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Like so many broken chess pieces

Foster children shuffled from one home to another often bear a lifetime of pain

Editor’s note: There are countless good-hearted people in this world who welcome affection-starved and needy children into their homes and offer them a better life. This article is not about, but rather to those people.

BY DANIEL BLACKBURN

She was a wide-eyed, 7-year-old first-grader without a clue when the principal called her to his office. Christina Hughes remembers the somber-faced woman who sat there, and who told Christina that she was being taken to a foster home for the weekend.

Her mother was an alcoholic with violent tendencies, and her father showed no interest in the family.

The child was whisked away, speechless, terrified, at the beginning of an 11-year journey through 10 different foster homes, marked by all-too-frequent, loathsome experiences that would deeply scar her psyche and stack the deck against her chances at a normal life. Today she’s 22 but looks 15; those same wide, brown eyes, though older, crinkle easily and pool with tears at fleeting, sad memories of earlier times.

The young Templeton woman’s experiences, pathetic as they are, are hardly atypical in a shielded and sheltered world where youngsters without parents are hustled from residence to residence like so many broken chess pieces. She’s hardly an exception to the rule.

Christina remembers moving … often.

The first home in which she lived had a biological son and nine other foster kids, five of who stayed in a single bedroom. At the end of the first year, a social worker asked her a strange question: Had she ever been touched in a sexual way by the boy whose parents owned the home? No, she said, but since there had been an accusation, all of the foster children were removed from the residence.

Thinking about her second home evoked quick tears: "I lived there about a year, and it went really well, I really loved them a lot. They told me they wanted to adopt me, and I always assumed they would," she said recently. "I was happy."

In the meantime, her mother, still drinking heavily, would call often to berate Christina for not coming home. When Christina and her brother would visit their mother, she would get drunk and punish them in odd and painful ways. Those actions eventually led to a court-ordered, permanent revocation of all parental rights.

"They didn’t even try to find my dad. They just terminated his rights as well," she remembers. Christina was 9. She was told by the court that she could have no contact with relatives because that might facilitate contact with her mom.

"The social workers told me I’d be better off in foster care and that I’d probably be adopted eventually," said Christina.

"I thought I’d be adopted by the couple I was with. I was their first foster kid. They had been unable to have children. They were about 25 years old. All of a sudden she got pregnant and she didn’t want to have a foster kid anymore."

Christina’s composure fled; her lower lip began trembling and tears coursed down her cheeks as she told the story.

The couple made arrangements for Christina to move next door to a neighbor’s house. Again, there was talk of adoption.

"But I had problems at school, and I argued too much, so they decided they didn’t want me to live with them."

Christina went to live in her fourth foster home at age 10, in a family with seven biological children. Then Christina thought her prayers had been answered.

"An adoptive home was found for me, but I was only there for 13 months before the parents discovered that their son had been sneaking into my bedroom and sexually abusing me," Christina sobbed. "The parents terminated adoption proceedings, telling social workers that I didn’t get along with their son and his friends. No one even asked me why."

When she left, the parents loaded her up with presents, including a bicycle and a CD player.

"I guess it was to shut me up," she said.

Her next home situation was with an alcoholic who smoked cigarettes so heavily that the house reeked. When Christina mentioned it to an inquiring physician during a physical examination, a battle ensued with the woman, who told the girl she was no longer welcome in her home.

After two more short tenures in temporary homes, she petitioned a judge to allow her to contact her relatives.

This resulted in a four-year stay with an aunt and uncle, a comparatively happy time even though "my aunt reminded me of my mom." Christina completed high school and made the honor roll often, a situation she attributed to an uncommon stability in her life. That lasted until she was nearly 18. Once more, she said, she was molested, this time by a relative. She left that home and headed for Central California.

Christina and thousands of youngsters like her are the helpless victims of a system that–however well-meaning its intent–creates nearly as many problems as it solves. They are the sad subjects of an overworked, overburdened, under-financed, and far-from-perfect system faltering under sometimes incompetent, often bloated, administration.

Unfortunate youngsters find themselves in the company of social workers through a variety of mechanisms, natural and man-made. Modern society, in one way or another, must find ways to provide for children under the age of 18 who are left without care.

