Fostering: ‘The children’s situation is so precarious – while we may not have everything to offer, we offer everything we have’

Couple who have been providing foster care for the past 17 years say it can be challenging at times but incredibly rewarding

Stephen and Sinéad McDonagh have provided foster care to 18 children in the past 17 years

Being a parent is a full-time job, with many finding it difficult to cope. If things become too much, or the welfare of their child is at stake, an often unseen army of foster parents come to the rescue, opening their homes and their hearts to help children in need.

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“There is a huge demand for foster carers for children of all ages,” says Jacqui Smyth, national lead for foster care at Tusla, the child and family agency. “When a child enters care and goes to live in a foster family, that family will usually not foster again for a certain length of time – so this means that their home is no longer available to the next child who comes into foster care. Most carers will foster a maximum of two children at any one time and, each year, hundreds of children will need a foster home – so, even as foster carers are recruited, they are continually required.

“In today’s busy world, there are many demands on individuals and families, so fostering is not something they may initially consider – and sometimes, people will rule themselves out of fostering because they think they are not eligible when, in fact, they could do it as Tusla welcomes applications from single carers, from members of the LGBTQAI+ community, and from families with and without children. People often believe that fostering is something that is outside their range of skills when, in fact, what foster children need most are homes that are stable and filled with kindness and love.”

Stephen and Sinéad McDonagh have been providing exactly that for the past 17 years and say that although it can be challenging at times, it is incredibly rewarding. “There are days when you’re not sure you’re doing the right thing,” she says, “but the children’s situation is so precarious – so while we may not have everything to offer, we offer everything we have.


“And when you see daily improvements in health, wellbeing and character – you’re getting so much back. Also, 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.”

The couple, who live in Roscommon and have two grown-up children of their own, began fostering by offering respite and emergency care, and are now providing long-term care to three siblings, two of whom have special needs.

“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,” says Stephen. “But we weren’t starting at zero; we had life experiences and when we underwent training and got experience, we finally considered long-term care and, over the years, have cared for 18 children.

“There are days you wonder if you can do it – as you have to have resilience and take the hard knocks. But they [the long-term foster children currently with them] are happy kids – there is such a difference from day one to where they are now. They love going to school and love routine – all things we take for granted, they never had that before they were taken into care. And it was not the children’s fault – it was their environment. So we had to try to change that reality for them at a pace they were comfortable with.”

Having cared for children of all ages, from five months to teenage, the couple have had some wonderful experiences over the years and say fostering has not only benefited their charges, but has also been very positive for their family as a whole. “We’ve enjoyed great relationships with the kids,” says Stephen. “We keep in touch, but we don’t intrude – so we look forward to hearing from them. And because we keep the door open, they come back and look for advice. We make ourselves available to them.

Fostering: ‘I realised we had the space in our home and in our hearts, as well as in our lives’Opens in new window ]

“It has also made us a stronger team and strengthened our bond, both 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.”

Sinéad says although people may think fostering is complicated, all you need is love. “You only need to give the kids a secure home and make sure they’re looked after,” she says. “When kids come in first, we’re complete strangers and it’s all new, so we try to reassure them. At the end of the day, we’re Mammy and Daddy to them.”

While the McDonaghs have been fostering for almost two decades, some people just do it for a short period of time – and while some offer long-term care, others provide a safe haven in an emergency. “There are many types of foster care and foster carers will foster for different lengths of time, depending on what type of fostering they undertake, and on their individual circumstances,” says Smyth, Tusla’s national lead for foster care. “Some people will foster a child, or children, for the duration of their childhood and who may continue to live with them into independence. Sometimes, a newborn baby may need a placement too.

“Some carers choose to undertake short-term or respite care at times when it works for their family, and they may stop for periods of time, or finish when they reach a certain age or when their circumstances change. So, our foster carers are diverse. They are both rural and urban based and have a variety of backgrounds and experiences. What they all share is a genuine motivation to improve a child’s life by offering them a safe and stable home environment during a difficult time.

“Foster carers need a stable lifestyle themselves and the time to give to a child who has experienced a lot of change. A genuine enjoyment of children, and an ability to understand that they need time to make sense of the world and feel safe after they have experienced change, are important characteristics for foster carers.

“They will get training and support throughout their fostering journey and there is no expectation that a person will know it all when they start fostering. An openness to learning and a willingness to be flexible are what is needed.”

June is National Fostering Month and recent figures show that almost 6,000 children across Ireland are in foster care.

“Foster parents are people like you and me,” says Smyth. “They are farmers and hairdressers, creche workers and schoolteachers, homemakers and shop assistants who open their homes to children at a time of incredible uncertainty. That gesture and commitment changes children’s lives and the lives of the families who foster in all kinds of amazing ways.

“Now, more than ever, children in our communities need loving, safe, stable homes where they can thrive and grow. You can be that adult that changes a child’s life forever.”

For details on how to become a foster parent visit, email or call 1800 226771