Waiting to Land
As one foster child relates her harrowing journey, Vermont struggles with the loss of a major care provider
Note: In order to protect the privacy of alleged victims of sexual abuse, the names of Tanya, her sister Liza, and her foster parents, Amy and Bob Wilson, are pseudonyms. All other facts and quotations in this story are real.
Tanya was a hardworking student who dressed impeccably and got good grades. The sociable sixth grader at Stowe Elementary School was popular with her friends. But her cheerful exterior masked a secret. Every day when the 12-year-old came home, she confronted a monster. Tanya alleges that, for about two years, her stepfather routinely abused her sexually, verbally and physically. Her mother did not, or could not, stop the abuse and would sometimes beat the young girl herself.
So begins the story of one Vermont foster child. But it is also the story of a strained state foster-care system forced to cope with a new challenge. In a move that stunned Vermont’s social-service community, Casey Family Services (CFS), which has provided direct assistance to about 100 of the most challenging foster-care and adoption cases in Vermont, announced last summer that it was closing its doors and transferring all its cases — including Tanya’s — by the end of December.
For Tanya, entering the foster-care system was supposed to help restore her broken trust. Instead, Casey’s departure this month is yet another in a series of betrayals by those who were supposed to care for her.
Tanya, who came to the U.S. from South Asia at the age of 8, was adept at hiding the bruises from her beatings and keeping quiet about her ongoing sexual abuse. Her stepfather terrified her. On weekends, the petite girl would work alongside her mother cleaning hotels in central Vermont. It was hard work that she says was often “disgusting.”
As Tanya got older, her stepfather grew more violent. She says of the alleged sexual assaults, “I don’t think we had a week without it. It was pretty constant.” Tears stream down her face as she quietly recounts the story in a recent interview.
Why didn’t she tell someone?
“Abusive men have control over you,” she replies with wisdom beyond her years. “He was very persuasive. I feel like I was brainwashed into thinking what he was doing was right. It took me a couple years to realize that.”
Tanya endured, thinking that she was at least protecting her younger sister, Liza. But when her stepfather began to threaten Liza, too, Tanya found the strength to defy him.
In the spring of 2006, Tanya walked into the office of her school guidance counselor and described everything that was going on at home. But there was a caveat: “I told her, please don’t tell anyone, I don’t wanna be in foster care.”
The concerned counselor gave Tanya her home phone number and urged her to call any time she needed to. Then, as required by law, she reported the abuse to Vermont’s Department for Children and Families (DCF).
At home, Tanya grew more defiant. Her stepfather began unplugging the phone so she couldn’t call for help. But the girl discovered a sense of power she didn’t know she had. “I felt a little stronger and more sure of myself and I knew what he doing was wrong,” she recalls. “So he had less control. I wasn’t letting him touch me. He tried — he yelled more. But at that point I just didn’t care.
“I remember one time he was yelling at me to sweep a certain place,” Tanya continues. “I slammed the broom down and said, ‘No. You do it.’ He was almost startled. I remember that felt so good, just saying no to him.”
On the last day of school that year, Tanya and Liza took the bus to Stowe Elementary as they always did. They were excited — summer break was only a few hours away. But the guidance counselor met the girls as they got off the bus and asked them to come to her office. She told them they were not going home. The sisters would soon be picked up by different parents and brought to a new home.
As her classmates ran around squealing and cavorting on the playground, Tanya sat. She was scared, not knowing what lay ahead.
At the age of 12, Tanya suddenly had a new role: foster child.
Now 18, Tanya is able to legally speak for herself about her experiences. She has a bright, infectious smile that fills a room and belies what she has gone through. To meet this attractive, upbeat young woman, you would never guess the rough road she has traveled to get where she is.
Tanya chose to tell her story to a reporter on behalf of other Vermont foster children who are too young to speak for themselves.
Vermont’s foster kids
Currently there are about 1000 children in foster care in Vermont. Cindy Walcott, DCF deputy commissioner for family services, explains that children can be in foster care for three primary reasons. In Vermont, just over two-thirds of foster children are there as a result of being abused and neglected at home, 14 percent have behavior issues and are “beyond parental control,” and 18.5 percent are found guilty of a crime.
About 600 of Vermont’s foster children live with foster parents or with relatives. Another 170 children live in supervised group homes, and a number, including some who have broken the law, live in treatment centers. Vermont foster families typically receive monthly stipends of $500 to $600 from DCF to cover the cost of food, housing, clothing and other expenses for each child.
