A crucial part of the troubled Division of Children Youth and Families, the state’s foster care system, faces serious problems of its own. A shortage of families, a complicated and backlogged system , and a deficit of resources, all contribute to the problem of finding safe and stable homes for children.
- Eileen Mullen - Administrator at DCYF, where she works with foster families and children.
- Kelly Smith - Clinical social worker with more than 25 years of experience working with adoptive and foster families.
- Deb Urbaitis - Foster parent and attorney who specializes in family law.
- Jeanette Birge - Program director and social worker at Child and Family Services.
May is National Foster Care Month. Find resources and events at ChildWelfare.Gov and also at New Hampshire's DHHS website for foster care. Find information about CASA (court-appointed special advocates).
Eileen Mullen of DCYF says that there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of children entering the foster care system. She also says that many of these children are younger, and she has seen an increase in the number of children who are under the age of twelve months old.
I can't say it's all a result of the opioid crisis in the state, but we have seen a significant increase...We have about 1200 kids in out-of-home placement, and of those 1200 children, about 430 of them are in foster care. What we've seen is a dramatic increase in relative providers, [such as] aunts, uncles, grandparents. So we have about 400 kids who are in relative-care placement.
Kelly Smith, a social worker, says that she has also noticed that many of these children are also in emergency foster care situations.
They'll be [in a foster home] for a couple of days or weeks, and then they move, and then they move again. And what it means for kids is a lot of transition, but for our school-aged kids, it's just horrific. They have to keep moving schools or therapists.
All the panelists agree that there are not enough families to support the growing number of children entering foster care. Similarly, there are not enough social workers, or court-appointed special advocates (CASAs).
At the same time, the vetting process for foster families can be long and challenging, and saps a lot of resources. Listener Emily from Milton emailed with this comment:
While I understand the need to carefully vet potential foster parents, I wonder if there might be a few too many hoops in some respects. We are family with 2 children who wanted to become a foster family. Unfortunately, we live in an old house which can't realistically be modified to fully meet the requirements. We were heart broken to find that we can't become foster parents while living this house. I understand the need to make sure children are in a safe environment, but I wonder if there might be too many boxes to check in the process especially when our state is desperate for strong committed families in which to place children in need.
Smith agrees that the process is sometimes frustrating, as she had a similar experience:
My family lives in a 300 year old home, and we were going to become foster parents for a particular case and we also couldn't become foster parents because of our windows. They're too big, they're too small, they're crooked, they just don't meet the standards. It's around fire inspections, fire standards. And I appreciate it because if there was a fire in my house, some of my windows we would not be able to get out of, and if I had a child living in that room, that would be devastating. So I get it, but we do have a lot of standards. They are there for safety. Yet, how many fires do we have in our house?
Smith did offer an alternative for families who are interested in helping children but might not be able to foster:
We walked alongside this young lady, and we became primary caring adults, which is another need. It is called PCA, and those are people that will walk alongside a 16-plus year old youth and as they age out of care, and you become their mentor, once they're eighteen they can come and stay at your home. My PCA actually called last night at nine o'clock and needed a place to be so she is back home with us for a while. We have a huge need for our kids who are aging out of the system. They're 18, and they're couch-surfing. Who do they call when they get evicted? Who do they call when they need to fill out a college application? Who do they call when they're in the emergency room, where do they go for Christmas dinner?
Producer's Note: Find out more about primary caring adults.
Deb Urbaitis, who is a lawyer and has worked with other foster families, took in a five-year-old foster child a little over a year ago in a crisis situation, and found that her family was ill-prepared to handle the girl's behavior after trauma from a previous living situation.
[She] had been in one home for a while, then moved to another home, then moved to our home, so the poor kid was totally dis-regulated. She has a number of disabilities, so she was really very difficult; running around the house...instantly on walking in the door, [she] started hitting my older son and was acting out in some ways that are very inappropriate.
Urbaitis and her husband had to take time off of work to constantly monitor the child, who they later adopted, and after a week, brought her to Concord Hospital because she was trying to harm herself.
We finally got the rest of the story, and I was not happy that there was a rest of the story. But we got through it, and got her the help that she needed, but it's been a long struggle. And I think that's our complaint. Through the whole process we felt like we just didn't get information like we needed to, and I felt like I had to put on my attorney hat and dig in a little bit and advocate for her.
Mullen notes that these emergency situations often occur in waves, with many children needing emergency placement at one time, and that DCYF has been working to hire more staff and train staff to manage these crises better.
Friday afternoons, four o'clock, historically, that's when we get those calls, that this child needs placement right now. I think people are panicked about the weekends, maybe schools are calling because they've seen a situation at school that they don't feel comfortable about, maybe that's the time court has their regularly scheduled court dates. Fridays, historically, within the child welfare system, not just in New Hampshire, tend to be those crisis dates.
Mullen says that things are working better than even a few years ago. Three years ago, DCYF partnered with Dartmouth's Trauma Intervention Research Center to help foster families and social workers understand the effects of trauma and better prepare for crisis situations.
As a result of these efforts, DCYF also applied for a grant through the Administration of Children and Families. Eighteen months ago, DCYF implemented a new home study process called SAFE (Structured Analysis Family Evaluation Tool). The tool, which uses evidence-based research, considers everything from how to work with birth parents to loss and grief.
Smith, who has worked with the new SAFE tool, says that parents and social workers still cannot fully predict how a situation will turn out.
We can train and train and train and train, and it's not until you get a kid in your home that you're like 'Oh, now I get it.' It's like getting married. We can date and date and date and date and then it's like, 'Oh, that's what I married.' ...Our foster parents come with their own stuff. They come with their own story, they come with their own loss and grief and traumas, and sometimes these kids push their buttons and their triggers. And sometimes, it doesn't look so pretty. And we do see that. That happens sometimes. A SAFE home study does a better job of look at that, but the kid still hasn't moved into the home yet.
Urbaitis agrees that family dynamics and personal experience are important to consider with each foster family.
It's hard for workers to know if they place a child like my child into a home with other children, how are they all going to react? What's the family dynamic going to be like? So there are multiple layers of that vetting process...and they are not easy, and they take time, and since [DCYF] has been very short-staffed, I mean, it's hard.
If you are interested in learning more about how to become a foster parent, or a CASA, or to provide help to foster children and the foster care system, please visit the links above and throughout this story. Likewise, companies like Wendy's and WMUR have created initiatives to help the foster care system, and community and faith based groups like Bethany Christian Services also offer training and foster care support.