MANCHESTER, NH – It’s National Foster Care Awareness month: Do you know how dire the need is for safe caring homes here in New Hampshire?
Katie Cassidy, a foster care recruiter for Child and Family Services, knows, firsthand. She says there is a new sense of urgency for the private non-profit agency to identify and license foster parents in the Granite State.
Currently there are approximately 800 kids statewide in foster care settings –more than500 of them are in foster homes, while more than 300 are staying with relatives as part of the New Hampshire Division of Child, Youth and Families system. Meanwhile, there are about580 licensed foster homes in the state. Child and Family Services works with about 35 of those foster families.
The number of children removed from homes with substance abuse problems went from 85 in 2010, to 329 in 2015 (an increase of 387 percent).
“The opioid crisis is the biggest contributor when looking atwhat’s changed,” says Cassidy. “For years we’ve had a tremendous need, for children who have suffered physical or sexual abuse, but now we’re seeing a significant rise in children affected by the opioid epidemic.”
The drug crisis has not only expanded the number of children coming into the system, but also created a higher number of kids with more complicated needs; children who are living in situations that can’t quickly or easily beresolved through standard processes of counseling, saysKeith Kuenning, Child and Family Servicesadvocacy director.
“A family with addiction issueshave less ability to rebound,” says Kuenning. “What I’ve heard from DCYF is that the normal process of identifying family members who might be able to help has changed. You talk to a grandma, an uncle, a sister, and find out they’re also dealing with addiction; it’ssweeping through families, and we have a shortage of foster families available to place them.”
That means more children are being placed into residential services, including places like Nashua Children’s Home, Davenport School in Jefferson, Chase Home for Children in Portsmouth, Spaulding Youth Center in Northfield, The Webster House in Manchester. New Hampshire ranks right at the top of the list for states that place children in residential care, Kuenning says.
“And that doesn’t make a lot of sense on two levels. First and foremost, kids do better in a foster care setting. And secondly, although not nearly as important in terms of what’s best for the child, it’s a ridiculous way to spend money – thecost to the state forcaring for a child is about$16-20 a day in a foster setting, compared to $150-200 a day in a residential setting,” Kuenning says.
By comparison, foster families in Massachusetts are paid a $50 per day stipend for intensive foster care, and$20-$25 daily for regular placements. Quarterly clothing funds range from $185 – $282, according to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.
“I’m not surewhywe can’t figure out that it makes moresense to recruit more foster parents and pay those rates, and utilize the residential system less,” he says. “It just makes common sense.Foster care is the backbone of the child protection system. It’s better for the kids, and better for the state.”
While some children who have come from particularly traumatic situations require residential settings where they can receive Individual Service Options (ISO), it’s proven nationwide that children removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect grow and learn best in family settings, and are more likely to become successful adolescents and adults, and be more productive members of society, says Cassidy.
“A foster family setting allows a child to get accustomed tosocial norms that may have been missing from their lives. They can experience what it’s like for mom to be there consistently, for mom and dad to provide discipline– it’s something kids won’tget in the same way in a residential setting,” Cassidy says. “Children grow best in families.”
Cassidy explains that her job is to recruit new foster families for Child and Family Services, and on top of that, retain and manage existing foster homes. As a private agency, Child and Family Services tries to work in conjunction with DCYF in every aspect of fostering. While DCYF oversees all placements, Child and Family Services licenses at the ISO level within their “permanency solutions” program, which require a higher level of training for foster parents. Those children are coming into foster care with significantly more “issues,” says Cassidy.
“Behavioral, medical, educational, significant physical challenges – more so than the ‘average’ child. So recruiting, managing and maintaining foster families at an ISO level canmean that we will refer a family to DCYF and suggest they work with them for a year or so and then come back to us for the ISO licensing when they have more experience,” Cassidy says.
Beautiful journey, fromfoster mom to adoptive mom
Sara and Jeff Beaudry recently became foster parents through Child & Family Services to two young children, ages 2 and 4. But they are no strangers to the challenging, life-changing experience. Their 14-year-old daughter arrived through DCYF as an infant – when Sara Beaudry was still single.
“At that time I was a single woman and working in radio. I was 30, and I didn’t know where my life was going, but from volunteer work I’d done with Child and Family Services, I’d learned about foster care and knew I wanted to help a child, beyond just being a mentor. I became licensed as a foster parent through DCYF in January of 2004,” says Beaudry.
Within a month of getting licensed, Beaudry got a call from DCYF that they had a child in need of fostering.
“They said they’d be at my house within two hours,” says Beaudry. “When you become a foster parent, you can’t be specific about whether you will take a boy or girl, or what age. I had no idea what to expect, but then they brought me this beautiful 8-month baby girl. She was so lovely.”
Britarrived with a few articles of clothing, and little else.
“It was definitely eye-opening. I come from a really big family, and we have a lot of babies, so it seemed absolutely the most natural thing for us to have this little girl. Without hesitation, there was thisautomatic love my family had for this child. Although I’d never experienced anything like it before, all Iknew was that me, and my family and friends were going to make this child happy and safe and healthy,and that’s really what we did,” Beaudry says, “It was the best time of my life, in that it opened my life up to something I never saw coming.”
