Irene Smith laughs as she gently burrows her nose into the little girl's cheek. The 16-month-old girl sits there passively on Irene's lap. More cuddles and tickles from Irene. The little girl is still as a doll. Irene wraps her slim arms around the girl, like a comforting cocoon, and plants a kiss on top of her head.
The little girl is one of 60 foster children Irene has cared for over the last 17 years. Most have been crack babies, born with an addiction to crack, heroin or prescription drugs. This little girl's mother was addicted to painkillers.
The drugs worked their way out of her tiny body but the damage was done. At night, the little girl still wakes up and lets out high-pitched screams, like a distressed cat. It takes a deep well of patience to nurture a child through drug withdrawal and Irene has it.
“I discovered I had a knack for it after I took my first drug baby in,” says Irene, who asked her real last name not be used.
Irene says all of her foster kids have been “special to me.” So special that she adopted five of them. That includes her 16-year-old daughter who is now an A plus student. Irene is one of 180 foster parents in Hamilton. The Children's Aid Society needs more and is hoping to draw prospective foster parents out to an information session this week.
With 620 children in care and 24, on average, coming into care each month, many more homes are needed. “We are literally scrambling every day to find homes,” said Rachel Threlkeld, coordinator of Homes for Kids, Children's Aid Society of Hamilton.
More than one quarter of the children in care are five years old and under and require a stay-at-home parent to foster them. Part of what makes it tough to find enough homes in Hamilton is that most parents work. “When it comes to finding homes for children under five, we are in crisis,” said Threlkeld.
When they run out of spaces in Hamilton, they take the child to a home outside of the area or double them up in a foster home for a few days. They don't like to do that. The child has had enough instability in their lives already.
Threlkeld said most of the children are physically healthy but often have emotional scars because they've been in neglectful or abusive homes. Irene knows all about the scars. Prenatal exposure to crack cocaine can have long term effects on brain development.
Many cry non stop or are unresponsive, like the 16-month-old girl. Irene has also seen the difference that a loving, stable environment can make. She's seen many of her babies thrive. She recognizes that the time they have with her is a time to help them.
When they find a new home, she sends them off with a scrapbook she's kept for them and holds a celebration party. Brenda has been a foster parent for 10 years. She has cared for seven children. Some children remain in foster care for a few days while others, like the two and a half year old boy in her home now, has been here for two years.
The time can be longer if the CAS is trying to work with birth parents to help them build the skills to become effective parents. “I look at what I can do in the short time I have them,” said Brenda. “It comes down to knowing you're making a difference in a child's life.”