’ she tells me. ‘I was a very different girl at sixteen.’
School was a difficult place to be: ‘everyone knew’ her business. Her older foster brother also attended the same school and the taunting from some of their schoolmates was very painful. She feels that the staff in the school treated her differently from the other teenagers. She felt, even at the time, that they lacked sensitivity in dealing with her. They knew her background, she says, but they made few allowances for her.
Jasmine remembers it as a very emotional time, full of upheavals. She became depressed and for a time, suffered from bulimia. When her final foster home broke down around the same time, she was devastated. She cried a lot, she says, and found it very hard to come to terms with.
‘I’ve had so many moves in my life,’ she says. ‘All I’ve ever wanted is a bit of stability.’
She moved back into residential care and when the time came, her careworker Lynn – for whom she has enormous respect – helped her to confront the challenges she would face in moving on, out into ‘the real world’. When she moved into Chéad Chéim, run by Focus Ireland, she was ready. ‘It was great,’ she says. ‘I had a chat with the manager before I moved in, so I’d know what to expect. And the privacy was something I’d been looking forward to! I’d always been part of a flock. I really wanted to have my own space.’
Jasmine felt unexpectedly lonely, she says, and the staff worked hard to help her adjust. They reassured her, told her it was all ‘part of growing up’ and their care and support was crucial.
‘You can’t be too strict on a new foster-child,’ she says. ‘You have to give them time to settle. As a foster-child, when I moved into a new family, I had to get to know maybe six people all at once. They only have to get to know one of you.’ It’s a lot of pressure, she says, and all the different rules and regulations can feel overwhelming.
Sometimes, Jasmine felt she had to be ‘Little Miss Perfect’ in order to be accepted and feel loved in yet another new family. There were times when she deliberately tested one foster mother in particular, she says, ‘and she was good. She didn’t hand me back.’
Trust takes a long time to develop in the best of circumstances. Often, it doesn’t develop at all. ‘That feeling of knowing you’re going to be moved on is the worst in the world,’ she says. ‘You can’t settle to anything. You can’t be still. And your whole childhood is taken away from me. Mine was. And I can never get it back.’
She feels sad that families have to go through what hers has suffered. Her mother – now fully restored to health – still grieves for her youngest child, taken into care when she was ill. The estrangement is now so complete that ‘she hasn’t seen him in over eight years.’ Tusla has a responsibility here, Jasmine says. They have a responsibility to keep the lines of communication open so that fractures such as this don’t happen to other families.
It’s hard to make ends meet. She’d love to have a part-time job, but Social Welfare rules make that impossible. She’s fulltime at college, and enjoys the challenge.
Focus Ireland staff ‘are amazing’, she says. Last year, her aftercare worker, Lynn, offered her the opportunity to be a Camp Counsellor in the United States, and she worked with children from some very challenging backgrounds. ‘Lynn was amazing,’ she says. ‘I still miss her. She did so much for me.’ The experience in the United States was ‘just wonderful’, she says. She didn’t want to leave, she says; the little girls, aged from eight to eleven became very attached to her, and she to them. There were a lot of emotional triggers for her in that place. The interactions with the children brought back a lot of memories. For three months, she had the delightful experience of being ‘Momma J’ to different groups of children. Many of the children came from care, or were adopted. Jasmine loved minding them, reading them bedtime stories, making them feel loved. She wanted ‘to bring them home’ with her.
‘I want a gaff,’ she says, and we laugh. But we both know it’s no laughing matter. Recent figures indicate that the housing crisis is getting worse. Almost ten thousand homeless, four thousand of them children. There is an accompanying rise in homelessness among young people leaving care: almost fifteen percent of those who leave state care end up homeless.
Jasmine and her partner hope to have children, maybe sometime in the next few years. She’ll be ready by then, she says, but first of all, she wants to finish college and get her qualification in Social Care work. ‘I want to change things in this country,’ she says. ‘That’s why I work with Epic. I support foster parents in establishing good relationships with foster children. That’s my mission in life.’ www.epiconline.ie
Jasmine also works with the International Foster Care Organization – you can find them on Facebook.com, and she gives talks and facilitates workshops on all aspects of fostercare and residential care for children and young people. She is nothing short of a powerhouse.