Kathy Vermillion is taking care of her grandkids Chance, Xena and Beverly. Credit: Photo: Jack Hunter
“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.
Tabatha tried giving the kids to her friend Wendy, who already had five children of her own. At Wendy's place, Beverly, Chance and Xena were miserable and had to sleep on the floor and on a hard bed board. Their clothes were still dirty. Chance said he wasn't allowed to play. Beverly, the oldest of all eight kids in the house, was essentially forced to act as caretaker for the other seven. Eight kids was simply too many for Wendy to handle herself.
Chance rebelled the only way he knew how, by not going to the bathroom. Xena summed up her thoughts of Wendy in two words: "She's evil!"
"In my opinion, she was abusive to them," says Kathy about Wendy, who cut off all communication between the kids and their family. They couldn't talk to their mom. They only saw Kathy a few times, briefly and under strict supervision. They were isolated.
"I think it did irreparable harm to the entire family when she did that," Kathy says. "First they lost their dad, then they lost their mother to drug addiction, then they went to Wendy's and lost their home, then they completely lost connection to their mother and all their family."
After about five months, Kathy took her grandchildren from Wendy and connected with the state DSHS Kinship Care program, which helps people who are caring for a relative's kids. The program offers classes and training, support groups, grants to help with one-time needs and a clothing closet. For Kathy, the grant money helped pay the rent one month and the program's clothing closet was an "immense help." When Beverly, Chance and Xena showed up, they had nothing but the clothes they were wearing and just one bag between the three of them. Getting actual clean clothes from the closet was, as Kathy puts it, "such a blessing."
Financial assistance from the state isn't bountiful, but it helps. Kathy gets about $400 a month for all three kids from the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Just the grocery bill is incredible, she says, and her pension disqualifies her for food stamps.
It took some adjusting on everyone’s part. Kathy had to re-learn how to take care of kids. As a recently retired state worker, it was something she never thought she'd have to do again. "I thought I had my kids out of the house," she says. "[Taking in the grandkids] was a life changer."
The transition was especially difficult for Beverly. After looking after Chance and Xena for so long, it was hard for her to give up the "mom role" and just be a normal teenager. Old habits also died hard. When she was in sixth grade, Beverly started stealing from fellow students. Shoes and phones mostly.
Kathy said it took a lot of arguing, yelling, crying together, laughing at themselves and talking to a counselor to work through the stealing and other problems. Eventually, though, the kids were able to settle into their new home and life, and they became that picturesque(ish) family that Beverly wrote about in her essay.
Fast forward to the present. Kathy is 63. Beverly is 14, about to enter North Thurston High School. Xena is nine and will be 10 in September. Chance is seven and a half. (The fractions matter when you’re young.)
Their mom, Tabatha, is now seven months clean, has found God and is trying to get on the right track. She has been able to stay in touch with the children through Kathy — perhaps another benefit of kinship care — and tries to stay involved with them as much as she can. Recently, a big moment: Tabatha and the kids went to the Great Wolf Lodge Water Park Resort together for a weekend and they all had a blast.
“The unconditional love my family gave me while I was on drugs slowly but surely melted me to the point where I wanted to change,” says Tabatha, noting that Kathy especially has had her back even when others did not. “It took time, it took them hurting and being angry at me, but they never stopped loving me."
Tabatha said that she does not want what she did before to define her. After she goes through counseling, stabilizes herself and gets a job, she wants to take care of her own children again. Though she admits that probably won’t happen for a couple of years. And only if she is able to stay clean.
The kids want to be with their mother, too, despite what she put them through.
“I love her from the bottom of my heart,” says Beverly. “There’s nothing that can change that, no matter what mistakes she’s made. I really want her to get on her feet and take the mom role again. She’s my mom and that’s where I belong.”
Until that day, home is with Kathy and Mike, who have invested in the children as much as any two parents.
“They make me old and they make me young,” says Kathy. “It’s fun to have them here. I hope that, at some point, they’ll be able to go back to their mom. That’s where they want to be. That’s where they should be. In the meantime, I got them and they’re gonna grow up to be good citizens.”