Valley Parents: Foster Parents in Short Supply as ‘Octopus’ of Opioid Addiction Grabs the Twin States

  • Deanna Rounds, of Hartland, is the Hartford District Resource Coordinator for Family Services at the Department for Children and Families in White River Junction, Vt. Rounds, who helps select and train foster parents, said she has seen a drastic rise in cases in past few years due to the opiate crisis. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • David Grudem and his foster son in their kitchen in West Fairlee, Vt., on April 27, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Foster father David Grudem at his home in West Fairlee, Vt., on April 27, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley Parents Correspondent
Published: 5/5/2017 1:33:43 PM
Modified: 5/5/2017 2:18:21 PM

When Frank was removed from his home a few years ago, child protective officials resorted to a couple of very short-term arrangements with family members before he ended up in a long-term placement in West Fairlee.

“They basically didn’t know what to do with me,” Frank, which is not his real name, said from his West Fairlee home. “Then Dave picked me up.”

“Dave” is David Grudem, a 73-year-old single man who is Frank’s foster father. He had become interested in fostering through a friend who was a foster parent. After thinking about fostering for years, he finally took the plunge, first providing respite care and then fostering Frank.

“I was pretty bored once I retired and didn’t feel like I had a whole lot of purpose for hanging around; and the other part was the possibility that I could help someone grow up in a better life than they got stuck with,” said Grudem. “Some of the children grow up in really bad situations; it can make you cringe.”

Three years later, Frank, a high school senior is preparing to go to college next year.

He is one of roughly 80 children currently in the custody of the Department for Children and Families Services in the 22 towns of the Hartford district, which spans Orange County and the northern part of Windsor County.

The need for foster care is not a new phenomenon, but in recent years the opioid epidemic has exacerbated the need in the Upper Valley. Social workers in both New Hampshire and Vermont report a sharp increase in the number of cases related to opioids, a markedly higher percentage of babies needing care and a severe shortage of foster families.

“I feel like it’s like an octopus,” said Maryann Babic-Keith, when asked about the effects of the drug crisis on families. “The tentacles are just spreading, and I don’t think people realize how many areas it hits.”

Babic-Keith, who is supervisor for the district office of the Department of Children Youth and Families Child Protective Services in Claremont, which covers Sullivan County and lower Grafton County, said that she’s seen a 30 percent increase in cases due to opioids. Many parents are unable to care for their children because they are in treatment, often in an inpatient facility, and they lack family support, she said.

“Opiates have overwhelmed every district,” said Deanna Rounds, the family services resource coordinator for Vermont’s DCF Family Services’ Hartford district office, which has also seen an increase in cases in the past two to three years due to the addiction crisis.

“It’s very entwined. The typical scenario is you have people with untreated mental health issues who use substances to treat their illness, and that can put them at risk of being a victim or an offender of domestic violence, and then their job or housing is at risk because they need to feed their habit; and that puts their children at risk,” Rounds said, adding that there is also child sexual abuse, which is not necessarily related to any of those factors.

As with many social issues, there is a misconception that only children from impoverished homes or communities are in need, but just as the opioid crisis has cut a wide swath across the Twin States and the rest of the country, so too has the need for foster care.

“There’s not an economic distinction when it comes to child abuse and neglect,” said Jeannette Birge, program director for Child and Family Services of New Hampshire, a private nonprofit agency that works with both Vermont and New Hampshire on a variety of child welfare programs, including foster care. “When you bring in substance misuse, which happens everywhere, including affluent communities, you also compound the need for foster families.”

Putting Family First

One change that has taken place over the last five or six years is the emphasis on keeping children within their family systems — what is known as “kinship foster care.”

“We are certainly keeping an eye on keeping children within their family systems, but we make sure that it’s kin that is safe and appropriate, and can make a commitment because it can be a lifetime commitment,” Rounds said.

