Kenyon: As Claremont woman stepped up for nieces, NH quickly stepped away

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 06-21-2024 6:46 PM

Modified: 06-24-2024 10:23 AM


In March, Ashley Denofrio agreed to become the court-appointed legal guardian for her two nieces in hopes of bringing much-needed stability to their lives.

As Denofrio has learned, however, the state of New Hampshire isn’t big on providing the financial support new guardians like herself often require to make sure the kids they’ve taken responsibility for have a decent roof over their heads, enough food on the table and clothes on their backs.

In 2022, the state Division for Children, Youth and Families, better known as DCYF, determined that neither Denofrio’s younger brother nor his partner could adequately care for their school-age daughters. The girls were placed in a temporary home.

When that didn’t work out, DCYF approached Denofrio in the spring of 2023 about taking in her nieces.

It was a big ask.

Denofrio, 39, doesn’t have children — just two dogs. She juggles school and work. (She’s now in the third year of an online program to earn a bachelor’s degree while stocking shelves for $16 an hour at two Dollar General stores.)

Denofrio and her partner, John, a carpenter, lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Charlestown. The couple thought long and hard about DCYF’s request that she become the girls’ foster parent.

“I didn’t feel like I had a choice,” Denofrio told me. “I love the girls to pieces. I didn’t want to see them split up or go to a group home.”

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The couple turned their living room into a bedroom for the girls, who are now ages 11 and 12.

In a given year, New Hampshire has about 900 children living in foster homes. The state pays foster parents a daily rate to help cover the expenses of raising the kids they bring into their homes. For Denofrio, the payment came to about $2,100 a month.

A sizable chunk of the money was allocated to renting a larger place. Denofrio and her partner found a three-bedroom, one-bath house in Claremont, a short distance from downtown. At $1,900 a month, plus utilities, the worn-down house on a busy street is no bargain, but that’s the reality of the Upper Valley’s tight housing market.

Earlier this year, DCYF came back to Denofrio with another request: Would she go from being the girls’ foster parent to their legal guardian?

Once again, Denofrio stepped up.

Denofrio told me that DCYF neglected to tell her, however, that the change meant she’d no longer receive foster care payments. She only found out when DCYF’s biweekly check didn’t show up in her bank account in late May.

When I asked DCYF last week what had happened, a spokeswoman emailed back that confidentiality laws prohibit the department from discussing individual cases. She did, however, explain the differences between foster parents and guardians in New Hampshire.

“Generally, when legal guardianship is secured as part of an approved permanency plan for a child in foster care, DCYF involvement and foster care payments end as legal guardians are no longer considered foster parents,” spokeswoman Kathy Remillard wrote. “Legal guardians begin to assume the same financial responsibilities as all parents.”

In other words, the state drops foster parents who adopt off a financial cliff. In 2023, the Legislature finally recognized — sort of — that while stopping payments was a money-saver for the state, kids and their guardians paid a price. Lawmakers passed a bill allowing guardians to apply for help with child-rearing expenses through the federal Financial Aid to Needy Families program.

Denofrio filled out the paperwork, but has yet to receive any payments. It looks like she’s eligible for about $1,000 a month — half of the amount she received as a foster parent. The state has also suggested that she apply for federal food stamps.

Even then, Denofrio figures to be about $550 short of what she received as a foster parent. “I still don’t know how we’re going to make it work,” she said.

The monthly DCYF stipend wasn’t all that Denofrio — and her nieces — lost when she went from being their foster parent to guardian.

In February, while she was still a foster parent, Denofrio signed up the girls for a YMCA day camp this summer in Springfield, Vt. It was her understanding that DCYF would cover the $225 weekly tuition for each girl.

The eight-week camp was a golden opportunity for her nieces to enjoy the outdoors in a safe, healthy environment. The girls were excited. The youngest asked if the camp offered archery. (It does, along with kayaking on the Black River and swimming in Meeting Waters YMCA’s pool.)

Susan Fortier, Meeting Waters’ executive director, just needed to hear from DCYF that it was footing the tuition bill. Payment could come later. As of Wednesday, Fortier’s numerous emails and phone messages to DCYF hadn’t resolved the matter.

The Y Day Camp, which serves 200 kids over the course of the summer, has a waiting list. With still no word from DCYF, Fortier recently had to tell Denofrio that she couldn’t continue holding the girls’ spots for the first week of the camp, which starts Monday.

Denofrio must take the week off so the girls aren’t home alone. Her dad is also pitching in to give her time to study.

On Wednesday, Fortier told me that she’s holding out hope that DCYF or another agency in New Hampshire will come through for the girls before the second week of camp starts July 1. “I’m committed to getting them in as much as possible,” she said.

Children removed from their parents’ home and placed in state custody have “already been through enough trauma in their lives,” Fortier said. “It’s important they have this opportunity.”

Denofrio will also keep pestering the state to make good on what she believed was a promise to her nieces.

“If I don’t stick up for them,” she said, “who will?”

Apparently, not the state.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.