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

JAY — Foster parents Marie and John Beaulieu are on the front lines of a funding crisis in Maine's foster care system that has been attributed, at least in part, to a sudden and surprising increase in drug abuse among young parents who are neglecting their kids.

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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

The Beaulieus worry that the state will reduce or eliminate support for the four foster children they've taken into their home in the last decade. A major culprit in the rising demand for foster care is a new type of synthetic, sometimes-hallucinogenic stimulants known as bath salts, child welfare officials say.

But an investigation by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram found that the connection to bath salts, while headline-grabbing, is anecdotal at best and that child welfare officials really shouldn't have been caught off guard by the rising number of kids in their care.

A decade-long decline in the number of kids in state custody started to reverse in September 2011, and child welfare officials can't say exactly why, largely because they rarely analyze their own records in depth. And some of the state's most vulnerable children and families may suffer as a result, including the rapidly rising number of babies in Maine who are being exposed to illicit drugs in the womb.

Legislators and others say factors such as poor planning and cuts in other social services likely contributed to the crisis, adding as many as 500 unanticipated children to the foster care system and leaving child welfare officials $4.2 million short in the fiscal year ending June 30. A supplemental budget put a Band-Aid on the problem in February.

To prevent similar shortfalls in the next two fiscal years, Maine's Office of Child and Family Services is seeking a nearly 12 percent funding increase that's expected to get serious scrutiny when the biennial budget review starts this week. Given a state budget crisis rife with competing demands and political agendas, however, there's no guarantee that the extra funding will come through.

LITTLE HEARTS, BIG LOVE

The Beaulieus, both 45, are among about 1,200 licensed foster care providers and about 900 foster care adoptive parents across Maine.

Since 2004, the Beaulieus have taken in four foster children, now ages 18 months to 9 years, all of whom have serious mental and physical disabilities and illnesses because they were born to drug-addicted mothers. Shavar, the only child the Beaulieus will discuss publicly because they don't fear for his safety, has a spinal curvature that's slowly crushing his heart and lungs. Another of their foster children, a toddler, still struggles to suck on a baby bottle and requires several feedings each night.

And yet, the Beaulieus, who have three biological children, have adopted the two oldest foster kids, including Shavar, 8, and they want to adopt the two youngest if reunification with their birth mother fails.

In her various roles as mother, nurse, teacher, legal advocate and cheerleader, Marie Beaulieu is going morning, noon and night. John Beaulieu, a heating and ventilation technician, uses most of his vacation time to care for the kids during regular medical emergencies.

Still, Marie Beaulieu scoffs at the idea that she and her husband are doing anything difficult or extraordinary.

"My children are not burdens," she said. "They're amazing. They're my little hearts."

Despite the couple's dedication to foster children with special needs, the Beaulieus worry that the Office of Child and Family Services will cut their adoption subsidy in the biennial budget.

They narrowly avoided a 25 percent reduction in their subsidy for the next three months, from $26.25 to $19.75 per day for each child. That's how much some adoptive foster parents will lose as a result of a supplemental state budget passed in February.

(Continued on page 2)

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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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