Kim Cooper and Melony O'Neill had lots of conversations about starting a foster family before finally deciding the time was right to make the commitment. After almost five years of welcoming children into their home, they have no regrets.
"I thought I understood the impact you could have on the lives of these little children," O'Neill said, seated next to her wife. "There's nothing like when it actually becomes your reality and you see the power that you hold to positively impact these children in so many ways."
The St. John's couple have been together for over 12 years and married for eight. Cooper already had two older children when they first started seeing each other. Interested in having a family to call their own, they first considered fostering and were only a week away from bringing a child into their home when Cooper had second thoughts.
"I was afraid of the attachment to the children, so then we decided we'd try to have a child," Cooper said.
Eight years ago, Cooper and O'Neill's son, Benjamin, was born. As he got older, they started to give more thought to fostering and ultimately decided that when he turned four they could give it a real try. O'Neill grew up on the Southern Shore and has memories of a local foster family. She has a strong sense of how important they were to the child who lived with them.
"It was something that certainly changed my perspective on it from a personal level," she said.
Cooper and O'Neill have since welcomed eight children into their home. Those stays have ranged from two months to two years, including siblings and individual children. Two children were subsequently adopted and five others went back to their original families. They currently have one child in their care.
Benjamin was entering kindergarten when children first started coming to stay at his house. Cooper remembers a time early on when O'Neill suggested this would help teach him about compassion.
"I was sceptical, but what it has done for him, I can't even explain. It's been amazing," Cooper said.
Recently, there was a book fair at his school. Cooper said Benjamin asked if they could buy a book for the child staying with them.
"It doesn't matter who is in our house, that's the family unit at that time," she said. "We keep asking him every time we have kids and they transition back, our first thing we do is say, 'Would you like more kids to come stay with us?' He always says yes."
"We are part of the journey for them to try and maintain their family unit and return to their family unit if at all possible." — Melony O'Neill
O'Neill recalls a curriculum night at Benjamin's school and a project where students shared details about themselves.
"The first thing aside from his name and age, he said, 'I'm a foster brother.' You see the significance it holds in his life."
In welcoming children to their home, Cooper and O'Neill always strive to keep in touch with the biological parents and be there for them.
"You work so hard to find that common ground and help the biological parents understand your role in this," O'Neill said. "It's probably at the most vulnerable period of these little children's lives, and you just hope you're doing something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives, and when they needed you most, you gave them that nurturing, stable environment."
On Day 1, they work to ease the child into their new home. They'll call the birth parents that night and let them know this is a team effort.
"Always, reunification is the number one goal," O'Neill said. "We are part of the journey for them to try and maintain their family unit and return to their family unit if at all possible."
Newfoundland and Labrador foster care
• As of June 2019, 975 children and youth were in care across the province
• As of June 2019, there were 570 foster families in Newfoundland and Labrador
• For more information about fostering, visit nlffa.ca or contact the Newfoundland and Labrador Foster Families Association at 1-877-754-0218.
O'Neill has been asked several times how they manage to take on such a big responsibility.
"We always say, 'Well, think about if we didn't do it. Where would these children go?' The thought that you can play such an important role along their journey is incredible. Does it break our heart every time? Well, of course you get attached to kids when they come into your home, and they automatically meld into your life right from the get go. But we always try to be so positive for the children."
The fact Benjamin is there has helped. A social worker told them early on it would make sense to make him the oldest child in each situation, and they've kept that scenario going with every new child.
"He's like the big guy on campus, and he loves it," said O'Neill. "And that's an important part as well. You have to determine what works best for your family."
Adaptability is also essential for any prospective foster family, O'Neill added, as every child is different.
"They're coming from a different set of circumstance, different background, they have different needs and wants. They're all different personalities, as we all are."
All about love
As a same-sex couple, Cooper and O'Neill are also proud to show that strong, loving families come in many different packages.
"I think it's very important in general to get the message out there that family is family, no matter what that structure looks like, whether the players are the same sex or not," O'Neill said. "It's a lesson we've taught our own son from when he was able to speak, that families look so different and take such different shapes and sizes, but it's all about the people that love you."
"Obviously, these children go to all family functions, so everybody knows what we're doing, and they become part of the kids' lives, too." — Kim Cooper
Cooper remembers an uncomfortable situation where a social worker told her and O'Neill they would just need to confirm with the parents first that it was OK for the children to stay with a same-sex couple.
"I remember being on the phone and thinking, 'Am I really having this conversation?' But we did, and it doesn't happen anymore," Cooper said. "It only happened that first time."
Furthermore, Cooper recalls the first birth mom they were in touch with was "over the moon" to have two women stepping in to help.
Beyond the time spent together under their roof, Cooper and O'Neill stay in touch with children who were previously in their care. Their involvement has even rubbed off on other family members. Cooper has a brother currently going through the application process with his wife to become a foster family.
"Obviously, these children go to all family functions, so everybody knows what we're doing, and they become part of the kids' lives, too," Cooper said, adding that friends of her older children have inquired about becoming foster families.
"I think sometimes it's the unknown for people and not really understanding what it's really all about, and then when they have an opportunity to be around us and spend time with our family, that's when they walk away and think, I think I could do this, too," said O'Neill.
WANT TO HELP?
- How to become a foster parent in Newfoundland and Labrador
- Newfoundland and Labrador Foster Families Association
- How to become a foster parent in Nova Scotia
- How to become a foster parent in Prince Edward Island
- How to become a foster parent in New Brunswick