BRATTLEBORO — Sue O'Brien, district director for the Department for Children and Families, says "a real marked increase" in the number of children going into foster care is "very concerning."
"This week, we have about 145 children in our custody in Windham County," she said. "We actually exceed the number of children in care in Chittenden County."
DCF staff members are overwhelmed with work, O'Brien said, adding that more resources have been allocated to the department. Two positions are being added at the Brattleboro office.
State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, pointed at the heroin and opioid epidemic pulling apart homes across Vermont but not did forget about the destructiveness of alcohol.
"The percentage of babies that are in custody now is just shocking," he said.
O'Brien and Mrowicki were among the guests at WKVT's Call to Action forum at the Brooks Memorial Library on Thursday. The topic was child welfare. One of the panelists also included a woman who had gone through the foster care system as a child.
"I have to ask this question on behalf of 12-year-old Brandie Starr and many other children," said Starr, referring to herself. "Whether you're right people or not, it doesn't matter. Why are children so failed? Why did my father get to go on living his life, which gave truth and validation to the things that he would say to me while he beat me? What kind of message do you think it sends when people like that are not punished? And the children are bounced from home to home to home because they are a problem because you can't take care of them."
Starr asked how O'Brien and Mrowicki plan to have enough stable case workers to assist kids.
"I appreciate your sharing that because I think it's important for all of us to hear — even though this was years ago for you — the impact that this has had," O'Brien replied. "I can only apologize for the people that were inappropriate and unfeeling and uncaring towards you back then. I wish that had not been your experience."
She said she felt there were improvements over the years but challenges still exist.
The way trauma is understood and treated is different now, said Mrowicki, linking the issue to intergenerational poverty. He urged cultural change around physical violence.
"We have to model for men and young men what's appropriate," he said.
Starr entered the foster care system after school officials saw signs of physical abuse.
"Finally, around the age of 12, it was bad enough where apparently the state decided it was time," Starr said. "I was waiting on line to get on the school bus. I was pulled to the nurse's office and removed instantly."
Starr became upset while describing her situation in which "the offender got to stay" within her family's home while she moved from foster home to foster home. She remembered sitting on a bench with a garbage bag of her belongings and being told, "Oh sorry, the foster home fell through."
At 16 years old, Starr had a new case worker and a new therapist. She said she finally found a good foster home.
Starr said these struggles attributed to her strong work ethic and success now as an adult.
"One of the benefits from this situation for me has been a very deep rooted desire to please. Because when nobody has to keep you then you have to prove your worth," she said. "So I learned how to take very fast showers, how to clean very well, how to cook very well and how to basically say, 'I'm not going to bother you. I'm not going to be on your couch. I'm not going to ask you for food unless you're already cooking. I'm not going to shower unless you've left the house and then I'll quickly take a shower.'"
Windham County Safe Place Executive Director Alyssa Todd said her organization coordinates services for children who have made disclosures about sexual abuse and serious physical abuse. The goal is to minimize the trauma for those kids by streamlining processes dealing with investigation, healing and advocacy.
Unfortunately, Todd said, situations arise that require having children removed from their home.
"And that sucks. It sucks for that kid that it has to happen. There's just no other word for it," she said. "We know that even if we're able to remove the offender from that situation and keep them out of the home and leave the child with the parent that has not offended against them, if that parent is not supporting their child then it's horrible in another way for that child."
Todd said she has seen kids recant from previous testimony after parents make them feel guilty. On the increase of child abuse cases in the county and across the country, she hopes the reasoning has to do with people reporting things they were not reporting before.
"We know that child abuse is under reported. We know specifically that child sexual abuse is under reported," Todd said. "I really feel like one of the things that we always need to be talking about is feeling comfortable to report when you suspect something is going on."
Several agencies collaborate to make a determination on whether abuse is occurring. Those groups include DCF, police and the child advocacy center.
Currently, about 30 to 33 children in the Windham County area are experiencing unstable living arrangements. This number continues to increase, according to Lauren Higbee, youth development director at Youth Services Inc.
"Our shelters both house three youth or three small families or three couples or mother and a child at a time," she said. "And they are consistently full in Bellows Falls and Brattleboro."
More communication is helpful in any situation, Higbee said, referring to the agencies providing child-welfare services.
Building Bright Futures Southeast Vermont Regional Coordinator Chad Simmons said his group works on creating a system that best supports young kids and families by providing data and guidance to assist in policy making on state and local levels.
"I think it's important to talk about, in terms of prevention, incorporating frameworks and best practices into our system, our programs and services from the earliest stages," he said. "I think it's really important to look at the relationships that kids have. They're so important to informing and supporting them as they grow into adults."
His group keeps an eye on language and how certain conversations can lead to stigmatization and victimization. Supporting rather than labeling children and families was recommended by Simmons.
Another idea for improving the system involves looking at "intersecting" issues such as housing, mental health, poverty and substance abuse.
"We spend a lot of time, money and resources on dealing with the crisis and less time on addressing the root causes," said Simmons. "One thing that I hear about a lot is the inflexibility of the system. Oftentimes, organizations and service providers like Youth Services can't provide services until a crisis occurs."
That last comment was echoed by other participants throughout the forum.
Contact Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.