She looks… happy. Genuinely happy. A single mother at twenty-nine years of age. She has six kids. All genders; all races; all creeds. Her children range in age from eight- to seventeen-years-old. She is my neighbor, and I am proud to call her my friend. Samantha (real name withheld) is a foster mother. After completing a certificate in child studies six years ago, she decided to embark on a journey that has brought her tears, fears and a host of joys.
The term conjures up heartrending images of desperate situations. Child abuse. Child neglect. Child abandonment.
Never mind what these same children suffered before they were placed into government-sanctioned care. Children may be placed in foster care by the CAS (Children’s Aid Society) for the child’s protection, voluntarily by parents or guardians, or by court order.
A child’s stay in government care may be short-term or long-term. And while Children’s Aid Societies work hard to reunite children with their parents when the situation is both safe and possible, often other options have to be investigated: customary care, legal custody or adoption among them. Various screening processes are put into place to ensure the safety of the child in question.
There are several types of fostering and placements. To name a few, there is regular foster care, which is the type most people are familiar with. The Parent Model requires enhanced skills and experience in order to care for three adolescents with special needs, in order to return them to a family or regular foster care situation. Relief or respite care workers take children in only for a matter of a few days.. Customary care relates to the care of First Nation/Aboriginal children. And Kinship care occurs when children are cared for by members of their own extended (or immediate) family, or by a family friend.
Group homes are reserved to accommodate larger numbers of older children, typically 5 years old and up. Several companies, such as the one Samantha works for, exist which, under guidance by government mandates pertaining to the care and safety of children – and under the strict auspices and supervision of the CAS – take in up to six children at a time, again ranging in age from between five- and seventeen- years of age. Samantha’s house is one such home. It is considered mixed modality group care. Her house is a sort of middle ground for children who need more structure than a single family foster home and children who need actual treatment. Children requiring treatment may be referred to treatment centres such as what was formerly known as the Hincks-Dellchrest Centre, now The Sick Kids Centre for Community Mental Health. Mixed-modality group care is a middle ground. Mixed-modality means it is based on a foster parent model, but each home has more than four beds. In order to be considered a single family foster care home, the building can accommodate only four beds.
Samantha, along with her staff, runs a mixed modality home. And to this untrained eye, they appear to do it very well. A mixed modality home differs from others forms of government-sanctioned childcare homes in a number of ways. The program began on May 1, 2009, initially including three four-bed homes, as an alternative to residential group care. Mixed-modality homes allow children and youth to flourish in an established community, to attend local schools and to establish relationships with neighborhood members. Samantha’s home is not a halfway house. It is a mixed modality home. It has brought life, laughter, and light to both the children and youth who live there and to the community in general.
The children are well-clothed and well-nourished. A $60 monthly clothing allowance for each child ensures that. And those kids should be well-nourished, on $1400 a month! I’ve never seen so much meat and such a collection of fresh fruit and vegetables in my life, outside a grocery store. One day, while helping her unloads her massive van after a trip to Costco I asked where they put it all. I was referring to the kids. Misunderstanding the question, she replied, “Two large refrigerators and a basin freezer.” Looking up and seeing the astonishment in my face, she cut off any further spluttering by sticking a fresh guava in my mouth.
Finding out the actual statistics of how many times children change homes is a next to impossible affair. A child welfare commission appointed by the Ontario government noted in 2012 that Ontario’s 46 children’s aid societies either cannot or will not agree on how to count or record the movements of the children under their care.
In Samantha’s case, her youngest has been with her for almost four years. Others in her care span anywhere between three years to three months. And yes, situations arise whereby a child or youth is simply not suited to the mixed modality system and leaves the home after a few weeks.
Unfortunately, such is the life of a troubled child who has grown too old too quickly. When I first met one of Samantha’s fifteen-year-old charges who was there to walk my dog (I’d just had surgery), I mentioned the dog suffered from what was known as separation anxiety. Before I could go on to explain what that meant, the teen, completely deadpan and alarmingly disengaged, replied, “Yeah. A lot of the homes I’ve lived in had kids who suffered from that.” A lot?? My heart broke a little. On another occasion, having broken a vase and thereby destroying an open laptop, two young boys were sent to their rooms. Upon checking on them half-an-hour later, neither could be found. One was under the bed, screwed up tightly against the wall. The other was in the closet. Neither would come out, despite repeated reassurances that they were not in any trouble. My heart broke a little more.
When a police cruiser does show up at the home, it is Samantha herself who has called. A child is late home from school. A teen has missed curfew. A resident has gone missing. Another little piece breaks off each time.
How about the sweet eleven-year-old who informed his schoolteacher that “he believed he was leaning towards homicidal and suicidal thoughts”? That a child of such a young age is able to conjure up a phrase like that is heart-achingly unfortunate.
He has obviously encountered it before, and in this case, several times (outside source). Who comforted him, drove him to the hospital, allayed his fears and stayed up all night worrying about him? Who cried when his condition finally got the better of him and he had to be sedated and restrained? And who was on the telephone at regular intervals, asking for updates on his well-being? That would be Samantha. And another little piece broke off. I say a little because, over the time I’ve come to know the family, my heart has had cause to break piece by piece as I’ve watched the results of abuse, neglect, misdiagnosis, malnutrition…I could go on, but a heart has only so many pieces. On a day to day basis, as a community, we deal with bullying, drug abuse, gender bias, and so much more. This is nothing compared to what these young ones have endured.
Samantha has admitted to me that she has had to employ TCI methods in her handling of certain children under her care. TCI, or Therapeutic Crisis Intervention, was described to me as a series of holds and a restraint used when a child is in crisis and is in danger of hurting himself or others. As it turns out, it is so much more. TCI is a crisis prevention and intervention model that has been designed to teach staff how to help the children learn constructive ways to handle a crisis, aiding in the promotion of growth and development. It helps prevent crises from occurring and de-escalates these same potential crises; it effectively manages acute crises, often by using the methods mentioned above, but just as often by ‘talking a person down’, with therapeutic conversation; obviously, it reduces the potential for injury to children and staff. Most importantly, TCI helps children learn constructive ways to handle stressful situations. In her six years as a foster parent, Samantha has only had to resort to TCI on two occasions.
The women and men who take on the role of fostering lead secluded lives.
With no one else to confide in without breaking CAS and government rules, they must turn to each other for support, companionship, camaraderie. Sure, Samantha and I have a great time, chatting about this and that: what books we’re reading, what we’re doing for the weekend, or what other than a bag of dried rice might fix a mobile ‘phone we can’t afford to replace (the solution being: no solution).
Foster parents are supposed to provide stable and caring homes with an eye to encouraging a child’s growth and development. Some miss the mark. Those are the horror stories that get screamed from the headlines. We have all read them, shivered, and moved on to the next headline. Cynical? Perhaps. But tell me if I’m wrong.
A 2011 census by Statistics Canada revealed that a total of 47, 885 children were at that time in foster care. 0.5% of those children were fourteen years and under. I can only imagine how those numbers have climbed in the past six years.
This article was submitted by Amanda Tower