It’s the middle of the night and your doorbell rings. There on the front step are three sleepy and confused children. They come without suitcases; what they do bring with them is lice and impetigo. Their faces are discoloured with weeks of built-up dirt that will later disappear down the drain when you scrub them in the tub.
This is what Irene Victor* faced 10 years ago when she took in the first of 24 children she has fostered. The three kids were six, four and 16 months, siblings who had been severely neglected by their parents. “At first, they didn’t want to drink milk because they were used to sour milk, and they wanted to know why my bread wasn’t blue,” she says.
Victor and her husband, Peter, who live in southwestern Ontario, introduced the kids to activities such as playing in the backyard sandbox, going on bug hunts and climbing trees — all things they had never done before. “We even taught them how to hug — how to stretch out their arms and put them around someone,” says Victor. “They were astonished by the simplest things, like the fact that they got fresh clothes to wear every day.”
Ten months after they arrived, the children were reunited with their birth mother, who had received skills training from the local Children’s Aid Society (CAS) on how to keep house and care for her children. But it wasn’t long before the siblings landed back in care and on another foster parent’s doorstep.
Such is the reality of foster parenting: taking in kids who may have experienced unimaginable horrors; loving, caring for and understanding them as best you can; and then letting them go — sometimes to face an uncertain future. As many as 70,000 children are in foster care in Canada because of abuse or neglect by their parents, usually resulting from drug, alcohol or mental health problems. Child welfare agencies across the country are in desperate need of loving homes to place these children.
Although most parents’ hearts ache at the thought of any child enduring such distress, few of us are ready to open our homes to these kids. Our worries include problem behaviours, the effect these children may have on our own families — and the agonizing prospect of one day saying goodbye. Are those concerns justified? Absolutely, say child welfare workers and experienced foster parents. But many of those who have done it say fostering has enriched their lives immeasurably.
Rachel Threlkeld, coordinator of Homes for Kids, which recruits foster parents for the CAS in Hamilton, Ont., says ideally a foster family will have one parent at home because consistency of care is crucial for these kids. Her agency has 660 children in care but only 200 foster families, most with a parent who stays home, works from home or works part-time. (See Do you have what it takes?) “For some people, their heart is in the right place, but they really don’t have the time to dedicate to fostering,” says Threlkeld.
Threlkeld notes that you’ll need the forbearance to deal with behaviours that can include food hoarding, bedwetting, severe tantrums, stealing, lying, sexually inappropriate behaviour (children who have been sexually abused may act out what they’ve learned) and even accusations of abuse against the foster parents. “In their early years, they have so much to cope with that they will have issues you wouldn’t see in a child growing up in a stable home.”
Dawn McLeod of Stratford, Ont., began providing care when her three daughters were teens. Among her 10 charges in the past two years have been an angry teen who ran away while in her care, an uncommunicative nine-year-old who constantly hid herself under a sweater hood, and a four-year-old girl who painted the toilet seat with red nail polish the day she arrived at McLeod’s home. The nine-year-old, who had been neglected by her birth mother and left to tend to two younger siblings, was particularly challenging. “She was moody and unco-operative — I’d ask her to pick up her things and she’d just look at me and not do it,” recalls McLeod, who worked to win her over by showing an interest in the young girl’s life. “I remember going to the open house at her school and she was shocked that I went. She learned to trust me more.”
McLeod admits she was ready to call it quits initially because of the challenges these kids presented. But she stuck with it and is glad she did. “I actually think I’m better at foster parenting than at parenting my own kids because the emotions don’t get in the way as much,” she says. “Some people might not be able to look beyond their behaviour, but you do fall in love with them.”
Fostering can take a toll on family life. Mary Layton,* a bookkeeper from southern Ontario, felt she was prepared for the realities of fostering. But she was blindsided by the difficulties of caring for a six-year-old boy who threw toys and had major temper tantrums. His parents even accused her of abuse — a charge that was quickly dismissed. The boy’s overwhelming anger was too much for Layton’s family and they decided to put him back into care. “About 90 percent of my time was spent with the boy and not with my kids…. In the end, I felt I needed to be there for my kids — they were missing out and so was I.”
For now Layton has decided not to foster, although she still feels guilty. “I feel like I failed him — that I didn’t give him what he needed,” she says. Layton admits that she was more committed to the idea of fostering than her husband was, and this caused tension. “My husband did not like the tantrums. He also thought if you do something great for a kid like this, then he should be grateful, but that’s not going to happen with these kids,” she says.
How do you know if your family is ready to take on a foster child? As Layton discovered, all family members — parents and children — should support the decision. Many experts say it’s also a good idea to take in children younger than your own, so they retain their birth order.
