When Jessica Bennie looks at her two pre-school age foster children, she can’t help but wonder what she might have been feeling 32 years ago. Back then, she was just six months old and placed into foster care herself.
“When I see these babies, especially with significant special needs through no fault of their own, it’s hard not to get really emotional,” she says of her foster kids. “I consider myself a voice for the voiceless.”
October is Foster Family Month in B.C. and Jessica and her family exemplify the type of caring families that B.C.’s most vulnerable children and youth in care count on to be there for them.
Jessica is a level 3 caregiver trained to care for those with the highest care needs. Her foster children are a two-year-old girl and a three-year-old boy, each with significant special needs.
All those years ago, when Jessica, whose heritage is Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation in Ontario, was adopted by her original foster family, she was welcomed into a clan consisting of 12 siblings. Nine were adopted, two from other countries (Romania and Vietnam). Two of her siblings were Indigenous. In total, her parents, who are now in their seventies, fostered about 150 kids.
She describes her foster-adoptive mom, Cathy Regan, as the best role model she could have had.
“She took emergency placements with children and youth showing up at all hours of the day and night. She was patient, kind and unconditionally loving. She never even raised her voice.”
And as Jessica will be the first to tell you, her mom’s loving attitude wasn’t because Jessica “didn’t give her a run for her money” as a teenager.
Jessica, who is non-status, says that 20 years ago, “awareness of Indigenous cultural practices wasn’t a thing. I would have loved to have learned my language or had some contact with a family member,” she says. “I don’t really look Indigenous. I know that I’m not fully accepted by my own culture and not fully accepted by white culture. I still struggle sometimes with identity issues.”
As a result, she incorporates Indigenous cultural practices like smudging, singing, dancing and praying into her family’s life. She even asks biological families of Indigenous children to send her family songs.
“My husband Steve and I are a phenomenal team,” she says. “I’m a night owl and he gets up at 3 a.m. That pretty much covers around-the-clock care.” They’ve been married for 11 years.
Together, they live on a farm on Vancouver Island with their two biological daughters, 7 and 11 years old, and Steve’s older children, aged 15 and 18.
“Because of the age range of our family, caring for babies seems to be a really good dynamic for us,” she says.
“We didn’t think this sweet little boy would ever walk because of his special needs and the impact on his co-ordination. He wasn’t walking at two years old.”
But Jessica, who admits to an unusual passion for researching the impact of drugs and alcohol on child development, knows that equine therapy and animals in general are wonderful healing tools.
Sometimes she’d put him in a baby saddle and helmet and walk beside him on a horse. The co-ordination required for him to sit on the horse led to strengthening of his core. One day, while she was headed out with him, he let go of her hand and took his first steps. “He was just so determined to get to that horse,” she says. “I began yelling for my husband and crying at the same time. I just couldn’t believe it!”
What Jessica can believe is how much fostering has added to the life of her family.
“Caring for these babies has had a really positive impact on our family. It’s brought us a lot of joy, and it has shown our kids how much we have as a family and how much other kids go through. When I think about where I came from and where I am now, I’m just so grateful for my family. I never want these kids coming and feeling anything but a part of us.”
If you or someone you know is interested in becoming a foster parent, like Jessica, visit: https://fosternow.gov.bc.ca/
- B.C. has an ever-present need for more foster families.
- About 2,525 foster family homes in B.C. are currently caring for some of B.C.’s most vulnerable children and youth.
- As of August 2018, there were 6,559 children and youth in care in B.C. in need of permanent and loving homes.
- There are 4,195 Indigenous and 2,364 non-Indigenous children and youth in care.
B.C. Federation of Foster Parent Associations: www.bcfosterparents.ca/
Call the fostering line at 1 800 663-9999, or visit: http://ow.ly/t6db30fxewh