Orphanages of years past were mostly repositories for children who usually were just that–orphans. Rarely was a child taken from parents by the government, even for the most hideous conduct. But over the decades, that circumstance has changed, and today social workers don’t hesitate to swoop in on abusive parents and guardians and remove children from dangers faced in their own homes.

Public and private institutions such as orphanages, though, suffered from a widespread image problem. Often depicted as stark, cold, overcrowded buildings without personality, staffed by heartless people bent on maximizing juvenile suffering, these institutions eventually fell from pubic favor. Their social demise was helped along by widely broadcast horror stories of children being sold like cattle to people whose only qualification was the ability to write a check.

During the Kennedy and Reagan administrations, the federal government closed down mental facilities under the trappings of a new policy that became known as "deinstitutionalization," wherein people unable to care for themselves were sent from their safe cocoons into the community for care that was not forthcoming.

So, too, did the classic orphanage institution give way to a new concept and methodology: foster homes, thus hatching a new version of the old problems.

In theory, there seemed at the time to be no better solution. The idea was that kindly people, either with existing families or unable to have children of their own, would take unfortunate children into their homes and nurture them to adulthood. Needy children would be introduced to people who wanted to be parents, and everyone would be happy.

Foster homes provide the backdrop for a most difficult social tightrope; the issue of child welfare covers a dizzying array of public and private services and deals with extremely fragile personalities and complex relationships with families.

Nationally, the problem of dependent child care is significant. An overburdened system has responsibility for 585,000 foster wards, double the number just five years ago. Complicating the sheer volume of needy kids is a 25-percent decline in available foster homes–now numbering about 142,000, according to data provided by Stateline, a Pew Center-sponsored organization specializing in tracking and publicizing public policy.

U.S. taxpayers shell out $12 billion annually to provide for these children.

California will spend about $3 billion on its foster care and child welfare system. Half of those expenditures will be provided by federal tax dollars.

Some of that money goes to foster parents in the form of monthly fees, earmarked for children’s care, feeding and education but just as often collected almost as a bounty and used for a variety of nefarious purposes.

But all of the money spent does not come close to solving the many problems plaguing the system. According to a recent report by the California Department of Social Services (DSS), California has 20 percent of the nation’s foster children (97,000 at last count), but only 12 percent of the population–a statement, perhaps, on the relaxed (some say overindulgent) lifestyle of many Golden State denizens.

Fewer than 10 percent of the kids in foster homes will ever be adopted.

California’s primary fostering system is called the Out-of-Home Care System, designed ostensibly "to protect those children who cannot safely remain with their families," in the words of the DSS. Of the children handled under this system, most have been made dependents of the court after removal from their parents. Others are wards of the juvenile court system, and a few are placed voluntarily by parents into out-of-home care.

Once in the system, children are headed for one of several destinations. State law requires that relatives be given preference over other types of placements, so that is a first choice. Then, kids might end up in licensed foster family homes, homes certified by foster family agencies, and in group homes.

Except for relatives and legal guardians, all care providers are supposed to be licensed by California’s DSS, county licensing bureaus, or foster family agencies.

The department attempts to provide foster parent training through various venues statewide, as well as independent living training for teens 16-18. It is a harsh reality of the fostering program that payments cease when a child turns 18, and as a result most kids are sent packing as soon as the birthday candles are extinguished. An estimated 15,000 18-year-olds are turned loose every year in the United States; untrained, uneducated, and unmotivated, on an unsuspecting and nonchalant public.

For those kids in foster homes, some oversight is provided. Under California rules, if all goes as planned, a judicial or administrative review will be held every six months to determine if home care remains necessary for a youngster; family reunification, after all, remains a priority, according to written objectives of the state agency. If reuniting the child with his family home is not possible, then permanent placement becomes the next alternative.

This activity is generally handled at the county level.

San Luis Obispo County’s Department of Social Services processed 3,555 individual cases last fiscal year, and statistics so far this year hover at similar levels. That’s an average of nearly 300 frightened, often resentful, usually problem-ridden children needing a new lease on life each and every month.

