The number of children in the Massachusetts State Foster System has risen dramatically in the last five years.
A shortage of homes leaves the State struggling to keep up with placement demands.
Many children in the system aren’t able or willing to share intimate details with their foster parents, and the State provides inadequate professional help for the emotional trauma many of the children are struggling with.
Many families are pulling out of the system because they feel the state hasn’t provided them with the resources they need to adequately care for these children.
You can read Part one of this series, detailing interviews with some of DCF’s ongoing caseworkers, here.
Shortly after I put out a call to speak to social workers currently working for the Department of Children and Families, messages starting rolling in. “Do you just want to speak to social workers?” I started to see flooding in my inbox, “What about Foster Parents?”
And what about them? We focus on the workers, and speculate as to whether or not they do an adequate job. We focus on the parents, and condemn them for not doing their job at all. We focus on the little lives that become casualty to a complicated and bogged down system, like Jeremiah Oliver and Avalena Conway-Coxon, who became the poster children for a system charged with protecting the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable children, and seemingly, failing to do so.
But what about the foster parents?
“As a former foster child myself who now a licensed foster parent……I wish I picked a different career than the one I have because there are so many things I would change with DCF and the different offices if I was a higher power. Caring Social Workers come few and far between, I can say this from both sides of the spectrum,” one foster mother tells me, “Therapist are something that DCF could give a shit about. They place children in home to get them out of groups homes or away from a bad situation and just leave them to their own devices. I have waited up to 6 months before I could get a child to be accepted for therapy services. Sorry if my sentence run on, I am getting heated just thinking about these poor kids. 6 months is way too long when you have psychology physical and sexual abused children taken from the only thing they know and thrown into a group home and then placed again with a foster family.”
They speak under the condition of anonymity, fearing repercussion for speaking out. “You won’t get many to talk, we get black balled. I have a big story but sadly if I try to expose them, I fear retaliation,” another bleakly recounts, “I do know that [I’m anonymous] but some of it was aired on TV, and they would know exactly where the truth came from.”
For foster parents who are willing to take these children into their home, some of whom are looking to adopt these children, there are lot of problems, and bureaucratic challenges of dealing with the Department of Children and Families.
Parents were telling me about things that should be basic. Kids are getting dropped off without sufficient medical records. They weren’t getting told about court dates, or what the result was of a court hearing.
And they really just were saying that they weren’t told basic information. They felt like they weren’t being respected by DCF, and weren’t seen as really part of the team that’s helping these kids. A myriad of complaints, both big, and small, came rolling in, “You get these kids thrown away like used furniture, literally with trash bags for luggage, and then they’re forgotten. I do what I do for the kids, but sometimes working with DCF feels insurmountable. They lie to you, they don’t listen to you, they don’t offer you the support you need to take care of these kids the way they deserve. They’re scared, they’re alone, they miss their parents.”
“I feel like I’m constantly lied to, brushed aside,” another foster parent writes, “Like I’m just a warm body and a roof to keep these kids under, not that I’m an important part of their healing and survival.”
But foster parents are just that.
In a system with such precious lives in its hands, this atmosphere of suspicion and secrecy certainly cannot be conducive.
And then, Christina** messages me, “I’d like to talk to you, but I’d rather over the phone,” she writes. I oblige, and after a brief conversation thick with palatable tension, she concludes, “Maybe it would be best to do this in person.”
And so, I pack up a tape recorder and a tattered old notebook once used by my son to scribble out third-grade math work, and on a Friday afternoon, leave my office to meet with a woman charged with the round-the-clock care of neglected and abused children, on her terms.
I drive up a winding driveway to approach a modest home, tucked behind a tidy front yard, hardly the palatial abode of the money-hungry child peddler many biological parents had speculatively described to me. The front porch is neatly lined with a rack of shoes. I tentatively knock on the front door, and it swings open to reveal a young boy with a mop of golden curls and large hazel eyes. “Mama,” he announces loudly, “There’s a lady here.”
A short, slight woman in her mid forties gently moves him aside, armed with a remote control and a soft smile etched in the creases of her face. “Hi,” she extends a hand while ushering me inside, “I’m Chris**”, I step inside a tidy and efficient two-story Cape, as she tells the boy, “We’re going to talk in the kitchen. You can go watch cartoons.” Her voice is soft and serene, yet confident. “My other children are still in school,” she tells me apologetically, “But he’s been home sick from daycare since yesterday.”
Christina is a billing clerk at a local car dealership. Fostering children is not her main source of income, she stresses to me. “I started fostering 3 years ago. My husband and I had tried for years to have children, and then we realized…it wasn’t going to happen. One of my friends had suggested to me, ‘Why don’t you trying fostering?'”
She describes to me a lengthy journey – the application. The home safety check, background check. 30 hours of training. The License study. All in all, 6 months to complete. And then finally, approval. Shortly after, the first of many calls arrives – there is a child who needs a placement, can she take her?
“We were so excited, and nervous,” she remembers, “We waited for hours, not knowing much. We knew she was a girl, 7 years old. That it was an emergency removal, the mother was on drugs. I remember asking the worker, ‘What should we do to prepare?’ All she told me was ‘make sure she has a bed to sleep in, and I’ll try to feed her, but she may be hungry when she shows up.’ That was it.”
When the little girl finally arrived, Christina was immediately unimpressed. “She has a garbage bag, like, a small kitchen garbage bag, full of some belonging. Clothes that weren’t clean, a few stuffed toys that smelled awful. She looked terrified and dazed, and I could barely get her to tell me her name. The social worker was rushed, it was getting pretty late, and she dropped her off with a few short words to me and not much else. ‘We’ll deal with it in the morning, she’s tired’, that’s all she had to answer my questions with, really. When the girl started to cry she told her, ‘It’s just a little sleepover, everything is going to be OK. I remember thinking, ‘That’s not true, you know that’s not true’ – but I guess, what else do you say?”
This is the first of many similar stories she tells me. Children being dropped off at odd hours, with scant belongings, insufficient or no medical records, little to no meaningful background information. “One time a teenage boy was placed with me,” she tells me grimly, “I didn’t find out until much, much later that he had a history of sexualized behavior with younger kids. We had very young kids in the house with him. They slept right across the hall.”
Whether it was a true oversight or something more deceptive, Christina doesn’t know. What she does know, is the system often seems to drop children off at her doorstep and then seemingly forget them until the next scheduled visit.
“I’ve had some workers who are great about taking and returning my calls. I’ve had a lot who aren’t, or answer and tell me, ‘Next month we can discuss this, wait until next month.’ If I’m calling you about something over and over again, it probably can’t wait until next month. I’m sure they’re busy, but I am too. When a parent no shows on a visit, yeah, maybe the worker is dealing with that for the car ride back to the house. But I’m the one who deals with the sadness, the anger, the unfair guilt they experience for the next two days. Maybe a week, you never know until you get to know each kid how they’ll respond to things. At first, I would say to them, ‘I know this is hard, but it will all be over soon’, but in my heart I knew I was telling a lie. Now, I just listen. But nothing is going to make it easier. It’s not easy.”
“It’s gotten a little better, but there’s still so much you’re working against. I still have workers claim they came out and did home visit but never saw them in months. Permanent planning is a joke. Most of the time the 6 month permanency planning happens closer to 12 months, leaving some – only some of the bio parents in limbo. I’ve showed up to permanency hearings and waited for hours just to be told it happened without me. I’ve waited all day to hear about a court date, not knowing whether to pack up and get ready to say goodbye. I’ve had kids told month after month that they’re going home, just to have to deal with the disappointment when it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it’s because the parents failed, sometimes it’s because the workers and the supervisors can’t agree on an outcome, and the workers speak out of turn. The reasons why don’t matter to these kids, and honestly, they don’t matter to me. A lot of these kids entire lives have been broken promise after broken promise – we can’t keep doing it to them after they’re out. This is supposed to make their lives better, not worse. What are we doing here?”
Christina laughs at the idea of collecting ‘kids for cash’, as some suggest.
“If there’s a lot of money to be made in this, I’m the last to know,” she quips, “I still work full-time, my husband still works full time. Sometimes it creates a financial strain, actually. When you’ve got 3 kids in your care and the flu or something runs through the house – that’s time off. Hearings, appointments, buying the stuff they need before payments come in, it all adds up. I don’t do it for the money.
The daily stipend, often between just $20 and $25 per day per child, doesn’t cover the entire cost of caring for a child. Foodstamps help feed them, and the $185 and $282 per quarter to cover clothing costs helps, but she often incurs the expense while waiting, or spends more out of pocket. “Especially the teenagers,” she laughs, “They want to wear certain things, and they grow quickly.” The $150 annual payment for birthday and holiday expenses is insufficient, she says. “I don’t know any parents who spend less than $150 a year between birthdays, Christmas, Easter.”
“There’s not enough help with the therapists these kids need,” she lowers her voice, “Outpatient services are something that DCF could give a less shit about once they’re in care. They place children in my home to get them out of groups homes, or away from a bad situation, and wait for behaviors to pop up. A lot of these kids can’t, or won’t, tell me about the kind of emotional scars they’re carrying around. I have to watch, and wait, and guess. And then hope DCF listens to me. I have waited up to 10 months before I could get a child to be accepted for mental services, because the social worker ‘forgot’ to put in a referral for the first three. I called every week. But because the state has custody, and you as the foster parent do not, your hands are tied. You’re at the mercy of this person who sees you once every one, maybe two or three months, and has 40 other kids to worry about to make important decisions and actions for these kids.”
A little voice announces, “Mama, it’s not working!” from the other room. Christina pauses, and shoots me a glance that I know – I’m a mom, too. “One minute!” she calls out. I remember mine at that age.
“It’s not all bad,” she muses, “There’s your good days, and your bad days. There’s days when my husband and look at each other and think, ‘What are we doing? This is too much, this is crazy. We’re not equipped. And there’s other days where you can…where you can just see, that you’ve mad a difference. That you’ve touched something in these kids that they so desperately needed. Or, you watch as their families get their shit together and you can say, ‘Look at that, see? You are so worth it, you are so loved.’ And if you can’t, you love them as much as they should have been all along.”
She pauses, inhales sharply, and then continues, “Part of me really empathizes with the bio parents – this is the hardest job you can do, parenting. Part of me is torn apart every time I see the damage that’s done to these kids, though. The system isn’t a person, it’s not human, it’s not built for empathy or understanding. I don’t know what will fix it, but I know it needs work. I mean, these kids need love. They really need love. That’s all they asking for. Sharing a little bit of your love will take them a long way through all the chaos.”
**name has been changed to respect privacy.