Our friends at the BC Federation of Foster Parent Associations (BCFFPA) are celebrating a big anniversary in 2017. They've been serving the foster parents of BC for 50 years! In this interview, executive director Jayne Wilson tells us more about BCFFPA's work, and why foster care and adoption should go hand in hand.
Tell us a little bit about the BCFFPA.
The Federation was created in 1967 by foster parents and social workers to bring the community together as a resource for each other. We have branches all across the province that provide community-level BCFFPA groups for foster parents to gather, learn, share, and host family activities.
We provide information to callers about fostering (much like AFABC’s 1-877-ADOPT-07 line), intake services for the Ministry of Child and Family Development (MCFD) and Delegated Aboriginal Agencies, support and advocacy for foster parents (which we call our Solutions Program), a provincial newsletter, and a variety of other services.
We are BC’s main advocate for foster parents and we consult with MCFD about fostering policy and practice. We also provide an insurance program for BC’s foster parents that covers damages done to their homes or belongings by children who are placed in their care.
Do any of your staff have a personal connection to adoption or foster care? If so, how have their experiences influenced their work?
We have a very small staff so our personal experience is limited. I was in the adoption stream at one point, though didn’t end up adopting. It was a great experience. I [also] worked at AFABC for a couple of years! Another staff member worked in a receiving home for children who were in temporary care. She fell in love with a 3 year old girl and has maintained that connection for many years! This same staff member has decided to apply for adoption as well. Our Board of Directors are all foster parents and many of them have adopted and continue to foster.
Because of our varied histories with fostering and adoption we consider ourselves to be very passionate about the work that we do. We have a nice balance between those who are motivated by care and concern for the children in our foster care system and those who apply strategy and business practice to effect needed change in this challenging sector.
What’s an especially rewarding aspect of your work?
When I hear that foster parents continue to foster because they have the support they need to do the job well, that’s pretty exciting. I also find it rewarding to go out in the community and hear that a service we offered assisted a foster family in some way.
What’s one big challenge you face?
Funding. We have three full time staff who are doing the work of about six people. Because of an increasing workload and too few hands to do the work, we have had to step away from some partnership activities. The lack of funding also impacts our ability to build our programs and increase our accessibility to those who live in outlying areas of the province.
How has foster care in BC changed over the past 50 years?
We were at an event last year with foster parents who had been fostering for 45 years and more. They told some incredible stories about children being dropped off at their houses without any information, no paperwork, no resources, and no financial support. It sounded like the culture back then was very informal—like taking care of the neighbor’s kids for an indefinite period of time. There was no training. Everyone was just winging it.
We also heard a story about a social worker who would travel to the homes of foster parents, put up a tent in the backyard, and light a camp fire around which they’d all gather and drink whiskey! This was a very, very long time ago, of course!
Other than creating a more professional practice for foster parents with education, policy, and structure, the most obvious change is that the needs of the children have become much more complex. Multiple diagnoses are so common now, and of course everyone is aware of the effects of trauma, alcohol, and drugs.
What do you hope to see in the future?
I would hope to see foster parents recognized for the heroic work they do. There is a stigma around fostering that can be very hurtful and judgemental. Many people don’t understand what foster parents do, the commitments they make, how much of their lives they dedicate to the care of others, and that they don’t actually get paid (they receive a minimal monthly allowance). Foster parent care for kids. Period. They do this work because they love it. I hope that society learns to understand that, and honors foster parents’ contribution to society with higher monthly allowances, health care insurance, and maybe even pensions so that the 70- and 80-year-old foster parents can afford to retire.
Do you have a favourite story you can share?
My favorite stories are the ones that involve former foster children coming back with their own kids to spend time with their foster families. There are too many of these stories to single out just one. Foster parents truly are another branch of the family tree. Young people without biological connections often find permanency in foster families.
What happens when a foster parent adopts one of the kids they’ve been fostering?
They are family! The official process is often drawn out because the children are already in the placement. Some foster parents take a break from fostering for one year after an adoption is finalized, but more often than not, they have a home full of children and it’s parenting as usual.
Adoption and foster care are closely connected. Why don't we join forces more often?
You’d think that adoption and fostering would go hand in hand. And of course the majority of adoption placements each year in BC are to foster parents! But having worked on both sides, it’s more obvious to me why organizational partnerships and relationships between foster and adoptive parents aren’t always achievable.
Foster care is a crisis-driven sector while adoption is built on hope and the joy of parenting. Some might say that adoption is more obviously rewarding, and fostering is more of a heads-down determined effort.
Foster parents are usually temporary stewards of the children in their care, and some have cared for hundreds of children. The “job” of fostering includes accommodating family members of the children they care for, reunification and adoption preparation, working with and reporting to social workers on a daily basis, and understanding the policy and practice that governs the work they do. Adoptive parents on average, have a short lived relationship with the Ministry professionals. My experience is that most adoptive parents aren’t encouraged to maintain relationships or get to know the foster parents of the children they adopt. Adoptive parents often don’t understand the value of a foster parent’s insights into the children they hope to adopt. Adoption is also much easier for the average citizen to grasp than foster care. In my experience foster parents are often judged and dismissed by others for their choice to parent children on a temporary basis assuming this indicates a lack of commitment to the child.
I think it’s difficult to walk a mile in another’s shoes, but I also know that exposure builds understanding. The foster parents I got to know during my own adoption journey totally changed my perspective on the work that foster parents do.
What does family mean to you?
To me, family is anyone who hangs around long enough to become a permanent fixture! I have a very loose definition of family.
Jayne Wilson is the Executive Director of BCFFPA. She specializes in transformative practice. Her background is in management coupled with holistic medicine and counselling psychology. She has written and provided workshops on health and wellness, parenting, attachment theory, and understanding grief and loss, and applies her respectful approach to successfully assist companies with strategic planning and organizational transformation.