Challenges of fostering overcome by benefits

By  Allison Hunwicks, The Catholic Register
  • May 5, 2012

TORONTO - The idea of family can take on any number of connotations. One might think that the most immediate understanding of the word is filled with thoughts of our biological relatives.

However, for some families, the meaning is a much more fluid one, as parents take on the challenge of providing for children in our society who are in need.

Kim O’Neill has been a foster parent for two years and with her husband Mike provides for two brothers, ages six and seven, in their Whitby, Ont., home. After some encouragement from another foster parent in the area, the couple decided to restart their lives as parents after their own biological children had grown up and left the nest.

“It was something that was going to be very rewarding, which it has been. That was important to me. I’ve always wanted to do something where I felt like I made a difference,” said Kim O’Neill, who received her foster children through the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto.

The experience has had a deep impact not just on the lives of the O’Neills but also on the two children who have come into their care.

“One of the neat things that I found when I started with the kids is that you’re providing things that were lacking in their lives. Even experiences like taking them to the movies, and that’s the first time they’ve ever gone. Or to a restaurant. They’ve been to say, McDonald’s or things like that, but not to a proper sit-down restaurant,” said O’Neill.

“With my kids, the first time I took them on a picnic: they talked about it for months. It seems like such a simple thing but it’s just something that they never did.”

Having been a day care practitioner with a licensed agency for 14 years prior to her decision to foster, O’Neill had a relatively high level of experience with children.

However, she stresses that the learning curve of being a foster parent can be a steep one at times.

“I’m still learning every day. Each child is a unique person, and they also come in with a unique set of challenges,” she said.

Many children the agency places suffer from behavioural and physical issues that can often be difficult for new foster parents. And something as simple as hiring a babysitter can pose difficulties as children’s aid regulations stipulate that all support workers must be over 21 years of age, pass a criminal record check and be approved by the agency.

Despite these hurdles, the O’Neills have found that the benefits far outweigh the challenges.

“There’s lots of training and there’s lots of support available. We have workshops, support groups, we even have a conference every year. There’s also lots of resources available for the kids,” said O’Neill.

Jonathan Kells, who is a supervisor in the resource service department of Catholic Children’s Aid Society, echoes a similar piece of advice for any prospective parents.

“We’re looking for somebody who can be flexible with their approach both with the organization but also with the child. Somebody who has, typically, some level of experience with children, but it’s not a prerequisite,” said Kells.

“The ability to learn is the greatest quality of one of our caregivers.”

Kells notes that to become a foster parent through the agency is typically a three- to six-month process, but the agency offers a great deal of resources to assist the transition, and stresses that there is always a need for families to welcome foster children into their lives.

“Get as much information as people. Be in touch with your local children’s aid society. Ask questions that you may not think would be good questions. Fostering is so unique that no question is a bad question, and the more information you can have, the better a decision you can make,” said Kells.

As for the O’Neills, they are currently on a waiting list to accept two more children into their family.

“So many times you see commercials on television to help kids, but it’s kids in other countries. I feel like I’m doing my tiny part to hopefully make Canada a better country,” said O’Neill.

“I think it’s a great career for someone who wants to be at home, whether you have a young family or in a situation like me where you’re looking for a change.”

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