Cindy Stirling’s life has always revolved around kids. The eldest of six, she grew up looking after her younger siblings. After high school, she enrolled in Seneca to begin training for a career as a cop—she figured it would be a good way to protect children—but she dropped out after a year to take a more direct approach as a residential counsellor with Community Living, a non-profit for people with disabilities. In 1985, she met her future husband, Ross. He, too, had abandoned one profession (he was in insurance) in favour of a kid-oriented career, working at a centre for youth with mental-health problems in Oshawa. Stirling would pick him up from work before dates, chatting with the teens while she waited. Soon after, she enrolled in family and rehabilitative work programs at Humber and George Brown, and began a new career in social work.
The Stirlings married in 1986. For them, the decision to foster was obvious. Through their work, they’d seen how many kids needed loving parents, and what happened when kids didn’t have them: they might get into drugs, drop out of school, end up on the streets, end up in prison, end up someplace worse. Caring for kids was part of their identity, more than any nine-to-five would ever be. They were good at it, and it made them feel good, too.
For a year, the Stirlings ran and lived in a receiving assessment home, where kids would stay while children’s aid societies decided where they should be placed. Most kids were only there for months or weeks, and as soon as Cindy and Ross formed bonds with them, they’d be gone—reunited with their biological families or placed in foster homes. It was a painful cycle, like ripping the scab off a wound just as it began to heal. Cindy and Ross wanted to make a long-term commitment, so they applied to become official foster parents. The process was a months-long ordeal: probing questions about their personal lives and habits, home inspections, reference calls, and criminal and medical background checks.
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.
Over the years, she has fostered more than 200 kids. Whether they call her Cindy, Mom or Mama Bear, she is often the closest thing they have to a mother. Dozens of former fosters still come by the house at the end of the month looking for money or a meal. One of her former foster daughters calls her multiple times a day for favours and parenting advice. Nowhere in the foster-parenting fine print does it say that she has to keep caring for kids once they leave her house, but she does it unceremoniously, because that’s what you do for your kids. Every time one child leaves her house, Stirling tells children’s aid that she has an open bed, and another troubled tot or teen arrives at her door. She’s thought about leaving the beds unfilled, but Stirling retiring would be like Atlas shrugging the world off his shoulders. More than money, free time or anything else, the kids make her happy. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Cindy Stirling is the mayor.
The first time I met Stirling, she picked me up from a Mississauga GO station in a seven-seat Dodge Grand Caravan. She may look like a saint on paper, but in practice her default mode is no-nonsense soccer mom. She wears unfussy clothing and plain glasses, and her face is gently creased with laugh lines and wrinkles from three decades of maternal worrying. At 58, she still spends her days as if she were 38: dropping kids off at school, picking them up from sports games, taking them to appointments. As I climbed into the van, I couldn’t help but feel like one more kid she needed to chauffeur around.
Stirling loves to talk, but she’s not chatty. She speaks with a jarring frankness that’s respectful rather than cold, as if she’s trying to save both your time and her own—a precious commodity. During our interviews, her phone pinged incessantly with messages from her kids, their doctors, dentists, therapists, child-care workers and lawyers, all asking something of her. There are only a handful of things that reliably rattle Stirling’s stoic demeanour: teachers who label her kids “bad” because of their behaviour or grades, landlords who won’t rent to the older ones because they’re on welfare and, most of all, bureaucracy.
Ontario’s child-care system is in crisis. Since taking office in June 2018, Doug Ford’s government has slashed $84.5 million from funding for children and youth, including $28 million from the province’s $1.5-billion child-care budget. It eliminated the Ontario Child Advocate’s office and combined the Ministry of Children and Youth Services with an already overburdened social services ministry. Since March, six of eight senior managers at the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies have resigned or been terminated amid restructuring and allegations of a toxic work environment.
The Ford government is also considering amalgamating some of the province’s 50 children’s aid societies. Eighteen of them are running deficits, and many have recently shed staff to balance their budgets. Brantford’s Brant Family and Children’s Services, for instance, laid off 26 employees in March. A few months later, its entire 11-member board of directors resigned in protest of underfunding, arguing it was impossible for them to do their jobs. The cuts couldn’t come at a worse time: the region’s opioid crisis is sending more kids into care than usual.
To make matters worse, the number of foster homes in Ontario is dwindling. There are 12,000 kids in care in any given month, but only 3,700 foster homes. At the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, more foster parents retired in 2019 than in any other year in recent memory, and the new generation isn’t taking up the mantle. Societies struggle to recruit new foster parents, largely because Canadians are less religious than they once were (faith is a major factor that draws people to fostering) and they’re less likely to have big families.
