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For Some, Noel Is About Cash; For Others, a Crèche
Room for outreach: 300,000 children in Canada are at high risk of abuse and neglect. They need shelter with loving foster families. The situation is desperate.

Who would have thought I could grow out of touch with children so fast? It wasn't even Christmas and I was sent to the returns aisle because gifts I'd bought for visiting kids didn't cut it. "Just give cash," warned my own emerging adults as they grinched their way through my shopping efforts, kindly scorning my intentions and telling me I didn't know what other people's kids need.

Complain all you want about separating Church and state, but this crisis needs help from on high.

Stretch that to a seasonal metaphor for how Canada is transitioning from hands-on care to a cash machine for children. We've spent billions of dollars in "gift cards" for children we're woefully out of touch with. There are 300,000 in our nation who the Children's Aid Foundation says are at "high risk of abuse and neglect."

In Ontario alone, Children's Aid Societies spent $1.1 billion on a variety of services for children whose parents are unable to offer adequate care, a 56 percent increase in expenditures in less than five years. Last year, substitute care was provided for 30,423 Ontario children, but only 8,000 foster parent homes were available.

What do CAS agencies across the country really need? More good homes. The agencies that cover Toronto are asking for at least 1,200 foster families, says Chris MacPhee, a director of CAS residential services. The need is for both our growing social ills, and diversity to meet spiritual and cultural needs.

Complain all you want about separating Church and state, but this crisis needs help from on high. A spark that began with Jewish Family and Child Service's motto "One shul, two homes" has inspired agencies to market to synagogues, temples, mosques and churches. The result includes the launch of "Let a Child Have Faith in You"—a blend of government agency and faith community. The brochures, funded by an anonymous volunteer, remind you that God and kids have an affinity. (The Guardian recently reported that children under ten ranked God as the most famous being; soccer star Wayne Rooney was second and Jesus third.) "Faith-based homes are a good approach for us … . It's just that we need way, way more homes to choose from to match the needs of children," says Melanie Persaud of CAS Toronto.

That gets a hearty amen from John and Liane Niles, a Markham, Ontario, family that has taken in more than 1,000 kids in the past 20 years. In August 2005, they accepted 17. So far, December has seen five children arrive at their "front-line call home" (a place where police bring children to their door).

"Children are coming in worse shape, just brutalized, broken bones and beatings, and people are burning out on the emergency side of this," says Mr. Niles, a United Church minister. "We once took a two-week break, but, by the end of it, we were called back because things were just falling apart."

He says Canadians need more confidence to know they are capable of creating soft places for children to land. Despite seeing the worst of cases, Mr. Niles's stories are just as warm as testimonials that feature "regular" foster parents. His new book, How I Became Father to 1,000 Children and the Lessons Learned, is both tender and tough, including harsh words for our courts, which, he says, can be "blinded by a cloak of sympathy to what true justice is." He thinks faith communities haven't entered into enough fostering because they see ministry as something done outside, rather than inside, Canada.

The Niles's own five children created the concept of Kits for Kids on a Christmas Eve when a teenager arrived at their door with nothing of her own. They've since packaged more than 2,500 care packages with age-appropriate comforts (from teddy bears to tooth brushes) for displaced Canadian kids.

At Christmas, their home has a crèche. Mr. Niles recalls how a young ward we'll call Nelson took a liking to the nativity set and kept playing with it, putting the baby Jesus in his pocket, walking about, then carefully putting it back. When Nelson left their home, the family could no longer find the baby in the manger. "Daddy, I think Nelson took Jesus with him," said one of the Niles children. "I do hope he did," said the reverend. Not a bad gift for our most vulnerable children, who face a long road ahead.

Lorna Dueck hosts Listen Up on Global TV,

Originally published in the Globe and Mail, December 23, 2005.




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