There are fewer than five foster homes available to children in crisis on Martha’s Vineyard, even as the need for foster care seen by the Hyannis office of the state Department of Children and Family (DCF) is increasing. Kara Hemingway, a foster care recruiter for this part of the state, visited the Vineyard Saturday to speak to Islanders gathered at the Vineyard Haven library to address that imbalance by recruiting willing Vineyarders. The Vineyard is part of the Hyannis office’s territory.
“There’s a need right now by all ages, newborns to teenagers,” Ms. Hemingway said. “The workload in the Hyannis office is high; it’s escalated since the opioid crisis.”
Children require foster placement for several reasons. Their home environment may not be safe or appropriate, or they may suffer from neglect, or sexual, emotional, or physical abuse. Ms. Hemingway said that DCF always works to place a child with a relative first, but if that isn’t an option, DCF workers find a foster living situation as close to that child’s community as possible.
“The goal is to unify the family,” Ms. Hemingway said, “but in my 11 years of recruiting, I’d say more than 50 percent of these children have ended up adopted. You can never have enough homes.”
Prospective foster parents must survive scrutiny to qualify for the program, and it may take a few months to a year. Some foster parents consider the possibility for a while before proceeding. Several potential foster parents attended Saturday’s talk, and by the time the discussion was over, their curiosity had become real interest.
Ms. Hemingway introduced Marjorie Vespa, a foster parent for close to 400 children over nearly 20 years. Ms. Vespa is a recruitment ambassador with experience fostering children from babies to teenagers. She now has four teenage boys living with her.
“Teens really, really need help. They need a lot of your direction. If we take the time to stop and listen, they have a lot to teach us,” Ms. Vespa said.
She moved to Cape Cod on her own in 1999, Ms. Vespa explained. She bought a house with three bedrooms, expecting her daughter and granddaughter to move in. But they bought their own place, so Ms. Vespa decided to fill her empty bedrooms with foster kids.
“They keep me young,” the 82-year-old said. She drives one of the boys, who is active in sports, up to Plymouth for martial arts class every week. Any extracurricular activity is supported by the DCF office, Ms. Vespa said; whether it’s music lessons or karate classes, it can be covered by DCF funding.
“The kids all have MassHealth; they have a clothing allowance and a little money every month that helps with food and other costs,” Ms. Hemingway said. Most foster parents work full-time, she said, and the DCF covers daycare costs for those foster children. “They do everything to help,” Ms. Vespa added.
There is also a need for foster parents who take in children on a moment’s notice. “We try to work with the family, but that’s not always feasible,” Ms. Hemingway said. “Sometimes these things happen in the middle of the night.”
If a need arises after 5 pm, DCF needs someone willing to keep a child for a few days until an appropriate foster home can be found. Ms. Vespa has sometimes served as one of the “hotline” foster parents, called on after business hours.
“I’ve had kids from the Vineyard,” Ms. Vespa said.
“You know if we are placing Island kids with you, there’s obviously not a lot of foster homes on the Island,” Ms. Hemingway added.
Ms. Vespa explained the formula for successful foster parenting: “They need a roof, a bed, food, and a hug. That’s really it.”
If just three of those attending the meeting Saturday expressed a keen interest in fostering, Ms. Hemingway said, she would be able to offer a training program on the Island.
After applying, there is a home visit, during which Ms. Hemingway checks for cleanliness, smoke detectors, fire hazards, whether the home could accommodate the foster child, whether pets are up to date on shots and licensing, if there are adequate means of egress, and other important requirements. Then potential foster parents take a 30-hour course called the Massachusetts Approach to Partnerships in Parenting. Next, there are at least two visits by a social worker who interviews the parents and family members, which helps them identify what type of child is the best match with the aspiring foster parent or parents.
After licensing, the process for placement begins. Placement is based on whether or not the foster home suits the needs of the child. Foster children are allowed weekly visits with their parent or parents, Ms. Hemingway said, but those visits are arranged and carried out through the child’s social worker. And sadly, she said, many of those visits become less and less frequent.
Once a child is placed, the foster parents receive support from the child’s social worker and from a family resource worker. From there, ongoing support services are in place — a stipend for daily expenses, clothing, bimonthly home visits from a social worker, monthly home visits by each social worker assigned to the child or children in the home, support groups, training, respite, and more.
Foster parents may be single, married, partnered, divorced, or widowed. They may be in a same-sex partnership, Ms. Hemingway said, or they may be in no relationship at all.
“Some of my best foster parents have been single parents,” she said.
To find out more about becoming a foster parent, call Ms. Hemingway at 508-894-3957 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.