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 kbouchard@pressherald.com
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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Additional Photos Below

Cahill-Low said that 1,750 children were in state care in December, up from 1,469 children in December 2011. She expected that number to rise as high as 1,900 by the end of June, 35 percent higher than the 1,400 children projected in her budget.

Robert Blanchard, Cahill-Low's data chief, said child welfare officials started noticing an increase in November 2011, after seeing steady progress in reducing the number of children in foster care from more than 3,100 a decade ago.

Cahill-Low pointed to a combination of contributing factors, including economic hardship and addictions to prescription painkillers and bath salts. She shared caseworkers' anecdotes about delusional parents climbing trees, wielding weapons and neglecting their children in unprecedented circumstances. She said about half of recent neglect cases were linked to bath salts in particular.

When asked to provide concrete numbers to substantiate the bath salts connection for this story, a spokesman for Cahill-Low said her statements were based on "verbal reports" from caseworkers dealing with bath salts "hot spots" in Bangor, Rockland and Biddeford.

Still, legislators were concerned that child neglect was on the rise and moved to address a sympathetic cause immediately.

"You hear that and it rips your heart out," said Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, a member of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee.

Without further explanation from Cahill-Low or Blanchard, legislators covered the $4.2 million gap with a supplemental budget that includes additional state and federal funding and a $700,000 reduction in adoption subsidies, according to the Legislature's Office of Fiscal and Program Review.

The proposed biennial budget for fiscal 2014 and 2015 would increase annual spending for foster care and adoption payments to care providers by nearly 12 percent, to $51.3 million per year.

But while legislators easily approved additional funding in the supplemental budget, members of the Health and Human Services Committee say they plan to scrutinize the biennial proposal.

"We're going to take out the magnifying glass," said Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, committee co-chairman. "There has to be some data justifying these increases. They can't just blame substance abuse."

Now retired, Farnsworth was executive director of Woodfords Family Services in Portland for 18 years, overseeing the agency's foster care programs for children with special needs.

Farnsworth believes cuts in DHHS funding have resulted in a "major failure" to provide necessary support services for birth parents to help keep families together.

"Substance abuse is a symptom of other issues," Farnsworth said. "I believe there are a lot of other contributing factors here, and I want to see the numbers."

RISKS IN THE HOME

When the newspaper asked for data substantiating the claim of increased drug abuse among birth parents, Cahill-Low provided a one-page chart that her office generated in January.

The chart shows a 9-percentage-point increase in the percentage of children coming into foster care for whom parental drug abuse was listed as a risk factor in the home.

Parental drug abuse was a factor for 47 percent of 929 children removed from their homes in the year ending Oct. 1, 2012, up from 38 percent of 753 children in the year ending Oct. 1, 2011.

"There's no reason to think this is going to stop," Cahill-Low said of the drug-abuse increase. "They seem to be coming out with a new drug every day."

Other risk factors -- alcohol abuse, neglect, sexual abuse -- increased by lesser amounts or remained flat, according to the chart. Parental alcohol abuse increased 2 points, to 20 percent of removals, while having a parent in prison increased 4 points, to 14 percent of removals.

But while the chart is informative, it's lacking in many ways.

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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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