The cost of living has made it more expensive to raise children in Toronto, yet Ontario foster funding has barely budged. On average, foster parents receive $56.99 per child per day, only 28 cents more than in 2009. (The amount varies based on the foster parents’ experience and the society they work with.) That’s meant to cover food and lodging. Foster parents also get reimbursed for kid-related expenses like school supplies and medical costs, and receive other one-off sums at children’s aid’s discretion, such as $100 for a birthday gift or $55 for clothes every month. The rigour of the application process can also deter prospective parents. The intent is to filter out starry-eyed applicants who aren’t prepared for what the job entails. The unfortunate side effect is that the process scares off plenty of would-be foster parents. As one children’s aid worker told me, “You parent in a fishbowl.”
Cindy Stirling’s fishbowl—her home in Mississauga—looks much like the ones beside it, except for the garage door, which has a bright blue-and-green fairy garden painted on it, and the bins: three garbage, three recycling, two green. Inside, there are more bins, filled with toys and books. The walls and shelves are littered with family portraits, each different from the others by a kid or two. In one corner, above Stirling’s tidy but teeming desk, there’s a wall covered with calendars, art projects and homemade cards from her kids and 40-odd grandchildren. On Mother’s Day, she gets bombarded with emails, texts, phone calls and cards. One reads, “I Love You so much grammie in the hole WorlD.”
Right now, the Stirling house has three fosters, aged nine, 10 and 17. Two former fosters, a pair of 19-year-old girls, live in the basement. They aged out of the system last year, so Stirling struck a deal: they pay her $500 a month for room and board while they get on their feet. (Her biological daughter Molly also had to pay rent when she lived at home during college.) The place fills up with more former fosters every weekend and holiday. Thanksgiving involves at least 30 people and two 24-pound turkeys. Kids know to bring their own Tupperware if they want leftovers, because Stirling got tired of containers disappearing. New kids often arrive malnourished, so Stirling keeps the kitchen stocked fuller than a prepper’s pantry. Groceries cost roughly $2,500 per month and might include four cartons of eggs, a dozen loaves of bread and 20 litres of milk. There are countless cans of beans, fruit cups, boxes of crackers, tubs of cereal and bags of pasta.
In the Stirling household, a few things are non-negotiable. Kids have to attend school, and Stirling always checks if they have homework. All children are expected to be home for dinner—amazingly, they eat at 3:30 p.m., because that’s the only time everyone’s schedules allow. Each kid has a rotating list of chores: sweeping, vacuuming, mowing the lawn, laundry, garbage, setting the table, doing dishes. If one kid breaks a rule or acts out, Stirling sits them down away from the rest and talks it out. One foster daughter who stayed with the Stirlings for several years told me she couldn’t recall a time Stirling lost her cool. “It really takes a lot to piss that woman off.”
Stirling took out a line of credit on the house to be able to give her foster kids loans. She has joint bank accounts with more than a dozen of her former kids because they trust her to prevent them from squandering their savings. Stirling hasn’t been on vacation in 26 years, other than trips to her parents’ cottage. At the moment, she works with the Catholic Children’s Aid Society, one of several societies of various regions and faiths that she’s fostered with; she’s not religious, but she has a good relationship with them. They send her funding for the three younger kids, but even shopping at Costco and Value Village, Stirling regularly outspends those budgets, topping up the rest out of pocket.
If she wants extra funding for one of the kids, she applies through children’s aid. For example, she once asked for money to send one of her foster sons to a running therapy group, where he’d go jogging with a psychotherapist. Children’s aid denied the request, so Stirling brought them a doctor’s note explaining that the boy was a kinaesthetic learner. Children’s aid relented and she got the funding. She tries to find what each kid is passionate about—a sport, a creative pursuit—and get them hooked early, even if it means dipping into her own savings. “You’re either paying for these things when they’re young,” she says, “or you’re paying for a lawyer to get them out of trouble later.”
Stirling met Thomas Caldwell, chairman of the Bay Street firm Caldwell Investment Management, through his sister, who used to live next door. Over the years, he’s paid to send dozens of Stirling’s foster kids to overnight camp, where they canoe, swim, dirt-bike and escape the city, as he had done when he was a kid. “I grew up in a totally insane house. It was extremely violent and alcoholic,” says Caldwell. “Camp was life-changing for me. I got a shot at what normal was.”
