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Vermont Foster Parents Share Challenges and Rewards 

click to enlarge DAVID JUNKIN
  • David Junkin

Most mothers have nine months to prepare for the arrival of a new baby. Imagine having only half an hour.

"Ann" was relaxing at home with her teenage daughter one Saturday night in October 2014 when the phone rang. A social worker with the Vermont Department for Children and Families was calling to ask if she could temporarily house a 5-week-old baby boy who had just been taken into emergency state custody. Ann said she could.

"'We'll be there in 20 minutes. What do you need?'" Ann recalls the social worker asking her. Shortly after Ann hung up the phone, the DCF worker arrived with baby "Howie" and some supplies, including bottles, formula, diapers and wipes. And with that, Ann became the sole caregiver to a newborn whom she knew nothing about.

Though sudden, the experience was nothing new. In the four years since becoming a licensed foster parent, Ann has taken in 20 foster children, three or four of whom arrived with little advance notice. Most children stayed for short stints — a few hours to several days — before DCF found them permanent placements. Others, including Howie, stayed longer.

When the social worker dropped him off, Ann remembers asking, "Is there anything else I need to know about him?" The answer stunned her: "'Oh, yeah. He was born with a clubbed foot. He has surgery in two days.'"

So, in addition to Ann's other responsibilities — the 39-year-old single mom has three of her own kids in their late teens and early 20s — she took in the child and nursed him back to health. More than a year later, Howie still lives with Ann and her extended family on an Addison County dairy farm.

It's often said that parenting is the world's hardest and most thankless job. That's especially true for the nearly 1,100 licensed foster parents throughout Vermont. Some, like "Ann," provide homes to children to whom they're unrelated. Others, like "Sharon" and "Mark" in northern Addison County, and "Chris" and "Terry" in southern Chittenden County, foster children of a family member. (At DCF's request, pseudonyms are used throughout this story to protect the parents' and children's identities.)

None of these foster parents takes on the responsibility for the money. Foster parents receive a monthly stipend from the state — for the families in this story, it ranges from about $18 to $30 a day per child, which is based on the child's age and the caregiver's level of foster-care experience. All say that modest sum doesn't come close to covering their foster children's expenses, including food, clothing, diapers, transportation, daycare and medical care. Though one might assume that people who choose to become foster parents are affluent, or at least financially comfortable, often that's not the case.

Foster families come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, says Barbara Joyal, system of care unit director for DCF's Family Services Division in Waterbury, which oversees all state foster-care placements. What they all have in common, she says, is a desire to give these children a second chance in life. Many get their first taste of foster parenting by providing respite care for a night or weekend when another foster family needs to travel or take a break.

Foster parents can indicate which age or gender child would best integrate with their own family. "We value that and encourage people to do that, because not everybody has the skill set," Joyal adds. "If they [say], 'Oh, teenaged girls scare me to death. I can't deal with all the drama,' that's OK. We have plenty of needs."

Even then, as Ann points out, there's no such thing as an "easy" placement, even for people like her who've done it for years. Most of the kids she's cared for came from homes where substance abuse was pervasive; others were emotionally or physically abused and/or had parents with mental illness. Many children have behavioral or health issues of their own. One child Ann took in, as respite care to allow another foster family a weekend off, had a serious brain injury.

"I would say 99 percent of the kids in custody have suffered pretty significant trauma or loss, so we need to know how to work with them," explains Ann, who also teaches one of the two courses that are mandatory for becoming a licensed foster parent. "You can't parent them the same way you'd parent your own child, because a lot of times they've been through things you can't even imagine."

Which is not to say Ann doesn't get emotionally attached. In the mudroom of her farmhouse hangs a bulletin board filled with kids' pictures: school photos, selfies, clippings from a local newspaper of school sporting events. Clearly, not all are of Ann's biological children.

"I loved every kid that came into this house," she says. "And when I see them on the street — and I do, because it's such a small community — they'll come running up and say 'hi.' That's cool."

Sometimes, the hardest part of the job is when it ends: "When a child leaves your home and you know they're going back to a situation that's not good — and there's nothing you can do about it."

Not all of the kids go back, though. Ann is completing the process of adopting Howie.