It’s a fact of life that foster kids, in the end, are treated the same way all kids are–well or poorly, kindly or cruelly, decently or indecently. It’s a roll of the dice which some win, others lose. But when government has stepped into private lives to assume responsibility for children through the power of the courts, it becomes incumbent on that government to follow through on its tax-financed humanitarian mandate.

But the truth remains: Governments don’t nourish children. People nourish children.

A national group called FosterCross, a coalition of church-based entities, claims on its web site that many problems facing the foster system are a case of too little, too late:

"The current foster care system is simply overworked, and the only way to provide many of the unmet needs of both foster children and the families that care for them is through a comprehensive extended family or neighborhood support group."

Eileen McCaffrey, executive director of the Orphan Foundation of America, opines that "since federal funding guidelines encourage state-run foster care programs to emphasize short-term, crisis-management services, non-government players must concentrate on longer-range, skill-development programs. Youngsters leaving foster care ill-equipped for life on their own often wind up homeless, permanently dependent on welfare services."

In San Luis Obispo County, many foster children are sent to out-of-county homes, a situation that often results in long-distance and often long-lived separation of siblings.

"There are just too many kids for the facilities we have here," said Sandy Oneal, a San Luis Obispo businesswoman who saw the problem in 1999 and came up with a possible solution.

Oneal formed with a handful of SLO associates, a group called D.R.E.A.M. for Kids Foundation.

Working with the county’s two primary placement agencies, the Department of Social Services and Probation, the fledgling endeavor’s participants soon focused on what they perceived as the primary problem.

"There were at least 40 kids going out of the county," said Oneal, "because there is no ‘Level 14’ facility here." Such a facility would offer care for kids considered most at risk of having major social and psychological problems. "They’ve been kicked out of public school, they have been abandoned, they have big issues."

D.R.E.A.M. set out to assume some of the burden from the county. The plan was to build a private facility, a "campus" as Oneal likes to call it, which would serve several purposes. It would allow the "Level 14" kids to remain in the county; it would provide a place for siblings to stay to better accommodate their placement as a cohesive unit in one home; and it would provide a place for the county’s overflow.

"The whole idea is to keep the county’s kids here … in the county," said Oneal. "We could keep them from age zero to 22–just like the old orphanages used to do, until they were ready to go out on their own." She envisioned a place where kids could be housed, educated, taught vocational training, with counseling services, nursing facilities–an all-inclusive campus. Older youngsters would act as mentors to their younger peers.

But when Oneal used the words "like an orphanage" around county officials, she said she was quickly told, "We don’t use that word anymore."

Objections to semantics notwithstanding–the county has problems of its own–Oneal believes the system’s piecemeal approach is partly responsible for bureaucratic confusion.

"You have so many agencies working, with case files up to here, that no one has the time to ask, ‘What’s best for the kids?’ They are all so overwhelmed with their workloads," said Oneal.

But there were ego problems, too, said Oneal: "I think some county people thought we were trying to show them up. But when you have something like this, that is a genuine crisis in this country and in this county, then you have to push it in their faces sometimes. They have so many other things on their minds."

Soon, the atmosphere between county officials and the D.R.E.A.M. people began to sour, said Oneal. It was "combative from the beginning," she added.

"They started asking us, ‘Where’s your business plan?’ I said, ‘Where’s your business plan, they’re your kids. We’re just a bunch of volunteers,’" said Oneal.

The kids that D.R.E.A.M. wants to help are headed for big trouble.

"These kids, when they get out of the foster care system, often become a burden on society–committing crimes, doing drugs, having baby after baby with no means of support, and ending up homeless and on welfare," said Oneal. "Then government is forced to pay attention."

Eventually, with a little luck and a lot of fund-raising, D.R.E.A.M. will buy San Luis Obispo real estate and build a campus housing about 60 kids at a time, helping to shape those young lives into productive and happy people.

Christine Hughes doesn’t have any trouble remembering what life kept from her: "It’s awful not having your own mom. Even though mine beat me, I forgive her. Even though she was hurting me, I still wanted to live with her. I still love her." Æ

 

News editor Daniel Blackburn can be reached at dblackburn@newtimesslo.com.




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