It was 4:30 p.m. on a Monday this spring when the caseworker came to Stefanie Millette’s house to collect the teenager.

The child, one of hundreds in foster care in Maine, was supposed to be with Millette only for a weekend, but two days had turned into two months.

Millette provides respite foster care but not indefinite placement, so she had been calling every day, pleading with caseworkers to find another option. There was nothing.

“The caseworker said (the child) could either go stay with a relative who has always been a trigger or go to a youth homeless shelter. Or, if there were any thoughts of suicide, to the emergency room,” Millette said. “How are these the options?”

The teen ended up at the youth shelter and then ran away after two hours. A child in state custody on the street.

Millette’s experience underscored a stark reality: The number of people willing to become foster parents in Maine has declined at a time when the number of kids entering care has increased significantly. In cases where children don’t go to a shelter, a hospital or with a family member who might not be suitable, they routinely stay in hotels with caseworkers who already are overburdened.

Additionally, the recent high-profile deaths of two young girls who had been subjected to abuse has prompted a shift in Maine child protection away from working collaboratively with families in crisis and toward hard-line investigations. Legislation passed last week explicitly calls for deprioritizing family reunification and elevating the best interests of children. The result will almost certainly be more removals, even though there is often no place for the children to go.

As debate has raged in recent months about Maine’s broken child protection system, foster families have largely been overlooked. But interviews with more than a dozen, some of whom asked not to be identified out of fear that speaking out might jeopardize their license or future placements, revealed that the problems that plague the child protection system – unsustainable caseloads, mismanagement, poor communication and an erosion of resources – also afflict foster families.

Toys await children in a playroom at the South Berwick home of foster parents Jillian and Justin Pietruch last week.

State officials appear aware of this dynamic but have been late to offer solutions. Gov. Paul LePage acknowledged that more needs to be done to support foster parents and he recently included as part of a $21 million spending bill an increase in the reimbursement rates, which haven’t been adjusted in 15 years. The beginning rate is $16.50 per day and it tops out at $60 for children with the highest level of need.

Still, more money isn’t going to increase the number of foster parents overnight. And several licensed foster parents who were interviewed said they’re not sure they want to continue under the current system, even with a bigger stipend. Like Millette, they shared challenging experiences that left them feeling powerless and unsupported.

Barbara Ford, president of Adoptive & Foster Families of Maine Inc., a statewide organization that offers support and resources to foster families, said the concerns raised are valid.

“I think as foster parents, we all want to ride in on our white horse, but there are so many layers with what has to happen with a child that a lot of that is out of our control,” said Ford, who has fostered more than 100 kids since first getting licensed 30 years ago. “But foster parents play such a central role in the recovery of families.”

Millette, who lives in Freeport, said her recent experience soured her, too, but she also came to the conclusion that this would be the worst time to walk away.

“These kids have unlimited potential. Their resiliency will knock your socks off,” she said. “And you can make an amazing difference.”

NEED RISES; RESOURCES DON’T

Maine used to rely heavily on foster homes more than a decade ago. That changed after the 2001 death of Logan Marr, a 5-year-old who was duct-taped to a chair in a basement and left to die by her foster parent.

From 2002 through 2011, the number of children taken into state custody decreased steadily every year as the state reformed the system and placed more emphasis on kinship placement and family reunification.

Since Gov. LePage took office, though, the trend has started to reverse, partly due to the opioid crisis. Maine saw a 45 percent increase in the number of children in foster care, from 1,268 in 2012 to 1,842 in 2016. More recent numbers were not available, but caseworkers have said the numbers continue to rise.

But the number of people looking to become foster parents has dropped.

As of July 1, there were 1,493 licensed foster homes, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. That’s down by more than 200 in just two years.

Leah Bruns of South Portland has been a foster parent for years and has adopted two children from foster care. She has long advocated for more resources, not just for foster parents but for families in crisis.

“I feel like as long as I’ve been involved in the system, it’s been changing,” she said. “It seems that there has been less and less funding for foster parents and less and less staff available to help. The burden is always on caseworkers to make the impossible happen.”