"My youngest is going to be 17 this spring. I can't believe I'm starting over!" she says with a laugh.

A 'Perfect Storm'

Taking custody of a child is the state's least preferable option, says Joyal of DCF. Still, since the beginning of 2014, the number of children in DCF custody has increased by nearly 33 percent. For children younger than 6 years old, the number has jumped by 68 percent.

It's becoming increasingly commonplace for the state to assume custody of infants and newborns. As Ann notes, "I probably get two or three calls each weekend for emergency placements."

"It's fair to say that we're in a crisis," says Joyal. As of late September, an all-time high of some 1,375 kids were in Vermont's foster-care system.

Joyal explains that's largely due to Vermont's opiate epidemic: Children born to drug-addicted parents now account for three out of every four kids in state foster care. As a consequence, DCF is struggling to keep pace with the ever-burgeoning demand for new foster caregivers.

That rising demand has also put a spotlight on DCF social workers' heavy caseloads. Following the 2014 deaths of two Vermont children under age 2, both of whom had had previous DCF involvement, the state hired 18 new staffers to help ease the burden. Nevertheless, Joyal says that DCF social workers' caseloads are still at least twice the nationally recommended average of 12 families per worker. As a result, Vermont foster parents can face long waits to get their calls answered when they need help.

Perhaps not surprisingly, recruiting new foster parents hasn't been easy, Joyal says. That task became even harder last summer after DCF social worker Lara Sobel was shot and killed outside her office in Barre, allegedly by the mother of a 9-year-old child who had been removed from the home. That tragedy was unnerving not only to DCF employees but also to the foster families who take in kids from similar backgrounds.

All these factors have combined to form a "perfect storm" that's stressing the state's foster-care system.

Yet despite such difficulties, Ann says she has no regrets about becoming a foster parent.

"I love it, even on days like today, when I haven't gotten any sleep," she says, with a weary smile. "To me, it's not these kids' fault that they were dealt this hand."

  • All infographic data provided by DCF

A Grand Responsibility

The first people DCF approaches to take in children are grandparents or other family members. At last count, about 40 percent of all kids in DCF custody were living in "kin placements," Joyal says. DCF and the federal government prefer these arrangements, as they tend to be less disruptive to the children and enable them to maintain connections with family members, friends, teachers and others in the community.

Sharon and Mark fall into this category. Sharon, a 43-year-old native Vermonter, worked for years caring for the elderly, including her own mother and her husband's mom when both were dying. Today, she and Mark live in a cozy, well-maintained mobile home in Addison County.

Sharon couldn't have children of her own. But she and Mark immediately became the foster parents to Mark's son's three boys in January 2014 — on the day the boys' mother died of a drug overdose. "When I called DCF to let them know that their mom had passed, their first question was, 'Do you want them?'" Sharon recalls. "That was our only chance to say yay or nay, and I said 'absolutely.' I didn't even think twice."

A social worker from DCF arrived at their house that very night to start the paperwork. Fortunately, the boys, who were 2, 3 and 12 years old at the time, had lived with their grandparents before, as their drug-addicted birth parents had often lacked the resources to take care of them.

Regardless of their relationship to the children in their care, all foster parents are required to complete at least two courses on foster parenting, Joyal says, which typically take about five weeks each. Those classes, which need not be completed before the foster parents take the kids, cover such topics as understanding trauma, grief and loss; how to deal with birth families; the dynamics of parenting kin; the behavioral challenges foster kids may demonstrate; how to support kids as they go through the process; and dealing with the legal system.

But even after completing those classes, Sharon admits that the transition wasn't easy for any of them. All three brothers were "drug babies," she says, whose mother abused drugs while pregnant with them. All were born underweight and have since been diagnosed with ADHD.

Sharon and Mark face other challenges, too. As she points out, the financial reimbursement they get from the state doesn't come close to covering the kids' many expenses. Mark is gone three or four days each week working as a long-haul trucker, so Sharon cannot take a job outside the home.

Fostering the boys has cost the family in other ways, she adds. Mark's grown son was angry when the couple went to court to gain permanent custody of the kids — he's since signed away his parental rights — and no longer speaks to Mark or sees his sons anymore. "We tried to have interaction, but it wasn't stable," Sharon explains. "It only made things worse for everyone."

