Unionizing foster care may give caregivers needed resources

Oct. 22, 2020 | Chris Maza

An interesting piece of news slid across my consciousness last week that may not mean a lot to the vast majority of people, but to thousands of children in foster care and the families that care for them, it could mean the world.

According to a press release, SIEU 509 plans to unionize thousands of Massachusetts foster parents.

SEIU 509 President Peter MacKinnon called foster families “undervalued and under resourced.” As a former foster parent, I can say this is an amazing understatement.

The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families’ (DCF) fourth quarter 2020 report stated more than 8,400 children were in foster care placements in this state; nearly 2,000 of those are in the four counties of Western Massachusetts. These numbers are said to be climbing. In the midst of the global pandemic that has gripped the country, I have often wondered how these families are faring.

So what are these foster families asking for? Some pretty basic stuff, actually. Access to free testing and PPE for foster families, biological parents, foster children and anyone providing services in the home; communicated plans for if a foster parent, foster child or biological parent is infected; updated and accurate lists of childcare providers who accept vouchers; a reimbursement system for childcare costs when vouchers are unavailable; guaranteed foster parents’ rights for respite care; tutoring and educational resources for foster children; and double the normal foster care stipend to help defray the costs of expenses such as additional technology, childcare, educational supports, cleaning supplies, and PPE.

The state has made it clear in their policies how they regard foster parents and it isn’t a partnership. Through the commonwealth’s own design, the people who open their hearts and homes to some of the most vulnerable populations in our communities are essentially nothing more than hired contractors and, as such, have the least amount of rights as anyone in the process.

At any one time in a foster situation, everyone has someone looking out for them – DCF, the foster children, the biological parents – and it’s most often a lawyer. But not the foster parents. They are left with no real input or sway or protection in any matters. They’re looked upon as babysitters. For those who are not seeking adoption, that’s all they’re ever regarded as. For adoptive families, they’re those same babysitters with the same lack of rights right up until the moment the judge puts pen to paper on adoption day and until then, all bets are truly off.

“Yeah, but foster parents get paid.” Sure. We got a stipend. It barely covered diapers. DCF didn’t provide reimbursement that came close to covering required home improvements, safety gear like car seats, food, etc. We asked DCF about vouchers for daycare; we never heard a word back.

The pieces are picked up by nonprofits – like All Our Kids Inc., which provides support and resources that DCF falls down on providing in the best of times, and Angels Take Flight, which collects luggage so kids don’t have to carry their belongings in trash bags when they’re moved.

And on top of it all, when it came time to decide whether our foster child would stay with us or go elsewhere, we were never even consulted or informed that the discussion was underway; we literally got a phone call out of the blue informing us that our time would be up and we should pack our foster son’s things and be ready for him to leave. No real firm date or time though. We were j    ust left hanging with the knowledge that at some point someone would be coming to take him away with no explanation or opportunity to see him again after he was out the door.

It’s really a shame that it took a global pandemic for foster parents to finally have the opportunity to say that enough is enough.

And it’s a shame that foster families have to take this businesslike approach to the raising of at-risk children. But this ultimately is the state’s doing thanks to its arcane approach to foster care and treatment of its most valuable resource – the families of Massachusetts.

This development is one that I will surely be watching closely.

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