Dracut resident Tina Mirabello, 50, and her partner were on the verge of becoming legal guardians to two foster children, ages 7 and 12, when she felt the rug was pulled out from under them: The agency that had been supporting them through the complicated process would be discontinuing its services.
Then Mirabello was introduced to the Plummer Home for Boys in Salem, an organization that shared the same goal of permanent care for children as the foster-care agency they had been working with, Casey Family Services of Lowell, and hope was restored.
“We went to a meeting with Plummer and it was amazing,” Mirabello said. “They were really close to Casey with the permanency. We decided to go with Plummer. We had to go with who we thought would be best for our family and the foster children that we were going to care for.”
In December, her family’s case became one of 16 that were taken over by the Plummer home.
The Plummer Home board of directors decided about a year ago to expand the agency’s services for at-risk adolescents and adopt a permanency-based foster care program committed to placing children in homes for life, rather than short periods. At about that time, Casey Family Services, which is overseen by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, discontinued its foster care services in order to focus on grant making.
Both agencies had the same vision in permanency-based foster care, said James Lister, executive director of the Plummer Home. It only made sense to look into the possibility of Plummer appropriating Casey’s clients, he added.
“We were always impressed with their [Casey Family Services] work so I reached out to see if we could transition those cases,” Lister said. “After that, the partnership got even stronger.”
The Casey Foundation provided the Plummer home staff with a training curriculum, and space in its Lowell building. Plummer home, which primarily serves the North Shore, will also maintain its Salem location, Lister said.
By December, the Plummer home was helping 16 of 40 clients from Casey Family Services. The remainder went to various other agencies in the area.
“When I heard about Plummer, I was relieved that these families would be able to have a continuity of services,” said MaryLuz Arling, a former social worker at Casey Family Services, who is now the Plummer home program director. “I knew it would be comfortable for the families and kids as well.”
Although there were concerns during the transition, Arling said it went smoothly because the agencies had comparable goals in care and because of the Plummer home staff’s support and commitment.
“During the transition, we became aware that many foster families were stressed about whether Plummer would work hard toward achieving permanency for each youth,” Arling said. “To reassure them we would communicate our philosophy of permanency at every opportunity we had, in person, on the telephone, or via e-mail.”
Permanency creates lifelong connections and relationships between foster children and adults they trust, such as teachers, extended family members, or foster parents. Bonds between children and adults take time to develop, and the legal process for more formal relationships can take as long as two years to complete. It is worth the time and effort, Lister said.
“We want our kids to leave foster care with a family, not leave alone. But that takes a lot more work and a lot more training,’’ Lister said. “There are many kids in foster care that don’t have anyone. It takes a lot of time, energy, and effort to find those kids a family. Then we have to prepare them and the families emotionally. We’re not just checking in. We’re having discussions about how to cultivate relationships and get these kids back to family.”
Those relationships can help foster children avoid such pitfalls as drug use, joblessness, homelessness, teen pregnancy, or criminal activity. “Without the support of a family and a network of committed adults, youth who age out of foster care will experience staggering hardships,” Arling said.
Staff members say the commitment to permanency sets the Plummer home apart from other agencies.
“There’s always support,” Mirabello said. “The social workers are great. It doesn’t even feel like you’re talking to a social worker, it’s like you’re talking to someone you know. They’ll come out and play with the kids on their weekly visits, things like that. They make the kids feel like it’s another person they can trust and count on and that’s what these kids need.”
Mirabello was inspired to become a foster parent by her mother, who cared for about 75 children over 23 years until her recent death. She said she and her partner hope to be named legal guardians this year for their foster children.
The Plummer home in Lowell has four social workers and several administrative staff members serving children and adolescents ages 6 to 20.
The staff is aiming to serve 40 to 50 families in the next three years.
“Kids often leave foster care to no one but themselves,” Lister said. “Our approach: That’s not acceptable. We owe it to our kids to find them a family and we take that very seriously.”