Friday, December 31, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part VII

Before I get on to this week's post about how we can improve the foster care system, I'd like to wish everyone a happy and healthy secular New Year. If you are traveling, please be safe and keep the rubber side of your car down and in contact with the road.

Now, for this week's installment.

A bit more than two weeks ago, Mothering4Money wrote a comment in response to my post Word to the Wise: Keep Everything. In her comment, she wrote:
This demonstrates another thing that should change about the foster care system. Workers treat an investigation of a homestudied/fingerprinted/referenced/background checked foster & adoptive parent the same as an investigation of a birth parent. Actually they seem to have laws or rules that protects the birth parents (can't enter the home without police or court order) more than the foster parents (because foster parents sign that document allowing 24/7 access into their homes - as a show of good faith and supposedly to prove they aren't harming anyone and are always in compliance of state standards). If CPS has already given the family clearance and assessed them to be worthy of caring for children, and that family has a clean record of caring for children for CPS with no problems spanning over years and years, then CPS should give that family the benefit of the doubt or use a little common sense when deciding whether or not to investigate.

Recently there was a foster parent here locally who received two children from a disruption. The previous foster parent kept documenting the children's behaviors and asking for help, and when she couldn't get any assistance, she requested the kids to be moved. The couple that accepted the placement were in the final stages of adopting a child that they've had for several years. That was halted though when one of the new kids went to play therapy and said "Mama spanked me with a fly swatter." The foster parent got a call from the regular case worker saying she was just in the neighborhood and wanted to stop by. When she arrived, she was with her supervisor's supervisor, and they were there to remove the children. Fortunately, the foster parent didn't even own a fly swatter. And when they further questioned the little boy, calling the foster parent by name, he said "She's not my Mama!" After that, the foster parents requested everyone be moved except for the child they were adopting and told CPS that they were no longer interested in accepting placements. The whole thing could have been avoided had CPS used a little common sense or had the decency to give the foster parent the benefit of the doubt.

Thank you, Mothering4Money, because you have just written this week's post for me. I could stop right here and enough would be said on the subject. This is exactly one of the biggest problems that face foster caregivers in the system.

Now the truth is that there are foster parents who abuse their children. It happens. There was a pretty horrible case here recently where a well-known and well-liked foster parent was accused of hitting and withholding meals from her foster children when they misbehaved. It was a shock to everyone, because this foster mom had been licensed for decades and had probably been mistreating kids for most of her career.

That's bad. It's really bad. But I also think that foster parents who abuse their kids are in a tiny minority.

The problem is that whenever a foster mother abuses her charges, it makes the local news. It gives all foster parents a bad name, even those who don't deserve it. When a birth mother abuses her child it rarely makes the paper, unless what she's done is so egregious that the child has suffered life-threatening injuries.

The real issue here is that social workers simply do not give foster parents the benefit of the doubt when it comes to anything that involves the children in their care. If a child misbehaves, seems to have educational delays, or emotional problems, social workers are lightning-fast to blame the foster parents. Even if a child has a history of making false allegations, the child's word will be believed long before the foster parents' testimony will be considered truthful.

It's this jack-booted thug mentality that creates a lot of problems.

In our case, this mentality meant that we spent a year in litigation fighting for a kid that nobody else wanted. It wasn't as if our agency had a better home lined up for our child. Rather, they simply didn't want us to adopt her, and it didn't matter who got hurt in the process. It was also this mentality that was displayed, not only by social workers, but by county-employed therapists who blamed us for our child's emotional and behavioral problems, rather than addressing them in an appropriate fashion. Although we finally were vindicated when the school psychologist diagnosed problems we'd expressed concern about for years, it's little consolation when we know that years of our child's life have been wasted.

What would have happened if we'd been given the benefit of the doubt? We wouldn't have spent thousands of dollars on legal fees, our child wouldn't feel as if her placement with us (despite living here for more than four years) is tenuous, and she might have gotten the appropriate emotional and educational interventions much sooner. Certainly we wouldn't have wasted all of last school year with a teacher who refused to intellectually challenge our child or push for her academic advancement.

Were it not for the fact that we are stubborn people who were willing to fight, our daughter could have found herself removed from our home and living in foster care. Had we been given the benefit of the doubt, much would be different.