When I asked Stirling if she had any retirement plans, she seemed dumbfounded by the suggestion. Drew, her biological son, studied business, so he recently started helping his parents plan for their financial futures. “It’s not looking very good for them,” he told me. They don’t have much saved. “Looking back, you can say, ‘Well, if you had just done this…’ But that’s the sacrifice they made, right?”
Not long after I arrived at the Stirling house, Ross walked into the main room and joined us. At 59, he’s amiable and stocky, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a disarming grin. It’s easy to envision him playing Santa at Stirling Christmases. As he was toasting me a bagel, he told me about the time the kitchen was screened off for a six-week renovation. “There was one microwave,” he told me, “and nine of us.”
In the Disney version of the Stirling story, Ross is Cindy’s lovable sidekick. The reality is messier. Four years ago, the couple separated. He was working 15-hour days and taking week-long business trips to support the family. When he came home, it wasn’t to a place where he could put his feet up and relax. He was burning out, and the longer he pushed through it, the worse it got. Ross still wanted to help kids, but he didn’t have the same tireless drive as his wife. “When you first start fostering, you have all these altruistic ideas,” he says. “You think you’re going to change lives. And you do. But certainly it took a toll.” They attended couples counselling, but ultimately decided to split.
Stirling’s open-door policy even extends to her ex-husband. A few months ago, Ross was forced to declare bankruptcy. With no place to go, he called Cindy. She let him move back in, giving him a room in the basement. She saw no reason why she couldn’t support him. She’d seen stranger family reunions. Now, he’s her latest foster.
Cindy Stirling is rigidly egalitarian. When she begins a story by saying “One of my kids,” she might mean one of the three she gave birth to or one of the 200 she gave a home to. The dining room table is round so that none of the kids sits at the head. On a recent Family Day, she invited a diverse throng of her kids—white, black, Asian and Indigenous teens, 20- and 30-somethings—to the Mandarin. When the waiter asked what the occasion was, she replied, simply, “This is my family.”
Each kid arrives with unique challenges. One of the first to arrive, back in the ’90s, was a teenage boy who asked Ross why he stopped drinking after just three bottles of beer; his biological dad always finished the whole case. Another boy gained several pounds in his first week with the Stirlings because he ate non-stop. He wasn’t used to knowing when he’d get his next meal. Then there was the teen girl who needed protection from her pimp. When Stirling drove her to court to testify against him, she used a rental car so he couldn’t track their licence plate. Once, when Stirling and Ross took a rare weekend off, they returned to find five police cruisers outside their house because a kid had threatened the relief workers they’d left in charge. Another time, Stirling was arguing with a girl in the basement. Fuming, the girl grabbed a pair of scissors and slashed Stirling’s hand open. She had to go to the hospital to get the gash stitched up. “No hard feelings,” Stirling says casually. “I mean, she was a kid.”
The first time she took a kid to court to testify against an abusive parent, the proceedings were open to the public, so she got someone to stand guard at the door. One cranky law school teacher insisted it was his right to enter. “He got on his high horse,” Stirling says. “But it’s like, ‘You know what, buddy? It’s a little girl testifying in there.’ ” Retelling the story, Stirling was visibly upset. “Where is that young woman’s right to privacy?” she grumbles. She told me that if she had the time, she’d petition the provincial government to close all courtrooms when a child is testifying.
Often, when Stirling brings a new kid home, she receives no information about their medical history or special needs. Miranda Groves, who’s now 35, was given up for adoption at six months because she had diabetes and her biological mother couldn’t care for her. After 10 years and as many homes, she ended up in the Stirling house. Within two weeks, Stirling took Miranda to the ER with a swollen tongue. The doctor chastised her for neglecting to give Miranda medication for her diabetes, until Stirling explained that no one had told her she needed treatment. Stirling immediately took a weekend course on caring for kids with diabetes. Later, she helped Miranda repair her relationship with her biological parents, even letting Miranda’s mom stay in the house when she came to visit her daughter. “Some biological families can be rough to work with, but that doesn’t shake Cindy at all,” says Stephanie Vigliatore, Stirling’s resource worker at the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. Stirling has been known to ask parents to apologize to their kids—for hitting them, for neglecting them, for showing up late to meetings—and vice versa.
She has become expert at caring for kids who’ve endured abuse, neglect, poverty. But she had no idea how to cope when one of her kids was diagnosed with cancer. In 2006, a nine-year-old girl named Natasha arrived at her house, crying as she walked up the family driveway, hiding behind her child-care worker. Natasha was extremely shy—she’d shut down when they asked her too many questions. Slowly, she bonded with her new siblings. When kids picked on her at school, Drew, who was the same age, stepped in: “Hey, you’re not allowed to do that to my sister.” For a while, two of Natasha’s brothers lived with the Stirlings, too—they tried to keep siblings together whenever they could. Once Natasha got more comfortable in the house, she was sassy and mischievous. She hid her siblings’ things around the house and laughed as she gave them clues to find them.
