Nellie Pennington and Nate Hine
Problem Addressed Income and Wealth Inequality
Solution Volunteer to advocate and support neglected and abused children through Vermont’s Guardian ad Litem and foster care programs
Location Vermont
Impact Local

What they are doing

In their roles as licensed foster parents, Nate Hine and Nellie Pennington provide both short-term and long-term care to children in the custody of the Vermont Department of Children and Families, the majority of whom come from impoverished families. Hine also volunteers as a Vermont Guardian ad Litem and as a CASA in New Hampshire. In these court appointed roles, Hine advocates for the best interests of abused or neglected children.

Their story

Nate Hine and Nellie Pennington have opened their hearts and home to more than 20 foster children since the COVID pandemic further strained Vermont’s already under-supported Department of Children and Families (DCF). They share a passion for helping children born into adverse conditions because it’s the right thing to do, though they think there’s a better way to support the children.

“If we could just magically make poverty go away,” Hine told us, “which I believe we could if we actually cared enough to do so, I think immediately three-quarters of the work that the child protective system does would just disappear, including foster care.”

Hine has an intimate knowledge of that system and what brings families and children into its orbit. He first got involved as a volunteer on a hotline that offered support to survivors of domestic abuse. He had seen the impacts of domestic violence and substance abuse within his own middle-class family and wanted to put that experience to some good when he retired from his engineering career. He soon also volunteered as a court observer, attending court hearings for protective orders, which are legal documents issued to protect the health and safety of people in physically abusive situations.

During these hearings, Hine was drawn to the work of Guardians ad Litem (GALs). In every child maltreatment case, GALs are appointed to represent and advocate for the child’s best interest. With different people rotating in and out of the role of foster parents, social workers, and therapists, he saw that a GAL could be the most stable, constant support in a foster child’s life. He soon went through training to become a GAL himself.

By meeting regularly with the child and other relevant figures in their lives, GALs like Hine develop a personal understanding of the family dynamics and what social services would benefit them most. This allows Hine to play a crucial role in the mediation processes that occur in court, in which families, social workers, lawyers, GALs, and the judge all work together to determine the best course of action for the child. Outside of the courtroom, sometimes Hine’s job is simply to get busy lawyers or DCF employees to return a family’s calls. In the seven or so years he has participated in the GAL program, Hine estimates that he has worked with about 100 children.

Soon after the pandemic began, when DCF sent out an email seeking volunteers to take in foster children on a short-term basis and often with little notice, he and Pennington offered themselves and their home. They understood that DCF was under pressure as a result of the growing health crisis and the risks it presented to older foster parents. And they agreed that with a bedroom and bathroom where someone could quarantine, if necessary, they were in a better position than most to open up their home to a kid in need of a place to stay.

They went through DCF training and became licensed foster parents in the summer of 2020.

Opening Their Home

Foster kids, whether they are 6 years old or 16, bring pain from whatever traumas they’ve experienced and have anxiety from being apart from their biological family and being handed off to strangers. They may also have additional stress as they wait for an adoption to come through or another foster placement. All that, Pennington says, can be expressed in many different and challenging ways.

And that’s why, when a foster child enters the Hine-Pennington home, “Their job is to heal in whatever way they can,” Pennington explained. ‘We want them to feel safe. We want them to feel cared for.”

That care begins with giving each new foster child the choice of bedrooms: the one across from where Hine and Pennington sleep, which usually appeals to the younger children who want the adults close by at night, or the one downstairs and at the other end of the house. It’s no surprise who chooses this room.

That kind of individualized caregiving is familiar to Pennington, who has been the director at the Open Fields School in Thetford for more than 12 years. The school emphasizes a highly individualized approach to learning for children ages 4 through 12. The couple’s two sons attended when they were younger.

For the kids who come into their home for respite care, that is, for just a night or up to a week, there’s not much that Hine and Pennington can do beyond giving them the space they need, the amount of attention they want or are willing to accept, access to available activities like board games, video games, and swimming in the pond, and whatever food they want.

Food especially can be a point of familiarity as well as reassurance, Pennington says, noting that food insecurity is common among fosters. She now stocks her cupboards with hot dogs, boxed mac ‘n cheese, SpaghettiOs, and sugared cereals – “things that I never would have bought for my own kids.” Not only does she try to provide the food they want, she and her husband let them eat when they want.

She likened hers and Hine’s role to the fun grandparents who don’t have a lot of rules except we “eat when you’re hungry, eat what you want, and treat each other with respect.”

After fostering about 20 children in respite care, Hine and Pennington have since hosted three long-term fosters. So far, the longest stay has been 15 months.

With long-term foster care, their role is a bit different. For one thing, DCF might flag an activity that’s not safe that might lead to in-home rules limiting time on social media or access to phones and computers. At some point, Pennington and Hine begin to assign responsibilities like making their own lunch, cleaning up their room, or making sure not to spread their mess into common areas. Some of the kids, whether they are short-term or long-term fosters, offer to help around the house without any prompting.

