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Looking for homes
Shortage of foster homes hurting kids in the system

06/18/15
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



State officials and nonprofits say the shortage of foster homes in the state is already having damaging effects on child development and reunification efforts with their birth parents. With the opioid epidemic contributing to a rise in the number of kids entering the system, those effects are likely to worsen.

 
Foster care and adoption
Kathleen Companion is a foster care manager with New Hampshire’s Division of Children, Youth and Families. She says the roots of the shortage go back to 2006, when the foster care system merged with the adoption process.
“Once the systems were combined, a lot of our very experienced, longer-term foster homes adopted the children that were in their care already, that, over the course of time, had become legally free. And then they were full,” Companion said.
The merge was a reflection of a growing trend nationwide emphasizing permanency for kids. In other words, too many foster children were stuck in a state of foster limbo, so changes in federal law incentivized adoption by giving states a certain dollar amount linked to the number of kids who got adopted the year prior. Companion said that while this is a good thing for the children who have already developed relationships with foster parents, it means greater turnover with foster homes.
There are about 600 licensed foster homes in the state, but Companion said at least 200 of those are either full with the six-child maximum or they don’t have space for more kids.
“One thousand or so kids [are] in care on a regular basis,” Companion said. “Then, over the course of the year, generally 1,000 more will come in as some go home and some get adopted.”
Companion said many of those are kids in the juvenile justice system, but, of the children who enter state care due to abuse or neglect, she estimated about a third go to group homes or treatment programs.
“A majority of our cases are neglect cases, not physical abuse cases,” Companion said.
That means there’s often a chance for reunification, which means returning the children to their birth parents after the circumstances that led to state intervention are resolved.
There’s been a push in that direction. Companion pointed to a training program called Better Together with Birth Parents that helps develop a dialogue with birth parents. She said DCYF makes an effort to include birth parents in the foster process in some cases.
But that can act as a deterrent for some looking to become foster parents, according to Deb Bradley, a foster parent in Bow.
“We are having a shortage of [foster] homes because most of the homes that we’re licensing that I’ve seen of late, they’re not just general foster homes. They’re in it for a specific reason,” Bradley said.
The specific reason is adoption, according to Bradley. And since the two systems combined, the licensing process for adoption is the same for foster homes. Bradley says the old system worked better at developing reliable and less selective foster homes.
“We need people out the door that are just willing to foster,” Bradley said. “If you’re specifically looking to just adopt, a lot of those people are looking for younger children and there’s such a need across the board.”
The state has been trying to get more people licensed. It contracted organizations like Child and Family Services to get the word out and encourage people to become foster parents. CFS stresses that folks don’t have to be married or homeowners to be foster parents.
But state money is tight. Companion said the foster stipend has either stayed the same or decreased since 2009.
 
Juggling act
Bradley used to be near the top of the list of foster parents the state would call when they had kids removed from a crisis situation or if they needed her to provide “emergency” care on a temporary basis whenever a more permanent foster home was unavailable. Over the course of nine years, Bradley’s home has been host to eight long-term placements, about 15 to 20 crisis kids who were delivered by police cruiser and about 10 to 15 who arrived for temporary emergency care.
Now, Bradley’s home is full, with one adopted girl and a sibling group of three foster kids aged 4, 5 and 7, whom she plans to adopt this summer.
“My sibling group was actually out of Nashua,” Bradley said. “They came to me in a crisis placement.”
Luckily, Bradley was able to take all three siblings. But there was a time when she had to take a child who was separated from her siblings who were placed with another family. It took two years before they were reunited.
“Siblings are being split up,” Bradley said. “That’s a big thing happening.”
She said the demand is always high for foster homes that can take groups of kids.
“I know of sibling sets of five and more and to find a home that can take that many children is just very unusual,” Bradley said.
She said being separated from a sibling can sometimes be worse than losing a parent, since siblings understand each other.
Kids are also getting bounced around from temporary home to temporary home. Companion at DCYF said it’s not uncommon for a child to be juggled between homes before settling in a more permanent location.
“We don’t want kids bouncing around ... because there are no openings,” Companion said. “I think it happens more and more. … Our numbers of children we serve go up, and the numbers of foster homes go down.”
And this compounds the emotional challenges these children are facing.
“They’ve already been traumatized by what happened to them in their home,” Companion said. “It can be further traumatizing for that child to have to go live with a stranger and a week later you’re asking them to go live with another set of strangers.”
Service providers want to keep the foster kids in their home communities, but instead they’re being sent far away because options are limited closer to home.
“Often times, kids are traveling pretty far distances in order to find a foster home,” Companion said.
Companion has been increasing the number of waivers she files to allow certain foster homes to exceed the license cap of six kids. But that’s just a stop-gap measure.
 
Ripple effects
The shortage of foster homes is also being felt in group homes and treatment centers like Mount Prospect Academy in Plymouth. 
“The lack of foster care really has a ripple effect throughout the whole population of services,” said Jeff Caron, director of admission. “When you decrease the number of foster families, it impacts even our industry.”
He said when kids are without a family or a foster family to encourage them and care for them, it creates a hopeless situation for them.
“[Having a foster family] makes the treatment go a lot quicker and a lot more positively,” Caron said.
The number of children who have nowhere to go after treatment is climbing, according to Caron. That means they stay longer.
And David Villiotti at the Nashua Children’s Home echoes that, saying his facility is at capacity and so are many others. Right now, he’s turning new admissions away. 
 
As seen in the June 18, 2015 issue of the Hippo.





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