The Fort needs foster parents

Foster parents save lives.

Mel Chesnutt knows what being a foster parent can do for a child in need. Ruth Lloyd/Caledonia Courier

Foster parents save lives.

Melanie Chesnutt knows this first hand. She was taken in by foster parents as a young child in Nova Scotia.

“It was life-saving, it was totally life-saving,” says Chesnutt.

An adopted child, Chesnutt was subjected to abuse by her adopted family and was placed in a foster home for her own welfare.

Chesnutt explains how as a young person, she had suicidal thoughts and felt like there was no way out for her.

Even after getting out of the situation and into a foster home, she felt very conflicted and was getting pressure from many different directions.

“The one thing that grounded me was this ridiculously kind, safe nurturing home,” says Chesnutt.

Those foster parents continued to help support Chesnutt emotionally through her post secondary education. Chesnutt stayed in foster care until she was 21, and still returns home to Nova Scotia to visit her foster family.

Chesnutt is now 30 years old, with a young daughter of her own and those foster parents are now the grandparents to her young daughter.

It made all the difference in her life. “I think about where I could be…” says Chesnutt. Drugs, alcohol, pregnancy, these might have been her teenage years if it hadn’t been for the morals and values instilled in her by her caring family.

“I had somebody that was proud of me,” says Chesnutt.

She calls them her guardian angels.

Now Chesnutt is asking for some local guardian angels to help another generation of children.

Melanie Chesnutt is the Foster Parent Support and Training Facilitator in Burns Lake, Vanderhoof and Fort St. James for Axis Family Resources Ltd.

While she works on recruiting foster parents for Axis, she hasn’t been having a lot of response from the Fort St. James and Vanderhoof communities of people willing to open their homes to foster children.

In fact, Chesnutt has had only one phone call of inquiry since April, and that is discouraging.

Not to say Chesnutt doesn’t understand people’s reluctance to become foster parents. She knows how hard it can be, but she also knows how important it can be to children in need.

There are also myths about foster parenting that might deter people which Chesnutt is working to dispel. She says many people fear that once the child is placed in the home, the family is on their own. Chesnutt works to support foster parents with resources and support workers to help foster parents through their challenges, and while a foster parent can’t just leave the foster child with an unapproved babysitter, there are respite foster parents as well to give people a break. But she needs more of the respite caregivers as well.

Relief and respite foster placements only require commitments of a weekend at a time or a few hours to give foster parents a break or allow them to travel.

A shortage of foster homes in the Vanderhoof, Fraser Lake and Fort St. James areas means children are moved further from their birth families and siblings are forced to be separated. This takes children out of their social support networks of friends and family, extracurricular activities and schools.

While there is a strong community of foster parents in the Burns Lake area, there is a definite shortage in the local area.

Children from these communities may have to go to Burns Lake or even Prince George to stay, which makes family visits and cultural connections harder to maintain. And the goal is always to try and reunite children with their families, if possible to do so, as well as to maintain cultural knowledge and identity, says Chesnutt.

The fact is, 80 per cent of foster children in the system are first nations, and the majority of foster families are non-first nations, so it becomes important to try and keep some sense of cultural identity for the children.

Chesnutt also emphasizes children’s needs are matched to the caregiver, to try and provide healthy homes.

There will be information sessions going on in both Vanderhoof and Fort St. James in January and February. The next one being February 2, at the College of New Caledonia (CNC) in Fort St. James from 10 a.m. until noon.

The information sessions will attempt to answer any questions or speak to any reservations people might have about becoming foster parents.

Foster parent training sessions will be offered at the CNC campuses in both Vanderhoof and Fort St. James. The Vanderhoof session will be March 17 to 18, the session in the Fort will be March 22 to 23 both sessions will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The training sessions are mandatory elements of being a foster parent in order to make sure it’s right for you and to answer questions you might not even think to ask. As well, the training sessions give scenarios to help prepare parents for issues which might arise.

In Chesnutt’s experience, the training, information and resources available now to foster families are “exceptional.”

To contact Chesnutt regarding foster parent training or ask her any questions related to foster parenting, call her at 250-996-8163 or email her at: melanie.chesnutt@axis.bc.ca