May 31, 2007

Home away from home

Foster parents care for county’s children in need


Joe McIntyre/staff photographer     
May is National Foster Care Month and nobody knows this better than Deb Slavin, of Groton, who put an addition on her house two years ago to accommodate her three adopted children and two foster children. Slavin is a foster parent who adopted three biological siblings Katie, 4, Chayce, 1, and Trent, 3. Currently there are 125 children in Cortland County’s foster care system, 98 of whom are in residential homes.

Staff Reporter

GROTON — It is closing in on 5 p.m., almost dinnertime, and Deb Slavin’s home is characteristically chaotic.
Chayce, just under 2 years old and Slavin’s youngest adopted child, isn’t feeling well and needs medicine and some attention.
Trent, 3, is seeking attention, too, toddling into the kitchen before being herded back by Billy, a 13-year old foster child who is staying with Slavin and seems eager to lend a much-needed hand.
Meanwhile, Katie, 4, is bouncing around on a rubber yellow hop ball, which elicits a yell from another foster child, a 2-year-old girl, who wants a turn.
All in a day’s work, says Slavin who’s been a foster parent in Cortland County’s program, which is celebrating Foster Parent Awareness Month in May, for six years.
“It’s pretty much non-stop, from the time they get up until the time they go to bed — really it can get a lot more hectic than this,” Slavin said. “It’s worth it though, every minute of it is worth it.”
Since 2000, Slavin has welcomed a total of eight foster children into her home, including three, Katie, Trent and Chayce, who are also biological siblings, who she wound up adopting, and two foster children, Billy and a 2-year-old girl, whom she currently cares for.
Adopted out of foster care when she was 9-months-old, Slavin said she had a natural inclination to become a foster parent and was also looking for an opportunity to adopt.
Slavin’s home has become so crowded she’s put a two-room addition on her home in Groton and recently had to purchase a minivan, but she said she is not done accepting foster children from Cortland County’s Department of Social Services.
“I want to help as many kids as I can, so if they call, I’m sure I’ll answer,” she said.
Currently there are 125 children in Cortland County’s foster care system, 98 of whom are in residential homes, the rest in more restrictive environments such as groups homes or the William George Agency in Freeville, according to DSS Commissioner Kristen Monroe.
About 70 of the children currently in the program are in it for the first time, Monroe said, and in the last year, DSS saw 13 children adopted out of foster care.
The county has roughly 48 active foster homes, but to truly meet the county’s needs, Monroe said that number should probably be doubled.
“That would give us the maximum ability to match the children with the right situation in the right school district,” Monroe said.
Cortland County is most badly in need of foster homes in the city, which has just 14 homes, according to Jennifer Hammond, foster care home finder for DSS, despite the fact that the majority of foster children come from the city.
“We definitely need more Cortland homes because, in most cases, we really like to match the child up with a home that allows them to stay in their school district,” Hammond said.
When a child is deemed in need of foster care, the child is immediately assigned a home, Hammond said.
Rarely are there no appropriate homes in the area available, but occasionally Hammond said she has to seek homes in neighboring counties.
County Legislator Sandy Price (D-Harford and Virgil), who was a foster parent in the area for many years beginning in the late 1960s, said she asked that all foster parents and anyone connected to the program try to seek out one new foster parent this year.
“I really hope that I’ll be able to report next year that that was successful, because we need them,” Price said. “We need a variety of homes with different personalities, in different school districts, so we can match the kids and their circumstances with the right foster parents.”
Finding a foster home that will take kids at the right age level, that won’t scoff at behavioral issues caused by the child’s unique circumstances and that is in the right location can be difficult, Hammond said.
“That’s what makes a foster parent like Deb Slavin, so great,” Hammond said. “She’s mostly just had very young kids, but when I approached her about Billy, who’s 13, she was willing to give it a try and it’s worked out.”
Slavin said she was lucky to have gotten a good child — Billy has become like an older brother to her adopted children, she said — and Billy agreed that Slavin’s house was a good fit.
“I love it here,” Billy said, adding that he had about a month until he was to return to his regular home. “It’s going to be hard to go.”
That sentiment is a two-way street, Slavin said.
“It’s always hard to let them go after you’ve made a connection, but you tell yourself that you’ve made things better for them, and I always make a point to stay a part of their lives,” Slavin said.
Price, who took in more than 50 foster children over the years, five of whom she wound up adopting, agreed.
“One of the things I always held on to is whatever time I had with each of them, whether it’s a weekend or a year, that’s something that child will always carry with them,” she said.
While the separation of foster parents and children can be tough, the removal, even if it’s temporary, of children from their biological parents can also be very draining, Slavin said.
The 2-year-old girl currently living with Slavin becomes almost inconsolable after visits to her usual home, Slavin said.
“She’ll pretty much whine and cry non-stop the rest of the night,” she said. “There’s not a lot you can do other than sit and hold and cuddle, and tell them you love them and everything’s going to be all right.”
The psychological complexities of being a foster parent can be difficult, Hammond said, which is why DSS requires that potential foster parents take a 30-hour course in which they discuss as a group the foster care system and the numerous issues they might face.
DSS also requires annual updates for foster parents and hosts a number of special events for foster families meant to set up a sort of support network.
“We want them to feel like, when things get really tough, they can turn to each other and know that someone understands,” Hammond said.

