By Jamie Ballard/ Index-Tribune Intern
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series that will look at life in California’s foster care system for both foster children and foster parents. All names of foster youth or former foster youth have been changed to protect identities.
Things have changed since the days of the nuclear family. Blended families, same-sex couples and single parents are commonplace, and the term “modern family” has taken on too many meanings to count.
Whether it’s blended, traditional, same-sex or something else entirely, family is one of the institutions held sacred in American society. But for approximately 90,000 children in California, that ideal of family disappeared when parental abuse or neglect created an unsafe environment. Those children are taken into the protective custody of the courts because their own parents, the people who were supposed to love and protect them, failed to maintain a basic level of care.
In many of these cases, the often traumatic but necessary journey into foster care begins.
According to the California Judicial Council’s Center for Families, Children and the Courts, the legal process begins when suspected abuse or neglect is reported. A social worker is called in to investigate the claim, and if he or she decides that the child is unsafe in his or her current home, the social worker files a petition to declare the child a dependent of the court.
Take Phoenix, who was placed in the foster care system at age 12, and said her abusive parents managed to evade the concerns of social workers for years.
“My parents were into drugs and had some mental health problems … They didn’t take care of my needs – food, clothing, activity, education and most importantly, emotional support – and sometimes they physically hurt me,” she said. “Mostly I was a child of neglect and emotional abuse – being called names and yelled at all the time.”
Reports of this behavior caused several social workers to investigate the home, but Phoenix said her parents knew when a social worker would be visiting, and how to hide their abusive behavior.
“I had concerned social workers come to check out my home situation, but my parents always knew when they were coming and cleaned up their act – and the house, which was usually squalid,” she said.
Eventually, Phoenix simply couldn’t take it any more and, at the age of 12, she harmed herself, which landed her in state custody after she was admitted to the hospital. “I was acting out my pain,” she said. “And trying to get attention. My parents really paid no mind to me, except to yell at me … in retrospect, I think this action – making my parents call the cops and get me safely out of the house – might have actually saved my life.”
A nurse treating Phoenix recognized the signs of abuse, and recommended her for state custody. “I didn’t understand why I couldn’t go home at the time,” she recalled.
In cases like Phoenix’s, a social worker refers the case to the courts for an initial hearing.
After the initial hearing, during which the judge assesses the child’s immediate safety, the case heads to a jurisdiction hearing. Here, the parents have the chance to defend themselves against the allegations of abuse or neglect. To keep an eye on the child’s best interest, the state often turns to the nonprofit Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). These volunteers are individuals who advocate for the child in court and beyond, ensuring the child doesn’t get lost in the legal shuffle.
They spend time with the child, the parents, foster parents, social workers, teachers and anyone else who plays a crucial role in the child’s life and safety.
A child in the foster care system is considered a dependent of the court, a process that is reviewed every six months as long as the child remains under the state’s care.
Millie Gilson, director of the Sonoma County CASA branch said, “CASAs spend time with the children and examine how they’re doing academically, socially, physically and their overall well-being. They spend about 10 to 12 hours with the child every month. Then the CASA will prepare a court report, and our staff will submit it to the court.”
While social workers and representatives of the court also work toward the child’s best interest, they are often hampered by time constraints from a heavy case load, while CASA volunteers focus on one child at a time. Gilson said, “I think the biggest difference between a CASA volunteer and a social worker is that we aren’t paid to be there. When you think about it, everyone in a foster child’s life is paid to be there. We really care about the well-being of the child, and they like to know that you’re there because you care.”
With the assistance of CASA representatives, social workers and others, the court carefully weighs all evidence to determine whether or not the allegations of abuse or neglect are true. If it’s decided that they are valid, there is typically an 18-month reunification period, during which the child lives away from the parents, but can visit, sometimes under the supervision of a social worker.
If the abuse is significant, the child is removed from the parents and, ideally, placed with a relative. However, if this is not a possibility, that child is sent into foster care or a group home.
Angie, who lived in foster care from 1990 to 2003, remembers her appearances in court.
Like Phoenix, she didn’t completely understand why she was there or what was happening. The confusion is certainly understandable when perceived through the prism of an 8-year-old child’s mind. The complexity of the court system is something many adults struggle to understand, and are all but impossible for a child or teenager to navigate.
“Most court experiences are a huge blur to me,” Angie remembered. “But I do remember them being unpleasant, with me walking out of there feeling insulted – like less of a person.”
She continues, “I was a good kid, never did anything wrong, stayed out of trouble – but was always treated like a criminal by the courts.”
After navigating the strenuous and sometimes harrowing court proceedings, the child’s next hurdle is finding a new home. Ideally, a foster family can be found, but if this isn’t immediately possible, a child is sent to an emergency shelter. Nick Honey, director of Family, Youth and Children’s Services for Sonoma County, explained, “If there is no home available immediately, Valley of the Moon Children’s Home steps in. Though it is licensed as a group home, none of the children or teenagers are there long-term. They stay there while we look for a placement.”
He continued, “They have separate programs for different age groups, and are able to take care of children’s needs immediately, give them a safe place to go.”
During her 13 years in foster care, Angie also encountered an all-too-common problem of the foster care system: too few foster families available to care for children in need. She reports that she once slept on the floor of the Child Protective Services office, because there was no place else for her to go. “I was also placed in a juvenile hall and a detox center – despite the fact I never committed a crime or did drugs,” she said.
As of June 2013, there were approximately 561 children in Sonoma County classified as dependents of the court, of which 164 were living with relatives, while 397 lived in foster homes, group homes or emergency shelters.
Gilson said, “There is a proactive point of order. I would encourage everyone to become a CASA, to get involved. Being a CASA is one of the most unique forms of citizen involvement, and it’s very much a staple of the foster care system.”
And, she continued, “I can never encourage people enough to become foster parents. Without enough foster families, a lot of kids end up in group homes, which are the least family-like option available for a foster child.”
CASA has a wait list of foster care youth in need, and is always looking for volunteers. To find out more about opportunities to donate or volunteer, visit sonomacasa.org or call 565-6375.
To report suspected child abuse, call the CPS hotline at 565-4304 or 800-870-7064.
For those considering becoming a foster parent, visit sonomafostercare.com or call 565-4274.