DCF Commissioner Dave Yacavone explains that Vermont offers “a system of care whereby some of the children just have a foster-care home and a state social worker, while other children need more intensive treatment services, and we contract with organizations that can provide those services.”
Among the organizations with whom DCF contracts are Casey Family Services, Easter Seals, Northeastern Family Institute, Laraway School and the HowardCenter. By contrast, some states, including Kansas, Florida and Colorado, have privatized their foster-care systems, which has been sharply criticized by many foster-care families.
Until recently, Tanya and Liza were “Casey kids.” CFS offers “therapeutic foster care” for what are deemed the most difficult and complicated cases, often involving older and high-needs children, including children with disabilities. Tanya became a Casey kid at the age of 17 after a number of other foster-care placements failed.
For years, CFS has provided foster-care programs under state contracts in Maryland, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. It is part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), which UPS founder Jim Casey and his siblings launched in 1948 and named in honor of their mother. AECF is one of the largest private foundations in the United States, with assets of about $2.7 billion.
Foster kids often have a long history of being abandoned by the adults they trust. So when the board of the Annie E. Casey Foundation announced in June that it was closing CFS after 36 years of operation — including its offices in Winooski and White River Junction — the story had an all-too-familiar ring for Vermont’s foster children.
AECF “has an obligation to the kids currently in their care,” says Mark Floegel, a Burlington resident who has been a foster parent to five Casey kids. “These kids have already been traumatized by the abandonment of trusted caregivers.”
Instead of continuing CFS as a direct-service agency, AECF will award $20 million in grants to other agencies in order to “have the potential to impact thousands of children and families, far beyond those currently served,” according to a statement issued by the foundation. Casey Family Services has been funded by a $34 million annual grant from AECF.
Floegel and other Vermont foster parents wrote to the foundation in July urging them to gradually phase out Casey Family Services rather than abruptly leave.
AECF vice president of external affairs Lisa Hamilton says in a phone interview, “We are honored that those families think so highly of the work done by Casey Family Services, and we have worked to ensure a smooth transition for the children in our care.
“We have proceeded with our plan when we announced the closure, working with state agencies to find the best solution for the children,” Hamilton adds.
Asked who will be receiving those grants, Hamilton says that it will take several years before AECF can “figure out who the right organizations are to partner with for the new strategy,” but that some grants will be awarded next year.
DCF Commissioner Yacavone promises, “I will be knocking on their door.”
The abrupt shutdown of CFS has roiled the social-service and philanthropic communities. Nita Lescher, director of CFS’ Vermont office, says she was surprised and saddened by the announcement, which blindsided state agencies and Vermont’s child-welfare advocates.
Michael Brennan, the mayor of Portland, Maine, and the chair of the CFS board of advisers, says of the closure, “I think it’s a terrible decision, the wrong decision and it’s based on wrong information.”
Brennan notes that he was not consulted about the nonprofit’s termination and that it was not done for financial reasons. He says new AECF CEO Patrick McCarthy is determined to change the direction of the foundation.
“I think it’s a huge step in the wrong direction in New England and across the country in terms of direct services in child welfare,” Brennan asserts.
The closure on December 31 will result in a total of 280 CFS employees losing their jobs and will affect 400 children around the region. In Vermont, 28 employees will lose their jobs and 100 Casey kids, including Tanya and 28 other foster children, adoptees and other kids with special needs, will find themselves with new social workers.
Most of Casey’s existing cases have already been transferred to DCF, which has scrambled to find service providers for the most challenging individuals. One thing is almost certain: The high level of support and services provided to Casey kids — which can include intensive psychological counseling for children and families, financial support for college, and highly responsive case management — will likely be reduced.
“The state cannot [provide] and has not provided the level of support that Casey did,” concedes Yacavone. “We are going to have to adjust gradually and carefully to maintain the level of care.” He adds quickly, “As commissioner, I want to do more than that.”
Yacavone says he is determined to break the cycle of poverty, violence and failure in which many foster children are trapped. He notes that under the Shumlin administration, DCF added 18 social workers in 2011 and another nine in 2012 in an effort to reduce the size of caseloads and improve services to foster children.
But Yacovone notes that the problems of foster children run deep: of children served from 2006 to 2008, 30 percent of boys and 10 percent of girls ended up in prison within three years of leaving foster care.
“We’ve got to do better than that. I want to make sure these kids succeed,” says Yacavone. “I gotta fight for those resources.”
On the last day of elementary school, in 2006, a couple from Eden picked up Tanya and Liza. “At first it was very exciting because everything was new — new beds, everything new. They were kind to us,” Tanya recalls. That fall, she entered Lamoille Union Middle School, relieved to be in a better place.
