Loving, caring families needed for our children
Lynn and John Gauthier with their adopted sibling daughters, Taisha, 22, far left, and Tangela, 15, far right, at the First Congregational Church in Otis.
Photo by Peter Baiamonte
Lynn Gauthier was looking for a daily companion for her aging mother when she called Healing Homes of the Berkshires, an organization she picked randomly from the phone book. That call, she says, set her on an entirely different path.
“Turns out, Healing Homes is a foster-care agency,” Gauthier says. “But when I got on the phone, as the director was talking about their work, I got a little excited.”
That was seven years ago. Lynn and her husband, John, were not strangers to foster care. The couple were once foster parents for their adopted sibling daughters, Taisha and Tangela (now 22 and 15), when the girls were toddlers. Although the process to become foster parents differs from pre-adoptive screening. Gauthier says she was ready to open her door to eight-year-old Ariel (the child’s name has been changed), who had already experienced an unstable home life with her biological mother as well as several stints in foster homes and group living.
“Six years ago, our foster daughter came to live with us and, quite naturally, she really wanted to go back to live with her birth family,” Gauthier says. “She had been bounced around quite a bit, and there was so much to undo from her early beginnings. The idea is that you are taking in a child who then has to adapt to your lifestyle and flow with the family dynamic. The biggest challenge is that emotional piece.”
The challenges don’t start there. They begin with finding a space for a foster child. According to the most recent quarterly report (FY2016) from the state Department of Children and Families (DCF), 370 children are in foster care in the Berkshires. This number does not include children who have been taken in by extended family. The total caseload for the county—children who have been assigned a DCF worker—hovers at around 1,600.
While there is quiet acknowledgement of foster families and children in the Berkshires—often children meet in public places like McDonald’s or the mall with both their biological and foster families—the need for more foster families is a pressing concern. Recruitment efforts in the Berkshires are scant at best; there are much bigger campaigns in places like Springfield and Worcester. As a result, children are often placed far away from their family, friends, and the community they know, sometimes as far away as a Boston suburb.
Insuring successful placement does involve a lot of groundwork, including a 30-hour MAPP (Massachusetts Approach to Partnerships in Parenting), pre-screening home visits, support groups, and regular follow-up meetings once a child is placed. It takes anywhere from six months to a year to become a foster parent.
Gauthier is determined to do her part to help open up more foster homes in the county. She is now a MAPP instructor with several years of hard-earned experience. What guides her, and what guides anyone who is fostering children, is empathy—“having a heart for children.”
Building a family is a commitment which, according to Stephanie Steed of Berkshire Children and Families (BCF), does not require supernatural powers or being a child psychiatrist. Steed is director of Permanency Programs for BCF’s Pittsfield and Hadley offices. She says that between the two offices, nearly 56 children per year are placed in foster care in the Berkshires and that she receives at least three referrals a day for a child needing placement. The demand for stable homes is constant.
State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, an advocate for adopting a statewide foster-family Bill of Rights, says, “The number one factor right now is the great increase in the number of children being brought into foster care.”
Many families are already overwhelmed. And while four is the maximum number of foster children allowed per household, DCF has granted at least 172 over-capacity waivers in the last year. Despite the fact that current foster families are taking in more than four children, the number of homes that are available isn’t enough to offset the 25-percent increase in the number of children requiring foster care in the state.
Farley-Bouvier places the cause for that increase squarely on the county’s opioid-addiction crisis and the slow bureaucratic path to reunification as birth parents seek out court-ordered drug counseling (and parenting classes) that takes weeks, even months to book. In addition, more children are in need of foster families at a much younger age. According to a March 2016 cumulative report released by the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission, more than 25 infants born at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield (in 2014) were discharged with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), meaning they were born addicted to opioids and display symptoms like shaking, sneezing, and sweating.
It has been a challenging road for Gauthier, but she says that for her, the reward of being a foster parent is immeasurable.
“This is the most rewarding thing that I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. “Ariel has added as much to our lives as we have to hers. I have never been a birth mom, and I can relate to her, to that feeling of the missing piece. That’s where we connect.”
More on becoming a foster family or permanent placement home: Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF), mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dcf/foster-care and Berkshire Children and Families, berkshirechildren.org/berkshire-foster-parent and berkshirechildren.org/adopt