Four years ago, when their sons were 10 and 17, John Sanderson* and his wife saw a newspaper ad appealing for foster parents and decided it was right for their family. They had a spare room in their Ottawa house and made the minimum commitment to provide short-term emergency care. A baby girl came to them straight from the hospital where she was born and the entire family became very attached to her — to the point where they started talking adoption. Problem was, because the girl was part Inuit, the CAS was anxious to make a cultural match.
Eventually they were allowed to adopt both the baby and her four-year-old sister, who had been bounced around in care. Fostering was a hugely positive experience for his sons, says Sanderson. “There was such a big age difference, there wasn’t any jealousy. Our older boy had to be more careful about what he said — the swear words were dropped — and both he and our younger boy really helped take care of the girls and played with them.”
Some parents choose to foster as a way to instill social values and compassion in their kids. “These families want to show their children that it’s good to give and to share,” says Threlkeld. Victor agrees that fostering has taught important lessons to her five adopted children. “It teaches them to take the focus off themselves, to be thankful for what they have. And it shows them another aspect of love.”
In addition to having the patience for problem behaviours and strategies for positive discipline, you’ll need the emotional fortitude to let go of a child you have bonded with.
Jane Fielding* knows all about the heartache of letting go, not once but twice, of a child she grew to love. The 37-year-old Manitoba resident and her husband took in a five-month-old baby girl named Emily, whose mother had drug and alcohol problems. The baby was returned to the birth mother after three months, but then landed back in Fielding’s home several months later. Emily stayed for another few months before she was once again taken away to be with her natural mother. “It was devastating — I grieved the same way as if she had died,” Fielding says, her voice breaking even now, seven years later. “People say, ‘I could never be a foster parent because I could never let them go.’ But I have to put their needs ahead of mine.” Fielding has since adopted three of her foster kids (including Emily, who was miraculously returned to her after a final failed reconciliation with the mother) and currently cares for an additional three foster children.
Fielding, perhaps better than anyone, appreciates the difference a loving foster family can make in a child’s life. She was put into foster care at eight years of age, after her mother committed suicide and her alcoholic father was unable to care for her and her four siblings.
“People say I’m nuts to have this many kids in the house, but I love being a mom,” says Fielding. “Being a foster parent means you get to meet all these amazing kids, and your life is changed by each one.”
*Names changed by request.
Do You Have What it Takes?
If your family is interested in fostering, here are some factors to consider, from Carol Sekiya, a case work supervisor with Alberta Children’s Services in Lethbridge.
Space: Ideally a foster child will have his own room, but he can share a bedroom with another child.
Time: Consistency of care is important for foster children so it’s best if at least one parent is home most of the time. About half of all foster families have a stay-at-home mother or one who works part time or out of her home.
Stable family life: If you’ve just gone through a divorce or job loss, now might not be the best time to foster.
Buy-in from all family members: Everyone in the household should support the decision to foster.
Child care experience: You will be asked about your parenting skills and approach to discipline. No form of corporal punishment can be administered to a child in care.
An open mind: Are you willing to learn new strategies to deal with the challenges a foster child may present? Parents must keep in mind that what worked with their own kids may not work with foster children.
Realistic expectations: Foster children have been taken from the only homes they know so don’t expect gratitude. You are a stranger and it will take some time for them to put their trust in you.
Tact and diplomacy: The foster child’s primary goal is often reunification with her natural family. Regardless of your feelings about the natural parents, you should not make disparaging remarks about them in front of the child.
What to Expect
Which child? You can specify preferences for sex, age and race, but agencies desperate to place a child may still ask you to take one who doesn’t fit your criteria. You have the right to refuse any particular child.
Financial compensation: Rates vary across the country. In Ontario and Alberta, the basic rate starts at $29 a day per child, increasing with the foster parents’ experience and training, and with the child’s age and needs. Annual allowances are given for clothing, recreational activities, birthdays and summer holidays; medical and dental expenses are covered. Rachel Threlkeld of Homes for Kids in Hamilton, Ont., says the money should be considered as board, not income. “It might offer a little extra help for the family with a parent who wants to stay home, but we discourage people from doing this for the money.”
Length of stay: Foster children may stay anywhere from one day to several years.
Dealing with social services: You’ll need to get used to having social workers in your home and to working with them on the plan set for your foster child. During the assessment, you will be asked to provide plenty of personal information — how you were raised, your parenting philosophy, financial circumstances and more.
Ready to Find Out More?
Contact your local Children’s Aid Society or Family and Children’s Services to find out about their next foster parent information evening. If you decide to procede, the process takes several months and includes a home study as well as references and police checks. You’ll likely have to attend several training sessions.