How and why a child is placed in foster care

According to Tiffany Parker, director of special services for the Department of Social Services, foster children are entered into foster care for one of four reasons:
l The child may be the victim of neglect and abuse who was removed from his or her home by Child Protective Services.
l The child may be classified as a Person in Need of Supervision (PINS).
l The child may have committed some sort of crime and is classified as a juvenile delinquent.
l The child’s parent or caretaker may voluntarily enter the child into foster care.
For children with behavioral issues, DSS tries to seek the least restrictive environment, Parker said, and the ultimate goal is always to reunite the child with his or her parents.
“We have a policy of full disclosure,” Parker said. “We always try to be up front with parents to let them know what their options are, and what needs to happen in order to get their kids back in their home.”
However, another key goal is reaching a status of permanency for each child, Parker said.
DSS often, on a case-by-case basis, does concurrent planning, meaning that if re-unification does not occur over an set period of time, an alternate plan for placing the child permanently with a relative, neighbor or even a foster parent is in place.
While the decision to go with an alternative plan is made on a case-by-case basis, the state requires that a child can’t be in foster care for 15 out of 22 months before a permanent outcome needs to be achieved, Parker said.

Becoming a foster parent

A foster parent must be at least 21 years old, have good health, housing and income, and be willing to work in partnership with the county Department of Social Services, according to Jennifer Hammond, foster care home finder for DSS.
“We’re not looking for perfect people,” Hammond said. “We’re looking for people who want to do something good for a child, who are willing to learn with us walking alongside them.”
Foster parents are subjected to extensive background checks, at least one home visit prior to acceptance into the program and must submit medical and financial information to DSS, Hammond said.
All new prospective foster parents must go through a 30-hour Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting (MAPP) class, which is a group class aimed at “exploring what it means to be a foster parent,” she said.
All foster parents must complete six hours of training every year, and an annual re-certification process that includes a yearly physical and a home visit from DSS.
Foster parents are compensated between $13.50 and $18.62 per day per child, with higher rates for serious behavioral or medical issues. The county pays between 25 and 50 percent of that cost, with the rest coming from the state and federal governments.


Cortland patrolman who fired shots:

‘... I was afraid for my life’

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — In court statements made public Wednesday, a city police officer recounts a high-speed Memorial Day chase in which he fired four shots at a Homer man the officer thought was trying to run him down with his truck.
Patrolman Jesse Abbott, 30, a seven-year veteran of the city Police Department, said Erik Vandenburg, 22, of Homer, was backing toward him with “total disregard for himself or anyone else involved in the incident” on Monday night when Vandenburg nearly struck him with his pickup truck.
The incident occurred during a two-hour chase in which Vandenburg led several officers from five departments throughout Cortland and Onondaga counties.
“The suspect (Vandenburg) started backing up his vehicle and was backing directly at me. At this point the suspect’s vehicle was less than 2 feet away from me,” Abbott said, describing how Vandenburg nearly struck him on the corner of Homer and Brown avenues.
“At this time I was pinned between the suspect’s vehicle and Officer (Jared) Aiken’s vehicle, with the suspect’s vehicle coming directly at me,” he continued. “At this point I was afraid for my life … I moved to my right and fired three rounds from my duty weapon at the suspect. The first two rounds were very quick, almost like a double tap.”
Police said after the incident that although Abbott believed he fired only three times, he actually fired four shots but lost track during the heated event.
Abbott said that, prior to firing his .40-caliber Glock, he had seen Vandenburg drive between 70 and 80 mph down Main Street as well as drive backward down Homer Avenue.
Police eventually stopped Vandenburg in Homer, where officers used pepper spray in a struggle to take him into custody. He was later charged with numerous felony and misdemeanor counts, including attempted aggravated assault of a police officer for nearly striking Abbot with the truck, and driving while intoxicated.
Lt. John Gesin and Officer Mark Reitano, of the city Police Department, said this morning that, contrary to popular belief, officers do not shoot warning shots or attempt to shoot out tires of vehicles during a chase. Gesin said officers are trained only to shoot at the person who is presenting the threat.
“We shoot to stop a specific attack,” said Reitano, the department’s training officer.
Gesin said Abbott has received extensive firearms training through range exercises, not only as a patrolman but as a member of the department’s Tactical Response Unit.
He said it has been more than 35 years since a city officer has fired his weapon at a suspect.
As a result of the shooting, the department will conduct a mandatory internal investigation to ensure Abbott made the right decision when he fired his weapon, Gesin added .
“At this point, based on the witnesses’ statements and Officer Abbott’s statements, I believe his actions were justified,” Gesin said. “I believe the investigation will bring that out.”


