March 29, 2013

Poor planning adds to Maine's foster care crisis

Not only is funding in jeopardy, but the state's child welfare bureaucracy failed to anticipate the growing need, fueled by drug use and addiction.

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

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Marie Beaulieu comforts her son Shavar, 8, in their Jay home late last month, after he apologized for yelling at her. The Beaulieus adopted him after taking him in as a foster child.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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The subsidy cut was part of a plan to backfill a $90 million Maine Department of Health and Human Services budget shortfall that was blamed largely on MaineCare, the state's form of Medicaid. The state ultimately covered the Beaulieus' subsidy with federal funds.

But the potential loss of $1,200 over three months would have been a big deal for the Beaulieus. Marie Beaulieu hates to talk about it, concerned that people will view the subsidy as payment for what she describes as a calling. But she still worries that their subsidy will be cut in the biennial budget; it's happened in the past. If it happens again, she worries that John will have to take a second job.

"That's my biggest fear," she said. "There are no guarantees for tomorrow, and the kids' needs are growing more intense with every milestone in their lives."


If the demand for and cost of foster care in Maine spiked this fiscal year because of drug abuse among young parents, it's doubtful that child welfare workers were surprised by it.

Experts in the field say the impact of parental drug use has been visible and mounting for years.

"They shouldn't have been surprised," said Beverly Daniels, executive director of Families and Children Together, a Bangor foster care agency that serves children with special needs, including a variety of behavioral and mental health issues.

In November, Daniels' agency and the University of Maine School of Social Work got a five-year, $3.9 million federal grant to develop a program to help parents address substance abuse issues and keep kids out of foster care.

The growing need for some kind of assistance is measurable.

The number of babies born in Maine to mothers who used illicit drugs while pregnant has nearly quadrupled in the last six years, from 201 babies in 2006 to 776 babies in 2012, according to the DHHS.

Maine also has the highest opiate addiction rate in the nation, based on treatment statistics reported by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Maine has held this distinction at least since 2000, even as rates increased nationally.

In 2010, 4,083 Mainers sought treatment for abuse of non-heroin opiates such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, up from 768 people in 2000. That's an addiction rate of 354 per 100,000 people, compared to 60 per 100,000 in the United States and 134 per 100,000 in New England.

Meanwhile, methamphetamine has had an increasing presence in Maine since 2005, followed by bath salts in 2011, when the synthetic stimulants were outlawed. Police uncovered 13 meth labs in Maine last year and four so far this year.

Bath salts arrests remain in the news, especially in the Bangor area, although reported overdoses dropped 71 percent last year, from 152 cases in 2011 to 66 cases in 2012, according to the Northern New England Poison Center in Portland.

Opiate abuse remains the larger issue, with a 32 percent increase in incidents reported to the poison center in the last year, from 99 cases in 2011 to 131 cases in 2012.

For Marie Beaulieu, the question of which drugs are driving parents to neglect their children is pointless. The three mothers of her four foster children each used multiple drugs. The oldest child had several substances coursing through her bloodstream at birth.

"When we first went to see her in the hospital, her tremors were so bad she was shaking the incubator," Beaulieu recalled. "We did not know what we were getting into."


Legislators learned about the foster care funding problem in January, when DHHS officials asked the Legislature for additional funding as part of the state's supplemental budget. Therese Cahill-Low, director of the Office of Child and Family Services, reported a $4.2 million shortfall in the $45.9 million budget for foster care and adoption programs.

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Additional Photos

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Shavar dances with his sister.

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Shavar smiles as his nurse, Darlene Hayden, shows him her teeth after she returned from the dentist.

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Marie Beaulieu helps Shavar wash his hands. In January, DHHS officials reported a $4.2 million shortfall in the budget for foster care and adoption programs. By June 30, the number of kids in state care is expected to be 35 percent higher than projected.

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Marie Beaulieu, left, helps Shavar drink from a cup of water to take medication in the living room of their Jay home. Some adoptive foster parents in Maine will lose 25 percent of their adoption subsidy as a result of a supplemental state budget passed in February.

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