As for the challenging behavior, Pennington recalled a young foster child who would have two-hour tantrums during which she would throw and break things. Looking back, Pennington isn’t sure that she handled those tantrums very well, but she eventually learned not to interpret the behavior of her “fosters” personally, which gave her the ability to better manage her response to such emotionally charged situations.

Although their placements are temporary, the relationships Pennington and Hine form as foster parents can be enduring. At the time of our interview, they were preparing for a respite visit from a preteen girl they had fostered. The girl was successfully reunited with her biological family after her initial stay with them.

Supporting a Patch on a Flawed System

According to a study published in Social Service Review, “Children in the child welfare system are disproportionately drawn from families living in poverty.” This is consistent with the experience of Hine and Pennington: All of the children they have fostered come from families that have experienced financial insecurity.

Of the four categories of child maltreatment—physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect—the one that results in the most child removals is neglect, which is defined as the inability to provide one’s child with basic necessities. Many realities of living in poverty—like the inability to afford sufficient food, clothing, or healthcare—can qualify as neglect and thus warrant an investigation by DCF. Poverty is also heavily correlated with domestic violence, substance abuse, and untreated mental illness, three of the most common reasons a child will be taken into the custody of the state. In Vermont, physical abuse and sexual abuse far outpace neglect among reported cases of child maltreatment.

Hine has seen how damaging poverty is to families and children. He views the foster care program as a bandaid on a bigger system that fails to support them: Rather than creating a system that intervenes to prevent neglect and abuse of children, Hine says, the system tolerates widespread poverty and the trauma of removing kids from their parents and siblings.

Studies have shown that separation from one’s biological family can cause a child to experience developmental challenges and difficulty forming trusting relationships as they age. Compared to poor children on Medicaid who remained with their families, foster children have more adverse long-term outcomes, including higher rates of teen pregnancies, substance abuse, and criminal activity.

Ultimately, the best place for a child to grow up is with their biological family. The current child welfare system, however, is not capable of preserving family unity without adequate social and financial support to families.

Interaction with DCF unlocks access to programs and services designed to combat factors that contribute to child maltreatment. However, with the way the system operates today, this often comes at the price of having one’s child taken away, at least temporarily.

“One of the things that we run across a lot is the situation where families can’t get services until DCF is already involved at the point their kids are taken,” Hine says. “If the family had gotten the services they needed six months previously, then the kids would have been in better shape. The parents might not have had to go to foster care.”

Class, Race, and Foster Care

Hine and Pennington are also acutely aware of the impact of wealth and race on the foster care system.

Issues of neglect, substance abuse, and domestic violence, which often initiate investigations into child maltreatment, are more prevalent among, although not exclusive to, low-income families. Consequently, low-income families are subject to surveillance bias by mandated reporters who are alert for signs of child maltreatment. Families that do not rely on social service programs typically face less scrutiny from mandated reporters and thus are subject to fewer investigations by child protective services.

Race is also a factor. In the United States, Black and Indigenous children are about three times more likely to live in poverty than White Children. Given all the ways poverty makes families more vulnerable to child removal, this inevitably leads to greater representation of minority groups in the foster care system.

Even in the relatively small, mostly white state of Vermont, the role race plays in shaping the foster care system is abundantly clear to Hine. Despite smaller numbers of racial minorities, disparities persist when comparing data on the number of children belonging to various racial groups in foster care and the state overall. Proportionally, Black children in Vermont are more likely to be in foster care than white children.

On a national level, Black children make up a far greater portion of children in foster care than they do of the entire child population. Between 9-12% of Black children in the US experience the foster care system, compared to around 5% of white children.

Similarly, it is estimated that 10-15% of Indigenous children in the US will experience foster care at some point in their lives. This disparity is the enduring legacy of Indian Boarding Schools, the missionary schools in which the federal government forcibly enrolled thousands of Indigenous children, severing them from their tribal communities in an attempt to assimilate them to Western culture. Prior to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, 25-35% of Indigenous children had been removed from their homes.

Hine lauds efforts to improve the foster care system, including legislation such as the Family First Act, but he does not lose sight of the deeper problem that needs fixing. He shared his views in July when he and Pennington presented their experience with the foster care system to their church in Strafford.

In the excerpt below, in referring to poverty and the limitations it puts on those living in poverty, Hine says, “These are all things that we’ve chosen as a society to allow to exist amongst us. And the outcome of that is children who can’t stay with their parents. That’s just one of the logical and unavoidable outcomes of those political choices that we’ve made.”

Hine believes that with enough commitment, the government could be capable of addressing the issues that create a need for foster care. “The problem of poverty is simple,” he says. “You’re not going to completely solve it, but you could have enormous impacts, as we showed with this recent experiment with an expanded child’s tax credit.”

Hine is referring to the one-year expansion of the Child Tax Credit (CTC) under the American Rescue Act of 2021. The expanded CTC lowered child poverty by 40% that year. When the CTC expansion expired at the end of 2021, the child poverty rate jumped from 12.1% in December 2021 to 17% in January 2022 – the highest monthly rate since 2020.

The expansion was only temporary, but it’s given new life to the adage: Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Author: George Linzer and Rachel Roncka
Published: September 1, 2023

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Sources

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