And what about the family that Mothering4Money mentioned? They are no longer foster parents, and their agency had to replace them. Perhaps that seems like not a big deal, but at least in our county, it costs far more to recruit and train a foster family than it does to give them ongoing training and keep them on the roster. It's this short-sighted attitude that keeps foster families churning in and out of the system, which I think is a huge mistake. More experienced parents learn to be better parents, and rotating families in and out of the system might solve an immediate need for beds, but it doesn't solve the longer-term need for quality foster homes.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part VI

Before I get on to sharing this week's thoughts about how the foster care system can be improved, I'd like to wish all my Christian readers a very Merry Christmas. I hope your holiday is wonderful. For those of you who are parenting difficult kids, I wish you peace, and hope that this year your kids have healed enough so that you all survive the holiday.

Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays to all!

My thoughts this week are less about the foster system as it cares for kids, but rather how it treats them as they age out. Many kids "graduate" the foster care system lacking job skills, or a high school diploma, which makes it really tough to make any sort of reasonable living once they are shoved out of their foster homes on their 18th birthday.

Some "lucky" kids can go home to the families from which they were previously removed. Other less-fortunate kids have nothing at all, and they find themselves on the streets with no money, no job and often no bank account or proper identification.

I was struck recently by how insanely difficult life can be if you don't have proper identification. A friend of mine is going through the horrible Catch-22 where you can't get a state ID without proper documentation, but you can't get the documentation without a valid state ID.

These days, most states require you to have proper papers (usually a birth certificate and social security card) and documentation of a current address before you can get identification or a driver's license. But if you don't have those papers (and a lot of homeless foster children do not) then you are also effectively prohibited from having a job. Since 9/11, without proper identification and proof of address, it's impossible to open a bank account. So, even if you have job skills and are able to earn money, there's nowhere you can safely store your cash.

Even rechargeable pre-paid debit cards now require address verification.

Homeland Security may very well have tied the hands of terrorists by making it so difficult to get proper identification and bank accounts, but they've also made life very difficult for folks who are innocent of any wrongdoing. Just because they had the misfortune of being in foster care, they have fallen through a societal crack out of which it is very difficult to climb.

Even if a kid manages to make it out of foster care with proper ID, a bank account, and a job, there's no guarantee that he or she will be able to keep any of those things. Many kids aren't taught the basics of financial management, and an ill-timed job loss combined with a bounced check means the end of your bank account. Once that is gone, earning money can become difficult because some employers will only pay by direct deposit.

The foster care system has to be made responsible for the kids whose lives it touches. If a child is taken into care, it is the system's responsibility to make sure that the kid ends up with a decent education, sufficient job skills to make a living, and appropriate life skills so that she won't end up on the street on her 18th birthday.

It's all well and good for government agencies to wring their hands and complain that they have no money, but if they can't or won't support the children they take, then they shouldn't be taking them in the first place.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part V

This week's post in my ongoing series about improving the foster care system points to one of the biggest shortcomings in the system -- the lack of continuity of care.

Although I'll agree that a certain amount of discontinuity is inevitable, especially when there is no thought given to matching foster children with appropriate homes. In our county, a kid comes into care, and the social worker needs to find a bed. There are too many children and too few beds, so workers traverse a list hoping that a family will say "yes," often without any knowledge of what services a child might need.

That lack of care in placement sets kids up for failure and being bounced from home to home to home.

I think a bigger problem, though, is the lack of continuity when it comes to caseworkers.

From the time our daughter was taken into foster care until she "graduated" and was adopted, we ended up with a total of nine workers involved in the case:
  • On-call worker - This was the worker who happened to be on call when our child was taken into care. Although she was involved in the case only for one night in the very beginning, she periodically paid visits to our home when other workers were busy.

  • Investigative worker - This worker took over the case in the beginning and it was her job to investigate and to make the determination as to whether or not abuse had taken place. She was on the job for perhaps a week or 10 days, and then she passed the case to the next worker in line.

  • Court worker - It was this worker whose job it was to see the case through the court process. It was she, who I dubbed "The Mistress of Unfair Remarks," because she told us that our child was probably mentally retarded and would never learn to read, catch up in school, or amount to anything. This worker was on the case for a month or two.

  • Generic worker #1 - This worker didn't do anything, and was on the case for perhaps a month.

