On December 29, 2021

Vermont faces a shortage of suitable foster homes

By Lana Cohen/VTDigger

There is a shortage of foster homes in Vermont, and the pandemic is at least partially to blame.

Placing older teenagers and children needing specialized care has always been difficult, state social workers say, but now finding appropriate homes for children of all ages and all levels of need is posing an exceptional challenge.

The need for foster homes is greater than the supply. Thus, good fits are sometimes impossible further stressing the system and its families.

It’s no secret that the pandemic has put extra pressure on parents across the board — and that includes foster parents, said Carrie Deem, a foster care manager for the Vermont Department for Children and Families.

“Covid has really impacted our foster care system,” Deem said. “We have foster parents that are stepping up and willing to take kiddos into their homes, and then we have child care closures, school closures, quarantine.”

“Kiddos” is an industry term commonly used to describe children in the state’s foster care system.

Deem views the foster parents she works with as heroes. But still, “They can only give so much,” she said.

In November 2020, Tessa Johnson, an elementary school teacher in Hartford, received an email from her school’s principal. Two students were having a hard time. They had been removed from a home considered to be unsafe and needed a place to stay. Johnson, who has two biological children of her own and had recently finalized her divorce, decided to volunteer.

The pandemic made everything more difficult, she said. Meetings with lawyers happened while masked, outside at picnic tables in frigid January and February temperatures. Programs created to help foster children and parents bond and work through trauma were all virtual.

Johnson had never fostered before. She took the state-mandated licensing courses after opening her home to two foster children. Things have worked out pretty well, according to Johnson, who has now been fostering for more than a year. But not perfectly.

The younger of the two siblings she had originally fostered was moved to a different foster placement, splitting up the kids. They have trauma and behavioral issues that Johnson was not trained or prepared to manage effectively, she said. “I know it’s not my fault. Everyone has told me it’s not my fault, but I wish I could have done more,” Johnson said.

This type of scenario — where a child is placed with an unlicensed, untrained member of the community who volunteers to welcome a child in need into their home and life — is a symptom of the foster care provider shortage, Deem said.

Ideally, DCF would like people to give fostering a lot of thought, decide if it’s right for their family, and go through the system and training to become a trauma-informed household, Deem said.

But with a shortage of foster providers, that is often not how it turns out.

“When we’re in a situation where we need homes, and we’re trying to make good matches, but we have limited resources — and even more so limited resources within a specific community — we have to try every avenue,” Deem said.

Throughout the pandemic, the number of foster homes has gone down.

The state has 1,046 children in the foster system and 1,135 foster homes with a total of 1,890 beds. That’s down from 1,420 homes and 2,325 beds before the pandemic in 2019.

On the surface, those numbers make it look as if there are more than enough spots for foster children, with 844 more beds than children. But those numbers do not tell the whole story.

Although there are 1,135 licensed foster homes in the state, that doesn’t mean 1,135 homes are currently accepting children. And even if a provider is currently interested in fostering, they are not necessarily willing or prepared to foster any child.

The department does not know exactly how many of its providers are currently open to fostering, and there is no precise number of foster homes that the department is striving for, according to Deem. But she said, ideally, DCF would have an excess of families in each district with a wide range of skills who are willing to foster children 10 and older and have the skill to support children who have experienced significant levels of trauma.

This way, DCF would have enough options to ensure that each child could be matched appropriately with a foster provider in their district that has the skills and experience to take them in. This is not now the case, she said.

Under usual circumstances, foster parents take time off from fostering, let their licenses expire or are unable to accept certain children for a variety of reasons. Covid-19 has exacerbated that.

“My sense is that across the state, people are very hesitant right now because you could be putting yourself and your kids at risk,” said Michelle Larrabee, foster provider recruiter and retention specialist for DCF and a foster parent of 20 years.

“I have chatted with folks who said “we still are licensed but not taking kiddos right now because my husband was just diagnosed with whatever or our child is immunocompromised, stuff like that,” Larrabee said.

Additionally, matching a child with the appropriate foster family is not a simple process. Not every family is right for every child and vice versa.

Many factors go into placement — keeping siblings together, placing children close to their biological parents and within their school districts, matching foster parent experience with child needs, placing children in homes with parents of the same race and culture, and placing foster children with families that share interests.

So although there are enough physical spaces to place each foster child in the state, there are not enough appropriate spaces available.

“We want foster families to be set up for success and by taking every child into their home regardless of the matching process is dangerous,” Deem said. “Families need to be trained, prepared and supported to meet the needs of children/youth that have been impacted by trauma. Each foster family is going to offer a unique set of skills along with a level of diversity that will make them a good match for a specific child/youth.”

Having only 1,135 foster homes for 1,046 children sometimes leaves the department with few options for a child. At times, Deem said, the department is left scrambling to try to find a home for a child in need and have had to send children out of their district or county, issue an exception to the department’s rule capping homes at four foster children, or split up siblings to find a safe home.

Without a variety of homes to choose from that keep children in their communities, it’s harder to place children in situations that will meet their needs long term, Deem said.

“We never know what type of kiddo is going to walk through the door. We might have a medically fragile kiddo, and that really limits the people we can ask. Maybe the next kid has experienced trauma or expresses their needs through behaviors,” Deem said. “Variety and diversity of skill level is what we need.”

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