The Woman With 200 Kids
August 23, 2019 8:15 PM   Subscribe

Over the past 30 years, Cindy Stirling has fostered runaways, orphans, teen sex workers, abuse victims and cancer patients. Portrait of a supermom. (Luc Rinaldi, Toronto Life)
Roughly 50 per cent of foster parents quit within the first three years; another quarter stop within five. The Stirlings didn’t. In 1999, they bought a four-bedroom house in Mississauga, a place they could raise kids as one big family. Over the next 20 years, they filled it with children, as many as nine at a time. Three of them were theirs, biologically speaking: Molly, Drew and Jaslan. The others were fosters: toddlers who’d been abandoned by their parents, preschoolers with intellectual disabilities, boys covered in bruises, gay and trans kids disowned by their families, high-schoolers who ran with street gangs, the rootless sons and daughters of addicts and inmates. If there was no one else to care about a kid, Cindy and Ross Stirling would.

They raised these kids, watched them graduate from high school, move out, find jobs, get married and have children of their own. Ross started doing sales and marketing for Fortune 500 companies, while Stirling 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, taking kids to court. It was a mind-boggling undertaking, a project of immense emotional and organizational labour, but Stirling has an inexhaustible drive that makes it harder for her to stop than to keep going.
posted by Johnny Wallflower (8 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Is it dusty in here? Good post Johnny.
posted by evilDoug at 8:56 PM on August 23, 2019

So weird, this triggered a memory of a family that was all over the place for a time in the late 70s early 80s...The Real People/That's Incredible Era. They had like 30 kids at a time, which was impressive before the Duggars blew up the spot, and were big foster parents. They might have been tagged as the biggest family in the US at the time? Maybe a movie of the week?

Anyway, I wish I had the constitution to do something like this. I feel so much for foster kids and I know historically the programs are too uneven in quality and effectiveness, and having more non-religious foster parents is an unalloyed good. Underfunding is just the backstabbing cherry on top.
posted by rhizome at 11:12 PM on August 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

Hmm... What an exceptional woman. Still, there's something uncomfortable about this? Are they really able to serve these kids well in such volume? And this is also a story about how under resourced the children's welfare system is. I'm left with mixed feelings from this provocative story.
posted by latkes at 6:27 AM on August 24, 2019 [9 favorites]

Are they really able to serve these kids well in such volume?
Several of my family members work(ed) for DSHS or CPS. I'm sure they would answer your question by saying perhaps it's not ideal, but it is almost certainly a far better environment than the kids came from. At least someone is caring for them, not hitting them; interested in them, not neglecting them; feeding them, not starving them.
posted by xedrik at 7:37 AM on August 24, 2019 [15 favorites]

I'm amazed at her ability to stave off burnout. It's incredibly draining work, physically and emotionally.

My uncle and Aunt fostered a lot of kids. One of the reasons they were always in demand was that they always took all of the siblings. There was one group of three who kept coming back to them over the course of a few years. Uncle and aunt really wanted to adopt them, but the birth parents kept changing their minds about surrendering. The last time they went back to the birth parents, all three died in a house fire. They had to stop fostering after that; it was just more than they could handle. And their marriage didn't survive too much longer after that. I wasn't surprised to read that Stirling and Ross eventually separated.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:35 AM on August 24, 2019 [15 favorites]

I feel similarly, Latkes. Whose to say that the next placement for some of these kids wouldn’t have been a family or person who had more resources and attention to give? But because this person who won’t say ‘no’ steps in, that’s where they land. It’s a different kind of family life and some kids thrive in those situations and others find them unbearable. I also don’t think a foster family who only does it for a few years is something terrible. I’m sure that’s part function of how people assume it will be versus reality and how truly difficult and heartbreaking the job can be. Offering a few years of safe harbor and then stopping when you no longer have the resources or fortitude isn’t doing nothing.
posted by amanda at 12:51 PM on August 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

Clearly, though, this woman is pursuing a calling. Hopefully Canada’s social safety net will catch her in her retirement years. If you could begin to heal the systems that make such heroes necessary, the world would be a much better place.
posted by amanda at 1:14 PM on August 24, 2019 [5 favorites]

Whose to say that the next placement for some of these kids wouldn’t have been a family or person who had more resources and attention to give?

I'm not sure that's a very realistic assessment.

From the article: 'There are 12,000 kids in care in any given month, but only 3,700 foster homes. ' Also from the article: 'If there was no one else to care about a kid, Cindy and Ross Stirling would.'
posted by roolya_boolya at 1:31 PM on August 24, 2019 [7 favorites]

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