Family Life


7 min Read

Inside Child Services

daughter sits on fathers shoulders outside in a field

What’s the first thing you think of when you picture a social worker? Perhaps it’s an image of someone, underpaid and burnt out, weary from dealing with drug-addicted mothers and abusive fathers who don’t give a damn about their kids. Perhaps you see them as jaded from witnessing too much of the horrors of life. Or maybe they wear their heart on their sleeve, naively thinking they can change the world. Then you meet Seana Dobbin-Gayowsky, a 35-year-old child protection worker.

Seana isn’t jaded and she’s not naive. She’s practical and committed as she manages to juggle a caseload of 15 to 20 families in her work at the Catholic Children’s Aid Society (CCAS) in Hamilton, Ontario. These are families who are coping with crushing poverty, alcohol and drug addiction, mental health issues and domestic violence. Seana’s job is to protect the children. There may be no food in the fridge, no heat or hydro or covers on the bed. Children see their mothers beaten or their dads drunk at midday and they may be fearful that they will be hit or left alone for hours, or even days. And the cost can be children who are at risk of perpetuating the cycle of abuse and neglect by one day becoming inadequate parents themselves.

You have to wonder – who would sign on for such a job?

Seana says she chose the job because she believes change is possible and with help and support, parents can turn their lives around.

She says, “Some people think we’re in the business of breaking up families, but the reality is we want to keep families together.” Her job is to provide families with tools for success – it can be as simple as educating them about acceptable discipline methods, or reinforcing the need for children to be fed three meals a day, get eight hours of sleep a night and bathe regularly. Many of the parents grew up in chaotic homes where these practices were foreign concepts.

Sometimes the issues are more complex, such as helping plan a household budget for a family of four living on $1,300 a month on public assistance, or finding an addiction program in the community for a parent hooked on cocaine.

Seana says,“So many of these parents have had difficult lives – growing up in homes where their parents couldn’t cope and they didn’t feel loved. Often they believe they’re doing the best they can.”

Seana is a witness to both hope and heartbreak on a daily basis. But there is satisfaction in knowing that the CCAS was able to resolve about 75 percent of its 1,200 cases last year by providing assistance to families.


Mary is a 29-year-old mother who had three of her young children permanently removed from her care and made crown wards because of ongoing chronic neglect. The final straw was when the children were found being supervised by an unfit female relative whom the CCAS had stipulated could not be left in charge of the children.

“I came in and saw that there was garbage all over the house, feces on the wall, a dog urinating on the floor, no food in the cupboards and a bunch of unkempt kids, including a baby in a diaper that hadn’t been changed for a couple of days,” recalls Seana, who removed the children from the home. “She left the wrong person in charge and she lost her kids.”

Mary has since had another child and Seana, who is still her caseworker, is hopeful about the changes she’s beginning to see in the mother. Mary has left an abusive relationship, is living on her own in an apartment for the first time in her adult life and is trying to create a more stable home environment for her young daughter. The apartment is neat and tidy, the fridge is stocked, there are toys for her daughter to play with and regular visits to the park.

“I had to tell her that this child is her last shot,” says Seana. “I think she finally gets it – the light bulb went off because of the threat of losing her last child.” This case in particular has kept Seana, who has a young daughter herself, awake at night. “I feel totally responsible for this little girl. She feels like my kid because I have a responsibility to ensure she’s okay.”

Mary grew up in a dysfunctional home where she was repeatedly sexually abused by a family member. “She has been so eroded for so long she didn’t know any better. She loved her children but just didn’t know how to cope,” says Seana.

“Now, for the first time, she’s on her own and self sufficient. I try to listen to her in a way that she hasn’t ever been listened to. Nobody had ever given her any hope before.”


“Do we get breakfast every day?”
“Wow, you washed my clothes!”
“Can I stay here forever?”

Those are the type of comments Kim Appleby has heard from the children that have been in her charge since she started fostering for the CCAS four years ago.

Appleby had her first biological child at 39 – a son who is now 11 years old – and then suffered a miscarriage. She had always wanted to have a larger family but it didn’t seem possible. Then she discovered fostering.

She describes her first foster child, a three-year-old boy, as a “tornado coming through the front door”. Kim forged a strong bond with the boy, who had been the victim of abuse and neglect, and it broke her heart when he left after two years to be adopted by another family.

Kim then took in two brothers, ages two and four, who came with challenging behaviours, including head banging, hoarding food and frequent defiance. “For a lot of these children chaos is the norm and they will try to create it wherever they are,” she says. “You might feel as if you’ve rescued the child, but the child doesn’t feel that at all. However, it often doesn’t take long before things improve. After a time, the child warms up to you and they can be very grateful.”

Appleby, who currently has a six-year-old boy in her care, says, “Our family has a real sense of accomplishment doing this together.” And the experience has also had a positive impact on her son. “He appreciates the hit-or-miss luck of being born into a good family or a dysfunctional family. You can tell your children that some kids don’t have much, but it’s not until they see it with their own eyes that they really understand.”

To find out more about becoming a foster parent, contact your local Children’s Aid Society.


There is no specific profile of people who become foster parents. They may be filling a hole in their heart, they may have no children of their own, they may want to make a contribution to a child’s life, they may have time, and they may find that the stipend they are paid helps their budget. Here’s a rundown of the typical questions people wonder about before deciding to foster.

1. Foster care pays about $30 a day, although it can go higher if you have special training or take in special needs kids—but typically it’s $90

a man carrying two children

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