Note: This is the second installment in a four-part series. Part 1, “Finding family,” appeared yesterday. Tomorrow: “Preparation and prevention.”
ST. ALBANS — Lisa runs her house on the clock. The St. Albans woman is mother to 10 biological, adopted and stepchildren and to 24 children through foster or respite (short-term) care. With six of those still at home, if there isn’t a system, there isn’t a way.
Up at 4:15 each morning, Lisa (her real name is being withheld to protect the identities of the children) gets ready for the day. Breakfast is at 6 a.m., and then it’s off to school: Bellows Free Academy, St. Albans City School, Missisquoi Valley Union. In the past, she’s had children enrolled in Richford and Georgia schools, too.
“That’s the start of my morning,” said Lisa in an April interview.
Throughout the day, Lisa brings one or more kids to weekly therapy appointments, weekly school meetings, bi-weekly team meetings with the St. Albans district office of Vermont Department for Children and Families, doctor or dentist appointments, court hearings, or any other manner of meeting.
Then the school day ends, and Lisa is back to BFA, City school and MVU, picking up her kids. Homework time and down time are before dinner, which is usually at 5:30 p.m. for everyone in the house.
“Everybody has to be together,” Lisa said.
More homework and down time come before showers, which start at 7:30 p.m.. Lisa, who currently has all boys in her house, requires everyone to take at least one a week before going to bed by 9:30 p.m. on school nights.
Lisa may have some time to herself before bed, but that’s not what’s important to her.
“I don’t have a lot of personal time but that’s because that’s what I choose,” she said. “I’m happy being home with all the kids.”
Even with Lisa’s extraordinary talent for and hard work as a mom, she does what she does because she has a supportive partner, can go to peer support groups, has a judged-ordered case plan, and has a great deal of help from DCF’s St. Albans district office case managers and resource coordinator.
“I have great resources at DCF that I can talk to everyday if I need to,” Lisa said.
In turn, there are also resources for St. Albans district DCF staff while they carry out their difficult, sometimes rewarding, and definitely massive, caseload.
“In order to do the job well, staff need to be supported and empowered,” wrote district director Alix Gibson in a recent e-mail. “When this is able to happen, everyone feels good about the work, and … foster families then feel more supported as well.”
Lisa, a woman in her mid-forties, and her partner started providing foster care six years ago. Many expansions to their home later, both child-wise and building-wise, they’re still at it.
“We’ve mainly focused on teens,” Lisa said. “Most people don’t want teens.”
Lisa worked at Northwestern Counseling & Support Services for 15 years until last October, when she decided to give up working to be a full-time mom. Her background in trauma allows her to foster children from difficult backgrounds, and it also helps her find the right therapy for them.
“I don’t like to give up so easy,” Lisa said.
According to Margi Cameron, resource coordinator for the St. Albans district DCF office, people like Lisa and her partner make good foster parents because they come in with their own support system and resources.
“Mostly there are two parents caring for foster children,” Cameron said in a recent interview. She added that it’s helpful for foster families to have people around them that understand the various circumstances, commitments and difficulties presented by foster care.
In addition, Lisa is devoted to working with the biological families of her foster children, a factor that Cameron said is vital to successful foster care.
“I try to stay very connected with their bio families,” Lisa said. “They love their children. Their children love them. That’s what we need to focus on.”
Working with their own families and friends, with the biological families, and with DCF, is what Cameron calls “teaming,” or collaborating to make the fostering process easier. While DCF can offer a listening ear, a voucher for a child’s clothing, service referrals, or a meeting space for family visits, it inevitably takes a variety of people and resources to make the whole fostering process doable.
“How do you manage what’s asked of you as a foster parent?” Cameron asked. “I think that’s where the teaming comes in.”
In the DCF office, teamwork becomes an important part to managing child cases as well.
DCF workers in Franklin and Grand Isle counties have an average of 22 cases each. In comparison to the rest of the state, the St. Albans district has the highest rate of children in state custody, according to Cameron. Long days and nights, working with children and families coming out of physically and sexually abusive, neglectful, and dangerous situations are the meat of DCF workers’ job.
“There is so much important work to do,” said Cameron. “There are hard things that happen everyday, all day long.”
The local district office does all it can to make DCF work both physically and emotionally manageable.
“We try to really recognize our staff,” said Cameron. “[We have] a really great, stellar group of social workers here who care deeply and work really hard.”
Cameron spoke of the St. Albans district DCF office as one that has good humor and a supportive atmosphere. Training is emphasized for social workers, as is having multiple minds reviewing each case.
“Locally, Alix [Gibson] and the leadership team here, and from the central office there statewide, people are paying attention,” Cameron said.
She added that there are monthly consultation meetings for St. Albans district DCF staff with Sue Robinson of the New England Counseling – Trauma center in Williston, and Gibson, the district director, additionally does individual meetings with all staff members.
“[Staff] are committed, responsive and they truly care about the safety of the kids and youth in our county,” said Gibson in her e-mail. “They need to be supported to celebrate the positives that happen, and use those successes as platforms for good work.”
A community’s work
Looking at the numbers alone, foster care in Franklin and Grand Isle counties is going pretty well: no maltreatment-related child deaths are currently on record in the DCF central office, and of the 96 children that left state custody in 2013, 43 percent were reunified with their families and 34 percent were adopted.
“St. Albans has a lot to be proud of,” Cameron said.
While the collaborative nature of this district’s DCF office appears to be making good headway, there are still many local children and families with unhappy and tumultuous experiences. Physical and emotional hurt and uncertain futures still dominate the lives of some living in this community.
As well-resourced and dedicated to fostering as Lisa is, a child that was been in her house for close to a year has had to leave due to extreme behavior issues, something that was difficult for Lisa to think and talk about.
“He’s going to get stuck in the system,” she said, wiping away tears. “I truly love him. We’re working on what’s going to be best for him and where’s going to be the best place.”
Though that place may still be unknown, it’s clear that, like Lisa, the child’s new foster parents won’t care for him alone. Cameron says that’s never the case for raising a child, foster or otherwise, as there are innumerable forces in the community that support a child’s future.
“It literally takes a village,” said Cameron.