Brattleboro's foster care system pressured by opioid crisis


BRATTLEBORO >> May is National Foster Care Month, and locally the need for foster parents has never been greater.

Susan O'Brien, District Director for the Department of Children and Families said that while there were 91 Windham County children in state custody in December, 2014, now there are 129 — an increase of nearly 40 children. The skyrocketing number of children in state custody has overwhelmed the foster-care system.

"We've run out of foster homes in Windham County," O'Brien said.

DCF is actively seeking adults who are willing to volunteer as foster parents. Prospective foster parents can be gay or straight, single, married, or partnered. They need to pass a criminal background check, and be able to provide a safe home for the child.

"We have somebody who goes out to make sure there are no safety hazard in the home, and that the child has their own bed," O'Brien said. "They can share a room."

In addition, foster parents must be physically able to care for the child, and financially stable, so that they are not dependent on the financial support the state offers for the child.

"This is not a job," said Lisa Keller, who supervises six Windham County social workers. "The stipend is set by the federal Food and Drug Administration and it pays for food, clothing, shelter, and other basic needs. The state also pays for child care. And if there are significant behavioral issues, we can pay foster parents more because the child may need more services."

More and more infants are coming into state custody.

"The biggest increase we've seen is newborns," Keller said. "That's because of the opioid crisis."

"It's due to their parents' misuse of drugs," O'Brien said, "and the fact that the children are so young makes them at higher risk if their parents can't care for them. They're not in school, so therefore no one else is seeing them and seeing if they're OK."

Keller and O'Brien noted that brain research has shown that beyond the immediate danger to children, neglect and abuse also cause long-term harm to their developing brains.

"So if the baby is awake and crying but mom can't wake up because she's using drugs or going through withdrawal and can't respond to the baby, over time that chronic neglect of that child's needs starts to impact that child's brain development," O'Brien explained. "So they might start off in life already delayed compared to others who haven't gone through that."

"For those of those of us working in the field, helping children — it's not just about saving the kids," Keller commented. "It has impacts down the road, with Medicaid, serious health issues as adults — it starts when you're a baby."

When DCF takes custody of a child of any age, the child is placed with a foster parent, who cares for the child until the child can return home, or the parents voluntarily give up their rights and allow the child to be placed for adoption, or a judge determines that the parents must give up their rights. The goal is always to reunite the child with its biological parent as soon as possible, and parents have the right to visits to help them maintain their relationship with their children. Foster parents can't always know what they are committing to.

"One of the challenges is that in some cases we don't know how long the foster child will be there," O'Brien said. "We ask the foster parents to open their home and their hearts and care for these kids, and yet at the same time to be part of a team that's working to get the children back home."

"One of the messages that's important for prospective foster parents is that we want them to really understand trauma," Keller said. "People don't always know what we mean by that. Kids who have been abused and neglected are not always going to respond to a loving home. People may not understand — why does this child want to go home? Why does the state want to reunify this child with the family it was just removed from?

"Our message is that this is about the need of the child," she continued. "So a successful placement in a foster home is one that is able to meet that child's needs, which may be a complete disruption to your family's life."

If a child cannot be reunited with his or her biological family, the hope is that foster parents will adopt.

"If we're not able to reunify, then we often look to the foster parents to adopt their child so the child has a permanent home," O'Brien explained. "So it's hard. I may have this 2-year-old I'd like to adopt, but at the same time I'm working with DCF and the parents so that the child can go home to them."

Placing siblings together in foster care is a special challenge.

"In all the years I've done this work, that's the hardest part of it," O'Brien commented. "We have reasons why we're taking the children away from their parents, but we don't generally have reasons to separate siblings, and they comfort each other. The longest-lasting bond people have is with their siblings.

"This week we had a little boy and his sister in here in tears because they were gong to different homes," she went on. "When we remove the children, we have to follow a whole court process –— the district attorney and a judge have to validate that we have a good reason to remove the children. And that can be traumatic for the kids, so you want to have them together."

Michelle Colburn, who works specifically with foster families, and other social workers try to place the children with adults they already know.

"Whenever possible we want to have them with an adult who knows the child, so we look for a family member, someone at the school, a Big brother or Big Sister," she said. "Michelle might call the school and ask if there's anyone there. And then, only if we can't find someone the child knows, we would look at our regular licensed foster homes."

In some cases, foster families commit to adopting if the biological parents' rights are terminated.

"Over the past year and a half we've had a lot of newborns come into custody," O'Brien said. "If we have a history with the family we would look for a 'legal risk' home. They're taking the risk that the child might go home."

"We want that commitment from the foster parent that they would want to adopt," Keller added.

"Moving children multiple times can have a negative impact, " said O'Brien, "especially babies that you want to bond with their primary caregiver."

"Imagine a child being with foster parents who don't intend to adopt, and the child is not being reunited — we would have to find another foster home," Keller said.

There are also adolescents in state custody who need foster care, and Keller noted that older foster parents can be more suitable for them.

"Sometimes the 'grandparently' type is easier for adolescents," she said, "because they're going through their own identity development, moving from childhood to adolescence and projecting to becoming adults, so they are moving away from family and moving to peers. They often do better when they're the only child in the home."

Aside from a stipend for the child's expenses, the state offers training and support to foster families. O'Brien said that two social workers provide a range of supports.

"Listening to a foster parent who is struggling with a child's behavior, or a child comes back from a visit and is upset — how to help them through that," she said. "Helping them understand the whole legal court process, going to school meetings with the foster parents."

Anyone interested in becoming a foster parent can contact Michelle Colburn at the Brattleboro office of the Department of Children and Families at 802-257-2888.

Maggie Brown Cassidy is a regular contributor to the Reformer and a former teacher of the French language at Brattleboro Union High School. She can be reached at


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