In Homer, developer wins new assessment with grievance

Staff Reporter

HOMER — The developer of a senior housing project in the village has won a grievance against the town assessor’s assessment of the project’s value.
Homer’s Board of Assessment Review has decided the property at the corner of Cortland Street and Orson Drive should be assessed at a value of about half of what Town Assessor Larry Fitts determined.
Based on the assessment, the developer — Two Plus Four Construction — would pay $15,623 in taxes its first year, half of what it would have with Fitts’ assessment.
If the village decides to award it a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement, however, the company would pay $16,470 annually for the length of the agreement.
On Wednesday, before learning of the Board of Assessment Review’s decision, Mayor Mike McDermott said he hoped the board could vote on a payment in lieu of taxes agreement at its next meeting, scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, but it is still unclear whether that will happen.
Barb Lamphere, vice president of Two Plus Four Construction, said she received a letter from the Homer Town Board of Assessment Review, made up of residents Stuart Young, Hugh Riehlman and Dennis Leclair, on Wednesday.
She said the company had filed a grievance against the assessment after meeting informally with Fitts on May 18. At the meeting, Fitts affirmed he still stood behind his $770,000 assessment for the project, a number Two Plus Four Construction thought was double what it should be.
Lamphere said she and her colleagues were convinced Fitts had based his number on the project’s $3.5-million cost instead of its income. Under a state law that went into effect Jan. 1, assessments for subsidized housing projects are supposed to be based on project net incomes, as opposed to the property’s actual value.
Riehlman confirmed this morning that Fitts had neglected to base his assessment on the project’s income as he should have.
After a hearing on May 22, the review board decided to reduce the assessed value of the project from $770,000 to $350,000, which is very close to what Two Plus Four Construction had originally projected.
Fitts could not be reached for comment.


After psychiatrist turns down job —

Mental Health Dept. short on doctors

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — A child psychiatrist has turned down a job offer from Cortland County, leaving the Mental Health Department scrambling to find a doctor to handle approximately 700 patients.
Dr. Naiyar Zaman, chief fellow at SUNY Upstate Medical University’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Division, has declined an offer to work for the county as staff psychiatrist for its Mental Health Department.
The county Legislature approved at its April 26 meeting a contract that would have paid Zaman $205,000 annually for five years, but Zaman was hesitant to accept the position.
He said in a brief phone interview Wednesday that the decision was “personal.” On Friday he formally turned the county down, according to County Administrator Scott Schrader.
“This leaves us without a psychiatrist, so we’re definitely doing some scrambling,” Schrader said.
The situation is magnified by the fact that Dr. Edward Mehrhof — who had been handling the bulk of the psychiatrist work for the county — left the department in early May, and Dr. Susan Watrous — a psychiatrist at Horizon House, the county day treatment facility, who has been filling in at the Mental Health Department’s clinic on Grant Street — has also submitted her resignation, effective July 1.
Watrous is spending about a day a week at the clinic in order to satisfy state Office of Mental Health requirements that a doctor be on call one day a week, said Mike Kilmer, director of administrative services at the Mental Health Department.
Watrous is working with psychiatric nurse practitioner Jane Pendergast, who can see adult patients, to see some patients, Kilmer said, however a majority of the 700 patients who receive psychiatric care at the clinic are without a psychiatrist for the time being.
The county receives $70 for each psychiatry session, either through Medicaid or insurance, Schrader said in April.
Mental Health Department patients are now being referred to their primary care physicians to seek refills on any medications, and emergency situations will be sent to local hospitals due to Mental Health’s “barebones staffing,” Kilmer said.