Imagine a little girl, not even two years old, walking up to you in a hall at the Children’s Hospital, hand in hand with a police officer. She has red eyes. Her hair is tangled and uneven. She has a goose egg on her head, and marks around her legs. The smiley face earrings you spot in her ears make her innocence shine through in this terrible moment.
This is the situation Ellen* found herself in 14 years ago. A year into her time as a foster parent with Closer to Home Community Services, she took in a little girl whose mother had hurt and abandoned her in a building in downtown Calgary. Ellen cared for the girl over the next year, while the little girl’s dad worked hard to secure a job and a place to live so he could bring her home.
Ellen and her husband, Steven*, still keep in touch with this girl today, attending parent/teacher interviews for the bright high school student along with her father and step-mother. “She still calls me mom,” says Ellen. And “I have two moms, and two dads; I’m really lucky,” says the now high school student.
Ellen was introduced to foster care at a young age. Her parents welcomed foster children into their home regularly. “I grew up in a family where we always had foster children around,” she remembers. “I don’t remember too much of my life without that.”
15 years ago, Ellen and Steven became foster parents themselves. They had their own kids, but also wanted to open their door to other children who needed a temporary place to call home. They went through all the assessments, reference checks and training, and over the next decade-and-a-half, became foster parents to more than 50 children. They chose to foster through an agency that would provide them with the ongoing support they needed, like 24/7 on-call staff, continuous and comprehensive training, and a community of fellow foster parents to lean on during hard times. “It’s very challenging at times,” says Ellen, “but every time I think I’m not going to continue, somebody comes into my life and I realize I need to be there for them.”
Over the years, Ellen and Steven have welcomed into their lives kids from all different backgrounds and situations. They’re trained to provide care that is professional and culturally-sensitive. Their home is licensed for up to three foster children at a time, and they’ve chosen to only take in babies and toddlers, as that age group fits best with their lifestyle.
But Ellen credits the ongoing support she receives from her coordinator at Closer to Home for making the experience as positive as it has been. “She’s been there to give us advice on a Sunday afternoon,” says Ellen. “Without her, who knows what would happen. We’d be lost. The support is unreal.”
Whenever possible, Ellen and Steven work with children’s birth families to strive toward family reunification. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world to help a baby go back to his mom,” says Ellen. When children are in her care, she constantly has her camera out, snapping photos and compiling them in a memory book filled with birthdays and special moments. “It gives parents back a piece of what they lost when they messed up,” she says. “And hopefully it helps them realize: ‘I don’t want to have this happen again.’”
“You understand there’s a part of them that just hates that they’ve gotten themselves into this,” she continues, remembering all the parents she’s worked side by side with over the years. “They love their kids, they just don’t know how to be a parent. And they have to work hard at that.” “Everybody makes mistakes. We’re all only one tragedy or crisis away from doing the same thing,” says Ellen.
Ellen still keeps in touch with nearly all of the children she’s cared for during her time as a foster parent. But even when a good-bye is permanent, it helps her to know that she’s made a positive difference in a child’s life. “Even if I never see them again, I know I played a little part in their life to get them home.”
How can I become a foster parent?
There’s an increasing need for foster parents in Calgary.
If you are considering fostering a child, these five steps will help you get started:
1. Consider your situation. Anyone, regardless of marital status, with parenting experience or family composition, can become a foster parent. But it’s important to consider how your unique situation may affect your ability to meet the physical, social and emotional needs of children or youth. If you have children, ask them what their thoughts are about welcoming a foster child into your lives.
Consider what situations and age groups would best fit best your lifestyle, keeping in mind the time commitment necessary for day-to-day care such as school, medical appointments, recreational and social activities. Begin considering your budget analysis to make sure you have financial stability for the fostering lifestyle.
2. Set up an interview. Contact an agency to set up an interview. They’ll be able to answer your questions and get you started in the process toward becoming a foster parent.
3. Complete your record checks and assessments. Once you complete your interview, Criminal Record Checks and Child Intervention Record Checks must be completed by all family members over the age of 18, and a Safe Home Assessment will be conducted.
The agency will let you know what other checks and assessments need to be completed so you can move forward in the process.
4. Begin training. Some agencies provide free, in-depth training to all foster parents, both when they begin and throughout their time with the agency.
5. Welcome home your first foster child. Wait for that first call, letting you know a child is in need of your loving care.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Jessica is a Fund Development Officer with Closer to Home Community Services, a local non-profit agency with over 20 years of experience in family reunification services such as Foster Care and Group Care.
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