This article appeared in the MetroWest Daily News on Aug. 31
In the home where Avalena Conway-Coxon lived, there were a lot of other children. By state standards, there were too many young children, but a waiver said that was OK.
Then Avalena died on Aug. 15 of still unknown causes, there were two other children under the age of 3 living in the Auburn home: an adopted 9-year-old girl, and two children who belonged to Avalena’s foster mother. The Department of Children and Families had granted an “over capacity” variance to allow more than the typical number of children under age 3 to live there.
As DCF has faced scrutiny, area officials say the number of children in that Auburn home could reflect a shortage of foster parents across Massachusetts. Compounded by paperwork delays and an image issue, many are looking at how to recruit more suitable foster parents to take on the state’s growing number of children in need of a home.
According to DCF officials, there are 8,258 children in foster care. At last count on Dec. 31, 2014, there were 5,504 foster homes in the state. Between 2013 and 2014, the number of foster children increased 19 percent, according to DCF quarterly reports. From 2013 until now, the number of ongoing cases has increased 30 percent.
As those numbers increase, Mary McGeown, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said there is definitely a shortage of foster families.
“We absolutely need more foster parents,” McGeown said. “I think we’d all agree that it might be (existing) foster parents are stretched thin right now.”
Lisa Funaro, executive director at the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange, said there are many factors contributing to the shortage of foster parents, what she called a lingering and longstanding problem. A potential explanation for the spike in children entering the system, Funaro said, is anxiety at DCF after the death of Jeremiah Oliver, a boy in DCF care who was found dead next to a highway last year.
“I think all of the Jeremiah Oliver attention really spiked the need to be much more cautious,” Funaro said. “That happens in child welfare, the pendulum swings from cautiousness to much more pro-birth families to much more protective. There’s a fine balance between trying to help reunify kids with their birth families and making sure they’re safe. It’s a very, very difficult decision.”
When something tragic happens, Funaro said that pendulum swing might cause the department to take more children into custody to be cautious. McGeown said the opiate abuse crisis in Massachusetts also contributes to the number of children recently taken from their homes.
With more kids in the system, the department needs more foster families that just aren’t coming.
McGeown said there are multiple barriers that prevent parents from fostering, including time constraints, day care worries, medical and behavioral health needs of both the foster parent and child, transportation worries, visits from various state agencies, interactions with a foster child’s biological family, and a per-child stipend that McGeown said “in no way matches true cost of raising a child.”
On top of the added stresses that come with foster family life, Funaro said a bad reputation also plays in.
“Add up all those factors, add up the bad press around DCF,” Funaro said. “Families are saying, ‘do I want to tell my neighbors I’m a foster parent and go through all what may be perceived as a negative thing to be doing?’”
CHOICES ARE MADE
Sara and Perry Hamerla decided to become foster parents 10 years ago, when their biological son, Oliver, was 2. They had been thinking about adoption since before they had a son of their own, the pair said at the dinner table in their Framingham home. They went to the Massachusetts Approach to Partnerships in Parenting training, required training for foster families, which they said was valuable and helped in their parenting all around. From there, they took on their first charges, young brothers.
“It was a bit of an exploration for us,” Perry Hamerla said. “I went in thinking I was going to be a natural as a parent. If we were more open minded to more support at the beginning, we would have done better.”
The pair have successfully seen 13 foster children come through their home, but they agreed the first two were tough. With their son Oliver being so young, and the brothers in the same age range, it was too much. They learned they could only have two children that young, not three.
With the shortage of foster parents, McGeown said it puts DCF in a position of placing multiple children in one home. The department allows up to six children living in a home, typically a maximum of four foster children with room for up to two biological children. There are additional regulations regarding age of foster children and space in a home. As in the case of Avalena Conway-Coxon, the department can choose to issue waivers to exceed regulations.
DCF maintains it does not approve “waivers,” but rather approvals for variances to regulations. Some of those variances include Criminal Offender Record Information, foster parent training and overcapacity. The number of waivers currently on file is unclear, officials said, because they are kept at the department’s 29 different regional offices. The number could not be determined before press time.
McGeown said while DCF regulations and oversight try to ensure children are in the most beneficial situation possible, the shortage of places to put these children occasionally places an extra burden on existing families.