Millette, 32 and single, had long been interested in being a foster parent but wasn’t ready to do it full time. So she became a respite foster parent instead. The requirements are the same but Millette takes foster children for short periods, usually a weekend at a time. She said she’s surprised more people don’t know the option exists.

Her motivation was simple.

“The government’s kids should be the best-taken-care-of kids, and it was always bizarre to me that they weren’t,” she said. “A lot of these kids came from poverty or adverse situations, so they deserve to be spoiled rotten once brought into care and it was bizarre to me that they weren’t.”

‘ALL THEY CAN DO IS PUT OUT FIRES’

The process of becoming a foster parent is not difficult. Background checks. References. Home inspections.

Some people foster with the goal of adopting. Some provide therapeutic care to children with severe needs. Some prefer to take in infants, others are more comfortable with teenagers.

Millette had been a guardian ad litem – a legal representative for children in custody – and knew the system well, but many foster parents don’t.

Jenny Johnson and Katya Danilova, who live in Auburn, were licensed this spring and got a placement in June, an infant boy. It didn’t go well, and they aren’t sure they’ll do it again.

They struggled the entire time to work with caseworkers on the child’s needs. Not in meeting them, just in understanding them. The child was born with some health complications and had surgery at 2 months old. But the couple weren’t given any information about follow-up appointments or care.

“We were new foster parents and had a lot of questions, but the caseworkers, they are just so overworked, all they can do is put out fires,” Johnson said. Several other foster parents used that same phrase to describe the current system.

Johnson and Danilova were committed to keeping the boy, but it didn’t last. They told their caseworker that they needed child care for a handful of upcoming Saturdays. They do wedding videography and people get married on weekends.

“They threatened to pull our license and questioned why we were even fostering,” Johnson said. They had been upfront about their work schedule during the licensing process. Foster parents, like all parents, need help, too, they said.

The next day, the child was placed with another family, after less than a month with the Auburn couple. They still haven’t been reimbursed.

UNCERTAINTY AND UNRESPONSIVENESS

Millette said she understands how the Auburn couple felt. That’s why she felt strongly about providing respite care. Foster families need a break, too.

But her recent experience was a reminder of how depleted the system is.

“They don’t have time for anything but crisis,” Millette said.

For instance, there is only one foster care placement coordinator per county. In Cumberland County, three people have held that position just since the summer started, Millette said.

When the teenager was placed with Millette, it was just supposed to be for the weekend. However, she soon learned that the child’s semipermanent foster parents wanted to end the placement. Prior to that, the child had been at Spring Harbor, a psychiatric hospital. Before that, the child was removed from home because of a prolonged period of abuse.

So the teen’s foster parents made arrangements to bring the child back to DHHS, which didn’t have another placement.

Millette did something she had never done before. When the teen left her home, she gave the child her cellphone number and said to call if there was an emergency.

Three days later, Millette got a call.

“I thought it would be temporary,” she said. “I didn’t realize how bad the shortage was, but I didn’t want this teen to go to a shelter.”

The next several weeks were a blur of uncertainty, both for Millette and for the child.

That uncertainty and unresponsiveness seems common.

South Berwick foster parents Jillian and Justin Pietruch acknowledge a system rife with uncertainty. “Foster parents don’t really have any rights,” Jillian Pietruch said.

Jillian and Justin Pietruch, who live in South Berwick, had been thinking about becoming foster parents before they moved to Maine nearly four years ago. In 2016, the timing seemed right, so they completed the licensing requirements. It took a few months for their first placement, a 2-year-old boy, in February 2017. It was a perfect situation, state caseworkers told the couple.

“They said it would be an open-and-shut case and we probably wouldn’t have him long,” Jillian Pietruch said.

Fifteen months later, the boy was still in the couple’s care. During that time, the state worked to reunify the child with his mother, even after filing a petition to terminate parental rights in December 2017.

Sometime in the spring, the state decided that the mother had pulled herself together. The boy would return to her.

Except no one told the Pietruchs. The couple only found out through the mother, who messaged them one day and told them the next visit for her would be permanent.

A DHHS supervisor later acknowledged the mistake.

“But there were no assurances that the child was safe or would be safe,” Justin Pietruch said.

