Note: This is the third installment in a four-part series. The first and second stories, “Finding family” and “Sharing support,” appeared in Tuesday and Wednesday’s editions respectively. Tomorrow: “Looking forward.”

ST. ALBANS — At the beginning of a May foster parent licensing session, South Burlington-based Northeastern Family Institute Vermont Regional Resource Coordinator Jodie Clark laid out the facts for the class.

“The children in your care,” she said, “may have been victims of abuse.”

Clark, who does therapeutic foster care work for NFI, was prepping the session’s participants for a heavy session on sexual abuse and trauma. The class was the fifth of six parents must complete to be licensed through the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF). These are offered in conjunction with the University of Vermont.

All of the classes are meant to prepare foster families to handle some of the issues that may arise with their child.

These issues, labeled as risk factors by DCF, are the result of abuse, separations, loss, and any other types of trauma a child in state custody may have experienced or still be experiencing.

Through trainings like Clark’s, referrals to services, and youth development programs, the St. Albans district DCF office is doing what it can to give children in foster care a chance at success. According to Margi Cameron, St. Albans district resource coordinator, the last thing DCF wants is for children in state custody to grow up and have their own children end up in foster care.

“There’s really a sadness when that happens,” she said in a May interview.

Stopping the problem

According to the St. Albans DCF office 2013 data, 617 investigations and assessments were carried out in Franklin and Grand Isle counties. Specifically, 12 percent of those cases were due to reports of physical abuse, 12 percent to risk of sexual harm, 25 percent to risk of physical harm, another 25 percent to sexual abuse, 3 percent to neglect, and 22 percent to a child in need of protection or services without necessary care for wellbeing.

Not every investigation and assessment ends up with a child being taken from the home – in fact, only about one-sixth of that number of children came into care in 2013.

When children do need to be removed from a dangerous or abusive home situation, as did many of the 111 children that came into the St. Albans DCF district’s custody in 2013, DCF staff must request a state’s attorney to seek an emergency order, and then law enforcement must remove a child.

According to Cameron, this event alone can cause trauma for a child, and DCF does what it can to minimize that. When possible, children are turned over to state custody in the district office, though others are picked up from their homes.

“We try to do this in a way that is easiest on the child,” Cameron said.

Identifying challenges

When a child isn’t able to stay at home and must go into foster care, foster parents must be prepared to handle any challenges that come along. Through classes like Clark’s, foster parents are taught recognize common signs of risk factors, and they also learn about what to do when those signs appear.

In her May class, Clark explained that statistically, 75 percent of children in foster care have experienced sexual abuse, though not all kids would come out and say it.

“Pay attention to your own gut,” Clark said. “Sometimes it can be right under your nose.”

Clark pointed out that intense sexual curiosity and a distorted sense of normal sexual behavior are signs of prior sexual trauma in children. As an illustration, Clark set up an activity with the class, handing out various examples of sexual behaviors written on cards for class participants to categorize by the age appropriateness.

When the appropriateness of the behavior and age don’t line up, that’s usually a sign of sexual abuse.

When those signs are there, said Clark, foster families need to tell their pediatrician or social worker right away.

“You need to bring it to the professionals to figure it out,” she said. “Don’t be judgmental and don’t ask any questions.”

At the point when a risk factor is identified for a child, DCF may send caseworkers to chat with the foster family about the issue.

“Sometimes, it’s just important to be with a foster parent during those really important times,” said Cameron.

Additional trainings are usually available for foster parents, as are support groups through monthly meetings offered by the Northwest Vermont Foster and Adoptive Family Association.

Getting help

Plans are made to address risk factors for children in foster care through: coordinated service plan meetings involving DCF, schools, Northwestern Counseling & Support Services and a family; collaborative Family Safety Meetings; direct referrals to community providers; and if needed, referrals to providers outside the community.

According to St. Albans DCF Director Alix Gibson, addressing risk factors can be a tricky process, not only due to the emotions and behaviors involved with families and children, but because of the limited number of social workers who can attend to each child.

“It’s very hard to balance meeting the needs of children, youth, and foster parents,” Gibson wrote in a recent e-mail. She added that addressing a child’s issues is important, however, to create a sustainable situation for foster parents.

DCF works to strengthen not only foster homes against risk factors, but also the primary home of the child. A court-appointed case plan helps determine the steps biological parents have to take to get back their child, and DCF works with the family to carry out those steps. DCF offer services, trainings or any other resources to help children return home safely whenever possible, which, according to Cameron, is the ultimate goal.

“We’re looking at ways for parents to step up for a child in ways that they haven’t,” Cameron said.

A brighter future

DCF would not only like to see children overcome their risk factors and also return home, said Cameron, but to lead successful lives. Through programs like the Youth Development Program at Spectrum Youth and Family Services based in St. Albans, youth ages 15 through 22 who are, or who have been in foster care, can find resources for life skills, employment, higher education, physical and mental health, and assessing needs and strengths.

Cassie Redfield, one of the program’s youth development coordinators, said in a recent interview that the purpose of Spectrum’s program is to help youth in foster care identify personal goals to ensure future success, and then achieve them. In 2013, 67 youth participated.

“My goal is to introduce them to opportunity,” said Redfield. “It’ll make a big difference in the long run.”