For seven years, Natasha thrived in Stirling’s care. Then, when she was 16, she started losing weight and feeling pain in her ribs. After some X-rays at Credit Valley Hospital, she was sent to SickKids. The doctor who was waiting for them there introduced himself and said, “I’m from oncology.” “That’s how I found out she had cancer,” Ross says. “It was the worst day of my life.” Natasha had Ewing sarcoma—there was a tumour lodged between her fourth rib and lung. It’s a rare disease, but with chemotherapy, the doctors said she could beat it. For two years, Stirling accompanied Natasha to every appointment and chemo session. But she didn’t get better. Less than a year after Natasha was diagnosed, the family learned her cancer was terminal.
When Natasha was sick, Stirling replaced the couch in the living room with a hospital bed, and on weekends Natasha’s foster brothers and sisters crowded around, telling stories and taking pictures. Stirling arranged for Natasha’s biological family to visit, which meant getting furlough for her eldest brother, who was serving time at Kingston Penitentiary. On her deathbed, Natasha made her brothers promise they’d clean their lives up after she was gone. On July 6, Stirling and Natasha’s family were sitting at her side. Stirling reached to wipe a tear from her face, and as she brushed her cheek, Natasha took her last breath. Finally, Stirling let out everything she’d had no time to express. She wept by the bedside, crushed that Natasha was gone but relieved that she was no longer in pain. She was only 18.
A few days later, Natasha’s pallbearers—including Molly, Drew, Jaslan and two of Natasha’s brothers, Mike and Nick—carried her casket down the aisle. They buried her under a headstone that Stirling had designed, engraved with delphiniums, dog paw prints, a camera, a book, a cup with paintbrushes and pens—all her favourite things. Natasha wanted a bench next to her grave, so Stirling’s brother and sister-in-law had one made. Molly, Drew and Jaslan all got tattoos to remember her—Drew has her initials in cursive on his chest.
After the funeral, Stirling couldn’t shake her sadness. During the days, when the kids were at school, she sat in the living room, crying and watching TV. It was all she could bring herself to do. She was heartbroken. She’d lost her daughter. Every year, she brings a fresh bouquet of purple flowers to Natasha’s grave. The scarf Natasha wore during chemo hangs on the wall above Stirling’s computer. She’s still in touch with Natasha’s brother Mike, who’s trying to make good on his promise to his sister. “I think he just needs two or three more high school credits,” she says. “I’m helping find him a full-time job.”
Stirling plays Lotto 6/49 and Lotto Max every week. Her numbers are a string of family birthdays. When she wins—and she says when, not if—she’ll found a non-profit for kids who have aged out of care: a one-stop shop for counselling, legal help, financial aid and budgeting classes. Everyone will be welcome, regardless of age, ability, ethnicity, sexual orientation and history. Whether she realizes it or not, Stirling sounds like she’s describing her own house. Until she hits the jackpot, she’ll continue doing that work herself, helping kids move, find furniture, apply for passports—whatever they happen to need that day.
Her biological kids are thriving. Molly is an assistant physio and occupational therapist. Drew played elite-level hockey and now works for a social enterprise in Ottawa that sends shipping-container farms to the North. The youngest, Jaslan, was born with a heart defect that doctors said would prevent her from playing sports or having kids. The prognosis couldn’t have been further off: she went on to train with the national women’s field hockey team in Vancouver.
Many of Stirling’s foster kids are flourishing as well, raising families of their own. One just graduated culinary school, another is an authorized children’s aid society helper; she and Stirling take turns babysitting each other’s kids. “There’s nothing better than a kid coming in and saying, ‘What’s cooking, Grammie?’ ” Stirling says.
Stirling’s garage is filled with stuff her kids have left behind: hockey sticks, an antique typewriter, an elaborate birdcage. She keeps it just in case a child returns. One recently called looking for a birth certificate that Stirling had been holding on to. Another came by to pick up her beloved, ratty Curious George doll. One day, when Stirling was in court, a young man approached her and asked, “Are you Cindy Stirling?” He introduced himself as a boy who’d only stayed with her for 24 hours many years earlier. “I just wanted to say hello and thank you. Even though it was only a day, I still remember you.”
This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.