County looks for ways to address stressed foster care system
SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — The last child taken into foster care in Sullivan County was not in good shape.
She was born with one of the worst toxicology reports that local hospitals had ever seen, according to Deputy Commissioner of Family Services William Moon. “There’s an awful lot of concern,” about her case, he said, “because the extent of the parent’s drug usage was so extensive and invasive that she’s going to suffer from it for the rest of her life.”
Cases like these are increasingly common across the country, as the opioid epidemic forces children out of their homes and into a strained foster care system. In Sullivan County, officials are working hard to recruit more foster families to meet this growing need, as well as come up with therapeutic and emotional support services closer to home.
“What people need to be made aware of is that it is at a crisis level in terms of the need for foster homes within Sullivan County,” said Susan Hamilton, the communications director at the Dispute Resolution Center (DRC), an agency that the county has sub-contracted to find foster homes. “Some of the children are being sent to foster homes outside of Sullivan County because there aren’t enough homes in the county to accommodate [them].”
A little more than a year ago, there were about 75 children in the county’s foster care system. “We had enough groups to deal with about that size of population,” Moon said. Now there are more than 120 children in the system, and many of them are victims of the same problem. “If I went through and took the last 20 children that came into foster care and I said drug involvement: yes or no, 16 of the last 20 that have come into care, the checkmark would be yes, OK? That’s 80%.”
In a press release Moon sent out to school districts, community groups and county employees, he said that the county is hoping to double the number of local foster homes from 34 to 70 or more by the end of the year. “Part of our need for more foster homes is to broaden the nature of foster care services our homes can provide,” he said in the letter. “Two essential functions that we lack today are called emergency foster care and respite foster care. Both of these functions are short- term in nature and typically require swift access to a home for a child whose situation requires immediate foster care placement.”
If you search the terms, “foster care,” and “opioids” online, you’ll see the same stories in counties across the country. Despite data that shows the opioid epidemic recently slowing in some places, between 2012 and 2016, the number of children in foster care nationally rose by 10%, according to a report from the Department of Health and Human Services. More than two-thirds—36 states—experienced caseload increases during that time.
In the average county nationwide, a 10% increase in the overdose death rate corresponded to a 4.4% increase in the foster care entry rate, according to the report. Additionally, a dearth of foster care families—the likes of which Sullivan County is experiencing—has intensified. “Caseworkers and child welfare administrators reported children remaining in care longer, thus keeping existing foster homes full and unable to accept new placements,” the report reads. “Children are often placed long distances from their parents, and placing large sibling groups together is difficult. Some respondents reported that multigenerational substance use has made it more difficult to identify viable kinship placements in their communities.”
According to state data, Sullivan County was one of seven counties across the state where no children were placed directly with family members in 2017.
“Currently, we send children who have an experience of trauma outside the area, an hour or an hour and a half away."
Michele Russell, who is in charge of the foster home finding services at the DRC has been using grass-roots methods to spread the word about the need for homes. She’s been taping fliers around towns in the county, at libraries and restaurants and post offices, calling for people to sign up.
“I think the biggest obstacle is people not being aware that there is such a great need for foster homes, and that they’re unaware that the requirements are pretty broad in terms of their parenting backgrounds,” said Hamilton. “They don’t have to have kids themselves, they don’t have to already be parents… they don’t have to be married, they can be single, they can have little or no experience with parenting.”
At the DRC, Hamilton herself, provides in-depth training to potential families, after an extensive application process.
Along with finding more families, the county is working on an initiative with the Department of Community Services and Family Services that would create a team of social workers trained to deal with psychological trauma of being removed from a home, or seeing a family member overdose. “Currently, we send children who have an experience of trauma outside the area, an hour or an hour and a half away,” said Melissa Stickle, director of Community Services for the County. The county plans to have a team of social workers, psychologists and addiction counselors, available at schools by the end of 2019.
Moon has already hired two additional staffers—a psychologist and a social worker—who are on hand to take cases.
The social worker, whose name is Richard Gordon, has a background of more than 35 years in the field, Moon said, as well as credentials from national sex offender organizations. Rather than being office bound, he works with people in their homes, or meets them elsewhere in the community, even McDonald’s.
He said communication among all of the various agencies and people involved in foster care home finding and intervention in Sullivan County is key.
“We have the potential to diminish the impact that foster care can play in a person’s life,” Moon said, “if we can remain in control.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Melissa Stickle's last name.