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Family Says Foster Child Trashed Their Home Yet State Won't Pay For Repairs

Nina Keck
Rutland Attoreny Karl Anderson holds letters and emails that he says show Vermont's Department for Children and Families failed to adequately reimburse his client, Debra Stewart, for more than $90,000 worth of damage allegedly caused by a foster child.

A foster family in the Northeast Kingdom says Vermont’s Department for Children and Families didn’t adequately warn them about the violent and destructive nature of a child they took into their home. The family says the boy caused more than $90,000 in damages over a ten month period, yet they allege the state reneged on its promise to pay for repairs.

Debra Stewart and her husband Rob of West Burke already had a large family. But with most of their older children away at college or grown, Debra says they were eager to help a 12-year-old boy whom DCF officials said needed a home. “He was very vivacious, quite outspoken,” says Stewart, “but really friendly kid who was desperate to please. It actually broke my heart how desperate he was to please us.”

She says he was also much more troubled than they they’d led to believe.  

"That was when they told me about a former foster parent he had tried to kill by putting some type of poison in the toothpaste ... We weren't informed about those things." - Foster parent Debra Stewart

She says he began stealing and acting out, urinating on their books and furniture, slashing the seats and carpets in their cars and smearing feces everywhere, including inside the home’s heating system. “He put bleach in my shampoo and my conditioner, and I poured that on my hair,” says Stewart. “I remember telling the social workers about that. They were very sorry about it. That was when they told me a former foster parent he had tried to kill by putting some type of poison in the toothpaste. I didn’t know those things. We weren’t informed about those things.”

Stewart says every time she brought up having the boy moved, DCF talked her out of it, saying the child was testing her and doing much better in their care. She says they encouraged her not to give up.

So the boy stayed and Stewart filled out a steady stream of reimbursement slips.

At first, she says DCF paid them, but as the costs mounted, the payments stopped and she says DCF told her to combine all unpaid damage reports for the state’s insurance company. “I remember when I was told that insurance went up to $20,000,” says Stewart, “and I said this is a lot more than that. And they said not to worry, put in all the receipts and everything and you’ll be covered. Everything that the insurance doesn’t cover, you’ll be covered for.”

A July 2013 email from Heather McClain, DCF’s Revenue Enhancement Director, makes that claim in writing.

But Stewart says that while they did get insurance money, the state didn’t make up the difference. She says all they received from DCF was $10,000, which fell far short of the $63,000 they felt they were owed.

No one from DCF would comment for this story but Vermont Assistant Attorney General David Groff, who’s handling the case, says McClain’s email was one of many correspondences and should not be construed by the family as a promise to pay.

Groff says it wasn't clear to the state that all the damage was committed by the foster child. And he  says if the family felt the insurance payout was not enough, they should not have signed off on it.

Moreover, he says the family did not provide documents in a timely manner. “It wasn’t until later,” he says, “that they submitted additional claims to the state that really should have been part of the agreement that they signed off with the insurance company.”

Groff also disputes the family’s claim that they were not properly warned about the child.

Stewart says her family only did what DCF told them to do and she says their home is still in disarray.

"It's unconscionable and I think the family is just baffled by how a state agency could treat a family that way." - Attorney Karl Anderson

Karl Anderson, the family’s attorney, says the state has offered his clients an additional $12,000 to settle the matter, but he calls that insulting. “It’s unconscionable and I think the family is just baffled by how a state agency could treat a family that way.”

He’s asked the state for $63,000 in repair costs as well as an additional $150,000 for emotional distress and personal injury.

Assistant Attorney General David Groff would say only that negotiations are ongoing.

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