Protecting Vermont's Children, Part Four: Unsung Heroes
Research shows that whenever possible, it’s best to keep children with their biological parents. But sometimes a child needs to be placed in foster care.
Vermont’s Department for Children and Families oversees approximately 1,040 licensed foster homes. One juvenile court attorney called the men and women who provide foster care the state’s unsung heroes.
But many foster parents in Rutland County say they’re frustrated by what they consider spotty oversight by DCF. And even more disturbing — many foster parents say they’re afraid to report their concerns about DCF for fear their foster kids will be taken away.
Carol and Bernie Hayes, of Chittenden, have been foster parents for five years. Right now, they’re caring for three girls.
One a recent Friday afternoon, the youngest of the three was busy in the kitchen feeding the family’s two dogs. The oldest foster daughter hadn’t come home yet from school and the third sat on the living room couch, hoping Bernie would let her visit her boyfriend.
Many foster parents say they're afraid to report their concerns about DCF for fear their foster kids will be taken away.
Bernie looked over at the teen and finally nodded his ascent.
“For people that go into this, a lot of them quit the first week,” said Bernie. “They don’t realize what they’re getting into. We’ve had some tough kids, but they’re all loveable. That’s the hard part about it — even that one.” He tipped his head toward the couch and winked.
“Every one of the foster parents we run into has been very concerned about their kids,” he said. "We take care of them, we wait on them hand and foot — kick a butt if we need to, figuratively speaking. And we care, or we wouldn’t be doing this.”
Hayes waved his thumb toward his front yard, “My neighbor over there says we’re nuts. ‘Why do you do this to yourselves?’ Because we’re paying back for the good life we’ve had,” said Hayes. “And we like it. It makes us feel good doing this.”
The couple says doing the job right takes time and being retired helps. “This week we’ve had three doctor appointments in Rutland, said Bernie. “They go to court, we go with them and sometimes it can be half a day, but I want to be with them. We go to their school meetings.”
"We take care of them, we wait on them hand and foot - kick a butt if we need to, figuratively speaking. And we care, or we wouldn't be doing this." - Bernie Hayes, Chittenden foster parent
Carol picks up the family calendar. “We had two days open this week and they got filled, so we just never know what happens when you answer the telephone. But that’s okay,” she said.
Foster parents are paid by the state. Rates vary from $17 to $28 a day depending on the age and needs of each child and the parent’s experience. That amount includes clothing and incidental expenses.
The Hayes say they don’t mind the demands of the job, but say DCF often treats them like babysitters, when they feel like their foster kids become part of the family.
An even bigger problem, the couple says, is that too often kids arrive at their door without state mandated paperwork: intake forms that spell out a child’s medical and psychological needs. Without them, Bernie says foster parents are at risk each time they take in a new child. “Some are self destructive, and you have to watch them closer,” he said. “We’d like to know that from the get go.”
The Hayes say they don’t mind the demands of the job, but say DCF often treats them like babysitters, when they feel like their foster kids become part of the family. An even bigger problem, they say, is that too often kids arrive at their door without state-mandated paperwork: intake forms that spell out a child’s medical and psychological needs.
It’s understandable, Carol says, not to get that kind of information in emergency situations. But the Hayes and every other foster parent interviewed for this story say it’s a chronic problem with nearly every placement.
Another near universal complaint among foster parents is the unwritten rule not to complain or criticize DCF.
“It’s just a feeling I got,” said Bernie. “You know, you make waves and it’ll come back to bite you in the butt — the fear that they’re going to take the kids and not give you anymore.”
Bernie says the threat is enough to keep most foster parents compliant and quiet. “I just don’t wanna lose these kids,” he said. “They’re part of my family. They all have been, even the ones that ran away.”
No one from DCF’s Rutland District office would comment for this story. DCF Commissioner Dave Yacavone says he hasn’t heard about problems with intake forms before, but promised to look into it. As to the atmosphere of fear and intimidation many foster parents brought up, Yacavone says he has heard about and it troubles him.
He says the complaints are more prevalent in some parts of the state than others, which he says may be due to different leadership styles in different districts. But he thinks the central problem stems from the power imbalance between social workers and foster parents.
DCF Commissioner Dave Yacavone says the complaints are more prevalent in some parts of the state than others. But he thinks the central problem stems from the power imbalance between social workers and foster parents.
“Our social workers, they’re the deciders, if you will,” said Yacavone. “They have a lot of control over who can come into your home if you’re a foster care family, for safety reasons; who your child can see. They really call the shots and in that kind of relationship,” he said. “It makes communications hard, it makes trust hard.”
And he says it’s created an unhealthy atmosphere, one Yacavone says can only be fixed by better listening all around. “I think through staff training, trying to let our folks know that you have to recognize the natural tension that we have with foster families, it’s very hard.”
Meanwhile, back in Chittenden, Bernie Hayes walks out onto his front porch and grins as his youngest foster daughter whizzes by, whooping in delight.
“We just got her bike for her,” he said. “We had one, but she dumped it and got her elbows and knees.”
As Bernie explains, the girl calls out to him from the long driveway, thanking him for picking up her bike at her uncle’s house. “I really appreciate it!” she shouts as she pedals by.
Bernie nods. “How can you not get attached to these kids?” he asked. DCF may have some kinks to work out, but he says as long as he and his wife are able to, they’ll open their door to as many kids as they can.
This is the fourth installment in a special series examining the strains on Vermont's child protection system. Find the rest of the series here: