Care in a crisis
Foster families step up when needed
Saturday, Mar 01, 2014 06:00 am
Chris and Melissa Strike are licensed for one more child, but they’re putting that acquisition on hold for now. With nine in their family, it’s already a tight squeeze around the dinner table.
The couple has two biological daughters, three adopted children and two in foster care. They’ve been approved for another foster child but will wait before acting on that.
“We probably don’t look like the average family as we pile out of the Suburban, but there’s really nothing out of the ordinary,” Melissa says. “It might just seem like there is a few more people coming and going from the house.”
That’s because their house is always bustling with visits from social workers, caseworkers, friends, family and the children’s birth families. That’s the way it’s been for the nine years that the couple has been fostering children.
The Strike home is one of Alberta’s 2,300 approved foster homes, where there are more than 4,000 children currently in foster care. This does not include children placed with extended family members, group care, treatment or supported living facilities.
Over the past several months, the foster-care system in Alberta has been under intense scrutiny. A media investigation found the government reported less than half of the actual number of children that died in care since 1999. Only a fraction of the deaths were investigated and recommendations followed up.
Melissa defines a foster family as one that is willing to step in and provide a safe home for children while their birth families are in a time of crisis. She stresses that foster families are an extension of the children’s biological families, not a replacement.
“Fostering is one of the most rewarding things you can do because you’re not just helping that child, you’re helping that family become healthy and whole again,” she says.
While the rewards are there, being a foster parent involves real challenges.
Chris and Melissa talked about becoming foster parents before they were married. When their daughters Emily and Madison turned nine and 12, the couple felt it was the right time to add to the family. The girls were on board.
“My sister and I prayed so hard for a little brother,” says Emily, now 17.
Their prayers were soon answered with the arrival of Ian. Nathan, a newborn, followed eight months later. Then came a little girl named Anna.
The kids are now aged eight, seven and five. The family’s two foster daughters are four and two years old.
The ultimate goal of foster care, as stated in the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act, is to return a child to his or her own family.
Between April and December 2013, more than 1,100 children were reunited with their families. But when reunification is not possible, caseworkers look for a permanent family for the child.
All of the Strikes’ kids were placed with them through the province’s foster to adopt program, whereby the families are committed to providing a permanent home for the children if they become legally available to adopt.
Chris and Melissa adopted their first three foster children and plan to adopt the two that they’re currently fostering.
Melissa says she has good relationships with all the birth families, getting together for birthday parties and special family events a few times a year.
Although the children are still young they are aware that they have birth siblings and birth parents, also known as “tummy mummies”, she says. The foster-care system works to have siblings and cousins in the same home. If that’s not possible, it’s preferred that they get together regularly.
Family by choice
Edmonton residents Betty and Gordon Evans have fostered 40 children over the last 28 years. If she didn’t continue to foster, Betty would be able to retire or go on vacations without a boatload of kids.
“This is better than any trip I could ever go on,” she says. “It’s an amazing journey. Amazingly satisfying. But … fostering is not easy.”
The couple has two biological daughters, eight adopted children (all siblings) and four foster children.
All eight of the adopted children were exposed to drugs and alcohol in the womb. As a result, they all have symptoms on the fetal alcohol spectrum.
The same goes for the five children the Strikes have taken into care.
Each child has been affected in very different ways, from being small for their age, to experiencing learning difficulties or heightened light and noise sensitivity. The most severe case is their four-year-old foster daughter who is blind and autistic.
“We lovingly take in these sometimes very neglected, very abused kids into our home and try to get them healthy and better,” says Melissa.
The support system required for these youngsters includes doctors, therapists and respite workers. Melissa believes foster parents bear the brunt of systemic flaws and situations over which they sometimes have no control.
“The majority of us (foster parents) that love these kids and want the best for them and the families we are working with.”
Emily, who is graduating from Bellerose Composite High School this year, has learned an important lesson from observing the struggles of her younger siblings.
“I know not to drink or do drugs while you’re pregnant because I live with the consequences of their moms’ actions every day,” she says.
Chris says there is a negative stigma associated with the foster-care system and the children who wind up needing care.
“People have a negative idea of fostering, not realizing that it is not the kid’s fault … that he or she is a foster child,” says Chris. “I like to see it as breaking the cycle. If there were no foster parents then these kids wouldn’t have the chances that they have.”
“That is the most important of all, that the cycle of neglect and abuse doesn’t continue into the next generation,” adds Evans. “Once you start having children placed, then you know why you’re doing it. We do make a difference in kids’ lives.”