State finding it harder to secure foster families during pandemic

Published: Sep. 24, 2020 at 8:46 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 24, 2020 at 9:31 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The Department for Children and Families already had a tough time securing enough foster families for Vermont children in need, and the pandemic has created more problems.

In Vermont, there are currently 1,400 active foster care homes according to DCF. But COVID has put a strain on some, meaning there is and will be an active need to recruit more. With the added pressure of a pandemic, DCF officials say they are attempting to reach more communities.

“I did have to say, I can’t have transitions in and out of the home during COVID," said Anne Ward, a foster parent.

For foster parents like Ward, COVID-19 has slowed their typical ability to help. She operates what she calls community foster placement, typically seeing foster children through transition periods and having them for shorter stints.

“Just like with other families we have to look at what our family situations are and determine what the special needs might be in the family or vulnerabilities and make decisions about what is possible and safe for each of us," said Ward.

Since 2012, Ward has had 30 children in her care and has adopted two. But family health concerns have left her unable to bring in new foster kids, so she’s looking to the community around her for help.

“Some individuals may be at high risk of serious illness due to COVID and so really thinking about exposure, what does it mean to bring someone new into your household," said Brenda Gooley, the director of operations for the family services division of DCF.

Because of the virus, she says they are operating on a mostly virtual basis, so typical strategies have to change.

“Meeting basic needs, whether it’s educating that child, providing child care, connecting with services, all of that dramatically changed under COVID," she said.

Gooley says the number of foster care homes and children in DCF custody has remained largely unchanged since the pandemic began and a large number of children have been able to stay where they are. But with just under 1,200 kids in DCF custody, and the threat of COVID still here, the need for more foster families remains.

“We are always hard-pressed to find foster homes that are available to care for medically fragile children, teenagers, so different times we have different needs," said Gooley.

Nancy Benoit has had 34 children in her care over 20 years and has adopted seven of them. She says she can’t explain why she continues to take in new children, but what she has learned is that fostering them takes more than just one family with open arms.

“It takes a community to support children in foster care and foster families, and not everyone feels like it’s the right time or the right situation to foster children but they can still help. There are many things that families can do to support other foster families who actually have children in their home," said Benoit.

Ways to help include things like helping a family financially or with food or other materials for kids. Also, just checking in on foster families you come across. Ward says getting involved will help foster care providers like herself.

“We’re asking for help and we’re saying the more people that can be involved, the healthier everyone is in taking care of children youth and families in Vermont," she said.

Gooley says that one of their first goals is increasing the percentage of youth in DCF custody that are placed with family members. But if family isn’t available, she says they always try to keep children in their home community and are always looking to find foster families in different communities.

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