11 min Read
Stories of foster parenting in Canada
November 3, 2014
11 min Read
November 3, 2014
You might not think you have what it takes to be a foster parent, but you probably do. Meet three families who opened their homes – and hearts – to children in need.
Gena Morrow’s parents raised her to be strong and taught her she could be anything she wanted to be. When she moved to Manitoba for university she started doing volunteer work with street kids, many of whom were either involved with Children’s Aid Society (CAS) or were running from CAS, and it was quite an eye-opener. “It was the first time I lived in the city and I learned there were people living on the street,” she says. “I’d been given so much and then I met these kids and saw where they came from and it was just something I couldn’t walk away from.”
Years later, Gena had her own kids and a spare bedroom. “I had separated from my husband and I saw a TV show and they said that you could be a foster parent even if you were single. I phoned up and said ‘I’m finishing my degree and I’ve got these kids, but I have a room.’” That was 22 years ago, and Gena’s been fostering ever since. She even met her current husband, Tony, through fostering. His son and her son were at a birthday party, and all the kids were in costumes. Gena was looking for her foster children, and Tony told her he’d love to foster but he wasn’t able to because he was single. “I looked at him and said, ‘I’m a single parent and I foster,’ and off we went.”
Gena and Tony focus on fostering school-aged children and since they intend to keep on fostering for a lot of years, they take on children that are likely going to be long-term foster kids. The four children they currently foster have been with them for almost 10 years.
The most important quality for a foster parent to have, she says, is being open to loving kids. “You’re going to get kids from different backgrounds, histories, priorities, values, and there’s got to be room for that.” It can be as simple as a child’s idea of what’s okay for supper being different than your own. You need to be able to “roll with it,” says Gena.
Gena says that there’s a big misconception that foster kids are bad kids. “Foster kids are kids that are in need of protection. It has nothing to do with being a bad kid. Foster kids are victims. They’re kids who have incredible stresses in their lives and kids who couldn’t be with their families. That’s horrible.”
They also have to handle living with the stigma of being in foster care, says Gena, so it’s difficult. But fostering can make a big difference in these children’s lives. “I’ve seen kids that looked scary when they first came and they turned into spectacular young people. It’s amazing how resilient kids are and how they can heal and grow. How they can start looking at their histories and make sense of it all. That’s the reason to step in and make a difference.”
When May Nikkel started thinking about foster parenting she was young and working at a hospital. There, she saw “boarder babies,” newborns who were abandoned at the hospital with no one to care of them. One day, May saw someone take one of the boarder babies home. She thought it was a family member, but it was a foster mom. “I was so impressed with that,” she says. It wasn’t until many years later, after she had married and her youngest child was nine, that May started fostering. Now 20 years later, she and her husband Bob have fostered more than 100 children.
May specializes in fostering high-risk newborn babies – infants who are premature, have an illness, or have been exposed to drugs or alcohol. Because of the complex nature of caring for high-risk infants, May usually takes on only one baby at a time, but there have been times when she’s had two. “It’s my passion to work with babies. Yes, they can be a lot of work, and it’s a 24-hour job, but I love it. Every baby is unique, and they all have their own personality.”
Since 2000, May has been involved in the Safe Babies Program on Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s lower mainland. Anyone who wants to foster a baby in that region has to go through the Safe Babies training program. Many babies who need fostering are addicted to drugs, so the training includes learning how to handle a drug-addicted baby. You also receive training from an infant development specialist and a public health nurse. “And, of course, you have to learn CPR.”
Safe Babies isn’t throughout B.C. yet, but May and others who are involved with it are hoping it will be soon. “With Safe Babies, we have a really good support system. People need mentorship. They need the camaraderie of foster parents who know what to do.” If a less experienced foster family takes on a baby and they run into a problem, they have someone to call on in the core group of the Safe Babies Program for support. “We’ll go to their home and help them get over the hump. There might be strategies for holding the baby or sleeping a little bit differently or feeding in a different fashion.” It is important to never foster in isolation and to get all the support you can, says May.
Donna Wilkinson and her husband Wayne have been married for 47 years. They have been foster parents to more than 120 children, only stopping for seven years when they had their own children. Donna was a schoolteacher in Ontario when she and Wayne started fostering, then they moved to the Northwest Territories and later the Yukon, and have fostered in both places.
“In Ontario, they had ads all the time called Today’s Child. I’d read them and realized there were so many kids that needed a family. We didn’t have any children and we had a big house.” As well, Donna saw some kids at her school that had challenges and she realized that becoming a foster parent was the next step in assisting kids who needed help.
Even though fostering is handled by different agencies throughout the country – and Donna has worked with several of them – she says that fostering was basically the same in each place.
“In foster parenting you’re not the parent. You don’t make the rules and you don’t make all the decisions by yourself, no matter where you foster. You try to be as much of a parent as you can. You treat the child as much like your own child as you do your other kids. But you still have to remember that they’re not your child, they’re someone else’s kid. And you do your very best for them while the social worker is helping the family so that the kids and parents can get back together.”
Sometimes this can be easy to do, Donna says, when the child’s parents want help and support and want to make changes. In these cases, “it’s really fun getting to meet a new family, helping and supporting them to make the changes they need to be a healthier family.”
Other times it is harder. “Sometimes a family is angry and you have to work a little bit harder to help and support. You have to be sensitive to why they’re angry and understand that it must hurt a whole lot to have to have someone else caring for your kids when you know you can’t.”
It’s a big job, says Donna, but it’s very rewarding. “You get to be a part of a team. You get to make a difference in someone’s life and you get to help a family. And that’s a pretty big deal.”
If you are considering becoming a foster parent, make sure you have the time to commit. Children in care really need time, attention and support, and they need consistency in the caregiver, says Rachel Threlkeld, Homes for Kids coordinator at The Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton. “We need people who have fundamentally good parenting skills, a lot of patience with children, and a real desire to work with children in a gentle and supportive way.” Foster parenting can be a rewarding component of one’s life but potential foster parents need to remember that fostering is crisis driven. Says Rachel: “If a child comes into a child protection agency today, it means they are in need of protection today. There are no orphanages or dormitories. The next home for them will be yours, the foster family’s.”
Sheila Durnford and her husband Phil have been fostering in British Columbia for more than 25 years. She’s also the president of the Canadian Foster Family Association, an organization that acts as a voice for foster families nationally and works to improve the lives of children in foster care. She sheds some light on foster parenting in Canada:
Go to canadianfosterfamilyassociation.ca for more information and for the contact information for your provincial or territorial foster parent organizations.
November is National Adoption month. Fostering and adopting can be like becoming an instant parent. Read actor Nia Vardalos’ experience of adopting a child from foster care here.
Dilia Narduzzi is a freelance writer and academic copy editor based in Hamilton, Ont.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2014.