Beaudry adopted Brit when she was 3. After she and Jeff married a few years later, he adopted Brit as well, giving her several “birthdays” to look forward to – including theanniversary of her arrival, and of her two adoptions.
One of the things the Beaudrys quickly learned is that the support system in place through the Child and Family Services foster care program makes it possible for anyone to foster a child successfully. Every foster home is connected to acase manager, family therapist, or parent aids – whatever a particular child or family may need, something that has made things go more smoothly for the Manchester couple now that they are actively fostering again. Because both Sara and Jeff work, Cassidy helped them make daycare arrangements within just a few days of their placement, which has helped establish a routine for the kids.
“Everything’s changed. The era of needing a mom and dad at home to be foster parents is before my time,” says Cassidy.
Any New Hampshire resident age 21 or older can apply to be a licensed foster parent. The process includes completing the application and approval process, a home study and background check, an orientation and mandatory training.
“If we don’t fix this, we’ll have a real crisis in this state”
A major challengeChild and Family Services advocates encounter when it comes to recruitment are that state rates for foster care reimbursement in New Hampshire haven’t kept pacewith the basic costs of taking a child into a home, says Kuenning.
“When you combine the increase in the number of children in need of foster care with the low rate in New Hampshire – we haven’t had an increase with the rate in going on 10 years– so it’s $16 a day for non ISO placements, and $30 a month for clothing,” Kuenning says. “The joke within the foster care community is that you can buy one shoe with that in April and one shoe in May – that’s how low the rates are.”
Kuenning says he speaks regularly with state lawmakers and even the governor about the need to legislatively increase the foster care payment rates.
“Rates are not meant to pay the foster care parents, they’re meant to compensate families for the cost of having a foster child in their home. The cost of living has gone up, and $16 a day isn’t cutting it, and it’s becoming a barrier,” Kuenning says.
“As you look at child protection right from the very first moment a call is made that a child needs help, to where they’re placed in a foster home, everything has to be funded and maintained all along the line. And with the crisis we’ve seen happening at DCYF, we’ve seen a lot of emphasis, and rightfully so, placed at the front end. But we also have to place it at the back end, because if we have no place for those kids to go and the funding isn’t correct, we’re not helping those kids the way we should be,” Kuenning says.
“It’s kind of like saying let’s build the fire station, let’s get the fire truck, let’s hire the firefighter, and then you get to the fire and there’s no fire hydrant to hook that hose up to. We’re trying to make people aware that foster care rates need to be dealt with in this budget cycle,” Kuenning says. “We can’t wait for this budget cycle to end and then wait two more years to come back to this. We need help now and we need more foster parents now, and we need the rates to change, now.”
Kuenning saysthe New Hampshire way, when it comes to human services, seemsalways to be dealing with thecrisis at hand.
“And the crisis at hand right now is mental health services. Especially with everything happening withDCYF, I think we’re able to make the argument that we need to talk about whole system,” Kuenning says. “If we don’t fix this we’ll have a real crisis in this state, and it would be nice if we dealt with this now and not in four years, when we’re really in trouble. If we would get on it right now,we could make a significant difference.”
Although fixable, Cassidy still seesa crisis situation.
“The biggest thing I try to impress onpeople is that there is nothing too small when it comes to help in the foster care world. Right now we’re in desperate need on all levels – general foster homes for the state; ISO for every agency; emergency and crisis homes, meaning those willing and able to accept children in the middle of the night from MPD; and respite homes available to foster kids so that foster parents can go on a vacation or take care of some other personal matters,” Cassidy says.
Reaping rewards of opening her home – and life – to kids in need
The Beaudrys used a respite home for the first time this year in March.
“The family we got paired with in Exeter had adopted two girls. I was so worried about it, because I’d never left a foster child with a respite care family before, but it turned out that it was as good for the kids as it was for us – and we got to meet another foster family that adopted from the foster care system,” Beaudry says.
Kuenning says that underscores another reason to increase recruitment efforts.
“Going back to shoe analogy, imagine 500 kids with 500 pairs of donated shoes. They’re not all going to be the right fit. To make sure the fit is correct, you need lots of shoes, more than you actually need. That’s why the foster care system is under such strain. If we’re right down to the last foster parent, and it’s not the right match, then we’re not making the best placement for that child,” Kuenning says.
Cassidy says taking great care to match children with families is a point of pride at Child and Family Services.
“We don’t put children in a home where we know it won’t be successful. That can burn a foster parent out, and it’s also traumatic for children to leave a foster home,” Cassidy says.
Beaudry says for those who might be thinking they don’t have the time to be foster parents due to busy schedules, they should think again.
“Yes the scheduling can be tricky, but I’ve always worked the whole time I’ve been a foster parent, even when I was single, and I had crazy hours back then. But I believe in life if there’s something you want to do, you’ll find a way to do it,” Beaudry says.
“I just can’t stress enough that if you think it’s going to be about the lack of time, don’t let it be about the lack of time. The rewardsare fabulous. I feel so incredibly lucky. My daughter is my joy, and the two we have now – they’re brave little characters. Knowing family upheaval is hard for adults, imagine what these babies have to go through?” Beaudry says. “Adjusting ourselves or our schedules is such a small thing, in the big picture. In the big picture, what we’re doing is already making a huge difference in their lives – we see it every day.”
To learn more about becoming a foster parent, click here.