Note: This is the first installment in a four-part series. See tomorrow’s Messenger for Part 2: “Sharing support.”
ST. ALBANS — Kevin Richmond, 32, and Kyle Neumann, 31, were wanting to adopt an infant and experience parenthood as a couple.
So when the St. Albans district office of the Vermont Department for Children and Families (DCF) asked the Fairfax couple, both of who are deaf, to foster two children with hearing impairments close to a year ago, Richmond and Neumann received their first children in an unexpected way.
“We didn’t really plan to do it,” said Neumann in a joint interview last month.
“It was a very last-minute placement,” added Richmond. “We could meet their language needs.”
Finding a suitable, stable family placement for foster children, whether it’s with neighbors, a coach, a family friend, biological relatives, or generous community members, is the first priority when a child comes into DCF’s care in Franklin and Grand Isle counties.
“We want to minimize multiple caregivers,” said district Resource Coordinator Margi Cameron in a recent interview. “[It’s] in the child’s best interest.”
The more permanent a placement is, the less moves and trauma there are for each child, and the easier things are going forward, whether that means parent-child reunification, a foster family adopting, or a child aging out of DCF custody with a supportive foster family.
That’s where the community comes in. Without people like Richmond and Neumann offering good foster homes, Cameron said DCF wouldn’t be able to help many kids.
“Basically, people are stepping up to do this as volunteers,” she said. “It’s by the grace of God that we have good-hearted people that will help us out.”
Many children, many cases
Though Richmond and Neumann describe their foster care experience as beginning suddenly, there aren’t many cases of children coming into DCF custody in the St. Albans district that are planned, gradual, or easily handled.
“There are days when it will be three in the afternoon and I really haven’t figured out what’s happening that night for [a] child,” said Cameron. “It’s an incredibly difficult experience.”
The district, with 111 children entering care in 2013, has the second-heaviest caseload in the state, behind only the Burlington district. In the same year, 154 children were in out-of-home care, and 96 left care by adopting, reunifying with parents, moving in with a relative or other guardian, or through turning 18 years old.
By contrast, the St. Albans district has less than 100 licensed foster homes. If no nearby relatives or foster homes are available within Franklin or Grand Isle counties, and if a child does not need to go into a residential treatment program, DCF starts looking outside the area for at least a temporary situation.
“We do have the most children in care out of the district in the state,” said Cameron. In 2013, 35 children were placed in homes outside the district.
“We absolutely need more homes on that list,” she said.
Finding the right people
The St. Albans DCF district actively recruits foster families, usually in local schools, with the Northwest Vermont Foster and Adoptive Family Association, and through it’s annual awareness events during Vermont’s National Foster Care Awareness Month in May.
In addition, DCF sets up a booth at regular events such as summer farmers’ markets, open houses and resource fairs. “Any of those kinds of opportunities,” said Cameron.
The challenge is, even though DCF will receive a fair amount of foster family applications, not all can be accepted. A total of 25 families applied in 2013, and only about half were qualified to foster.
“What we ask of foster parents is pretty incredible,” said Cameron. She added that having a lot of love to give isn’t enough – skill, and a fair amount of resiliency, are required.
In the DCF licensing regulations handbook, there are 83 separate requirements, some with sub-sections, of what a foster family must be able to provide and do with children in DCF custody.
From demonstrating healthy relationships and responsibility, allowing for recreation opportunities, giving rides to multiple weekly appointments and to school, ensuring proper health care, respecting religious beliefs and cultural practices, providing a physically and emotionally safe environment, to working with a child’s biological family, a foster family has a lot to do.
In addition, most children in foster care may have traumatic backgrounds in one way or another on top of just being taken away from their biological parents.
For all this, a foster family may earn board, clothing, and incidental reimbursement and allowance rates of $17.16 to $27.18 a each day, per child.
“People shouldn’t sign up to foster thinking it will supplement their income. Most of the people that step forward want what’s best for the child and their family, and they work really hard to make that happen,” Cameron said. “We respect and honor everyone who steps up and manages it.”
In addition to searching out the right foster families unrelated to children in DCF custody, the St. Albans district has put an emphasis in recent years on placements with “kin” families: blood relatives, or non-related people known to a child prior to entering care.
Because kin are closer emotionally to children in care and continue some sort of consistency in a child’s life, DCF views kin members with a stable household as the most desirable placement for a child.
“Kin has been caring for kin whether they’re involved in family services or not forever,” said Cameron. “They’re obviously more committed to that child and that child’s family.”
Currently, 40 percent of the district’s children are placed with kin. “We’re proud of our kinship numbers,” said Cameron.
While there is a need for more foster families in Franklin and Grand Isle counties, the current ones, whether kin or not, are “fabulous,” according to Cameron.
“I would probably say [they’re] the best in the state,” she said, laughing as she acknowledged her bias.
Personal opinions aside, Cameron said that she knows if the St. Albans district has good foster families that are having good experiences, that’s the best way to attract more.
“We know in terms of recruitment and retention,” she said, “one of the greatest tools is foster parents who are happy.”
Take Richmond and Neumann, for example. The couple became parents on the fly, and months later, are grateful for it.
“We’ve had the kids for a year and we’ve seen tremendous growth and changes,” said Richmond. “We’ve learned a tremendous amount as parents. The more experience you get, the better.”
Neumann added, “Definitely worth it.”
“Our community owes them a debt of gratitude,” Cameron said.