The Pietruchs have another child in their home now, a girl. They don’t know what’s going to happen with her and, as was the case with their other placement, they have struggled to get information about the child’s needs.

“What we didn’t really understand is that foster parents don’t really have any rights,” Jillian Pietruch said.

Millette sort of understood that before her recent placement, but it was still striking.

When the time came for Millette to let the child go, the DHHS caseworker made them wait all day before showing up at the house.

“She said, ‘I’ve been on vacation but it looks like you need a placement. I haven’t had time to look,’ ” Millette said. She was dumbfounded.

REIMBURSEMENT RATE WILL INCREASE

The downside of the broken system is that many foster parents are questioning whether they want to continue.

Shauna Dunn of Gorham has been a foster parent for four years. Her license expired in July and she doesn’t plan to renew it.

Her first placement was in August 2014, 14-month-old twins, both of whom were born drug-affected. She took a year off from work to care for them.

As with others who spoke, Dunn said she had a hard time reaching caseworkers or supervisors when she had questions. She went through three different caseworkers in a short period of time and each one had to start from zero. When she expressed concerns, she felt ostracized.

“It just bothered me that these people make life decisions for children and come to the table with so little information,” she said.

After nearly a year, the twins were to be reunited with their birth mother. Dunn expected the state to handle that transition, but she said much of it was left to her.

“Once it was over, I got an email saying ‘Thanks for your help. Have a nice weekend,’ ” she said. “That was excruciating. It was like they had no sense or appreciation of what I went through.”

For several months, she said, the state didn’t call her for a placement, even though she knew the need was great. She wondered if she had been labeled a troublemaker.

Dunn eventually did get another foster placement, a boy, whom she and her husband have since adopted. That experience was better but far from perfect.

Michelle Belanger of Old Orchard Beach said she and her husband feel fortunate. They ended up adopting their first and only foster placement, a 6-month-old boy. They had a strong relationship with state caseworkers and with the boy’s biological mother.

“We tell other foster parents and they can’t believe it because that just hasn’t been their experience,” she said, adding that even though they had a good experience, they are hesitant to foster again. “I think worse than bad policy is inconsistency.”

Help is coming. Under legislation passed last week, the daily reimbursement rate for licensed foster families will increase from $16.50 to $25 at the lowest level and from $60 to $70 at the highest level, kids with significant needs.

Ford, at the foster families association, said the state can’t just throw money at the system, but she agreed that foster parents need more.

“We need to be putting value on people who make the decision to step up and we need to make sure they have the resources they need to parent kids who have trauma,” she said.

PENDULUM ALWAYS SWINGS

Many foster families agree but said it’s not just money.

There is always some natural tension between foster parents, biological parents and the state. Often, children are removed from homes because of horrific abuse or trauma. It can be hard for foster parents to want to work with biological parents on reunification. Although there is a body of research that shows children do best with their own families, some – including Gov. LePage – believe Maine has been too accommodating.

Some foster parents agreed with LePage that maybe reunification shouldn’t be the top priority, although those that did had experiences with biological parents who were likely never going to reunify with their children.

But Ford said much of those delays are in the court system and not with DHHS. Parents still have rights, she said, although recent changes could weaken them.

Ford, who has been involved in the system for three decades, said there has always been a pendulum swing, often driven by tragedy. No matter which way the pendulum swings, though, foster parents play a critical role even without a coordinated voice or agency to lobby for them.

That’s why Millette wanted to speak up. Even though she had a tough experience, she believes there are enough good people in the system to keep fighting for improvements.

On weekends when she is providing respite care, Millette spoils the kids in her home. She takes them to the beach, or to get ice cream. It does as much for her as it does for the them, she said.

But she knows those kids need more.

“I’d like us to be able to look at this as a puzzle, where we find the right fit for each kid,” Millette said. “We just don’t have that luxury. We pair empty beds with kids in need and we often can’t even do that.”

The teenager who was in her home is now safe but not in a stable long-term environment. Millette said she still tries to keep in touch, although she can’t help but feel a little guilt.

“No matter how you slice it, I gave them up,” she said.

 

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