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A foster child’s journey

By By Jamie Ballard INDEX-TRIBUNE INTERN

Editor’s Note: This is the second 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.

The foster care system seeks to serve children first and foremost, but it’s easier said than done.

After a foster child has gone through a complex court system (see part one), he or she is sent to a new home, which is intended to be a safe haven for children who have often experienced abuse or neglect. In many cases, the new home is safe – a place where the child is nurtured and loved.

But there are sometimes foster parents who are equally, if not more, abusive as the child’s biological parents. A study done at the New York University School of Social Work indicated that 28 percent of foster children nationwide reported being abused in their foster homes.

Gail, a former foster child of Sonoma County, is all too familiar with instances of abuse that can happen in a supposedly safe home. She was in the foster care system from 1985 to 1990, during which she lived in three different homes.

In the first home, she experienced physical, emotional and sexual abuse. “That particular foster

mom beat me and my brother with electrical cords and other things. I was also molested by two of her biological sons.”

The foster mother didn’t allow Gail and her brother to go outside. When Gail’s biological mother – who was allowed visitation rights with her children – saw signs of abuse, she contacted Child Protective Services (CPS). According to Gail, the officials said they would talk to the foster mother. “They said that they would tell her not to hit us anymore. But we had to stay at her home, where the abuse continued for a few more months,” she recalled.

Gail and her brother did eventually end up in the custody of their father, but his addiction to drugs raised the suspicions of school officials, and soon the siblings were back in foster care.

At the second home, similar patterns of abuse continued. Gail remembered, “I wet the bed due to emotional problems, and (my foster mother) would rub my face in it and tie the sheet over my head. I can also remember her hitting my brother with a 2-by-4, and it breaking on impact.”

After three violent, abuse-riddled years, Gail’s mother finally regained custody of her two children. Gail said, “I think we were supposed to be adopted after two years, but our social worker believed in my mom, and helped her to keep fighting for us.”

It’s important to note that the primary goal of CPS is to eventually reunite children with their biological parents, as long as it’s determined that the parents are fit to raise their children.

Times have certainly changed since Gail was in the foster care system, and allegations of abuse are taken very seriously, according to Nick Honey, director of Family, Youth and Children’s Services for Sonoma County, “In any situation where there are allegations of abuse, a new social worker comes in to investigate. Whether or not the child is immediately removed depends on the type of abuse. But our primary objective is always to keep the child safe in their (foster) home.”

Social workers are responsible for investigating not only claims of abuse, but ensuring the continued well-being of the child

But as Sal, a foster parent hoping to soon be able to adopt his two foster children, pointed out, “Social workers are beyond strained and are doing the job of three social workers in one.”

This, he believes, causes many children to fall through the cracks. Though most foster children don’t experience horrifying abuse like Gail, many still struggle with other aspects of life in foster care.

Phoenix, a former foster child from 2002 to 2008, said that being in foster care felt comparable to jail. “I couldn’t leave my group homes without being considered a run-away, and I couldn’t leave the county I was a dependent of.”

Other foster children, like Angie, were moved around so often that it was difficult to build a sense of stability while she was in foster care from 1990 to 2003. She explained, “I can’t even count how many foster homes, group homes and institutions I was placed in, but I estimate over 60 … I lived with many foster families who never spoke English and every foster home I was in was packed with children of all ages.”

Joy Thomas, communications and outreach manager for Sonoma County Human Services, said that things are different today. “There is a limit to the number of children who can be placed with a foster parent. This depends on the capacity of the home and the ability of the foster parents to care for and manage the children’s behaviors. Typically foster parents have two or three children placed with them at most,” she said.

Foster families are provided a monthly stipend to care for the child, which increases with the number of children a family takes on. Thomas said, “Monthly payments for foster parents vary based on the age of the child, ranging from $657 for a child aged 0 to 4, to $820 for a child aged 15 to 20. Emergency Foster Homes – which are available to accept children 24 hours a day, seven days a week – receive an additional $700.”

Thomas explains that those who choose to foster using a private agency are paid through the agency. He said, “The payment goes from the county to the Foster Family Agency (FFA), and then a lesser amount is paid to the foster parent with the FFA keeping a share for administrative costs, FFA social worker salaries, etc.”

But as former foster child and current foster parent Jacob described in his blog, imafoster.com, merely entering a new home is stressful. “No matter how much someone opens their home to you, the awkwardness is still there. It’s coming into another person’s space. We (Jacob and his brothers) were going to a new home where we didn’t know how they lived or how they did things.”

Social workers spend long, stressful hours preserving the overall safety of their foster children, meaning there’s generally little time to balance a child’s emotional comfort as well. After surviving in a system they feel is broken, foster children and parents alike have their own ideas on what changes should be made.

Phoenix said if it were up to her, “I would ensure that foster parents went through rigorous training, including sensitivity training and trauma awareness, and were held more accountable for their actions. I would make sure that children were offered more stability in placements, and I would do whatever it takes to make sure that kids get the affection and nurturing that may have been absent from their original homes. I would put an end to the incarceration of foster youth with emotional issues. I see group homes as jail, punishing children for their pain, for their parent’s negligence. That’s just wrong.”

Foster parent Andrew added, “It’s difficult working within a system that does not view foster parents as professionals who wish to better the lives of not only children, but their entire family. The foster care system has changed very little in the last 20 years. Efforts today seem to be largely focused on passing more laws in effort to make things less complicated in the system.”

Honey disagreed and said, “I think, typically, it is underfunded, but I would not say it’s broken. It has a role, but only in high-risk situations of abuse. The community often wants the foster care system to be an answer to all of those problems, but it’s not.”

He continued, “Not every child’s experience is positive. Most of them are coming from difficult situations. But … that’s their individual experience, and it doesn’t mean that every foster child has a negative experience. I mean, there are several of our former foster children graduating from college, we even have one who’s pursuing a law degree.”

In the meantime, anyone can help a foster child by volunteering with or donating to California Youth Connection, a foster youth-led organization dedicated to foster youth empowerment and policy advocacy. For more information, visit calyouthconn.org.