Cyprus Mail
Cyprus

Seeking a normal Christmas for children in care

Social services are in urgent need of more foster parents

By Andria Kades

AS CHRISTMAS approaches, social services and volunteers are working hard to ensure that the 60 children living in children’s homes or shelters will have a family to spend the holiday with.

More than 200 children under 18 are under the direct care of the social services and 165 of them are already being looked after by foster families. The remaining 60 are in homes or shelters.

And it is these children, volunteers and social workers want to help, especially this Christmas.

“These children aren’t lacking material goods,” one volunteer said, referring to the care the children receive in the homes and shelters. “It’s a sense of normality they’re after.”

But it is not just about Christmas. More foster families are needed so that children who can no longer live with their parents do not have to go into homes at all.

At present, children under the age of five are placed in foster care, while those between five and 12 are put into children’s homes if foster care cannot be found. There are homes in every city except Famagusta.

But once a child reaches the age of 13, they have to go to one of three shelters and these are all in Nicosia – one is for girls, one for boys and one for boys with special needs.

According to the social services’ family and child division supervisor Hara Tapanidou, the needs of every city are generally covered but there are times when a teenager has had to leave their home city to relocate to the shelter in Nicosia.

In some instances, this relocation can be a good thing, she said, particularly if there is a teenager with a problematic circle of friends.

Tapanidou said the social services would not favour building more shelters for older children outside of Nicosia and would rather cultivate foster caring.

Maria Yiasemidou, chairwoman of the Association of Friends of the Limassol Children’s Home
Maria Yiasemidou, chairwoman of the Association of Friends of the Limassol Children’s Home

But Maria Yiasemidou, chairwoman of the Association of Friends of the Limassol Children’s Home, told the Sunday Mail that in her experience, in Limassol at least, children remain in the home until they are 14, and the answer is to build a shelter for the older children.

Sources have told the Sunday Mail that a 14-year-old teenager is currently staying in the Limassol home because the shelter in Nicosia is full.

Although Tapanidou could not immediately comment on the specific case, she denied earlier this week that children over the age of 12 would stay at the home.

“These children have been removed from their families where they faced hardships,” Yiasemidou said. “There are cases of children that have been in the home and then when they become 14 have to move city to go to a new shelter. If there was one in Limassol it would just be a matter of moving to a different street, but now they’re going elsewhere and starting completely from scratch.”

This means a new school, new friends and saying goodbye to the unit they have become acquainted with.

Relying on donations to try and fill the gaps that the state cannot cover, Yiasemidou and her fellow volunteers help with organising children’s birthdays, paying for day trips, summer holidays, summer schools and ongoing costs for supporting teachers. Once a week, the children are paid a visit by two volunteers.

The association also helps towards improving building facilities and providing equipment to create a comfortable and warm environment.

There’s also the afternoon lessons the children go to. These expenses are covered by the state and there’s also two vehicles to drive them around, but this normal day-to-day routine is abruptly stopped when they reach 13 – officially at least – and have to move to Nicosia.

But the ideal solution remains finding more foster carers. Currently, 125 families are registered and these figures have been relatively stable over the years, according to Tapanidou. The families have 165 children under their care.

Of these foster carers, about 30 per cent are related to the child and the remaining 70 per cent may be from the child’s close environment or even complete strangers.

Evi Mihail was a foster parent for 11 years. Between 1994 and 2005 she and her husband, both social workers, were part of a pilot programme in Limassol to foster a group of five to six teenagers.

It wasn’t easy but it was rewarding, she says. To this day, she still keeps close ties with children she took under her wing.

“I recently married one off!” she says with a smile.

Trying to find a way to connect with a teen who may have suffered depression, suicidal tendencies, violence at home was awfully difficult, but she and her husband worked together as a tight unit to make it work.

Did it affect their marriage? “We had a vision. We did it to help and not for any other motive. Our social worker was great as well and that’s very important to foster parents. They’re the key to whether this relation between the child and the foster parents will work.”

Now vice-chairwoman of the Association of Foster Families Folia Agapis (Love Nest), she, along with a team of dedicated volunteers, are working hard to try and support current foster carers but also to try and encourage more people to participate.

“Giving money is easy. But these people sweat. They didn’t give birth to the child but they wake up at night for it. A mother isn’t one that delivers the child but one that tires herself for it,” says Mihail.

“Society doesn’t know that people stay up all night raising kids that aren’t theirs.”

Lack of information however is a deeply rooted problem, chairman of the association Demos Thoma told the Sunday Mail.

“Our basic problem is that foster caring is not widely known in Cyprus.”

Of course, the family structure in Cyprus means that in several cases there is always an aunt, uncle, grandparent or other relative to look after the children.

“These days however, particularly with the financial crisis, it’s much harder. There’s more children in need and fewer people interested.”

Iphigenia Papaleontiou, a volunteer for Folia Agapis, explained that applications to become a foster carer do not require the traditional family structure that once existed.

“It doesn’t have to be a husband and a wife. It can be a single parent, someone that’s been divorced or someone that’s not even married…and this can cater to different children as well.”

For instance, a young child who was a victim of sexual exploitation may be more comfortable with a single mother rather than a husband and a wife.

According to Thoma, only this week, a deal was struck with Frederick University in partnership with the association and the social services to give new foster parents eight to nine training sessions on the best way to deal with the children.

Additionally, Folia Agapis has their own team of partners and volunteers that can look after children in their spare time and help out new foster parents, even offering their professional services – doctors, pediatricians, dentists, psychologists, teachers – it’s an endless list of people who are willing to help out in whatever way they can.

As the holiday season is now in full swing, all of these volunteers and the social services themselves are doing everything they can to ensure that the homes and shelters are empty during Christmas, and the children are instead in the homes of volunteers and foster carers.

“You become a foster carer because you love children, not any other motive,” says Papaleontiou.

 

For more information on the Association of Friends of the Limassol Children’s Home visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/filoistegis/

 

Folia Agapis https://www.facebook.com/%CE%A6%CF%89%CE%BB%CE%B9%CE%AC-%CE%91%CE%B3%CE%AC%CF%80%CE%B7%CF%82-1406480016278540/

 

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