In recognition of Foster Family Month, The Alaska Highway News met with veteran foster parent Wolf and Trudy Korfmann to discover the struggles, challenges and ultimately, the rewards of taking in and helping raise a child from another family.
"I've always worked with kids," began Trudy regarding her and her husband's love for young people.
In 1977, the Korfmanns immigrated to Canada from Germany. Since 1980, they have lived on a farm in Montney, where they have helped foster almost 100 children.
"When we came here, the way everybody lived was very isolated at that time," said Trudy in explaining why she and Wolf got into fostering.
"We realized that our daughter, who was 12, really didn't have any experience with younger children, and so we decided to start fostering."
The Korfmanns have fostered for 19 years now. They deal primarily with high needs and special needs children.
"It just happened that way," said Wolf about the nearly 100 kids who have come and gone in his home. "We have kids coming in and going again. It's always in rotation. We don't know how long the kids are staying. It could be just one night."
The longest they've had a child stay in the house is 16 years. She is still with them, and the Korfmanns have built a little apartment adjacent to the house to her to live in.
"Sometimes we have children from other foster parents when they need a break, or just the families need a break," explained Trudy. "Sometimes it's single parents, and sometimes it's high needs children or special needs children, so we take care of them once a month or twice a month. The numbers add up that way."
Trudy talked about the importance of cultivating a healthy relationship between the children and their natural parents.
"We always make a point of it, if possible, to include their natural family, because fostering by nature is still quite fragmented. Because the children are removed, you have the children on one side and the parents on the other side. I think it's important that we cultivate the relationship between child and family, and if possible that we also help the family or the parents to find better ways to deal with their situations."
She pointed out that advocacy is a huge part of a foster parent's job. She must advocate to schools and teachers about what a child needs, why he or she is different and how the teachers can help ease the learning process.
"What I like best is just to identify their needs, and then find ways to help them and meet their needs," she said.
"Each child is different and reacts different," added Wolf in talking about children's experiences in being taken from their natural home to a foster home.
"Many children come out hurt and have had experiences from the home, and then they get out here and it has to come out somehow. Then we must do the right thing to help them to get over this hurt of leaving the family."
Often children don't know how to express what they're feeling in ways other than anger, he said.
"Their heart is aching to go back, but they know they can't, so they act it out in anger. You have to deal with it in the right way so that you're not making more anger, and you're not getting more damage. You are trying to create a healing process."
Trudy talked about the fact that children are too young to reason and understand why they are in a new home. She said that often the biggest challenge is just to keep them safe.
"A lot of children either hurt themselves or hurt others, because maybe they are confused, and a lot of children don't understand why they are not home anymore. For a lot of children there is no reasoning. It's either they're home or they're not at home, and they don't understand the reason."
Both Wolf and Trudy said that establishing a schedule and routine is critical, as the children can't be left in a perpetual state of confusion and unpredictability.
"A lot of children don't understand timeframe," said Trudy. "They have a hard time to know 'When do we go back home? When do we see Mom?'"
Much of the time there is no answer to those questions, as court cases can be long and drawn out, she added.
"We show the children the function of family," said Wolf. "They're coming out of broken homes, and we are trying to show them a functional family with routine and structure. This is sometimes hard for them to adjust to."
Many children are coming out of unstructured homes, so they have no concept of a dinnertime or meal time, or the fact that there is a designated place to eat.
"It's a predictable environment that we have," said Trudy. "It's easier for them to go through the day and the week knowing what happens next, because a lot of things in their life are unpredictable."
"Simply not knowing what happens in the next hour, the next step in their life or what's happening now" is a challenge, said Wolf. "We come in the yard and say 'Let's go visit somebody.' They don't know what to do with that."
The Korfmanns use pictures to help the children learn a schedule. They must put in a lot of preparation work in getting the children to understand routine and normality.
Both Korfmanns pointed to food as a major issue. They said that many children steal food from the house and hoard it in their rooms, even though there is no shortage of food.
"If you look at a baby, food is not only nourishment," explained Trudy. "Food is eye contact, skin contact, time spent. That's how a baby builds trust. Food is often how attachment problems start. It's not just 'I'm hungry. I'm eating.' It's learning to depend on the adult in their life."
"This is normal," said Wolf, motioning to the dinner table with place mats set out. "But they come out of not normal situations. We had one child here, and it was New Years Eve and we said 'That's the last dinner for this year,' and he broke down and cried. He didn't know that the next day was a new year. He thought something was wrong."
Wolf recalled a situation when one of his foster children stole gum.
"One of them stole gum, which isn't really a big deal," he said. "I went and bought him a big wholesale package of gum, and I said 'If you need gum, here, you got it.' He never looked for gum again."
Trudy added that often the best solution to those sorts of problems is to go overboard on the response. With children who hoard food, she often hides chocolate in their rooms to let them know they have plenty of what they need and they don't have to turn to stealing.
"A lot of kids steal just because they think that if they don't look after themselves, nobody else will," she said. "We need to meet their needs and turn it into something positive."
Trudy likened foster parenting to road construction.
"We all expect a road to be safe, but sometimes there is construction and we need to take a detour," she said. "Fostering is the detour."
Her goal in fostering is to nurture a positive home experience for the children as the "road" or family is repaired.
"For the kids who come here, we have to provide a good childhood, education, healthcare while the parents get their life together," she said.
Sometimes children go into foster care just because their natural parents need a break, or perhaps they need to have surgery and can't look after the child. It's not always from broken homes, said Trudy.
"It's not always a crisis, but the child is always in crisis. To have to leave home and go live with strangers that you have never met before, it's big."
Trudy said that the foster system is not perfect and could use big improvements. She identified the need for more people with whom foster parents can converse and discuss issues, as well as more social workers who can help provide answers to foster parents' questions.
"I think you can also get tunnel vision and only see the problems, and it gets grating and you get tired," she said. "But when we are not finding joy in it, everybody suffers."
She wants to encourage more people to become foster parents. She noted a particular need in reserves around Fort St. John. She also pointed out that foster parents do not have to accept every child offered their way, and that they need to consider if the child will work in their home.
"You don't have to step up to the plate if you think it won't match," she said. "You have to consider how it will affect your family, your children especially. But there is definitely a need. If there are more places in a community, then you don't have to ship a kid out, because then they lose everything but their first name really, their home, their familiarities, community, friends."
Despite the challenges and 24/7 nature of the job, the Korfmanns love their work. Both of them want to keep fostering for years to come.
"It's definitely rewarding," finished Trudy. "The children are the future. If we can have an impact and make a difference, or even just show a difference and be a role model in a child's life, that's a plus. Some children may not use what they have seen or learned right away, but it's a chapter in their book of life that they might go back to at some other point in life and remember. As long as we are helping and effective, we want to keep on doing it."