In the local Vermont district, about one third of placements are to kin. Family members in New Hampshire and Vermont who want to foster children undergo the same rigorous screening process as all foster parents, including criminal background checks, interviews and home inspections. Both states also require foster parents to undergo some training, and those who take in children with special health needs or extreme trauma usually complete additional training.

However, modern fostering is diverse and inclusive. No one who can pass the screening process is barred, regardless of marital status, sexual orientation or financial situation.

“You don’t have to be rich, you don’t have to own your own home. Everyone thinks for some reason they won’t be approved, that they aren’t wanted, but we do want them,” Birge said.

In Vermont, the goal is to get a child placed in a permanent situation within 15 months, meaning either reunification with the birth parents or adoption. While some families do choose to adopt a child who cannot be reunited with their birth family, it is not the norm. However, the emphasis is on stability. Rounds explained that she works to make good matches so that children don’t have to move again, as they often did in years past, which can be extremely damaging to children who have already been traumatized.

There is also an emphasis on keeping siblings together, and placing children in the same geographic region as their birth families.  

“We try to keep children as close as possible to their natural resources,” Birge said. “We don’t want them to have to change schools or leave their friends, and if they can have visits with their birth parents, we want that to be as easy as possible.”

In both states, foster parents need to be recruited in every town, and in greater numbers than the amount of children in the system, so that children can be matched properly. Keeping children close to their parents also helps facilitate contact between birth and foster parents, which is usually required in Vermont and encouraged in New Hampshire.

“Foster parents are trained to connect with birth parents, and we find we have much more success with reunification when there is frequent visitation,” DCYF’s Babic-Keith said.

Rounds explained that foster kids do much better when both sets of parents are communicating about the child’s needs, and added that the goal is to demystify the relationship.

“We don’t want foster parents to see birth parents as not loving their children or wanting to care for them; and we don’t want birth parents to see foster parents as trying to take their children away,” Rounds said.

This aspect of fostering entails a huge emotional commitment, and for that reason Rounds said that some people opt to do emergency care, taking children who need to be placed after hours, such as in the middle of the night or on weekends until they can be placed. Another option is respite care, which provides a break for foster parents and a chance for foster children to have new experiences and develop other healthy relationships with caring adults. Social workers emphasize that it is vital to the foster care system. Respite care providers go through a similar licensing process as full-time foster parents; some people provide all types of care.

Stepping Up

The notion that foster parents take in children for the money is sadly incorrect given that actual rates don’t even compensate them for their costs.

In Vermont, daily rates range from $17.42 to $27.59, depending on the age of the child. Emergency care has a flat daily rate of $30, and rates for medically fragile children requiring 24-hour supervision and specialized care range from $34.60 to $75. In New Hampshire rates are even lower, from $15.80 to $27.20, which is the top rate for medically fragile children.

A 2013 report by Child Trends, a national nonprofit research organization focused on children and families, found that basic rates in a majority of states fall below the cost of caring for a child in that age range; a number of states have rates that represent less than half of the estimated cost of care.

Babic-Keith said that people don’t realize the extent of the need — or they assume that enough other people are helping, which is hardly the case. A variety of families are needed for a variety of children.

There are currently 75 foster homes in the Hartford district, and Deanna Rounds said she’d like to increase that number to 100. The Claremont district has only 24 licensed homes, and officials would like to add between 15 and 20. Both New Hampshire and Vermont are particularly in need of families who will foster children between ages 10 and 17.

“We have doctors and nurses, we have folks who work in factories and in retail,” Babic-Keith said. “There is no typical foster parent, other than the fact that they all want to be able to help in some way.”

Even under the best of circumstances, parenting a teenager is challenging. Grudem and Frank say they have had their differences over the last few years.

Still, Frank said he feels lucky that Grudem took him in; adding that the last thing children in bad home situations need to worry about is where they are going to sleep.

Dave “will definitely be part of my life when I go to college next year,” Frank said.  “He’ll continue to be a valuable asset and a good friend of mine.”

Jaimie Seaton frequently writes about parenting. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Fit Pregnancy and The Washington Post. She’s on Twitter @JaimieSeaton.

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