Edmonton

'We work so hard': Edmonton clinic for children in foster care strives to meet need

It's no surprise when children are moved from foster home to foster home, their mental health often suffers, but their physical health is also affected.

'We need more staff; we need more funding; we need more doctors and nurses'

'I was one of these kids,' says Bonnie Ford, a nurse at the Covenant Health Foster Care Clinic in south Edmonton. (Nola Keeler/CBC)

It's no surprise that when children are moved from foster home to foster home, their mental health often suffers. 

But their physical health is also affected, according to Bonnie Ford, a registered nurse at Covenant Health Foster Care Clinic in south Edmonton.

From severed relationships with family to the trauma of living with strangers, children in the foster-care system suffer from instability, Ford says.

It's the kind of trauma she sees working with at the clinic and that she remembers vividly from her own childhood. 

"I was one of these kids when I was growing up," Ford said. "My family dealt with poverty. There was a lot of domestic violence. 

"I just know what these kids are going through. I feel it."

The clinic has been serving foster children and their caregivers from across northern Alberta since 2011. 

Its doctors, nurses and social workers treat more than 2,000 patients each year and the staff struggles to keep up, even with increased provincial funding that allowed the clinic to hire more registered nurses.

But meeting the need remains a challenge, Ford said.

"We need more. We're at full capacity. Even though we're at full capacity, we still help more and more kids.

"We work so hard. We need more staff; we need more funding; we need more doctors and nurses." 

'Looking after the whole child'

Ford said the clinic was founded out of a growing concern for the health of children in the system. 

"We started noticing patterns, that kids' lives were not getting any better while in foster care," she said.

"They're getting hurt in foster care, they're not getting good medical care, they're moving around a lot. We started to notice [that] we're not looking after the whole child." 

Some of the children seen by the clinic will live in up to 50 homes before they reach 18. As children move from caregiver to caregiver, their doctors often change, too. 

And without consistency in care, everything from dental care to heart conditions can be overlooked, Ford said. 

The clinic involves caregivers and families from the beginning, so even when a child's address changes, their doctor remain the same.

"We work really hard to get all their medical records together," Ford said. 

"Then we can see all their health history and see what was missed and not followed through on. And we make sure we work on those things and get them done," she said. "That's what's different about our clinic." 

As a society, we really don't make it easy for people who are struggling to get their needs met.- Dr. Tami Masterson

The clinic also focuses on trauma-informed care. It's a methodology Dr. Tami Masterson, lead physician for the clinic, initially struggled with.

Then she met a little boy who was so afraid of a basic examination that he screamed like a "caged animal." 

That's when she realized she needed to approach her practice differently, exercising patience and waiting for her patients to be ready.

"When you actually look at the definition [of trauma-informed care], it's what happened to you, not what's wrong with you," Masterson said. 

"As a society, we really don't make it easy for people who are struggling to get their needs met. That's what the team does."