Long-term Foster Care
“We know that what we have to offer is a start in life that others won’t get. Their situation is so precariousness. We may not have everything to offer, but we offer everything we have.”
That’s how long-term foster carer Stephen McDonagh describes what he and his wife Sinead have been doing for the past 17 years.
It’s work that is challenging but also incredibly rewarding, Sinead says.
“There are days you’re not sure you’re doing the right thing. But it is important that we have given everything we can… When you see daily improvements in health, wellbeing, character – you’re getting so much back.”
One of those things is a realisation about what are the important things in life.
“When you see what the kids have gone through, it does change your outlook on life. Only then do you and your own children realise what you have,” she adds.
The couple, who live in Roscommon, started their fostering journey by doing respite and emergency care.
“Only when we underwent training and had experience, did we finally consider long-term care. Over that time, we have cared for 18 children,” says Stephen.
“We would advise that route because it gives you the opportunity to see if you are comfortable with it. You learn about yourself and your own strengths and weaknesses.”
The couple, who are in their early fifties, have two children of their own, Gary (27) and Rachel (19).
“We knew we had the parenting skills but just because we parented our own kids didn’t mean we’d have the skills to help children with challenging needs. But we weren’t starting at zero; we had life experiences,” he adds.
They are currently providing long-term care to three siblings, two girls and a boy aged seven, eight and 12 years old. Two of the children have special needs.
“You worry about these three more than all the previous ones,” says Sinead. “There are days you wonder can you do it. You have to have resilience – take the hard knocks. But they’re ours now. They are happy kids. From day one to where they are now… the difference! They’re doing what every child should be doing; they’re characters.”
The words are full of love.
Stephen and Sinead say that this will be their final placement and that they will continue to care for the children after they reach 18.
“Tusla recognised what a challenge this placement is, with medical and psychological issues, but we have no complaints,” says Stephen. “We’ve been included in all things regarding care planning, everything is put in place. They seek our involvement.
“When you see how much the children have come on… the bond they have that they will take into the world; they wouldn’t be without each other.”
Adds Sinead: “When we’re not getting services, Tusla will fight for these services for us. We have our own link social worker to check on our wellbeing. If we need a helping hand, that part is always there. We’re very lucky to have really stellar social workers.”
For the first 18 months of the placement the children didn’t sleep at night, which sometimes made the couple doubt their own abilities.
“You wonder if you’re a failure. You ask yourself, ‘Am I able for this? Are things going to develop for the kids?’ says Sinead. “We were nearly doing the baby stage with them – because they’d lost out on that themselves; they weren’t used to hugs. They didn’t know what Christmas could be like, didn’t know about the tooth fairy…”
But things improved over time. ‘”Now, they’re happy,” says Stephen. “They love going to school, love routine. All things we take for granted, they never had that before Tusla had to take them into care.
“It was not the children’s fault. It was their environment. We had to try to change that reality for them at a pace they were comfortable with,” he adds.
The couple have cared for children from as young as five months.
“We had that boy and his five-year-old sister for three months – “it gave their mum the chance to put her own life in order and to take her children back when the time was right,” he says.
They also cared for 15-year-old twins (a boy and girl), who stayed until they reached 18 years old.
Says Stephen: “Our son Gary was very good company for the male twin. The girl was great with Rachel, who was eight at the time; they would play together.
“But children vie for attention and there would have been moments in that placement when you have to be mindful of the reaction of all children when it came to activities.
“It’s best to try to treat all the children the same, that way there’s less chance of rivalry and you limit the amount of conflict that can arise,” he says.
“When smaller kids came here there was a lot of issues with sleep – a lot of needs,” says Sinead. “It was hard on our daughter, who was doing Junior Cert at the time. When kids come in you have to give them undivided attention.”
It’s a step-by-step process that requires patience to build the trust between child and carer.
“The development of children is always ongoing work. It’s in-built in them to make as much of a situation in that moment because they don’t know what the next moment is going to be. When you build up their confidence they can relax and enjoy being children,” says Stephen.
“When you can introduce the concept of dinnertime – that you’ll have a lovely hot meal – little things… so that it’s one less thing they have to worry about.”
Balancing the needs of the foster children with their own needs and those of their birth children can be a challenge, he says.
“There’s a lot of sacrifices on all sides. But Rachel was concerned about how it was affecting us as much as herself. One good thing was she didn’t internalise that – these things are openly discussed between us.
“She understood that we were fine and that we had to persist with this. It was a life lesson that we may not have been able to teach her ourselves.”
Fostering changes how everyone in a family looks at the world, he says. “Our kids are very quick to understand there are children who have very little. For them to understand this and to share what they had with other people has shaped who they are.”
The fostered siblings have developed strong ties with both Gary and Rachel, who they call their brother and sister. The couple say that this closeness has meant the three siblings are learning life skills from the way that Rachel and Gary interact with their parents.
The whole experience is one that has forged relationships and changed lives long after the care period has ended.
“One thing you have to understand is you’re taking them down the line to independence. Some may never reach it but it’s important to give it as much energy as you can, so that you have fulfilled the commitment that you have given,” says Sinead.
“You hope you have instilled enough life skills that they are making the right decisions. Our door is always open to them.”
Adds Stephen: “We’ve enjoyed great relationships with the kids. There’s nothing better when you receive an email with a photo of them with their first child. One mum called in with her two kids, there’s nothing better. She even asked Rachel to be godmother.
“We keep in touch, but we don’t intrude. We look forward to hearing from them. Because you keep the door open, they come back and look for advice. We make ourselves available to them.”
The needs of the three siblings they currently care for is paramount for the couple, who say they are constantly advocating for services for them.
“We see ourselves as advocates for the children and how they’re impacted by past traumas. We advocate for as many interventions as they can get,” says Stephen.
“Tusla are excellent. The kids have their own social worker. We’re on the phone every week. They’re always there. Anything we ever need is just a phone call away,” adds Sinead.
Giving so much to so many others has had a huge impact on how Stephen and Sinead relate to one another.
“It has made us a stronger team… strengthened our bond as parents and as a couple. We learned to recognise each other’s strengths and weaknesses, so one of us can step back and let the other deal with a particular issue,” he says.
But lest you think that what this couple has done is impossible to emulate, Stephen has these words of advice…
“Give yourself credit that you have skills that are important in the lives of these kids… If even the thought of fostering enters your head, then try it.
“Sinead encouraged me to give it a go. It has been a rewarding journey, which has given us a lot of satisfaction. There are only winners in fostering – the children win, the fosterers win, the foster carers’ family wins.”
As far as Sinead is concerned, fostering isn’t complicated: “You only need to give the kids a secure home, make sure they’re looked after. When kids come in first, we’re complete strangers. It’s all new… We try to reassure them.
“At the end of the day, we’re mammy and daddy to them.”
When it comes to fostering, you couldn’t put it better than that…
Sinead and Stephen are two of almost 4,000 foster carers from all walks of life who provide loving homes to more than 5,800 children.
To find out more about becoming a foster carer, see fostering.ie, call freephone 1800 226 771, email firstname.lastname@example.org