N.H. faces challenges matching foster kids with families

Monitor staff
Published: 7/5/2017 12:13:25 AM

The emails flood Deb Urbaitis’s inbox each week, asking her to take one more foster child, if only a for a few hours to give another family a break.

“It’s hard to see those emails go by,” said the Henniker attorney, who recently adopted a 7-year-old girl she and her husband began fostering last year. “When you know you want to help, but don’t have a spare hand to take one more kiddo in, that’s heartbreaking.”

As the state’s opioid crisis drives more children each year into state protection, New Hampshire is facing a serious shortage of foster families able to give abused or neglected kids a safe place to stay.

Families must go through rigorous screening, including passing a background check and a time-intensive home study, before they can get licensed by the state. While state data shows interest in becoming a foster parent is at a five-year high, the Division for Children, Youth and Families hasn’t been able to keep up.

The agency recently asked one contractor to stop recruiting in some southern parts of the state due to the backlog of families waiting to get through the licensing process, the provider said.

“We have been referring a lot of people who are interested in becoming foster families,” said Jan Lessard Peightell, director of Bethany Christian Services in Northern New England. “The state is so understaffed they can’t follow up in a timely manner.”

To help move people through the process more quickly, DCYF recently pulled some workers from the field to form a new unit dedicated solely to conducting home studies. The agency is also trying to pay outside providers to help vet more foster parents, though two groups said the money DCYF is offering falls short of the actual cost.

“We do have families waiting,” said Eileen Mullen, administrator of the Bureau of Community and Family Support. “We are trying to be proactive.”

The shortage

The pressures on the foster care system have intensified amid the state’s drug crisis, as more babies are born exposed to opioids and the agency sees a surge in child mistreatment reports related to substance abuse.

Since 2012, the number of foster homes in New Hampshire has dropped roughly 25 percent, while the number of children needing that care has risen by nearly the same amount, according to state data. In 2016, more than 1,160 children were put into foster care, far more than the 962 the year before.

In the past DCYF could usually pick the best match for a child out of a handful of foster homes in town, but now the agency often scrambles to find any available homes. At times, children are placed in foster homes far away from their own communities, friends and school districts, adding to the trauma of being separated from their parents. Other kids have been placed in residential facilities meant for children with more serious behavioral issues.

“We have kids who are placed here because a foster family isn’t available or we have kids who remain here because a foster family isn’t available,” said David Villiotti, executive director of Nashua Children’s Home.

DCYF review

After two toddlers died while under DCYF watch, the state commissioned a review into whether the agency is effectively investigating reports of abuse and neglect. The foster care system, however, has not been audited.

Until the shortage is fixed, experts say reforms made to the child protection system are futile.

“When you remove a kid, even temporarily, from a family, you need a place to put them,” said Lawrence Shulman, a professor of social work who sits on a DCYF advisory committee. “The foster care system has to be strengthened so that it can deal with the potential influx of kids.”

Moving forward

DCYF data shows the state is starting to get a handle on the problem. So far this year, the agency has licensed 113 new foster families, setting the agency on pace to exceed the 161 new homes it authorized last year, DCYF records show. The total number of foster homes in the state already exceeds last year’s count by 20. And at the same time, the number of homes closing each year has steadily declined.

“There’s been some real attention to moving this,” said Interim DCYF Director Christine Tappan, who started the job a few weeks ago. “It’s great that we’re getting the inquiries, but that we’re able to move the folks forward as quickly as possible.”

Still, advocates say more can be done boosting support for existing foster families and streamlining the licensing process. There isn’t a statewide fire code for foster homes, meaning families have to comply with standards that vary town by town. DCYF staffers are so busy that they don’t always return foster families’ calls and questions right away, parents said.

Some change is on the way. For the first time in a decade, rates are set to rise for foster care parents, who are currently paid less than $16 a day to care for an infant. Lawmakers approved the funding in the state budget this year. People don’t become foster parents for the money, but many do end up dipping into their own pockets to cover costs, advocates said.

“It’s a nice first step,” said Keith Kuenning, director of advocacy for the state’s Child and Families Services. “It would be nice to ... get rates up to where people aren’t dissuaded just because the rates are so low.”

Urbaitis plans to push for legislation next year to ensure foster parents get adequate information from the state about the children they take in. The little girl who showed up at Urbaitis’s home more than a year ago on a Friday night was frantic and foaming at the mouth. Only later did the family learn more about her medical history and family background that helped them better care for her needs. They decided to adopt after less than a year.

“We did fall in love with her,” she said. “I couldn’t see her go back to the system.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)

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