  • Generic worker #2 - This worker had designs on becoming a therapist and soon quit after she learned that she wouldn't be able to get any internship hours until she had been with the county for at least a year. She was on the case for about a month. It was this worker who gave us the "agree to adopt or we'll move the kid, you have 90 days to decide" ultimatum. At this point, our kid had not been in our home even six months.

  • Generic worker #3 - This worker took over for worker #2 after she unexpectedly quit. She was thrilled when we agreed to adopt, but promptly disappeared when she was transferred to another office. We thought she'd started the ball rolling to put us on the adoption track, but found out much later that she'd done nothing of the sort.

  • Nasty Number Seven - This worker took over after after generic worker #3 moved on. This is the worker who was on the case the longest, only because she opted to fight for a removal. Once we found ourselves embroiled in legal action, she couldn't be taken off the case. She stepped in just after our child had been in our home for barely over a year, and stayed on the case until roughly six months before the adoption was finalized.

  • Generic worker #4 - We were told that the case was going to be reassigned, and this worker showed up for a visit. Sadly, we later found out she was filling in for Nasty Number Seven, who was ill.

  • Adoption worker - This worker was the ninth professional to be involved in our case in three years. She had the case for roughly the last six months and was probably the most decent of the workers who were assigned "long-term" to the case.
In our county, the changing of the social workers is a normal and expected activity, which I think is a huge mistake. When a kid is taken, under normal circumstances they will be assigned to three or four workers during their first three months in care. It's also very likely, given that children usually spend the first few weeks in a shelter bed (and sometimes more than one) that they'll go through two to three different beds during that same time period.

Given that most kids don't know whether they are coming or going during that time period, and being taken into foster care is traumatic, does it seem right that kids should find themselves being bounced, not only from bed to bed, but from worker to worker?

I can remember our first foster teen being very upset by the fact that not only did she not know who her worker was, nobody else in the Department seemed to know either.

Why should a kid have to keep track of who is in charge? This is tough enough for a teen, but what about for a younger child who has been ripped from her family and is now staying with strangers?

The logic, at least in our county, is that workers are trained for different specialties. The investigative workers investigate, the court workers fill out court petitions and testify, and the generic workers handle the day-to-day business once a child has been taken for the foreseeable future. The problem is, the kid is left with nobody to hold their hand through the process, and as workers change, nobody knows who is in charge.

It seems to me that kids should get one worker, who is in charge of the case from day one. If the worker needs help investigating, she should call on an investigator. If she needs help with the court process, there should be a specialist available to act as a resource. However, the kids need to have a steady face in what is a very unsteady and upsetting process.

Granted, assigning a single worker won't completely eliminate the problem of worker turnover, since people will still be reassigned or quit. However, I think it would go a long way to reduce the problem. Certainly I think nine workers in three years is eight workers too many. For our daughter, all it did was to convince her that workers weren't going to be around long enough to really help her, and even if they were, they certainly couldn't be trusted.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part IV

This week's post in my ongoing series about improving the foster care system addresses a policy that is supposed to help protect foster children, but really stymies foster parents, professionals and prospective adoptive parents.

The strict policies of confidentiality fail both kids and caregivers in the foster care system.

Now the idea of confidentiality is a good one. Foster children do deserve a certain amount of privacy, and we certainly don't want a loud-mouthed foster mom to come strolling into Junior's classroom and announce loudly to the teacher in front of the entire class that he is in foster care because his mother is a drug-using, thieving, puta, and that he wets the bed three nights out of five. Clearly, that is not cool.

However, the policy of confidentiality fails almost everyone in the system. Because of confidentiality, foster families aren't necessarily told of a child's mental health diagnoses, behavior problems or struggles. They often aren't told that birth family members may have committed serious crimes, or cautioned about the safety of certain birth family members. When foster parents aren't informed, bad things happen. Kids who have history of sexually abusing others perpetrate on other kids in the home. Children with attachment disorders play the social games that only a RADish can create. Foster families unwittingly expose themselves to danger by becoming too friendly with a known criminal.

And when these mistakes happen, the kids suffer. Children are placed into homes that are unprepared or untrained to meet their needs and they cannot stay. Because their needs are not met, they are further traumatized and may even injure other kids in the process. They are shuffled to yet another home in what may be a long chain, further disrupting the child's ability to attach.