Meanwhile, Tanya’s stepfather was charged with lewd and lascivious conduct and domestic assault. The brave 12-year-old testified for six hours against her stepfather and was grilled by attorneys. The legal drama was surreal and disturbing for her. “I thought they didn’t believe me,” Tanya says. She didn’t know the outcome of that case until told by a journalist for this article.
According to Lamoille County Deputy State’s Attorney Todd Shove, who prosecuted the case, the stepfather pled guilty in 2007 to a misdemeanor charge of domestic assault and was given a suspended sentence of six to 12 months. He did not serve jail time, but he and Tanya’s mother were subsequently divorced. DCF’s effort to terminate the parental rights of Tanya’s mother and birth father was appealed by the parents and ultimately went before the Vermont Supreme Court, which ruled last year that the terminations had been improperly conducted. The parental-rights issue became moot for Tanya when she turned 18 this year, but Liza remains in legal limbo.
After a year in DCF-licensed foster care, the situation with Tanya’s new foster mother “started getting a little more complicated. I think she was having issues with herself, and she couldn’t take care of us any longer. It was frustrating,” Tanya recounts, “because she told us we were going to be there forever and she was going to adopt us.”
Tanya was “very depressed and very emotional,” she says, when the foster mother’s condition meant that she and Liza unexpectedly had to leave their foster home. Over the next year, the girls moved in and out of two more foster homes. They were then returned to their birth mother, who was separated from her abusive husband but was now pregnant. DCF had been working with their mother; the agency almost always prefers to keep children with biological parents when a situation is safe and stable.
“I was very excited,” Tanya says of returning to her mother. “I liked the foster home I was in, but I didn’t feel like I belonged in the family. The kids treated us like foster kids,” she says of the last home she was in before returning to her mother, and the parents would always side with their biological child “even if they were lying.”
But old problems quickly resurfaced with Tanya’s birth mother.
“My mom was yelling 24/7,” says Tanya. The conflict peaked when her mother threw a glass vase at Tanya that cut her face. She and Liza escaped to a neighbor’s house. A week later, DCF returned them to foster care. For the first time, the sisters were separated and moved into different homes.
Tanya moved in with foster parents in Hardwick. “I loved them,” she says. “They had the whole white picket fence, three kids, and I felt very supported and felt they really cared about me.”
The couple promised to adopt her, and Tanya took her foster parents’ last name and enrolled in Hazen Union High School. She had a group of friends and the stable family and home she had always wanted. “I just put [my foster mother] on Cloud 9,” Tanya recounts. “She said I reminded her of herself. She saw herself in me. I felt like she had a connection with me.”
Tanya’s rough life finally hit a smooth patch. It lasted for a little more than two years.
A week before her senior year was to begin, in August 2011, Tanya’s foster parents called her into the kitchen. Her DCF social worker was there. Tanya’s foster mother, who had promised to adopt her, abruptly announced that the girl had 20 minutes to gather her things and leave. She accused Tanya of flirting with her husband.
Tanya was stunned, bewildered and hurt. Her dream had once again turned into a nightmare.
Amy and Bob Wilson already had a full house. They had adopted two other foster children and, six months earlier, had become foster parents to Liza. When Tanya was suddenly turned out of her house last fall, Liza begged the Wilsons to take her sister in. The big-hearted family was about to get bigger.
One reason the Wilsons felt they could expand was that Tanya and Liza had recently begun working with Casey Family Services, which Amy describes as “top of the ladder” in the foster-care system. “Knowing that support was available, my husband and I took it on,” says Amy. “We were doing this in partnership with an agency that was gonna be there for the long haul.”
The Wilsons took out a loan and built an extra room in their Essex home to accommodate their growing family. It was the sixth home for Tanya and the eighth for Liza since they were first removed from their mother five years prior. Tanya registered for her senior year at Essex High School — her 11th school since entering kindergarten.
Amy Wilson, who works with at-risk youth, and Bob Wilson, a supervisor for a Burlington construction company, sit at the table as Tanya tells her story. Bob, a big man with a deep voice, dabs his eyes as Tanya recounts a life in which hope and heartbreak alternate with breathtaking speed.
“I never heard some of these stories,” he observes quietly.
Bob says of being a foster parent, “People say they’re not really your kids. But it’s not like that. It’s about who loves you and who stands by you. That’s what family is.”
Says Amy, “We have the kids we have because that’s who we were meant to parent. We could have our own children.” She motions to the kids running around the house. “They are clearly supposed to be here. They are our children.”
