EPIC Empowering People in Care is a national voluntary organisation that works with and for children and young people who are currently living in care or those who have care experience.
EPIC is the only independent national organisation providing direct 1:1 advocacy support to children and young people who have care experience. EPIC supports children in care and those who have care experience, to have their views and concerns heard, to empower them to speak for themselves, to address issues raised by them, to help them access the services and resources they need and to bring about positive change in their lives.
EPIC believes that children in care and those who have care experience are experts in their own experience.
Background to the Fora:
In 2015, I was employed by EPIC as Participation Co-Ordinator to develop and facilitate a national framework for children in care. This initiative was funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies and developed in partnership with Tusla. My role consisted of working in partnership with local Tusla Social Work Teams to set up groups, known as ‘Fora’ for children and young people who were living in foster care.
The purpose of the Fora is to create a safe, engaging and inclusive space where children and young people aged eight to seventeen can come together to share and explore their positive and challenging experiences of being in care and the services that they are engaged in. The aim is that the views, opinions and experiences of the children and young people participating in the fora will directly and positively influence service delivery, policy and practice reform both locally and nationally.
Participation in Action:
Over the course of the following three years and in partnership with local Social Work teams, fifteen fora were established nationally. These fora were reliant on the voluntary participation of the children and young people as well as the professionals involved. The planning group of each Fora consisted of various Tusla employees from Senior Management, Aftercare, Social Care and Social Work.
As a result of this collaborative partnership these groups created an open, honest and supported space for children and young people to explore their own experiences, the care system itself and simply meet others who were also in care.
“It has been a privilege to sit in a room with a group of young people and to hear what we could do better, simple things, but it makes so much sense when you hear it directly from them”
Young Person, age 14:
“These groups allow me to deal with the care system in a child friendly way and lets us know that we are not alone or different”
For the initial meeting with all Fora groups the children and young people were asked to explore, at their own pace the following three questions in a very broad and general way:
What is positive about being in care?
What is challenging about being in care?
What would you like to change about being in care?
Through this open discussion, young people felt comfortable to explore their experiences as part of the group process, as they knew that the professionals involved had no set agenda or questions that they would like an answer to. The professionals involved genuinely wanted to hear what they had to say and so this gave the children and young people a great sense of autonomy over the direction of the conversation.
These open discussions also gave them a better insight into the lives of other children and young people in care and supported them to understand that they are not the only ones who have had these experiences or feelings.
“The process of this group was as powerful as the outcomes, being part of a group in which children and young people set the agenda and are empowered as young citizens has been amazing as a Social Worker”
During the life span of this initiative children and young people created and developed several projects based on their collective experiences of the care system. Their projects tackled difficult topics like cultural diversity, sibling separation, being treated differently because they were in care, relationships with their foster carers and social workers, stigma, moving placements, accessing their files and the lack of love/ understanding within the care system.
These projects can now be found online: https://www.epiconline.ie/epic-fora/
Young Person, 16:
“It really shows the importance of making sure that we feel accepted, are listened to and feel loved.”
The children and young people involved hope that their projects will be used to support the training of new staff and foster carers. They also hope that they will support other children and young people to understand that they are not alone and that they can do anything that they put their minds to.
In 2017 a national conference titled “Our Say, Our Way – A Collaborative Approach to Influence Change” was planned and delivered by the children and young people who participated in the Fora. The entire event was young person led and show cased each of the group’s talents which included video’s, drama, art, games singing and music. The children and young people also took the lead on running their own workshops that highlighted why each group had chosen to take on their specific projects. This event proved how important it is to hear from our children and young people directly and aimed to challenge professionals to think about care from their perspectives.
In 2018 The UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre (UCFRC) completed research on ‘Collective participation of children in care: a formative evaluation of the Tusla / EPIC foster care action groups’. The findings suggested that while there were many important and beneficial outcomes that could be measured, other outcomes also included the emotional and social support that was provided to the children and young people by being given opportunity to be in a space that was free from stigma, where they did not have to explain their story or why they were in care.