Safe Haven

Foster Parents Open their Homes and their Hearts so Kids can have a Good Start

By Iris Winston; Photos by John Major

Children of every age need to feel loved and secure every day of their lives. Many children are cocooned in the warmth and safety of their family homes. But what happens to children who are neglected or abused? How do they cope if the home environment does not protect them, as they deserve to be protected?

Much of the time, problems can be solved within the home environment, explains the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) of Ottawa’s communications coordinator France Clost.

“In the majority of cases, the services provided help to ensure that children are safe within their own homes,” she says. “This is done in a variety of ways — through meeting with the families and discussing how to make the area safer for the children, through referrals to other agencies and through showing them how to get connected to resources in the community such as the food bank.”

On the occasions when particularly serious problems such as violence, addictions or mental health issues are brought to the attention of the CAS, the Society may take the children into care. Under the Child and Family Services Act, those who come in contact with the children — healthcare professionals, educators, neighbours or relatives — have a duty to report any suspicions of neglect or abuse. At this point, the CAS can step in to help the youngsters.

In 2010, for example, the CAS of Ottawa dealt with more than 6,000 families in the city and took 808 children into care. Most of these children were placed with foster families for a varying amount of time if no other relatives — referred to as kin — were at hand.

“We have a legal responsibility to see if any people with a close connection to the child can accept him or her,” says France. “If no one is available at that time, the child would go into foster care.”

Before a child is placed in a foster home, the CAS makes every effort to ensure that the match between the two will be successful, emphasizes France. “The priority is permanency,” she says, pointing out that the worker responsible for the child and several other professionals are involved before placements are made. As well as seeking foster homes that provide cultural familiarity for the children, the CAS provides training for potential foster parents, which offers guidance in such areas as handling the loss of the foster children when they eventually move on.

“It is all centred around the best interests of the child and a lot of work is done ahead of time before the matching,” says France, pointing out that “the role of foster parents is to create a safe environment for the children in their care and help them transition to whatever their permanent plan is to be.”

That permanent solution might be to go home when their biological parents have resolved their issues, to live with other relatives, or to be adopted, either by the foster parents or by a third party.

While youngsters are in care, the need for loving foster homes continues. “Each family has its own strengths and opportunities,” says France, explaining that the first checkpoints are age, financial stability and the appropriate amount of space in the home.

“Foster parents have to be over 18 and financially stable,” she says. “Fostering should not be an income driver. Foster parents also have to have the room in their homes. Beyond that, we have more mature and much younger people fostering. We have single parents, same-sex and heterosexual couples. The more families we have available, the more we can do to ensure a good match for each child.” She also points out that the need for foster homes is increasing.

“In 2008, there were 201 foster families in Ottawa,” she says. “Last year, there were 177. A number of families that have been around for a while are retiring. At the same time, it is getting more and more difficult to recruit because there are more households where both parents are working and are very busy. When we have babies that need foster homes, one of the criterion is that a parent should be at home. We also need more foster homes for teens. That’s where our greatest need is, but we are always interested in talking to anyone interested in fostering children of any age.”

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