A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
Often it starts with a phone call – maybe directly to the Department of Human Services or maybe to the police who route it to DHS. The caller may or may not identify himself.
What’s important is that he or she is reporting what looks like the abuse or neglect of a child. A toddler was left alone for several hours in the apartment next door; a young child has unexplained bruising; a student regularly comes to school in filthy clothes and is habitually disorientated, fatigued and afraid.
Once that call comes in, Human Services has 24 hours to investigate the situation and to determine whether there is actually a problem that warrants intervention.
If there is a problem, DHS social workers first look close to home for a solution. Less severe situations may call for intense counseling and follow up with the custodial parent (most often the mother.) But if the children need to be separated from the custodial parent, the noncustodial parent may be able to step in. Or perhaps the grandmother. Or an aunt.
In a few cases, a parent will voluntarily place a child with Human Services because the parent is unable or unwilling to provide the care needed.
The court oversees placement and appoints an attorney to represent each child, as well as an attorney to represent the parent. Human Services and the attorneys report periodically to the court and DHS must show that it did what it could to offer parenting support that would allow the child to stay in the home, and that DHS can provide proper placement outside that home.
“The onus is on us,” said Janet Turnbull-Krigger, head of Foster Care and Adoptive Services at DHS.
Meanwhile Human Services tries to keep children with relatives – if there are relatives both willing and able to care for them, Turnbull-Krigger said.
“It’s always about connecting them with their family,” she said.
When that isn’t an option, DHS looks to other members of the community who have volunteered and trained to provide foster care.
“We cannot take people’s children into care if we don’t have a place to put them,” Turnbull-Krigger said.
And that’s why the Virgin Islands’ foster care numbers are worrisome.
Currently there are 136 children in foster care in the territory, but only 56 licensed foster homes, leading to multiple placements in some homes and not necessarily of siblings.
There is a stipend of $390 a month for each child, but department regulations and watchful caseworkers guard against individuals trying to make a business of foster care. Social worker Geannine Reed stressed that providers must be economically independent.
As Turnbull-Krigger and her staff described it, becoming a foster parent – or grandparent – is not onerous, but it does require real commitment. Applicants need a physical, a police background check, approval of their financial status and a home inspection. There is also an interview with DHS personnel. And there is training.
Turnbull-Krigger said there are seven people in her current class. It’s a nine-week course that teaches volunteers about children in the system and trains them to be tender healers. They meet one evening a week for two to two and a half hours.
“Foster care is temporary,” she said. While there have been children who “aged out” of the system – that is, were still in foster care when they turned 18 – most are either adopted or returned to their biological parents before that. The typical placement in foster care is about four to six years.
The department is looking for full-time foster parents, but also for people who can provide care during emergency situations and/or fill in for full-time foster parents for a week or so at a time, offering so-called respite care while the full-time providers take a break.
“Our foster pool should be reflective of our community,” Turnbull-Krigger said, because the children in care come from all segments of the community. “It’s from the wealthy to the very poor.”
To learn more about the foster program or to report suspected neglect or abuse, call Human Services at 774-0930 ext. 4267, ext. 4265, or ext. 4475.