Amy adds, “A remarkable piece of Tanya’s story is how many times these children have, with absolutely no processing, their life changes — boom — here’s your new family. Why would they believe anyone anymore? How many times can you hear that you are going to be in our family forever?”
Last year, Tanya took on a familiar task: reinventing herself in a new school. She was soon connecting with friends, doing well in school and building a life with her new foster family. She keeps her troubles to herself. Few, if any, of her friends know what she’s gone through.
“Kids would be surprised,” Tanya concedes. “I’ve been told by others, ‘Oh, you must be a spoiled rich girl who has anything she wants.’ I was just the preppy girl who dressed nicely.”
She continues, “I always smile a lot and people think I’m happy all the time. Which I am. But I’m very good at hiding my emotions.
“I’m sometimes embarrassed,” Tanya says. “I don’t want people to treat me differently because of my past. I think it’s better to keep things to myself.”
Tanya’s experiences seem to have given her a sixth sense about other young people. “I can almost sense who’s going through a rough time,” she says. “They might spill their guts in public to anyone, and people look at them like they’re idiots. They just want someone to listen to them.”
Asked how she’s able to be so resilient, Tanya goes to her room to retrieve her journals, which she has kept since she was a young girl.
“I love the fact that I kept diaries, because there are times I wonder, did that really happen or did I make that up?” she says. “And I read back what I said. It’s bizarre to me that I almost don’t recognize myself sometimes, because I feel like a whole new person. I am still young, and … I have been given the opportunity to turn my life around.
“I always tell myself that things are worse for other people,” Tanya goes on. “I at least have a roof over my head and people who care about me. I have a good support system and people to fall back on. That keeps me going. Without them, I couldn’t be here, for sure.”
A leap of faith
Tanya hurtles toward Earth at breakneck speed. The ground is coming up fast. Then her chute opens. She drifts down gently into a soft landing. She beams with pride.
Skydiving. That’s how Tanya chose to spend the day following her high school commencement in June, an experience she describes during an interview. When asked why, she breaks into a bright smile and laughs. She says that jumping out of a plane is one of many things on her bucket list.
Tanya has big plans for the future. She is currently working with children in a local after-school program. “I absolutely love working with kids,” she says. “It’s a chance for me to be a kid again. I get to run around the playground and play tag. So it’s for my own needs, too.”
Tanya is currently taking classes at a local college. But nothing is simple for her. Her immigration status is preventing her from getting financial aid, which she will need to fulfill her dream of getting a bachelor’s degree. She hopes someday to be a clinical psychologist.
“Counselors say, ‘We understand.’ But they don’t,” says Tanya. “It would be nice to have a professional who has been through the system. This is my way of giving back and supporting other foster kids.”
“The state was my parent,” she muses. “It’s been part of my life since I was 12.”
What would she tell other kids in foster care? “You’re not what they tell you you are,” she replies. “You are better than that. I want to show you that you have control over your life, [especially] in your attitude.”
There’s something else Tanya would do for kids in her situation. “I would just listen. It would have been nice to have someone who just sits there and listens to you. And I would remind them that [their situation] is not their fault.”
Tanya has maintained a relationship with her biological mother and her mother’s young son, who visit periodically. Tanya has mixed feelings.
“There’s still part of me that remembers that she didn’t protect me. I still have an image of what a mother should be, and she was not fit to be a mother. But there’s part of me that sees that she’s trying and she’s changing. And I want to give her a chance. Life is unpredictable, and I wouldn’t want to regret anything.
“It’s not easy for her, either,” Tanya says. “She’s single, in a minimum-wage job and raising a son. I still want to help her out, financially, I guess.”
As she speaks, the Wilsons’ other three kids buzz around the house, coming in from soccer practice, running out to the backyard to play on the swing set. Amy and Bob sit quietly in the dining room, visibly moved by Tanya’s stories.
Tanya “gives me so much hope for me and my children and in the work that I do,” says Amy. “The resiliency and ability to suffer unimaginable things … and to not just survive but to thrive — that’s remarkable. I feel incredibly blessed and lucky that I get to share this journey with her. It’s an honor. I think she’s gonna set this world on fire.”
Tanya, says Amy, “changes people who she meets. People don’t forget about her.”
In October, the Wilson family gathered in probate court in Burlington to finalize their legal adoption of Tanya. At long last, she has found her “forever family.”
“It’s messy. It’s not the white picket fence,” concedes Amy. “But there’s never a doubt that we are a family and we are going to stay together.”
And what does finally being adopted mean to Tanya? She pauses briefly to consider the question. “It feels like we have closure,” she finally replies, “and that it’s just the beginning to something better.”