The walls of one of the bedrooms in Isabel Davey‘s Stayner home have been painted several times, but that’s because several children have called the room their own, whether for just a few months, or for as long as 16 years.
The bedroom is pink right now, for the little girl living there.
Davey has been caring for children as a foster parent with Simcoe Muskoka Family Connexions for three decades, most of it with her late husband, and now she continues on her own.
It was a house that got her into the work in the first place.
“We bought a house in Wasaga Beach, and the lady that we were buying from was a foster parent, and she had all these kids … and she said she was a foster parent,” said Davey. “I said, ‘well, I would like to do that!’”
She called what was then called the Children’s Aid Society nearly right away, and she’s been fostering children ever since, first in their home in Wasaga Beach and now in her home in Stayner. The last nine years she’s been on her own after the death of her husband, Robert.
“When my husband was alive, we took in children right up to their teenage years,” said Davey. “But since he has passed, I try to stick to toddlers and babies.”
Robert was a truck driver for Maple Lodge Farms, and wore a cochlear implant for hearing loss. When he was at home, he spent time with his and Isabel’s foster children by kicking a ball outside or taking them for a bike ride to Tim Hortons.
“He loved every one that we had in our home, just as much as I do,” said Davey.
While rules have since changed, Davey had as many as two foster children living with her, plus a bed that was used for respite stays.
For the dozens of children who have found a temporary home with Davey, she is known as Bell.
Any other title, like mom, might get confusing for children who are reunited with their families. And that’s Bell’s goal for most of the children she takes care of.
“I worked very well with my families to help them get their kids back,” said Davey. “They do go home … in order to foster, you’ve got to be connected [to the families]. For some of them, it takes a long time, because they’re scared that you’re going to take their child … I just tell them, ‘I’m not here to take your child, I’m here to work with you.’”
She likes to ask families for their favourite recipes to make with the children while they are in foster care.
“I think it’s very rewarding to give as much support [to the parents] as you can,” said Davey. “You just explain there’s help for them, and we’re going to keep their child safe … until they can get their child back.”
Lisette Gagne, the foster care recruiter for Simcoe Muskoka Family Connexions, said it’s ‘hugely rewarding’ to see children return to their homes after being in foster care.
“Because you’ve had an impact on how a child is now developing, how a child sees parents, how a child sees the community come together as a support,” said Gagne.
When a child first arrives at her house, Davey said they usually want to know where they’ll be sleeping, so they get a tour of the house, starting with their bedroom.
Davey takes care to make what she calls “life books,” which are photo albums and scrapbooks documenting the time they spend under Davey’s care.
“I think it’s very important that the children have life books. That is their life,” said Davey. “I take lots of pictures … outside playing in the snow, going to the splash pads … the kids I’ve had, they sit and they look at their life books … they ask me questions … and they’re so happy.”
She had nine life books at her house for a child she’s been fostering since he was two months old. He has been adopted now, and will be taking those books with him.
Davey is inspired to keep going as a foster parent when she thinks of the children she has met, and the staff she works with at Simcoe Muskoka Family Connexions.
“If it wasn’t for the foster parents who give these kids a good start in life, then where would they be and where would they go?” she asked.
Gagne said it’s common for adults who were once children in foster care to reach out to their foster families with gratitude.
“They remember that the foster families supported them,” said Gagne, who knows the feeling firsthand. Her parents were foster parents, and she’s spent 80 per cent of her 32-year career in child welfare on foster care work.
Davey said she feels the reward in her work when she hears from a child who is with a family, whether their birth family or adopted family, and they are happy.
“You know you’ve done something good … When the children leave your home and they call you and they send you Christmas cards,” said Davey, listing some of the children who still reach out.
“I have one that is in BC, she was my very first child when we became foster parents, and she has called me and sent me birthday cards and Christmas cards, and I send her birthday and Christmas cards,” said Davey.
A boy who was adopted and is living in Owen Sound video calls Davey and sent her a video to tell her he loves her.
“We talk about school, and hockey, and Halloween and he asks me about my husband, so I explained that he has passed away,” said Davey. “Then he’ll ask to see the dog, Misty.”
Currently, Gagne recruits new foster families in Simcoe County and Muskoka, and she said there is a need for families in Simcoe County.
“Our goal is to keep children close to home, closer to their family, friends, and their schools, so that lessens the number of changes they have to experience,” said Gagne.
As such, the organization tries to have foster family options in all school catchment areas.
“We are looking for families who are available to take care of children a variety of ages, from little ones to those who are 10 years or older is our huge need,” said Gagne. “We’re looking for families who have the ability, flexibility, the patience, and the compassion to be able to work with kids and helping them heal so we can return them home in a safe way.”
There are currently 75 foster homes in Simcoe County and Muskoka District associated with Family Connexions. But there are more children who need foster care, and the demand for foster families is Ontario-wide.
Last summer, Family Connexions put out a call looking for foster families in Simcoe County and Muskoka, announcing the launch of their new website, and hoping to spread awareness about what a foster family does and the support they get along the way. The organization continues to seek more foster care providers.
“It’s an ongoing need,” said Gagne.
Family Connexions works with people interested in taking in a child for foster care, whether they are families, couples, or singles.
“We’re looking for families who are open to caring for all … families who are open to working not only with the children in their homes, but with the biological family,” said Gagne. “We work together as a co-parenting unit.”
The process takes about six to eight months, and is outlined on the familyconnexions.ca website.
“Then we continue to provide support not only to our foster parents through a resource worker, but the child has their own worker and the family has their own worker,” so together we work collaboratively in planning for the child’s return.”
The support is welcomed by Davey, who finds the work rewarding, but acknowledges the difficulties.
“There are lots of challenges that foster parents do go through,” said Davey.
For the most part, children who arrive at a foster home are upset at the beginning, they can be confused and scared, said Davey.
After making sure they have a warm bed and food, she gives them a listening ear.
“I just keep talking to them,” she said. “Some of them, they don’t want to. But the little ones really do the talking. The older ones don’t want to share anything with you. It takes time, so you give them their space and when they’re ready to talk, you’re there for them.”
And then there are the goodbyes as children leave to go back to their families, or to be adopted.
“They’re very hard … I never let the kids see me cry,” said Davey. “It’s supposed to be happy [when they go to their family], so you put on a good face, even though you’re sad inside. But there’s time for that when the child leaves.”
One of the things all foster families come to understand is the bittersweet feelings that can come with a goodbye, whether a child returns home to their biological family, or is adopted.
“You have to be able to learn to say goodbye,” said Gagne.
Davey and her husband had two children, they were teens when she started fostering. And she’s adopted two of the children who she was fostering. She has three grandchildren.
Simcoe Muskoka Family Connexions is looking for more families like the Daveys, who are willing to work through challenges and open their home and hearts to people who need community support.
“They don’t need to be perfect … we’re looking for people who have experience in meeting those challenging moments and coming up ahead of the game and then being able to turn and put their hand out and help the next person,” said Gagne.
If you’re interested in learning more about the process, you can reach out via the familyconnexions.ca website.