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Foster parents play a key role for kids in need of help

Meaghan and Shawn McKay say whenever people hear they are foster parents, they offer one of two responses. "One response is, 'Oh, my goodness you are such a good person,' " Meaghan said.

Meaghan and Shawn McKay say whenever people hear they are foster parents, they offer one of two responses.

"One response is, 'Oh, my goodness you are such a good person,' " Meaghan said. "The other is, 'Why would you ever want to do that?' "

The reality, she said, is that the couple believes in serving the community, and felt foster parenting was something they could do. "We're not paragons or anything like that."

For nearly two years, Meaghan, 31, an analyst with the provincial government, and Shawn, 32, a full-time foster dad, have been fostering teenagers in their View Royal townhouse.

They have two toddler-age kids of their own, who have never known life any other way. They now have four teens, ages 16 and 17, living with them while they attend school.

Meaghan was inspired to become a foster parent by the memory of her late father, who had grown up with foster parents to become a very good father himself. For Shawn, it was memories, some of them tough, of growing up in a home where they fostered teens, many of them troubled.

More than 3,200 families in B.C. provide homes for almost 5,300 children in care, for days, weeks and even years at a time. About 250 of those foster homes are in the Victoria area and the Ministry of Children and Families says more are always needed - something it hopes to raise awareness of this month, officially Foster Parents Month in B.C.

The bigger the pool of foster families, the more likely a child can find a good fit with a temporary home.

Asked if the ministry has a recruitment target, Children and Families Minister Stephanie Cadieux laughed. "Lots," said Cadieux. "There is always a need for more families."

Cadieux said nobody in B.C. fosters kids in isolation - the ministry provides social workers, resources and training sessions. "There is a network of support from the ministry and again from other foster parents."

Dana Kinney, 48, and her husband, Keith, 60, have been fostering kids for 14 years. They now have four foster children, ages 17, 13, two and one. They said they've never felt alone, abandoned or over-stretched as they care for their charges.

A child and youth worker takes one of the Kinneys' foster teens for extra attention every week, including horseback-riding lessons.

There are volunteer foster grandparents and short-term foster parents who offer respite so the Kinneys can take a holiday.

Each child comes with his or her own case manager, who arranges things such as family visits. There are also infant-development workers and a safe-babies adviser.

There's even an on-call nurse, an expert in the care of infants and young children who have been exposed to alcohol or drugs in their mother's womb. Rates of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder are high among foster kids.

The ministry provides each foster home with its own worker. Kinney recalled the last time one of her foster children was placed with an adoptive family. It's an event that always brings mixed feelings, happiness but also a sense of loss. "Whenever you foster children, you have to be able to love and let go."

After the foster child left, a resource worker called to check in on Kinney. "She just phoned to see how I was doing, how I was feeling," she said. "I just sat there and I talked straight for 45 minutes."

Foster parents also receive a monthly stipend of $800 to $3,000, depending on the level of care a child needs.

Kinney agreed fostering has required some sacrifices. Her now grown children, ages 26, 28 and 30, had to give up some of their parents' attention, especially when new foster kids moved in.

"When kids are coming in and getting stabilized, we really focus on them," said Kinney. "So it's a sacrifice for everybody in the family."

But the positives for her own children outweighed the negatives, she said. The Kinney youngsters learned the hardships other people deal with and how to be more generous and tolerant themselves.

She recalled one of her own daughters coming home from school laughing because nobody in her class had ever heard of FASD. "She had learned a lot about people and families and kids and a lot of things about families that really need help," said Kinney, who adds that her children also became very giving as a result of their experience.

She encourages anybody who is considering fostering children to contact the ministry, which offers orientation sessions to help families make the decision.

"If the idea keeps on coming up and you are thinking of it, my advice would be to pursue it," Kinney said. "A lot of people think about it and talk about it a lot, but they don't ever necessarily do anything about it."

Russell Pohl, a 15-year foster parent and vice-president of the B.C. Federation of Foster Parents, said for him, fostering meant the chance to adopt and raise five kids with his partner - in fact, 32 per cent of fostered children are adopted by their foster families.

While he warned that fostering should not be seen as a prelude to adoption, in Pohl's case - as a gay man with grown children from an earlier, heterosexual relationship - the opportunity was a blessing for him and his partner, since they had all but given up on the notion of being parents themselves.

Like all the foster parents interviewed, Pohl said the biggest reward from fostering is having the chance to make a real difference.

Pohl remembered two teenage girls his family fostered. Every day they were in his home, they battled over homework. "We used to fight with them, 'C'mon you need this, it's for your own good,' all those stories all parents tell," said Pohl.

Since then, however, both girls, have returned to their own biological families. One is now a straight-A math student and the other graduated a year early.

"How much more important can your life's work be when you can visually see that what you do is making a difference?" said Pohl, who owns his own catering company, but says that's not his most important job.

"My most important role is as a dad."

FOSTERING BASICS

Anyone 19 or older can apply to be a foster parent. Here are the steps to take:

1. Dial the Foster Line at 1-800663-9999 or the Aboriginal Foster Parents at 1-866-291-7091.

2. Attend an information session and orientation. Sessions are held regularly around the province and are a great chance to learn more about fostering.

3. Apply. Three references are required and one must be a relative. Your doctor will also be asked to provide a medical assessment.

4. Background checks will be performed on all the adults living in the home. A government resource worker will conduct home visits and interviews with your family.

5. The background checks and homestudy sessions take about six months. If you're approved, your foster family resource worker will assist you in deciding which children may be appropriate for you to foster.

For more information, go to mcf.gov.bc.ca/foster

rwatts@timescolonist.com