Shouldn't a foster family have the right to know something about the kids and families with which they work? If you are responsible for the care, custody and control of a minor, shouldn't you be told the important details about why he is in foster care, the abuse he may have suffered and his behavioral challenges before he is placed in your home? Even more importantly, shouldn't these crucial details be shared with prospective adoptive parents as well? How can it be fair for a social worker to withhold important details like prenatal drug or alcohol exposure until after the adoption papers are signed?

Although it's clear we don't want foster families putting up a six-foot sign on the roof stating, "my foster son is a feces-smearer," we need to find a way for the dialog to be more open between social workers, foster parents, and the professionals who work with these kids. Caregivers, teachers and therapists need to share information because it benefits the child. How can a foster mom be sensitive to a child's needs if she doesn't know that her child was repeatedly sexually abused in the bathroom? How can she help her foster son learn to read if she doesn't know that he has a learning disability and was slapped every time he made a mistake sounding out a word?

The irony, of course, is that amongst all the rules about confidentiality, social workers will often break their code of silence to share something "off the record." Although these off-the-record tid-bits are helpful, they often do not paint a complete picture. Besides being incomplete, they also demonstrate a certain lack of professionalism. Those friendly little leaks say, "well, I'm going to break the rules because I like you and I want to help you out." The implication is that not all foster parents deserve and can be trusted to have such valuable information.

Foster and adoptive parents deserve to know what they are getting, because it benefits the child. Wouldn't it be better for a child to have a foster or pre-adoptive home honestly say, "we aren't prepared to take a child with physical disability x or behavioral problem y," than to have the placement fail?

One would think so, anyway.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part III

This week's installment on improving the foster care system boils down to one sentence:

Child welfare investigations should be handled more like the way criminal investigations are supposed to be handled.

What I mean by this is very simple. When someone is accused of a crime, the accused:
  • is presumed innocent until proven guilty
  • has a right to counsel
  • has the right to face his or her accuser
  • has a right to confront the evidence
  • is entitled to adequate notice of the charges
  • is entitled to a hearing before a neutral judge
Sadly, these fundamental rules of due process do not apply when the child welfare system is handed a report.

When a social worker shows up at your doorstep:
  • She has already assumed that guilt is likely, or she wouldn't be there in the first place.
  • She will demand entry to your home and access to your children. If your kids are at school, she will question them there without notifying you first and without an attorney present.
  • She will not tell you who made the complaint.
  • She will not reveal the evidence against you.
  • She may not fully explain of what you have been accused.
  • She will make a decision regarding the removal of your children before you have your day in court. If she decides to take your kids, they may very well spend several days in custody before you will have the opportunity to have your say in front of a judge.
Not only does the system lack proper due process in terms of the care, custody and control of children, it also has the power to disrupt someone's career without any due process. If an abuse allegation is deemed to be true, even if it doesn't result in removal of the kids, the parents can be listed in the state's child abuse database. Once a person's name is there, it is difficult, if not impossible, to appeal or challenge a listing.

Don't believe it? Look up Humprhies vs County of Los Angeles, and you'll find an ugly tale of a couple that was cleared of child abuse, yet the county refused to remove their names from the child abuse database. Since the county refused to remove the listing, both parents' ability to work and volunteer was negatively impacted.

It is not right that someone's ability to work should suffer without due process.

Beyond the issues of due process, another alarming problem with child welfare investigations is that very little screening is done to determine the credibility of witnesses or complainants. Angry children make false allegations, and their word is taken as gospel. An pissed-off ex-wife can accuse her former husband of sexually molesting her children, and her allegations will be treated seriously.

Does anyone remember the hysteria of the McMartin preschool trial in the 1980's? People's lives were ruined, the accused spent years on trial, and after six years, not a single criminal conviction was made. One of the accused spent five years in jail without ever being convicted of wrongdoing.

Now the McMartin case was clearly not just a failure of the child welfare system or the failure of the individual social workers investigating the case. It was also a failure of the criminal justice system and the media. Still, it's a brutal example of how "the system" can get carried away without any real evidence or facts available to support guilt of the accused.

A recent fact-finding mission revealed that our particular county is especially prone to investigating nearly every child abuse referral. Only 10% of referrals are tossed out on their face. The other 90% result in at least some investigation, which explains why we were investigated for such silliness as changing our daughters' name when she was adopted.

