If you ask Tim Dennison what he does for a living, he’ll tell you that he’s a family service specialist for the state of Delaware. “I find kids permanent, caring homes,” he says modestly. His responsibilities, though, are far more complex than his title suggests.
Dennison’s job begins when the court system decides that a child’s parents are no longer competent enough for the child to return home. At that point, Dennison, a 27-year-old from Milford, Delaware, begins the taxing process of trying to match a child with the best, most suitable adoptive families available.
“The families these kids come from have hit rock bottom. They’ve lived lives of instability, turmoil and chaos. Something has gone wrong along the way,” Dennison says.
That something, more often than not, is drugs. Dennison and his colleagues in the Division of Family Services see the impact of the opioid epidemic every day.
“Nine out of 10 cases we see are opiate abuse by the parents,” Dennison says. “It’s sobering. You’re seeing families at their very worst. It puts life in perspective.”
Being a voice for the children
Dennison’s perspective comes from having been in the same shoes as his client. His parents were only 17 years old when he was born. After they split, his mother remarried a man who, Dennison recalls, “seemed like a great guy on the outside. But there was a lot that went on behind closed doors. A lot of abuse.”
Back then, Dennison was the one who needed refuge from his home life. He sought protection at his grandparent’s home in New Jersey, where summers offered an oasis in an otherwise rocky childhood. “They gave me safe harbor,” he says.
His grandparents urged Dennison to strive for more, encouraging him to go to college, something he might not have otherwise done. He graduated in 2012 from the University of Delaware with a degree in psychology.
His upbringing offers him wisdom and patience, both of which he uses every day. As the children he serves make the long journey to safer homes, Dennison is the only constant in their lives. When kids struggle in school, he talks to their teachers to find solutions. When kids act out, he talks with their therapists. When they’re sick, he coordinates with doctors to get them the care they need.
“I’m the voice they don’t have in this world,” he says.
Not a job for just anyone
It’s a daunting job, one made even more difficult by insurmountable caseloads, inadequate staffing levels and poor compensation. “There’s just no getting ahead,” Dennison says of his workload. “It’s impossible to give these kids all the attention they deserve.”
“He’s a young guy with fire in the belly,” Begatto says of Dennison. “First of all, the nature of his work, the long hours – you’ve got to give him a whole lot of credit.”
An avid hiker and camper, he’s found time to tackle some heavy terrain. A recent 14-hour hike to the top of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington wasn’t a big challenge. Which, given his determination, comes as no surprise.