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Case planner Matthew McAllister runs through an exercise with prospective foster parents. Photo: Zach Hirsch
Case planner Matthew McAllister runs through an exercise with prospective foster parents. Photo: Zach Hirsch

North Country fostering: "The need's not going anywhere"

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Over the last few months, we've been researching foster care in the North Country (find more stories here). Yesterday, we met Dominique Tarkenton-Otto, who gave us the children's perspective. Now, we hear from the case workers who help those kids.

Zach Hirsch talks with Martha Foley about some lingering questions about his profile of Dominique, and the bigger picture.

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Zach Hirsch
Reporter and Producer

Martha Foley: So, that was a very powerful story. Your interest in this story started on the foster parent side. As you got deeper into this, were there any surprises?

Zach Hirsch: Something that amazes me is the foster parents. They dive right into this stuff. Tammy invites strangers, troubled kids, into their home, and she’s prepared to just be 100 percent there for them.

I was also impressed with how this was just a genuine success story. She deliberately left her old life in Utica.

MF: So that’s one of the lingering questions. Why did Dominique have to go from Utica, all the way to Gouverneur?

ZH: It starts with her older sister. She needed a therapeutic foster home, and Tammy tells me there weren’t any available in Utica, so she got sent up to Gouverneur. These agencies do their best to keep siblings together, so when Nikki needed a therapeutic foster home, too, they sent her to Gouverneur.

MF: Ok, let’s back up for a second. Why—or maybe when—does foster care come into the picture?

ZH: All different kinds of circumstances. Parents could be sick and need someone to watch their kid for a little while. Or, if a child is violent or consistently breaking laws, and the parents can’t take care of the child, that kid might go to a residential foster home, where there’s tighter supervision.

Or, it could be a case of neglect or abuse.

MF: Let’s talk about Child Protective Services. What’s its role in all of this?

ZH: That’s the agency that removes kids from the home, when they get a report of abuse from a doctor, a teacher, or neighbor.

According to Dianne Wilby, the Deputy Commissioner of Social Services for St. Lawrence County, the majority of foster kids came into foster care because of a CPS investigation.

Data sources: NYS Office of Children and Family Services, and various county Depts. of Social Services.
Data sources: NYS Office of Children and Family Services, and various county Depts. of Social Services.
But Child Protective Services isn’t there to simply take kids away.

I have a bit of tape that clarifies the agency’s approach. Here’s Dianne Wilby.

"The CPS worker is an investigator. They go in to see, is there any truth to this report? And can you keep your children safe. If they can, we’ll do everything in our power to help them keep the children safe. If they can’t, then we have to do a removal. And we do everything in our power to get the children back to them back to the children safely."

MF: And it’s usually temporary? Or longer term? What about adoption?

ZH: Actually, that’s not the way it goes usually. In my piece from yesterday, Dominique got adopted, but often, the biological parents or guardians do what the court asks—for example, they go into rehab—and then they get their kids back.

One thing that gets confused sometimes, is this idea that kids get taken away forever. That’s not true.

MF: But I thought there was truth in that idea that some kids go into foster care, and never see their biological family again.

ZH: That does still happen, when the biological parent doesn’t fight for custody. But the important point is that the different agencies involved in foster care – the Department of Social Services, CPS, and Human Services – are making a deliberate effort to make the whole process just a little more sensitive, a little more compassionate for kids and their families.

One of the big agencies on the western side of the North Country is the Children’s Home of Jefferson County.

Victoria Peck is the director of the foster program at their St. Lawrence County office. She says foster care today looks way different than it did a few decades ago.

"When I first started it was more of a – it was very child focused. Today, we’re very family focused. And that’s been a change, even in the last five years in child welfare. When I was a caseworker…it was very child-specific. But then I’d send child home, and we didn’t do any work with the parents. So we were sending a child home to a very similar environment in which they came, where today, we’re working just as much with the parents if not more with the parents than we are with the child."

MF: We’ve been talking a lot about St. Lawrence County. There was one number from your story yesterday that grabbed my attention—the number of foster kids has almost doubled in recent years?

ZH: That’s right. The number of kids in care in this county has almost doubled over the last seven years, from 87 to 157.

MF: Okay, but what about the rest of the North Country?

ZH: Well, that’s the really interesting thing. In New York State, the number of kids going into care is steadily going down. It’s not totally clear why, but there are less and less kids ending up in foster care every year in New York State.

But in the North Country, those numbers aren’t going down. The number of kids entering into care is staying the same.

Social service agencies say it’s because poverty hits our region especially hard. Victoria Peck, who we heard from just a minute ago, thinks increased heroin use is keeping the need high.

Here’s Matt McAlister, one of the case planners at the St. Lawrence County Children’s Home. He talks a little about what he sees in his every day work.

“I think all you really need to do is take a drive around any community in the North Country. Drugs around here is one thing, but there’s also the ongoing poverty. The cyclical nature—generational nature—of dysfunction: alcohol, [domestic violence], chemical dependency, mental health issues. The need is there, the need’s not going anywhere; the need is only growing.”

 

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