PORTLAND, Maine — Sarah Emerson went through eight different foster homes before she turned 10 years old and met the foster parents who eventually would adopt her. And it was Casey Family Services, a specialized foster care program, that helped her reach a sense of permanence and belonging.
“Casey just opened so many doors,” said Emerson, 29, a former South Berwick resident who now lives in Alabama with her husband and only child.
Without Casey’s help, Emerson said she would have ended up dead or in jail. And now, 19 years since she initially was taken in by the agency, she has learned that Casey Family Services is closing its offices by the end of the year, leaving behind only a small staff to help any remaining children with higher needs make the transition by June 30, 2013.
“It feels like a big part of me is missing now,” Emerson said.
The closure was announced on Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the agency’s parent organization, as part of a strategic shift from providing direct services to providing more funding for other organizations that provide these services.
Norris West, director of strategic communications for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said the move will allow the foundation to support more children and families than the agency could support on its own.
Between the two offices in Portland and Bangor, the closure will affect about 92 children in Maine, said John Martins, director of communications for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. But Martins said there is enough time to for every child to make the transition to a new agency that meets his or her needs.
Martins indicated the children in Casey’s program have different needs depending on the child and his or her individual life experiences. He said some foster children have had particularly rough upbringings as they bump from foster home to foster home in their paths to find a permanent foster or adoptive family. These children require more direct support from the agency, he said.
Casey is scheduled to transition the majority of foster children and their families to other agencies with openings by Dec. 31, West said. A small staff will stay on board until June 30, 2013, to help any cases that need more time.
“We know the capacity exists, but it would be premature to say which agencies the kids would go to,” West said. “We want to make sure the children have a placement that is appropriate for them.”
The decision came under fire by Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, a chairman of the foundation’s board of advisers, and others have voiced concerns about the agency’s closure on its Facebook page.
“It’s really a detriment to the area,” said Ian Ricigliano, who has been a foster parent for four months with training and support from the Casey Family Services’ Bangor office.
If it wasn’t for the agency, Ricigliano, 37, of Hermon said he and his wife wouldn’t have become foster parents in the first place, which sometimes can amount to an extra full-time job with the kind of care and attention foster children need. The Hermon couple went through foster parent training with Casey Family Services, a contract agency for DHHS.
The Hermon man said his foster child’s caseworker from the agency spent more time with his family for support and training — sometimes as many as 40 hours in a week — than the child’s appointed guardian from DHHS.
“They were at every doctor’s appointment,” Ricigliano said. “The guardian wasn’t at all the doctor’s appointments she was required to go to.”
Despite the concerns, the agency’s Portland division director, Mark Millar, said he is “committed and confident” that every child will have a “comprehensive transition.”
“We’re open to other ideas, but we’re skeptical,” Ricigliano said.