Becoming a foster family: What it’s all about
Being a foster parent has meant very different things for several families currently fostering children in Central Manitoba—but they all express the same sentiment—they do it out of their sheer affection for the children.
“We just love kids. That’s basically why we did it. We couldn’t stop thinking about it,” says foster mother Karen. She and her family run a dairy farm in rural Manitoba and fostering was something she and her husband had mulled over for a while before they took action.
“I had it in my head for a long time,” said Karen. Her family sent for information in 2012, completed the preparatory work and, “Boom—three kids, siblings, were here,” she said. Twenty two kids later, they are still fostering.
Foster care is temporary substitute care provided to a child who must be separated from his or her parents or caregivers when the parents or caregivers are unable or unwilling to provide adequate care and protection. There is currently a need for foster parents in the Central Manitoba region who can provide loving, supportive homes to children who are not able to live with their biological family.
“We are looking for people wanting to make a difference in the life of a child,” says Anne Johnston-Peters, the foster care co-ordinator for the north office of Child and Family Services of Central Manitoba. To become a foster parent requires a special sort of person, someone who “is willing to give of their time and love to a child who may not be able to give them much in return,” she adds.
And there is a great need for families who have room to take in larger sibling groups, or older children, says Johnston-Peters.
Those who are currently fostering say it is the most rewarding thing they have ever done.
“I couldn’t imagine life any different,” says Karen.
For Karen and her family, who had six children of their own at the time they began fostering, it was the thought of helping young people that drove them to make the first call. As well, their own children were growing up and leaving the nest.
Their farm environment is good for children, Karen adds. Many are from urban areas and have never had the chance to go see horses, sheep and cows up close. There are also lots of cats and dogs about, as well as tractors, which she said the little ones love.
For those interested in fostering, she recommends that they recognize that while some children may stay for months at a time, others only come into your home for a few weeks or months—so it’s something foster parents must prepare for, she says.
“In our hearts, when they come, we know that generally speaking, it’s not going to be forever.”
She also tells prospective foster parents that fostering “is not for the money.”
That’s important, adds Johnston-Peters. “Fostering is not an income.” That said, foster parents do receive a daily allowance to cover things like food, clothing and spending money for the foster child. Medical, dental and education costs are covered as well. Foster families also receive constant support from the Child and Family Services agency* with which they work—which places a child in their homes after a family completes the licensing process.**
Karen says she has had a good experience with the workers and that taking care of foster children requires a team approach that includes workers, families and supervisors.
“The social workers we’ve met, for the most part they are exceptional people.”
She loves that she gets the “best part” as a foster mom, however: “I get the hugs and the tears to dry up.”
She also points out that not every child who is placed in a foster home is there because there is a problem such as abuse or addiction in the home. For example, several children have been placed in her home because the family falls on hard times, such as illness or financial trouble. One child stayed with her for a time because the child’s mother was in hospital on bed rest and there was no family nearby to take the child.
Thus, there are a myriad of reasons why a child might come into foster care, how long they might be placed and which is the best home for the child.
Other children may come into care because of abuse, neglect, health reasons (the child’s), disabilities or abandonment, says Johnston-Peters.
There are challenges to fostering that prospective parents need to be aware of. For example, says Karen, when a placement does not work out and a child has to be moved to another foster home, it can be tough for both foster parents and biological children, as well as the foster child. “You feel that you failed,” she says.
But she notes that in the end, it’s worth it. “These children are like medicine. It’s a privilege to look after them.”
Carolyn, another foster mother in the Central region of Manitoba, agrees that fostering is the best decision her family ever made.
She was a former intensive care nurse who decided she wanted to be at home with her children when they were young, while having a role where she could still work with children.
Finding information when Carolyn wanted to start fostering 18 years ago was difficult. “I literally looked up foster parents in the Yellow Pages and called CFS and said that’s what I want to do,” laughs Carolyn.
Five months after the decision was made and she filled out all the paperwork, she and her husband had their first foster child—and they never stopped.
She has even adopted several of her foster children because they were unable to go back to their birth families. “There are lots of kids out there who need forever homes.”
Johnston-Peters says that potential foster parents have to be prepared “to commit to a child over the long term if they are unable to go back to their birth families.”
Carolyn especially wanted to work with high-needs children, which is her passion.
Now, over the years, she has worked with several special needs children and she says she couldn’t do it without the support of Child and Family Services.
“I really appreciate the support they give with special needs kids,” said foster mom Carolyn. “It can be intense and it makes things possible, knowing that there is somebody alongside you. You have a team—you are not doing it by yourself.”
She also says that for her four biological children, adding special needs foster children to the family mix has been beneficial.
“My girls have grown up with this,” says Carolyn. “The best thing we could have done for our biological kids is teaching them that everyone has their own strengths.”
She often talks to other prospective foster parents, and says if they say they want to foster, the first thing she asks them is “Why?” She says they need to ensure they are properly prepared.
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she says, “But it is the hardest job I have ever done.”
Foster mother Lorraine has been taking children into her home for 28 years—all ages. Lorraine, whose family lives in Sanford, Man., also worked in the system as a support worker. Being in the field made her decide to do more and become a foster mother—so she took in her first foster child, who was seven at the time. For Lorraine, foster care is in the family. She also has two siblings who are social workers, one sister who takes in foreign exchange students, along with parents and grandparents who fostered.
From that first seven-year-old, she has opened her home to many other foster children.
She remembers a time when between foster children and her own, there were seven children in the house, all under the age of 18, playing hockey.
“We spent a lot of time in hockey rinks, let me tell you,” Lorraine laughs.
While she recommends fostering wholeheartedly, it’s “hard on your heart.” In her wealth of experience, Lorraine says that foster parents must understand the true commitment of fostering. “It is for as long as these kids need you.” She says foster parents must let foster children continue to love and have a relationship with their biological parents, if possible. She often helps them find their biological parents when they become adults.
And fostering should not be done out of a wrong-minded need, Lorraine emphasizes. “Some people take in kids to avoid what’s going on in a marriage. Other times it’s because a couple aren’t able to have children so they want a baby to hold. But the kids are not there to meet needs.”
Now that some of her foster children have grown up, “my boys” as she calls several of them, still come for supper regularly. “Lots of them, I still say connected with…Lots of them want to have a coffee if they have things happening [now that they are adults].”
And her own, adult children have gotten involved as well. Lorraine’s oldest son, for example, helps out with respite care.
She says after so many years doing foster care, she is likely finished her foster career. But, for many foster parents, it’s so rewarding they cannot quit. “Well, I don’t know. I could take on a teenager if people like Anne twisted my arm.”
*Provincial legislation and the Child and Family Services Act govern all aspects of child welfare in Manitoba, including bringing children into care, licensing foster homes, and the rules and regulations of operating foster homes, along with adoption. To learn more, visit the Act at http://web2.gov.mb.ca/laws/statutes/ccsm/c080e.php.
**The foster care licensing process:
- Orientation—typically one day— informative and answers questions parents might have
- Application process: completing an application package including reference, criminal record, prior contact and child abuse registry checks
- Home study and home physical inspection: Someone from Child and Family Services will visit your home and will ask many questions in order to get to know you well.
Child and Family Services makes every effort to match children to homes that are a good fit.