“My family lived in a huge house. Five bedrooms in a nice neighborhood. Sounds great right? It wasn’t. The electric and water were always turned off. My mom was a drug addict and never home. That meant I had to take care of my sick grandmother while being the mom to my brother and sister. We didn’t always have food. I was only 10.”
Introduction to an essay by Beverly Barrett, 14, Lacey, WA
When the three Barrett kids moved in with their grandma Kathy Vermillion, things got better.
Visiting their house in Lacey is like coming home. A smiling, blue-haired Kathy invites you in like she's known you all your life. Her husband Mike is the kind of grandpa that outwardly acts serious and grumpy toward the family but is in fact friendly and supportive. The two younger siblings, mohawked Chance and short-haired Xena (below), fidget with cups and coasters, bored out of their minds with the adult conversation. Their older sister Beverly, 14 and ever the teenager, texts, laughs at immature jokes and gives a bit of sass every now and then. Fresh coffee is in the pot. It's a picturesque suburban household.
The Barrett kids are lucky, in a sense. When drugs hobbled their mother, they wound up in the home of relatives rather than the state's foster care system. Beverly, Xena and Chance love their grandparents, and they enjoy a sense of security that is rare for foster kids. They don't have to worry about switching homes. They can stay with Kathy and Mike, live a fairly normal life, hang out with friends, have pillow fights, watch movies, do what kids do.
Kathy and Mike are among the more than 35,000 relatives in Washington who are currently caring for the child of a daughter, son, brother, sister, etc. About 38 percent of the state's foster kids are now living with kin. That number has been steadily increasing owing to research that shows the benefits of being placed with relatives. One big benefit of Kinship Care, more colloqiually referred to as "kincare," is that siblings get to stay together: 32 percent in cases of foster kids living with relatives compared to 25 percent when children are placed elsewhere.
Life wasn't always easy for the Barrett kids. Back before they lived with Kathy — back when things were bad — then 10-year-old Beverly was forced to take some tried-and-true desperate measures to care for herself and her two younger siblings: A yard sale. Dumpster diving. Aluminum can hunts on the side of the road. Odd jobs for a neighbor. Stealing from the school’s lost and found. Beverly wasn’t always successful, but she did what she could.
“The house was always a mess,” she recalls. “Sometimes we didn’t have any clean laundry, so I was trying to find something halfway decent for [Chance and Xena] to wear to school. Sometimes it was hard because I didn’t know what to feed them. We didn’t always have food in the house. It was to the point where we didn’t have some of the things we really needed, like soap or shoes.”
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. They were supposed to be a nice family, growing up in a nice house in a nice neighborhood in Rochester. But when Beverly’s stepfather died of a drug overdose — after both he and her mom had been clean for years — her mother, Tabatha, started using again. It got to the point where she forgot about her own children.
“It was really like a disease that had taken over me,” says Tabatha. “I loved my kids, but my drugs were more important to me.”
Tabatha knew she was an unfit mother. She even tried calling the Department of Social and Human Services, telling them she was on drugs and that her kids were in danger. But after checking out the house and interviewing the children, DSHS workers said everything seemed to be fine and that Tabatha could keep looking after them.
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