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.