Every day, traumatized kids are removed from their parents and made Crown wards. The lucky ones get cared for by Cindy Stirling. In the last 30 years, she’s fostered 200, providing school lunches, rides to swimming lessons and a home where everyone feels safe and loved.
Cindy Stirling’s life has always revolved around kids. The eldest of six, she grew up caring for her younger siblings. After high school, she enrolled at Seneca College in Toronto to begin training as a cop—she figured it would be a good way to protect children—but she dropped out after a year to take a more direct approach as a residential counsellor with Community Living, a non-profit for people with disabilities.
In 1985, she met her future husband, Ross, who worked at a centre for youth with mental-health problems in Oshawa, Ont. Stirling would pick him up from work before dates, chatting with the teens while she waited. Soon after, she studied family and rehabilitative work, and began a new career in social work.
The Stirlings married in 1986. For them, the decision to become foster parents was easy. Through their work, they’d seen how many kids needed loving parents, and what happened when kids didn’t have them.
In 1999, they bought a four-bedroom house in Mississauga. Over the next 20 years, they filled it with children, as many as nine at a time. Three of them were theirs, biologically: Molly, Drew and Jaslan. The others were foster kids. If there was no one else to care about a kid, Cindy and Ross Stirling would.
Ross started doing sales and marketing for large companies, while Cindy worked part-time at Community Living and ran the household. She became, in fostering lingo, the “designated parent,” meaning she was the one dealing with child services, filing paperwork, talking to biological families and bringing kids to court.
She has fostered more than 200 kids over the years, between the ages of 18 months and 16 years old. The kids call her Cindy, Mom or Mama Bear. Dozens of former foster kids still come by the house some months, looking for money or a meal. One of her former foster daughters, now in her 30s, calls her multiple times a day for favours and parenting advice. Nowhere in the foster-parenting fine print does it say that she has to keep caring for kids once they leave, but she does it unceremoniously, because that’s what you do for your kids.
Every time one child leaves her house, Stirling tells the local children’s aid society that she has an open bed, and another tot or teen arrives. She’s thought about leaving the beds unfilled, but more than money, free time or anything else, the kids make her happy. If it takes a village to raise a child, Cindy Stirling is the mayor.
The first time I met Stirling, she picked me up in her Dodge Grand Caravan. Stirling speaks with frankness, as if she’s trying to save both your time and her own. Her phone pings incessantly with messages from her kids, their doctors, dentists, therapists, child-care workers and lawyers, all asking something of her. There are only a handful of things that reliably rattle Stirling’s stoic demeanour: teachers who label her kids “bad” because of their behaviour or grades, landlords who won’t rent to the older ones because they’re on welfare and, most of all, bureaucracy.
Ontario’s child-care system is in crisis. Since taking office in June 2018, Doug Ford’s government has slashed $84.5 million from funding for children and youth, including $2.8 million from the province’s $1.5-billion child-care budget. It eliminated the Ontario Child Advocate’s office and combined the Ministry of Children and Youth Services with an already overburdened social services ministry. The cuts couldn’t have come at a worse time: the province’s opioid crisis is sending more kids into care than usual.
The rest of Canada isn’t faring much better. The Child Welfare Political Action Committee estimates that there are 78,000 children in care across the country, but the number of foster homes available to them is dwindling, leading to overcrowding and long waits. Both Saskatchewan and Quebec have severe shortages of foster homes for babies and toddlers, and Manitoba’s auditor general recently panned the province’s foster-care system for failing to perform criminal background checks on parents, among other issues. Meanwhile, child-care workers in Newfoundland started travelling the province in 2018, trying to enlist new foster parents to take in 39 children with complex needs. These problems disproportionately affect Indigenous children, who comprise roughly 52 per cent of Canadian kids in private foster homes, despite representing less than 8 per cent of Canadian youth.
To make matters worse, foster parents are retiring en masse, and the new generation isn’t taking up the mantle. According to a June 2019 report of British Columbia’s child-care system, 53 per cent of the province’s foster parents were under 50 in 2008; today, that’s down to 39 per cent. Children’s aid societies struggle to recruit new foster parents, likely in part because Canadians are less religious than they once were. While the Stirlings aren’t religious, faith is a major factor that draws people to fostering.
The rigour of the application process can also deter prospective parents. The intent is to filter out starry-eyed applicants who aren’t prepared for what the job entails. The unfortunate side effect is that the process scares off plenty of would-be foster parents. As one children’s aid worker put it, “You parent in a fishbowl.”
Cindy Stirling’s fishbowl—her home in Mississauga—looks much like the ones beside it, except for the garage door, which has a bright blue and green fairy garden painted on it, and the number of bins: three garbage, three recycling, two green. Inside, the walls and shelves are covered with family portraits, each different from the others by a kid or two. Above Stirling’s desk is a wall of calendars, art projects and cards from her kids and grandchildren. One reads, “I Love You so much grammie in the hole WorlD.”
Right now, the Stirling house has three foster kids, aged nine, 10 and 17. Two former foster kids, a pair of 19-year-old girls, live in the basement. They aged out of the system last year, so Stirling struck a deal: they pay $500 a month for room and board while they get on their feet. The place fills up with more former foster kids every weekend. Thanksgiving involves at least 30 people and two 24-pound turkeys.
In the Stirling household, a few things are non-negotiable. Kids have to attend school, and Stirling always checks if they have homework. Everyone is expected home for dinner—amazingly, they eat at 3:30 p.m. because that’s the only time everyone’s schedules allow. Each kid has a rotating list of chores, and if one kid breaks a rule, Stirling sits them down away from the rest and talks it out. One foster daughter who stayed with the Stirlings for several years says she couldn’t recall a time when Stirling lost her cool. “It really takes a lot to piss that woman off.”
Stirling took out a line of credit on the house to be able to give her foster kids loans. She has joint bank accounts with more than a dozen of her former kids because they trust her to prevent them from squandering their savings. A number of aid societies help her with funding for the three younger kids.
She tries to find what each foster is passionate about—a sport, a creative pursuit—and gets them hooked early, even if it means dipping into her own savings. “You’re either paying for these things when they’re young,” she says, “or you’re paying for a lawyer to get them out of trouble later.”
When I asked Stirling if she had any retirement plans, she seemed dumbfounded by the suggestion. Drew, her biological son, studied business and recently started helping his parents plan for their financial futures—they don’t have much saved. “It’s not looking very good for them,” he says. “Looking back, you can say, ‘Well, if you had just done this.…’ But that’s the sacrifice they made, right?”
Not long after I arrived at the Stirling house, Ross joined us. At 59, he’s amiable and stocky, with a salt-and-pepper goatee. In the Disney version of the Stirling story, Ross is Cindy’s lovable sidekick. The reality is messier. Four years ago, the couple legally separated and Ross moved out. Ross was working 15-hour days and taking week-long business trips to support the family. He was burning out. “When you first start fostering, you have all these altruistic ideas,” he says. “You think you’re going to change lives. And you do. But it certainly took a toll.” They attended couples’ counselling but ultimately decided to split.
Nonetheless, Stirling’s open-door policy extends to her ex-husband. A few months ago, he moved into a room in the basement after experiencing some financial trouble. She saw no reason why he shouldn’t. She’d witnessed stranger family reunions.