A Rutland couple, praised for their work in foster care, says bedbugs and botched attempts by the state to get rid of them have turned their life upside down.
Neil Whitney works nights as a groomer at Okemo ski resort. His wife Patricia is a stay-at-home mom who cares for their disabled son. Twenty-one years ago they opened their Rutland home to high-risk girls who needed foster care.
Patricia said it became like a calling and in 2008 the Whitneys were named Rutland’s Foster Parents of the Year. “We’ve tried to make a difference,” said Patricia Whitney. “And so it wasn’t just a home to us, it was a home to over 200 girls and it made a difference to them.”
Two years ago, Vermont’s Department of Children and Families asked the Whitneys to take in a teen who’d just given birth. The hospital wouldn’t allow the young mother to return to her apartment because it was infested with bedbugs.
Patricia Whitney said she and her husband agreed to take the girl on condition. “That if we were to get bedbugs, DCF would pay to take care of the problem. Which they agreed,” said Patricia. “A month later we discovered we had bedbugs.”
At first, the Whitney’s said they were given cans of bug spray and told to take care of the problem themselves. When that didn’t work, the state hired a company called Nature’s Way.
Patricia and Neil said despite multiple treatments, their bedbug problem worsened. “I told them several times that I didn’t think it was working,” said Patricia. “I told social workers, I told the resource coordinator, I told the district coordinator.”
“It was really trying for me waking up every morning knowing you‘re getting bit all the time,” said Neil. “And that process was over eight months going through this.”
In April 2013, the state hired Rutland Town exterminator Cary Buck of AAA Accredited Pest Control.
“We were told he came highly recommended from the Department of Health and that was who they use in this area,” said Patricia.
Added Neil, “I ducked in a few times while he sprayed trying to see what the process was, how it was being done, and questions just started going off in my head immediately.” Neil said, “It looked like he was using a car wash wand. Watching what was going on and the smell that was in there,” Neil shook his head, “I knew something was wrong right then and there.”
Patricia said the mess was terrible. “I looked in the downstairs window and it was dripping off the kitchen counter and I could see where it was pooling on the floor. And we had been sprayed so many times the year before that it was definitely not like anything we had seen in the previous year,” she said. "It was a totally different way of spraying the house.”
Patricia said she contacted the state Agency of Agriculture to test their home and last spring, field agents found high concentrations of a banned and potentially harmful pesticide called chlorpyrifos. That prompted countywide testing and various amounts of the chemical have been found in dozens of other residences treated by Buck.
The environmental Protection Agency was called in to assist with cleanup, but the Whitney’s home remains uninhabitable.
Neil said he and his son spent the summer living in a 26-foot camper apart from his wife and foster daughter. “It’s been traumatic,” he said. “We haven’t live in our home since April 2013, and all our possessions are still in our house and still today there’s no remedy for the situation." Neil’s eyes filled with tears. "Do I get my house back?" he asked. "Do I get my possessions back? There’s no answers to any of our questions yet.”
The family now lives in an apartment across the street. The state pays their rent, but the Whitneys pay utilities.
While they continue to care for one foster child, Patricia says the state hasn’t placed any other children with them long term since Buck sprayed their house. That’s meant a huge drop in income she said, which has exacerbated the family’s financial problems.
In November, the Whitneys filed suit against Vermont Secretary of Human Services Doug Racine and several lower ranking officials with the Department of Children and Families.
Vermont’s Attorney Generals Office filed a motion this month to have the suit dismissed arguing that under the Constitution, individuals can’t sue state officials acting in their official capacity in federal court.
“Really what’s going on here,” said Assistant Vermont Attorney General Eve Jacobs-Carnahan, “is the state tried to help the Whitneys by helping to get rid of the bedbugs.”
Jacobs-Carnahan says that while the state did hire exterminator Cary Buck, Mr. Buck is responsible for any damages he may have caused. Buck has repeatedly denied using the banned pesticide.
Jacobs-Carnahan said, “Nonetheless we’re very sympathetic to the hardships that the Whitneys have faced here and we’ve already been providing them with housing and other support and we’re really trying to help resolve this.”
The Whitneys have 30 days to respond to the state’s motion to dismiss.