MANCHESTER, NH — For many years, Abbey Clegg would take the children she fostered to the Manchester Public Library to meet with their birth mothers.
It is a quiet and safe place and one where birth mother and child could bond over the love of reading.
All that changed, however, last December when the Division of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) sent foster parents an email informing them that they could no longer have supervised visits at the library.
“The Manchester City Library’s mission is to provide quality services and materials to meet the cultural, educational and instructional needs of our diverse and changing community,” Library Director Denise van Zanten wrote to a reporter in an email in explaining the change. “Over the past year the library has worked to improve services to our children by removing barriers to our collection, providing services out in the community and even took “books on the road” to give to children for them to keep. Above all we value the safety of all library visitors when they are in our buildings. Thus, we have asked DCYF not to use our buildings for supervised visits at this time.”
She did not explain what happened that prompted the library to ask the state to not use the site for supervised visits.
Will Stewart, library trustee, referred all questions to van Zanten.
“As a foster parent, homeowner and landlord in Manchester, I am very concerned and upset by this,” Clegg said. “I know Manchester Library said it was due to ‘safety’ concerns but I feel it’s ridiculous I can not meet my foster daughter’s birth parent at the library to visit.”
She believes the library is discriminating against foster children and their parents who she says are a vulnerable population.
“A lot of these families are homeless and I would say a majority of foster kids are suffering from some kind of disability largely because of the abuse and/or neglect,’ she said.
Many kids entering foster care suffer some sort of trauma, she said.
“Just removing a child from a home is traumatic,” she said. “There’s a lot of struggles. They’re a vulnerable population and I feel they are being discriminated against.”
According to minutes of the library trustees’ meeting from last November, there was an incident on Nov. 2 that “could have been a potentially dangerous situation with 2 counselors and a little girl who were here for a supervised visit in our Children’s Room. Library staff have reported an increase in these types of visits which are not scheduled with us.”
Heather Hamel, public information officer for the Manchester Police Department, said police were not called to the library that day.
Van Zanten and Karyn Isleb, children’s librarian, met with the Manchester district office manager of DCYF, to discuss the incident, according to trustees’ minutes.
“After careful consideration and reviewing various documents about visitation centers, and in consultation with the city’s security manager, the city’s risk manager and the Office of Youth Services, the district office manager was notified that we will not be allowing supervised visitations in our buildings,” according to the minutes of the trustee’s December meeting.
The minutes indicate state standards for visitation centers require security, separate entrances and liability insurance, none of which, according to the trustees, the public library can meet. Library management, according to the minutes, was not consulted “about the impact such visits in a public library nor have any protocols been shared about how to report issues or concerns.”
The trustees were sympathetic about the state’s need for visitation sites, but they said they had to think about the safety of the general public and staff using the library.
Clegg and her husband, the Rev. Richard Clegg of FaithBridge Church on South Main Street, have fostered children for 10 years. They are parents to five children, four of whom they adopted from foster care. Two of their children, twin 10-year-old boys, have disabilities requiring them to use wheelchairs. They also foster a 2-year-old girl.
Foster care is Clegg’s passion and she and her husband run a support group at their church. She also works in licensing for foster families and runs a program as a case manager for medically fragile foster kids.
Clegg believes the trustees are confusing court-ordered supervised visits with regular visits between a foster child and birth parent. Initially, when children are removed from parents, supervised visits could be required. As the process continues, there are partial supervised visits or visits involving a parent aide.
Visits take place in a home, in the community or in a supervised visit room usually at a contracted agency such as Waypoint or Home Base Collaborative.
“Most of the time the visits are in homes or communities because you want it to be as natural as possible for the kiddos and their family,” Clegg said. “Sometimes I, as a foster parent, will supervise the visit with the family.”
The library, Clegg said, was a good outing, especially in winter, where there are few free places that can be used. Other sites include the mall or McDonald’s.
When the weather is nice, the parks, pools and Lake Massabesic are great places for the visits. “Splash Pad at Rock Rimmon is amazing,” she said.
Clegg, however, is partial to the library because she once worked in one.
“I love books and I want my kids to love books,” she said. “I want my foster kids to be able to go to the library with their parents because my goal is to reunite them with their parents.”
One foster mother, whose identity Manchester Ink Link is not disclosing, said her foster child was at the library one day with his mother and parent aide. They were approached by library staff and asked if they were doing a visit. When the aide said yes, she was told that visits weren’t allowed anymore. She was handed a piece of paper with the policy, the foster mother said.
The aide apologized and said they were almost finished and the staff ended up letting them stay.
“Mind you, the child is an infant and not disruptive in any way,” the foster mother wrote in an email. “The mother has no criminal history. The library is a nice quiet place for her to spend time with her baby and read to him. It really should be none of the library staff’s business which of their patrons have DCYF involvement, in my opinion.”
Jake Leon, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said historically, DCYF used public spaces, as appropriate and where no risks are identified, for visits between foster children and their birth parents.
“That continues today at parks, shopping malls, public libraries and other public spaces,” he said in an email. “These visits provide important opportunities for children to interact with their parents in normal and natural environments. Doing so helps them move to successful family reunification. However, at the request of the Manchester City Library, we are no longer using that space for visits between children in foster care and their birth parents. While we honor this request, we’ve been advised that foster parents and their foster children are always welcome to visit the public library.”
When asked what happened on Nov 2, Leon said that was a question for the library to answer.
Clegg said her twins have services through the Moore Center and have caregivers during the day.
“What’s to prevent the library from saying they aren’t allowed?” she asked.
“To me, it seems like such a slippery slope it scares me.”