Angela Hatch has two loves: the Montreal Canadiens — however they play — and babies, no matter how sick, distressed or colicky.
“My family always says, ‘When you are 100, we will put you in a wheelchair, in front of a TV with a hockey game on, holding a baby and a cup of coffee,’ ” said Hatch. “They say, ‘We know you’ll be happy then.’
“I guess by then I will have to hold a doll, but it will have to be one that cries.”
The 67-year-old View Royal woman is a longtime foster mother with a unique niche: She specializes in caring for infants with special needs, usually a result of prenatal exposure to drugs or alcohol, or with medical complications.
She’s been doing it for 27 years and gave up a nursing career to take it on. By her reckoning, nearly 100 babies have spent their first months in her care. Most of them arrive in her home only days after birth and they typically stay 11 to 18 months, usually two at a time but sometimes three, even four.
For this tiny woman — who is all of four-feet, 10.5 inches tall and 85 pounds — tending to these infants with their medical frailties is never work.
It’s an avocation, even “a blessing” for Hatch, a mother of seven and grandmother of nine.
“It’s a privilege to be given these babies who are so extraordinarily frail, to watch over them through the months as they do so much better and improve.”
Hatch’s home is one of nine specialist foster homes on southern Vancouver Island that take care of infants with severe medical problems.
An average of just under 580 infants under 12 months have been taken into care every year across the province since 2007-08, according to the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
Many of them suffer from prenatal exposure to drugs or other substances.
That these special children require special care was made tragically clear in April 1997, when a four-month-old child was shaken by a foster mother who became frustrated with the child’s constant crying. That child, who became known as Baby Molly, had been born addicted to methadone.
The shaking injury left Baby Molly with permanent brain damage. It prompted the provincial government to enact the Safe Babies program to provide specialized training for foster parents who care for these infants.
Hatch helped advise and assist on Safe Babies from the start. She has travelled throughout Vancouver Island, to the Interior, even Hawaii to train foster parents in taking care of these babies and to prepare the families that adopt them.
Hatch views herself as a professional caregiver.
As a nurse, she worked in highly specialized units such as operating rooms and pediatric intensive care.
Her medical training is obvious in the clinical terms she often uses when she speaks about her babies.
Hatch doesn’t say “crack babies” — instead, the infants are “substance-impacted.” They don’t cry because they are “drug sick” or going “cold turkey.” They cry because they are dealing with “a neurological issue from the cocaine.”
Her initial motivation to begin caring for special babies wasn’t professional — it was deep and personal. She and her husband had adopted a daughter. (Five of her children are adopted, but Hatch insists they are all Hatch children.) It turned out that the little girl, adopted at age three, had suffered in a poor foster home on the mainland.
“I just felt I cannot change what happened to her, but I can take babies into my home and make sure they don’t have to endure what she did,” Hatch said.
Perhaps because of her nursing background, the first baby who arrived for fostering came with serious medical issues.
The infant’s skin was covered in sores. At seven months, she weighed about the same as a four-month-old. When she was seized from her home, social workers found beer in her baby bottle.
After that, all the babies came with what Hatch calls “special challenges.”
With drug-affected babies, she said, the key is providing a calm, consistent environment, and listening and watching for their cues: their cries when they are over-stimulated, their discomfort with too much eye contact, their bodies stiffening as a result of drug exposure. Sometimes, they just need to be taken into a room and held, out of the lights and noise. “Reading their cues is huge — without them you can’t care for these impacted babies,” she said.
Over the year that they’re with her, babies who were initially agitated, tense and sensitive to the normal environment gradually begin to relax. “They start to attach beautifully, they start to babble and become more like the average baby.”
Hatch says she doesn’t love that these babies are sick, but she loves that she can take care of them.
“These special little babies, they struggle to get through their substance-abuse and medical issues — none of it their fault — then they just love you,” she said. “They appreciate every little thing you do for them.”
It’s always been like that for her with babies. When she was 10 and growing up in Trail, her mother gave birth to a little boy and Hatch was hooked.
“I remember wanting to be the mom,” she said.
She started babysitting at 12. When she was in high school, she would attend basketball games, but with a group of toddlers in tow. And when she was in nursing, she even specialized for a time in pediatric intensive care.
One family that adopted three of the children she fostered and still keeps in touch calls her the Baby Whisperer because of her knack with infants.
“Even now, when I go and visit my friends and they have grandchildren there and a baby is crying, if I pick that baby up, that baby stops crying,” she said. “It’s always been like that.”
The relationships she forms with the babies in her care endure. She keeps in touch with 40 of the young people she fostered as babies. She sends them cards at Christmas and birthdays. Many still call her “Nana.”
Recently, she had a visit from a family with a 17-year-old girl whom Hatch had fostered until she was nine months old. There had been no contact after adoption, until the girl pressed her family for the visit.
The teen told Hatch she remembered nothing of that early experience, save one thing: Hatch’s voice.
“She said, ‘I remember your voice singing to me and that’s always been in my mind,’ ” Hatch said. “She even turned to her dad and said, ‘See, I told you I remembered her voice.’ ”
Moments like that, letters, emails, texts — even a visit from one boy who asked his parents on his 16th birthday for a plane ticket to visit her — are what Hatch calls “a blessing.”
“There is really not enough money to pay me for having these beautiful children come through my home and then they come back and visit me,” she said.
Her former husband remains on good terms and was always supportive of her avocation for fostering babies. The only concern he ever expressed was whether she would be able to give them up.
But she and the ministry have worked out a gentle transition method. For about a week, adoptive parents, or the next set of foster parents, spend entire days at the Hatch home, getting to know the baby.
Hatch spends that time laughing and smiling with the newcomers to let the baby know these are people to love. And Hatch insists that when it’s time to leave, she puts the babies in the carseat, wishes them well and once again tells them she loves them.
“I always say a little piece of my heart goes with every baby,” Hatch said. “It doesn’t get any easier. That’s why it’s so important that we do a good transition to enter a new foster home, or a new adoptive home, or back to their own biological home.
“The baby does better, the family does better and we all feel better about it.”
© Copyright 2013