Mike Hamilton remembers the moment as a mixture of heartbreak and purpose. His wife picked up the phone and relayed the news. Waiting for them at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown was a baby… born completely addicted to methadone.
"The child was essentially orphaned," said Hamilton. "They wanted to know if we could take the child into our home.
"We jumped at the chance. 'Yeah, absolutely.' That's what we signed up for."
For days, Hamilton said his wife sat in the hospital swaddling a little girl she had previously never met. Looking back, he still hasn't forgotten what one doctor told him.
"He said, 'We can keep her well, but we can't make her healthy until she goes home.'"
"It was pretty heart-wrenching at first. She would sort of have these withdrawal episodes," he said. "But then to see that finally end … getting healthy and getting well and then growing up and getting a chance to go off with her forever family, it was a good thing for us as our first experience."
That was six years ago. Since then, the Hamilton family has fostered approximately 10 kids on P.E.I.
Prince Edward Island currently has only a couple of foster homes open for young children. But in the event a child older than 11 needs a home, it's even worse: None are available. This means after exhausting all other options, the child would likely end up in one of P.E.I.'s five group homes.
"Lots of foster parents come in and they're okay to provide care for one- or two-year-olds or three-year-olds, but wouldn't feel comfortable having a teenager," said Kelly Peck, P.E.I.'s manager of children's services.
"Putting them in the group homes … that is a last resort."
The benefit that this has for these children is immense. It's unmeasurable. - Kelly Peck, P.E.I. Children's Services
According to Peck, though, those group homes are also filling up. As of last week, only two spots were free. That means that if siblings need a place to go, the options are limited.
"We really do problem-solve any way we can," said Peck.
"Right now, I don't think we would have the beds to meet the needs of three children."
'There is an urgency'
The same holds true for those with a diverse range of requirements, whether that be mental, physical, or related to location (the goal is to keep kids in their original community).
"You want children to feel like they are important … it's so important for the children to have that stability, nurturance and just a safe place to lay their head," she said.
"There is an urgency."
Hamilton has seen first-hand how important that is. And while he too thinks it's crucial for the child, he also knows how rewarding it can be for the parent.
"It was a sense of gratitude," he said, thinking back to that baby born addicted. "That I could be the guy that could step in with my wife and kind of be this sort of pseudo-dad to this little one and do what I could in order to set her on a path that would make her life, you know, all that it could possibly be."
Jump into it with all you've got and laugh as much as you can. - Mike Hamilton, foster parent
After having several full-time foster families retire or move out of province over the past couple of years, there are about 35 left.
"Ideally if we could have, you know, 10, 15, 20 new foster families across P.E.I. from one end to the other, that would be fabulous," said Peck.
"That's a big ask for P.E.I. but I think ultimately that would be my big wish."
Looking to foster?
As for the Hamilton family, Mike said they plan to stick around for years to come. In fact, they just added on to their house to make room for more foster kids.
And though they have always wanted to foster, it's not always easy. Hamilton said sometimes the children struggle to verbalize their pain and sometimes they act out. But when the child finally leaves their care, it's all worth it.
"The moment that is so incredible is seeing the joy and the love and the excitement of that child as they meet either their forever family or they meet a relative that's going to be taking them or they get back together with, you know, their parent."
So, for other Islanders interested in fostering, Hamilton has a bit of advice
"Jump into it with all you've got and laugh as much as you can.
"These children that we get have already seen disappointment in their lives. They don't need foster parents [also] realizing it's not for them and bailing."
Peck hopes possible foster parents will consider "whether or not they have the ability to open their homes and open their hearts.
"The benefit that this has for these children is immense," she said. "It's unmeasurable."
Anyone looking for more information on fostering a child on P.E.I. can visit this website or call 902-888-8106.
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