FACS celebrates accomplishments at 120th AGM

by Mike Zettel, Niagara This Week

Laura Tufford attended Family and Children’s Service Niagara’s annual general meeting June 20 with her younger sister Samantha, who was one of 32 young people under agency care to receive financial assistance for post-secondary education and job skills training. At age 16, Laura filed for custody of Samantha and awarded custody a year later. – Mike Zettel/Metroland

Growing up, Samantha Tufford was fairly certain about one thing: she would not be receiving a post-secondary education.

Instead, she resigned herself to scraping by in order to graduate high school and then go out into the workforce and take whatever job she could find. To be sure, there are worse things in life, but for Tufford, it wasn’t exactly her dream.

Now Tufford is realizing her dream. She just finished her third year at Brock, where she is studying English language and literature with the hopes of becoming an English professor.

A big part of the reason for her success is the support she received from Family and Children’s Services Niagara (FACS).

When Samantha was 12, her 16-year-old sister, Laura, filed for custody in order to remove Samantha from a difficult home situation with her parents. After court proceedings Laura was granted custody of her sister a year later.

“I grew up really fast,” Laura said of having to become her sister’s primary caregiver. Fortunately, the two had support, including regular visits from caseworkers and a tutor to help Samantha when she was struggling during her last year of high school.

“Everybody became kind of family,” Laura said. “Everyone from FACS became mom and dad.”

And when she was starting at Brock, Samantha was able to obtain a bursary, which covered the costs of books and other expenses and allowed her to stop working multiple jobs and focus on her studies.

“I was doing that during high school,” she said.

Now 21, Samantha is living independently in her own place in St. Catharines; her sister, though, is not too far away, living just down the road.

Laura recently completed two years of police foundations and is now the supervisor for a security company in Hamilton, the first woman to hold that position.

She said the support from FACS was crucial to both her and Samantha’s success.

“Samantha wouldn’t be where she is today without Family and Children’s Services, and neither would I,” she said.

On Wednesday, June 20, during FACS’ 120th annual general meeting, Samantha was one of 32 young people under agency care to receive financial assistance for post-secondary education and job skills training. In all, more than $60,000 in assistance was distributed.

The meeting was held at Heartland Forest in Niagara Falls and included representation from the region’s indigenous community, including traditional food offerings and an opening and closing ceremony.

Nicole Joy-Fraser, an oshkebewais (helper of elders), and Elaine Berwald, an elder and knowledge keeper, helped open Family and Children’s Services Niagara’s annual general meeting June 20 with an indigenous welcome song. – Mike Zettel/Metroland

Elaine Berwald, an elder and knowledge keeper, said she was honoured to have been invited to do the opening for the fourth time. She said she was first invited to FACS eight years ago to speak about her experience as a survivor of the ’60s scoop, when thousands of indigenous children were removed from their homes and placed with non-indigenous families.

She said the relationship between the indigenous community and FACS Niagara is a testament to everyone’s commitment to communication. It needs to continue, she said.

“Our ears are open, and our hearts are in a good way.”

Brian Eckhardt, who marked the completion of his second and final term as board president, said FACS has worked hard to build a strong relationship with the indigenous community, though there’s always more work to be done.

“We do it together,” he said. “We can’t do any of this work alone.”

Eckhardt said the agency has accomplished a great deal in the past year for which to be proud, including managing a significant leadership change with Anna Bozza coming on as executive director. FACS Niagara has also made its transition to CPIN, the Child Protection Information Network, which links child protection agencies across Ontario.

“We’re trying to prevent cases where people move across the province and slip through the cracks,” he said.

Speaking with This Week Bozza said another big change this year involved Child and Family Services Act becoming the Child, Youth and Family Services Act. More than simply a name change, this extended the full range of child protection services to 16- and 17-year olds where previously it was only for children under the age of 16.

Incoming president Shaun Adams, a volunteer board member with FACS for six years, said he’s proud of how well such large group of people – some 400 employees and 200 volunteers – work together as a team.

Family and Children’s Services Niagara executive director Anna Bozza with outgoing board president Brian Eckhardt (right) and incoming president Shaun Adams. – Mike Zettel/Metroland

“It still feels like a small business, very cohesive, great teamwork,” he said.

In all, the 209 volunteers donated 53,088 hours of service, helping out as tutors, mentors, knitters, baby cuddlers and board members and driving 2.4 million km to provide transportation to get kids and families to important visits and appointments.

And obviously, Adams said, foster parents are crucial to their success, and the need for more is constant.

There are currently 134 approved homes and a monthly average of 463 children in care.

But FACS’ service goes beyond that, as 95 per cent of the kids they reach remain in their family home in the care of their parents.