Foster care system strained

Crisis in system leaving children with no place to go

The state’s opioid crisis combined with the long-festering problems within the Division for Children, Youth & Families is straining New Hampshire’s foster care system to the point of breaking, sometimes leaving children with nowhere to go.

“We have enough foster care families, just barely,” said Keith Keunning, with Child and Family Services of New Hampshire.

Last year, around 800 children in New Hampshire were put into the foster care system, Keunning said. Most children in foster care are placed through the DCYF, though many are connected to foster families through agencies such as Child and Family Services of New Hampshire, which specializes in placing children who have suffered significant trauma or neglect.

Katie Cassidy, with Child and Family Services of New Hampshire, called the current situation a crisis.

“There are more kids to place than we have homes,” she said.

Cassidy recruits people to be foster parents and guides them through the training needed. While foster parents can get a general license through DCYF, Child and Family Services requires more training to help children with emotional and behavioral issues related to abuse and trauma.

Without a large enough pool of foster families, sometimes children are placed in homes with foster parents that are not the best match. Over time, this leads to foster families getting burned out, she said.

Keunning said there are a couple factors behind the current crisis. One is that the DCYF is dealing with being reformed after decades of underfunding has left the agency without enough social workers to deal with caseloads. Combined with the opioid addiction crisis that has seen the need for DCYF to intervene with families skyrocket, the state now has children who should be in foster care going into residential group homes, Keunning said.

A recent review of the DCYF found that that agency systemically did not protect children from the risk of harm, and that the DCYF had the practice of labeling cases where abuse or neglect was present as “unfounded.” This review was prompted after the deaths of two young girls whose families were involved with the DCYF.

Nashua’s Brielle E. Gage was 3 in November 2014 when her mother, Katlyn Marin, beat her to death for reportedly getting a late-night snack without permission. Marin, now serving 45 years to life in prison for second-degree murder, had been the subject of at least 10 DCYF investigations, including one in which allegedly broke Brielle’s leg just months before the child’s death.

Sadie Willott was 21 months old in 2015 when her mother, Kaitlin Pauquette, of Manchester, beat her during a bath and left the child with fatal injuries. Pauquette pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 21 to 42 years in prison.

Like Marin, Pauquette had been investigated by the DCYF before her child died.

Once a decision is made to remove children from their home and place them in foster care, there is a scramble to find the right situation close to their home. Cassidy said her organization likes to keep the child close to their home so they can go to the same school. With the current shortage, children often go an hour or more away from home, she said.

Part of the foster family shortage is because of a lack of funds, Keunning said. The state pays foster families $16 a day per child, well below the national average of $24. Most foster families pay more to care for the children they take in, and a lot of people simply can’t afford the expense, he said.

“Money should never motivate someone to be a foster parent, but at the same time, money should never inhibit someone from becoming a foster parent,” he said.

Raising the daily rate would help a lot of current and potential foster families, though it would cost about $1.5 million a year in the state budget to increase the rate, he said.

However it gets done, more support for the foster care system is vital, Keunning said.

“Foster care is the backbone of the child protection system,” he said.