“There are no waitlists for foster homes. If there is a child … the DCF finds a home for them,” she said. “That could mean moving a child to a different location, it could be putting more than one or two children in a foster home. It may be a particular foster mother is asked to take another child or sibling group.
“We all agree a child does much better in a home setting, ideally that home setting should be small in number so foster parents are able to find enough support. It’s not to say that’s not happening,” McGeown said.
That’s why Perry Hamerla said it’s so important for foster parents to sometimes turn the department away when it comes knocking.
“Oliver and (our daughter) are our priorities,” Sara Hamerla said. The family adopted a now 8-year-old foster child who they asked that the Daily News not name for privacy reasons. “Sometimes (DCF) will call and say, ‘Ok, we have a sibling group.’ We think what are the needs of Oliver and (our daughter), and would this child be a good match?”
“It’s hard. I think we’ve pushed ourselves … and we had to reel ourselves back in,” Perry Hamerla said. “I think others maybe lose sight of that, that they should say no. The department needs some tools to help them make those decisions. Funding would help, but also updated tools.”
BALANCE IS DIFFICULT
The balance between finding immediate housing for foster children in the system and finding appropriate housing is a tedious one with the shortage of families. As the Hamerlas outlined, existing foster families have to take care of themselves first so they can provide the best care to foster children when they come. At the same time, the department has to ask those families to take on more and more children as they flood the system, but the number of foster homes stays relatively stagnant.
“We’ve always needed more families than we’ve had. To paint it as a new problem may be a little over simplistic,” Funaro said. “It’s a constant challenge for any state agency. I’m sure (DCF is) the first to say there are more kids in care than there were a year or so ago, so the need is greater. When need is greater you have to do more recruitment. You have to put the energy and the money into that.”
McGeown said recruitment is vitally important right now, between DCF efforts and current foster parents pitching the idea to friends and relatives.
“I think it really does get down to recruitment,” she said. “We really need an investment in recruiting foster parents. Being creative in helping people understand the need. That will help with the immediate issue.”
To recruit foster parents, DCF officials said there are various media campaigns, information sessions, newspaper and Internet advertisements, fairs and other grassroots efforts. Recruitment is always ongoing, according to officials. On Sept. 17, there will be an informational meeting for parents interested in fostering or pre-adoption at 300 Howard St. in Framingham from 6 to 7 p.m.
This problem, McGeown said, is best addressed through long-term solutions. The goal, she said, would be to not let the foster system get to the tipping point where it is now.
“What do we need to do long before a family is so unstable DCF needs to remove the child?” McGeown said. “What do we need to do to help people have jobs, get homes? Those are all issues that need to be addressed before an individual can be a good, solid strong parent.”
McGeown has hope that those answers are coming.
“I think we’re going to see some really interesting innovative ways to solve these issues. If we do this only by thinking DCF is going to solve this problem, we’re sadly mistaken,” she said. “It requires a holistic approach on part of the state government. We need housing, we need job training for people. I think this administration (of Gov. Charlie Baker) will really work to put the right people at the table and think about how we provide solutions in a way that responds to the immediate crisis and the long run.”
As DCF and various state agencies continuously look to remedy the problem, the Hamerlas and many more like them are in the trenches. Despite the ups and down, foster parenting for the Hamerlas has been overall valuable.
“It is extremely rewarding. We’ve learned a lot from this,” Sara Hamerla said. “I think it has helped make our children have more empathy.”
A smile spread across Perry Hamerla’s face as he leaned back in his chair at the dinner table while Oliver and the pair’s daughter played with their dog, Lucy, outside. He remembered various father’s day picnics where he reunited with foster children who had left the pair’s home, and a trip to Canobie Lake Park. He was nearly speechless when he remembered one foster child who graduated high school while living with the family.
“That was like our own child graduating,” he said. Sara Hamerla nodded her head, smiling.
They remembered trips taken with foster children and a quinceañera they threw.
Many people say to Perry Hamerla that they couldn’t be foster parents because of bonds formed with children who often leave to go back to live with their biological families. But it’s not that cut and dry, Hamerla said, and it doesn’t negate the good you did for that child. With social media and email, Hamerla said connections don’t have to end.
“It’s never goodbye,” he said. “It’s sort of a ‘see you later.'”