Nellie and Bernie Desroches have cared for more than 1,000 foster kids over the past 35 years. Photo by Michael Swan

Toronto needs more Catholic foster parents like Nellie and Bernie

  • January 7, 2012

TORONTO - The long-standing shortage of Catholic foster parents in Toronto isn’t getting any better. The Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto has 297 foster care spots available on its own roster. This year it has had to rely on 412 out-of-town spots it purchases from private contractors.

Out-of-town care costs a lot more and it removes kids from their school, their circle of friends and family — everything that can help maintain their sense of belonging. Trouble is, there aren’t a lot of couples like Nellie and Bernie Desroches left in the city. And it is likely there will be fewer in the future.

The Desroches estimate they’ve cared for more than 1,000 foster children in their home over the last 35 years — many for just one night and some for months or years. Through most of those 35 years the Desroches have concentrated on babies, many of them medically fragile or abused.

“These children have to be looked after by someone,” said Nellie Desroches. “They’re all God’s children. I believe God sends them to us.”

The Desroches live close to a police station and maintain four beds in their home where kids can be dropped off any time, day or night.

When the Desroches started fostering in the mid-1970s, Nellie was a stay-at-home mom for their four kids and Bernie a pharmacist. Before they married Nellie had been a nurse. The couple has lived in the same house for more than 40 years. Their immaculate, meticulously ordered house in Toronto’s quiet eastern suburbs is the definition of stability.

Out of the whirlwind come the children.

“Trouble walks through our door, every time. They’re not your average kid,” said Nellie.

These days most husbands and wives both have to work full-time. Houses in Toronto are smaller. Lifetime stable jobs are rare. Add it all up and not many can take on the additional responsibilities of caring for any more children than their own, points out the Toronto CCAS’s Caroline Hall.

“It’s difficult to recruit in Toronto,” said Hall. “The face of the city has changed.”

In the 1970s fostering was very different from the kind of complex and professional care foster parents are expected to deliver today, said Nellie.

“When we first started, you didn’t hear about physical, sexual or emotional abuse,” she said. “We didn’t deal with those issues.”

To ensure no more harm is done to children whose lives so far have been a minefield, today’s foster parents have to be ready to deal with children in a precise, ordered and consistent way.

“In fostering you’re held to a higher standard than your typical family,” said Bernie.

In 1964 Nellie was a nurse in Ottawa caring for the newborns in a hospital nursery. The hospital maintained a special, separate nursery just for the children of unwed mothers. These children were almost automatically put up for adoption, and the young mothers were never allowed to see their newborns.

“They would knock on the window and ask, could I show them their baby?” said Nellie. “It wasn’t allowed. Those were the rules. I really felt horrible about that experience.”

First volunteering to visit and help young mothers who were in over their heads and later fostering was how Nellie countered that experience.

“It’s something you do from the heart. You couldn’t ever pay money for the rewards we get out of this,” she said.

“It’s something of a calling. You don’t do this because you’re going to get rich,” said Bernie.

And yet, foster parents are constantly accused or suspected of doing it for the money. It’s an assumption Nellie runs up against all the time. It drives her crazy.

“It’s not part of our reason for fostering. None. Not when we started and not as we continue to do it,” she said.

Day rates for fostering in Ontario start at $29 plus out-of-pocket expenses.

“Where would these children go when they’ve been abused at home?” asks Nellie. “Where would you put these children? You don’t want to go back to the orphanage days. They’re still going to have to be looked after by someone.”

The Desroches have been married 48 years. Bernie is retired and the couple’s original four children have all gone away to start their own careers and families. But the couple continues to have children in their lives.

“We’ve learned a lot. They’ve taught us a lot,” said Nellie.

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