Opiate abuse driving more kids into foster care in Addison County

MIDDLEBURY — A growing substance abuse crisis continues to drive more children into foster care in Addison County, say state officials charged with caring for Vermont’s youngest citizens. And, as a result, the need for foster parents continues to also rise.
Laurie Mumley, who recruits and supports foster parents as resource coordinator for the Department for Children and Families, remembers that when she started at the Middlebury DCF office three years ago the recruitment posters dramatically proclaimed that there were 55 children in custody.
“We can’t do posters now that have numbers on them because the numbers keep changing,” Mumley last Thursday. “As of this morning, we have 89 children in our care. And I was actually surprised the numbers were so low right now because I did them a few weeks ago and they were mid-90s.”
Andrea Grimm, the Addison County district director of the DCF Family Services  Division, said the abuse of heroin and other opiates by parents is leaving more children in the state’s care.
“It’s no secret that the opiate epidemic is, unfortunately, really touching a number of people’s lives, not only around the state but in Addison County as well,” she said. “It’s cheap, it’s easily available, and it’s highly addictive, unfortunately — highly addictive.”
Grimm continued, “There has been a large influx into the system of care in the state of Vermont, which taxes a number of systems: the mental health system, the educational system, the daycare system, medical providers, substance abuse treatment programs.
“There’s sort of the domino effect that’s happening as the result of the opiate epidemic.”
Some are well aware of the opiate epidemic and its multiple effects on Addison County’s communities, especially those at schools or at organizations that provide care or counseling, said both Grimm and Mumley.
But for many, the epidemic remains hidden.
“Addison County in a lot of respects is pretty idyllic, and because of that people don’t see the other side that yes we can be in a great community with all sorts of resources and it’s beautiful but there’s a hidden epidemic and it’s going on every day all around us,” said Mumley. “I think it’s easier for people to say, ‘There’s a problem in Burlington’ or ‘Rutland, yeah, that’s pretty bad!’ but that same problem is here.
“We owe it to the kids of this county to take care of them.”
Of the 89 Addison County children in DCF care at press time, 13 of them, for a variety of developmental, mental health, or behavioral reasons, are in residential care — six in Vermont and seven out of state. The remaining 76 children are in 60 foster homes throughout the county. A little over half of those foster homes are with family or friends who obtained foster licensing specifically for those children.
That leaves only 17 active foster homes throughout the county that don’t currently have children in them, said Mumley.
Seventeen might sound like a lot but it’s deceptive, she continued. People might suddenly need to stop being a foster provider because of home remodeling, divorce, burn out, or an illness in the family.
And not every home provides the best match for a particular child or group of siblings.
“When I as the resource coordinator look at an open home, I’m considering does the child fit?” said Mumley. “Some homes — they might have a two-bedroom home, parents are in one, their teenage daughter is in another. I can only place girls there. Or, if you’re a foster home and you’re in Shoreham, realistically can you get a child to a Monkton school on time, particularly if you have school age children? Logistically it just becomes impossible.”
Another challenge is trying to keep siblings together. And Mumley said she worries about the day they’ll need to place a child in a wheelchair, as there are currently no wheelchair-accessible foster homes in Addison County.
While many factors go into determining if a particular foster home is a good fit for a particular child, one of the most important is school stability. It’s important, both Mumley and Grimm emphasized, to keep kids in their schools and in their communities.
DCF data shows that kids lose four to six months of education progress every time they change schools. High schoolers who change schools — even once — are less than half as likely to graduate. And many national experts believe that foster kids trail behind on standardized tests because of frequent school changes.
Addison County has also seen, along with the rest of Vermont, a rise in the numbers of younger children needing foster care. Grimm said that when she first began as a social worker in 1999 there were far more teenagers in the system.
“Now if you take a look at the numbers and the breakout, it’s really shifted. We have fewer of those 12-17-year-olds and many more younger kids who are entering the system. We break it out for ages 0-5 and 6-12, and it’s greater in both those categories.”
A growing subset for the 0-5 group are opiate-addicted newborns. These infants require special dedication from foster parents, said Mumley.
“The opiate-addicted newborns really require a stay-at-home parent with some skills or willingness to learn new skills. One foster mom lost 40 pounds in three months by having an opiate-addicted baby,” Mumley said. “They’re typically very hard to soothe. They present as colicky to somebody that doesn’t know — fussy, hard to soothe, needing a lot more holding time, walking time. And it’s around the clock, depending on how addicted the child is born.”
Both Grimm and Mumley emphasized that there is no one profile for kids needing foster care and that child abuse and neglect know no socioeconomic boundaries.
Both also emphasized that while’s being a foster parent can be incredibly challenging, it’s also incredibly rewarding.
“Being a foster parent can make all the difference in the world,” said Grimm. “It can be a warm meal. It can be a hug, somebody to pay attention to me, somebody to take me places, somebody to just sit and listen to me, somebody to be my voice because the child has had no voice, somebody to advocate for me.
“The foster parent wears many hats,” Grimm continued. “They become the mom, the dad. They come to meetings on behalf of the child and for the child and with the child. They’re an extension sometimes for the social worker because really the foster parent is the one who spends the majority of the time with the child watching to see how their behaviors are when they come in and relishing in the fact that they started here with not sleeping, not eating, wetting the bed, having nightmares, hoarding food — whatever the case may be — to now Johnny is able to sleep on his own. He’s now no longer wetting the bed. He’s not having nightmares. He’s got increased self-esteem. His emotions are better regulated.
“Really we would be lost without our foster parents. This is a system that could not survive without them.”
Both Grimm and Mumley emphasized the range of supports in Addison County to support foster parents, as foster parents in turn support the children in their care. And both emphasized that someone not quite ready to take the plunge could donate other kinds of goods or services (like prom dresses or school supplies) or begin by providing respite care to full-time foster parents.
The Middlebury district Family Services office, together with the Addison County Parent/Child Center, will be hosting an event this Thursday, Sept. 15, for those interested in learning more about foster parenting. The event, called “Let’s Keep Kids Local,” will run from 5-8 p.m. and include current caregivers talking about their experiences, food and live music, and chances for informal Q&As.
The event will be held at Treleven Farm, 164 Mitchell Drive, in Vergennes.
For more information about “Let’s Keep Kids Local” or about foster parenting, call Laurie Mumley at 388-4660.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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