The Children's Aid Society in Peel Region is putting out an urgent call for foster parents as the organization faces what it is describing as a "dire" shortage.
Peel has launched a recruitment campaign this month, seeking potential foster parents who can cater to children with complex needs including behavioural and mental health issues and families from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Current foster parents who have helped for decades are also aging and if more aren't found soon, the non-profit organization says it will be left with a significant shortage.
"We're looking to have a larger roster of foster caregivers to make sure that we're providing the best possible connections for children and youth when they're frankly at a time that's probably one of the most vulnerable in their lives," said Mary Beth Moellenkamp, the CEO of Peel's Children's Aid.
The campaign comes as the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies (OACAS), which represents Children's Aid Societies across the province, says they are seeing a greater need for foster parents Ontario-wide from diverse cultural backgrounds, who are able to take teenagers and siblings, and who can support those with mental health or developmental issues.
Foster parents told CBC Toronto the affordability crisis and changes to care models mean that families that foster require more assistance when it comes to training and financial support. They said the additional assistance should be introduced to encourage more people to foster.
Growing need despite fewer children in care
There are fewer children in foster care compared to the early 2000s in Ontario, stemming from shifts in government care mandates by the province in the mid-2000s that directed CAS to keep children with family members and their communities.
Only about one per cent of child welfare investigations in Ontario result in youth being placed into foster care, according to the OACAS.
Mary Beth Moellenkamp, the CEO of Peel's Children's Aid, says the organization is looking for parents who can help kids with complex needs, including mental health and developmental issues. (Submitted)
However, those that need foster care currently have very specific needs when it comes to behavioural issues or mental health concerns, said Moellenkamp.
"There aren't as many children, but it is also making sure that we are connecting the right child to the right caregiver," she said.
Foster parents who have specialized expertise are in demand, she said. For instance, they have children who have autism, or developmental delays, who would benefit from being placed in families who have experience, she explained.
Recruiting diverse foster parents is also important, as Peel Region is a diverse community and it's more beneficial to the children if their foster home reflects their upbringing, said Moellenkamp.
Prasad Nair, the service director of permanency planning with Peel CAS, said the organization also urgently needs parents to fill the hole that is being left by current parents aging out.
About a decade ago, Peel would have about 550 children in foster care at any given time. Now, their numbers are around 150 consistently.
Peel currently has 93 children placed in 74 homes with foster parents, or kin in care homes, which are homes where the child may be with a family member or close community member, but they remain in the guardianship of CAS.
Crucial to help young people: parents
Vanessa Milley, the CEO of the Foster Parents Society of Ontario, an organization that advocates for foster parents and trains them, said the main support parents are looking for currently is help and training for kids with complex needs.
That could range from supporting kids with mental health issues, to getting funding for an after-school tutor, or help with finding a pediatrician, said Milley.
Milley, who has been fostering children for decades, says while there are challenges — anything that is rewarding doesn't always come easy.
"It's like being part of someone's happily ever after," she said. However, Milley said the affordability crisis could affect the recruitment of new parents. She said it would be helpful if the province would be willing to cover more expenses as it could be a barrier for potential younger foster parents.
Robert LaBrecque, who has been a foster parent for over 40 years alongside his wife in the Windsor region, said their household currently has four teenage boys who are doing well in school and are heading for graduation and a promising future.
The OACAS says across Ontario there's a need for foster parents who will take in older kids. LaBrecque said early on, he and his wife thought it would be "easier" with younger children — but now he says fostering teens is a joy.
He's fostering a boy who came to his home at 14 years old after having been fostered in 12 other homes. Now he's graduating high school and is "just tremendous."
"There's nothing more exciting than helping a young person ... plot a future," he said.
He said with increasing costs he's not surprised there are challenges for people to choose fostering and it's not easy to when it comes to finances. But these are kids who need support more than anyone, in particular due to what they've been through, he said.
In a statement to CBC Toronto, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said it recognizes the challenges CAS face in recruiting and retaining foster parents. "We continue to listen to, and work closely with, societies that are working to address these challenges," it said.
Moellenkamp says she's asking the community to step forward and help if they can.
"We know it's challenging, but we really want ... our caregivers to be reflective of our community," she said.
"We want to make sure that within Peel Region….that we ... have the supports in place for them."