By Jessica Lovell
Children benefit from stability and a connection to family, but for around 200 children and youth in the care of the local children’s aid society, that stability is uncertain.
Finding permanent, adoptive homes for kids is one of the ways Family and Children’s Services of Guelph and Wellington County is working to give these children back that sense of stability.
“Our hope is that every child will have a permanent family,” said children’s services worker Kirk Jenkins. “In many cases, it means adoption.”
Not all of the 200 children “in care” are up for adoption, so to speak. About 140 are Crown wards, meaning they will be in care until a permanent home can be found for them. The others are in temporary foster care until they can be returned to their families.
For those considered Crown wards, adoption is not the only avenue to permanency. Some, for example, will go to live with family in a legal guardianship relationship.
But for others, adoption is the answer, and there are not enough adoptive parents to go around.
“We’re now encouraging people who foster to be open to adopting,” said Jenkins, acknowledging that this is a fairly new direction for the agency.
Previously, fostering a child was not encouraged as an avenue to adoption, with the two roles seen as separate and fulfilling different needs.
But the agency is beginning to realize that the two roles cannot easily be separated. “The children who were being adopted were often coming from foster homes,” said Jenkins.
Taking children out of foster care to put them in different adoptive homes can be stressful, he said.
“We don’t want to move children more than we have to.”
Instead, the organization is asking people who are interested in fostering a child to be open to adoption and vice-versa.
“We’re looking at what’s best for the child, and it could be an emotional issue,” Jenkins said.
The emotions involved were clearly visible at a panel discussion held recently as part of a launch of the Heart Gallery, a new photo exhibit meant to raise awareness of the need for adoptive parents in the community.
The panel included four young women, ranging in age from 14 to 24, sharing their experiences of being in the foster care system and talking about the importance of having a “forever family” and home.
More than a few tears were shed as the girls talked about their experiences.
“I’m so happy and I’m so blessed that I got my ‘forever home,’ ” said Hope, a 17-year-old who was adopted at age nine after living in foster care and a group home.
The adoption – by a couple who were strangers to her – was scary, but it was preferable to life in the group home.
“For the three years that I was in the foster-care system, I was a job,” she said, telling of how the employees in the group home didn’t have time to read her bedtime stories or help with her homework. “You don’t have an adult that cares for you. It’s heart-breaking as a child.”
The difference in her new family was significant.
“They would take me out for dinner; they would come to my soccer games; they would actually make me do my homework,” Hope said, listing things that many children take for granted.
One of the other girls shared a different story. Alisha, 24, was never adopted, and she spoke about how that impacted her in her adult life.
Cared for by an aunt and uncle from the age of 12, Alisha was given the choice of being adopted by the couple or maintaining the benefits – including paid tuition – of being their foster child instead.
“What they were giving me was the option of a family forever or those benefits,” she said.
“I would rather have the student debt than to feel like I didn’t have anybody.”
Unlike other kids who go away to university, returning to do laundry or raid the family fridge on weekends, Alisha felt that when she left she couldn’t come back. She could visit her aunt and uncle, but their home was not her home in the same way it would have been if they had adopted her, she explained.
“When you are a foster child, you don’t feel like you belong to the family,” said Sheila Markle, service director with Family and Children’s Services.
But Markle also noted another issue highlighting the value of adoption. For youth in care who, unlike Alisha, don’t have family supports, provincial support ends when they reach age 21.
“They’re just getting started and then their support from us ends,” she said.
She would like to see the age for care extended. “The government would be wise to look at that,” said Markle. “Supporting these kids a little more upfront would cost less down the road.”
In the meantime, finding permanent homes for children has the potential to provide this support, and the Heart Gallery is a push to do this.
The gallery, which will go on display in the Co-operators building on Macdonell Street for two weeks starting Nov. 5, feature photos of local children who are looking for forever homes.
The idea behind it is to “tap into people who have maybe never considered adoption,” said Markle.
The exhibit, which literally puts kids in care on display for people who may be interested in adopting, may not sit well with some, but it’s not so unusual and it speaks to the reality of the need to find homes for the children, said Markle.
“This is not much different than what’s happened in the adoption world anyway,” she said. “The difference with this is that we’re being a little more creative in trying to bring the gallery into our own community, which is where the kids are.”
The gallery is meant to be a travelling exhibit, and Family and Children’s Services is hoping other businesses and organizations will be interested in hosting the photos to help spread the word about adoption. Those interested in hosting are asked to call 519-824-2410 and speak to David Lohnes at ext. 2434, or Darren Sinnaeve at ext. 2437.