The province of Nova Scotia celebrates Foster Family Appreciation Week each October. It takes a special couple to be foster parents and despite the horror stories about ‘bad’ foster parents, most are like Sylvia McNutt and her husband, James, going quietly and happily about their business of helping children.
When her two kids were teenagers, Sylvia saw a poster seeking foster parents.
“We wanted more kids,” she explains. “We liked having kids around, we had a big house. We talked to our kids and they were gung-ho.”
To be approved, Sylvia and James had to gather police and abuse checks then take a certain number of courses before their first foster child, who was a boy of 12.
“Then we got some little ones, school-age, and that’s our niche,” says Sylvia. “That’s who we enjoy the most.”
More than a decade later, it takes Sylvia a moment to answer the obvious question: How many children have you fostered?
“Let me see,” she says, then proceeds to whisper names to herself as she counts off on her fingers. She can name every one of the 20 children who have lived in her house for six months or more in the past ten years.
The shortest stay in Sylvia’s foster home is six months, while the average time in her care is two and a half years.
“These kids are not in foster care by choice,” she explains. “It’s the last place they want to be. They’re uprooted from their family. Everything familiar to them is gone. They’ve lost their family, they’re in a different community. The workers are very good and they’re very nice and they try to make it not so upsetting but it’s got to be. I couldn’t go, as a child, from my bed to a strange family and expect to go to sleep that night. It’s traumatizing. But there’s no other way to do it. There’s no other way to make the transition because when they apprehend a child, that’s it.”
Middle-of-the-night calls are not common but they do happen.
According to Sylvia, building trust is essential.
“The biggest challenge when you get a child is to get them settled. They don’t know you. You’ve got to get them comfortable in bed. I have Spencer, my magic bear. When a child comes, and they come with nothing usually, they sleep with Spencer. After a while, they decide they don’t need Spencer anymore so he goes back in the cupboard to wait for the next child to arrive. Spencer has slept with a lot of kids.”
Spencer is Sylvia’s own creation because she recognized that a young child wants to cuddle something because they’re scared.
“But kids are resilient,” she says. “So you see them mellow, you see behaviours diminish. Something they did from the first, they stop doing. That’s from having the same routine. When you have a bunch of kids in your house, you have to have a routine.”
It takes about a month for a new child to settle in and it’s not just Sylvia who has to adjust to a new dynamic.
“The kids deserve a lot of credit because they put up with a lot of crap from each other,” she explains. “A little bit of time has to be taken away from them to go to the other one. You know, instead of being two, there’s three now.”
The most foster kids in the house at one time was four and Sylvia says they were all good.
“There is a bond that comes between them,” she says. “They develop bonds like siblings do.”
Sylvia and James have adopted three of their foster children, the most recent just this fall. After living with Sylvia and James for nearly four years, the two young sisters gain, officially and forever, four older siblings who are in their late twenties.
Sylvia says that “Every child who comes to your house, you learn something from,” so what are the top three lessons she’s learned from the past decade as a foster mother?
“You learn to pick your battles,” is the first lesson. “If it’s not life-threatening, if no one’s getting hurt, we can deal with it.”
Secondly, she is amazed by the kindness the children show to each other.
“Kids in care are always considerate. If a child comes in and there’s already one there who is older, they’ll say, ‘This is how we do it.’ They teach each other the skills that are used in our home and they all take care of each other. As much as they argue, they protect.”
The third lesson is: Have a best friend who is a foster parent, too.
“She’s been amazing,” Sylvia says of her friend. “When a child went home, she was always there on the phone or coming in the door with coffee.”
That’s the only part of fostering that breaks Sylvia’s heart: When they go back home.
“You’re sad and you’re happy. But how do you love someone for six months then suddenly they’re out of your life? It’s hard for everyone. Everyone gets attached.”
Of all the joys and all the fun, there is one very special moment that makes being a foster parent so rewarding.
“When they hug you, that makes you happy,” Sylvia says. “That’s when you know you’ve broken through, when they say, ‘Can I have a hug?’ ”
Written by Sara Mattinson