There was barely standing room on Thursday afternoon in the packed offices of the newly-opened Kinship Care offices on Derry’s Carlisle Road.
The numbers, which rose way beyond the anticipated guestlist, were a testimony to the amount of belief and commitment that people have in the charity organisation whose sole aim is keeping families together and transforming the lives of children.
Jacqueline Williamson has more than just professional experience of the issues, she grew up in care herself and stepped in as a carer to look after a relative’s child.
That experience – from both ends of the spectrum – has taught her that children grow better and stronger when they are cared for by family when their parents are unable to do so.
Thursday’s opening of a new drop in centre for children in kinship care, was attended by Derry’s Mayor, Martin Reilly, the Chair of the Western Trust Fostering and Adoption Service Pat Armstrong, Sinn Fein MLA Maeve McLaughlin and numerous community representatives. The special ‘celebrity’ guest on the day was Kuddles the Kinship Care Bear – pictured left – who was greeted with huge enthusiasm by all in attendance.
Jacqueline told the crowd that Kuddles will bring the hopes and aspirations of all children in kinship care to every government department who will listen.
Opening proceedings, The Mayor, Martin Reilly, said he knew that many families in Derry had made huge sacrifices to stay together and prevent children from entering the care system.
“Children in kinship care require a range of supports,” said Colr. Reilly.
“Often these children have come through trauma and upheaval at such an early point in their lives and we all want to get it right for our children.”
Colr. Reilly said the Kinship Care centre was something to be celebrated and described it as a facility which would change lives for the better.
Joanne McDowell, Chief Executive of Big Lottery NI, who have injected more than £470,000 into the Kinship Care NI organisation, said that the official opening of the centre was a special milestone event for families, children and carers in the North West.
Maureen McGinn, from Big Lottery Scotland, who also attended the event, said the centre in Derry and the ongoing work of Kinship care here would make sure that those people who have direct experience in the kinship care system would have their voices heard and would not be invisible.
Pat Armstrong, Head of Services, Adoption, Fostering, Family Support and Early Years at the Western Health and Social Care Trust pledged to work in partnership with Kinship Care going forward.
He shared his personal thoughts on the work being done by the organisation with those attending Thursday’s event.
“As a former kinship carer, I have personal and professional experience of what you are doing, and I can tell you that what you are doing is absolutely priceless,” Mr. Armstrong said, addressing staff at the new city centre facility.
He said that keeping families together, the slogan for Kinship Care, was the Western Trust’s “preferred method of intervention.”
“Everything tells us that positive outcomes for children are best achieved when they remain in their own families. That’s critical for a child’s emotional development.
“At the moment, fostering is under extreme pressure, and we currently have 150 children in relative placements.”
Mr. Armstrong went on to say that children in kinship care situations needed the best support available because of issues they had been forced to face in the middle of childhood.
He spoke too of the disparities between formal and informal caring arrangements.
“Often these children have had to deal with abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence and huge disruption and trauma.
“We need to see how we can work in collaboration to develop specialist kinship teams across all the trusts,” he said.
He then spoke about how he had first hand experience of kinship care.
“I responded to a change in my own family circumstances, and I am very aware of the pressure, demand, strain and feeling isolated and lonely.
“We need to look at how we support informal carers by having family support hubs and strengthening informal carer networks.”
Mr. Armstrong said he would endeavour to build strong working relationships which would benefit kinship carers and the children in their care and added that the opening of the centre was a “stepping stone” to the future work which would be carried out.
Thursday’s opening was compered by Caoimhe Coyle and Jessica Ogilvy – and Kinship Care Chief Executive Jacqueline Williamson said that she believed it was only the beginning of things to come.
“A lot of people don’t even realise that they are kinship carers and we need to get to those people and help them,” she explained.
“This centre is about giving our young people a place where they can come to talk and meet other young people who are in similar situations as well as being a centre for advocacy and a place where they can avail of things like a homework club.
“These children are invisible and it’s so easy for them to fall between a number of different policies and in the end still not have their voices heard.
“We are here to change that. Kinship care needs to be looked at as early intervention.
“Children perform best when they are kept within their own families, but those families and carers desperately need support.
“If that support is given, these children are then recognised. If it isn’t, they remain invisible. That is what we are here to change.”