Sharon says she's never regretted the decision to parent the boys. In fact, she says she would have done so even if they weren't Mark's grandsons.

"I've loved every minute of it. Just seeing these boys thrive has been the best," she says, proudly showing off recent school photos in which all three brothers have big, toothy smiles. "I wish more parents would do this. There are so many kids out there who need a good home. In my heart, everybody deserves a chance."

Chris and Terry, who live in southern Chittenden County, are also the grandparents of their foster child. Chris, who is self-employed, sits on the couch looking exhausted. The dark circles under his eyes reflect the inevitable lack of sleep that comes with raising a little one, especially at age 57.

The house is comfortable but disheveled, with a car seat, diaper bag and brightly colored toys strewn about the living room. Beside Chris, his wife, Terry, who works for the state, plays with "Natalie," their 16-month-old granddaughter. The smiley, gap-toothed toddler is on the verge of walking. She drools constantly, so Chris keeps a roll of toilet paper within reach for easy cleanups. "It's cheaper than wipes," he says.

The two have been Natalie's foster parents since she was released from the hospital shortly after her birth. Born at just 4 pounds, 8 ounces, Natalie spent two weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit before going home with them. Terry and Chris call Natalie "their miracle girl," because her biological mother — their son's former girlfriend — surrounded herself with what Chris calls "convicted felons, pedophiles and drug addicts."

According to Chris, DCF wouldn't release Natalie to her biological mother after learning she'd threatened to harm the child even before she was born; he claims she tried to terminate the pregnancy by throwing herself down some stairs. Today, Chris says, Natalie's biological mother still struggles with homelessness, mental illness and substance-abuse issues — and she's pregnant with another child.

Chris and Terry express concerns about their own family's safety, especially since Natalie's bio mom knows where they live. By law, biological parents have a right to know where their children are living, unless they pose an imminent risk of violence.

"Her focus right now is on the new baby," Terry says. But if the state has to assume custody of that baby, too, "we're really concerned what she's going to do."

For his part, Chris voices more concern about how they'll handle Natalie's ongoing health problems. Though they didn't know it when they took her in, Natalie has a hole in her heart that will eventually require surgery. Recently, they learned that she also has a problems with her spinal cord, and her bladder and kidneys don't function normally, all of which will also require medical procedures. And, because she can't swallow properly, food backs up into her nasal cavity, causing frequent infections. All of it, the couple were told by Natalie's doctors, was likely caused by the mother's drug use during pregnancy.

"That makes me more angry than anything," Chris says.

"Luckily, my work has been very understanding of all the time I've had to take off," Terry adds. But because Chris is self-employed, time off means lost wages. Whenever Natalie spikes a fever, they don't know if it's a normal toddler illness or something more serious that might require considerable time off. Needless to say, his business has suffered.

After raising three sons of their own, did the pair ever consider not fostering Natalie?

"Absolutely. It's really hard," Chris admits. "She's rewarding every day. That's a given. Aside from that, I'm 57, [Terry] is in her fifties. You just don't have the energy you once had ... I love watching her, but I'm just so darned tired!"

Though DCF has been subjected to considerable public scrutiny in the last few years — particularly in the wake of last year's toddler deaths and its staffing challenges — none of the three families interviewed for this story was critical of DCF or their own social workers. In fact, Chris and Terry had nothing but glowing words for the people who've helped them throughout the process.

"I'll tell you, they are some of the nicest people. They have their hearts in the right place," Chris says. "They're just trying to help these kids." Terry agrees. "We're pro-DCF. People just don't like to hear that ... but there's always two sides to every story."

For families considering becoming foster parents themselves, Chris and Terry say they encourage others to try it — with one caveat.

"You need to prepare yourself for anything. You're navigating uncharted waters," Chris says. "Expect the unexpected, but be patient and know that you're doing the right thing. Because you are."

Many local agencies and nonprofits provide information on becoming a licensed foster parent, including the Vermont Department for Children and Families, the Vermont Foster and Adoptive Family Association, and Vermont Kin as Parents

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