The good news is that of the cases that are investigated, roughly 70% are determined to be unfounded or unsubstantiated. This means that if you are investigated, the odds are in your favor you will be cleared if you haven't done anything wrong.

But the fact that families are being investigated for stupid things like insisting their foster kids eat their vegetables*, changing a child's name or religion after an adoption, or deciding to send their kid to a summer camp is pretty ridiculous. That these investigations make it out of the Department's front door indicates that there's a pretty significant problem.

It's appalling.

If Children's Services is going to investigate a family, maybe it's worth doing a little checking before they knock on their door and traumatize their kids. Maybe it's worth asking a few questions. Is the allegation even considered abuse? Are the witnesses credible, or perhaps do they have an axe to grind? Is an angry kid whining to his teachers at school because he's unhappy with the size of his allowance or the length of his chore list?

Police have to have probable cause to arrest someone. Social workers don't even have to have that. They just have to have a "concern," and then they are allowed to harass people as much as they like.

* Believe it or not, I once spoke to a former foster parent in our area who quit because her two foster children, who had a history of making false allegations, complained that they were being forced to eat their vegetables. The foster mom's birth children were removed, questioned and promptly returned, while the foster kids were immediately moved on to another home. After a lengthy investigation, it was determined that the foster family had done nothing wrong, and they were offered a reinstatement of their foster care license. Needless to say, the family declined the offer, deciding that if the could be investigated in such an alarming way over vegetables, they were worried that far worse would happen if a more serious allegation were ever made.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part II

In response to Improving the Foster Care System - Part I, LK posted a rather lengthy comment. I won't quote the entire remark, but a very valid point was made:
So the problem is that they are taking too many kids from their parents who should not be removed. Therefore they have to lower the standards in order to house them all.

There is no doubt that child welfare services does a better job in taking kids away from families than they do caring for them once they are taken. Budgets are too small, social workers have too many kids on their caseloads, and there aren't enough foster homes to go around. There are too many kids in the system, and the resources are simply spread too thin.

So how do you fix it?

Take fewer kids.

I know that sounds obvious and way too simple, but the truth is that it's way too easy for social workers to take children in many states. Although our state is a little more stringent in requiring documented proof of abuse, and some social workers are becoming less picky because they realize there aren't enough beds for the children who are already in care, there are still cases where kids are taken for silly reasons.

One example of this profound silliness is the case out of Los Angeles where social workers tried to take a child because she was exhibiting out-of-control behavior. Even though everyone agreed the mother wasn't being neglectful in her parenting, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services filed a neglect petition anyway. Thankfully, this case was overturned on appeal.

And of course we can't forget the latest mishugas that's going on with Rachel/Tudusamom. To think that a family might lose custody of their children over a blog is pretty darn shocking.

We also can't forget our own situation, where we had a social worker issue a removal notice because we admitted our foster child was having problems in our home and dared ask for help. Granted, this is a somewhat different situation because we weren't the legal parents of the kid in question, but it illustrates how social workers are quick to remove and slow to find real solutions to problems.

To address the problem of too many children being taken into foster care, we really need to address some larger social issues. In our county, more than 80% of the children in foster care are there because of their parents' involvement in the illicit drug trade. Some children find themselves in foster care because their parents end up incarcerated because they are using, selling or producing illegal drugs. Other kids are taken because their parents are simply too intoxicated to ensure that the house is sanitary, there is food available, or that the kids are clean and go to school. Kids in our county end up physically or sexually abused because their parents are too high to be rational, or they pimp their children out so there is money for the next hit.

It's a difficult situation. How do you keep kids at home with their drug-using parents when so many treatment centers fail at helping people achieve permanent sobriety? One adoptive family I know has two kids because the birth mother consciously decided (and told her worker) that she would rather get high than work her case plan and get herself sober for her kids.

How do you combat that? How do you fight addictions that are so strong parents would sell their children for that next high?

I think the real truth is that you can't. Addressing this issue is far more complicated than drug treatment programs which often do not work. Once a parent has started using meth, it's too late. At one of our foster parent training programs, a county sheriff reported that in her 20+ years of law enforcement experience, she knew only one person who was able to kick meth for any length of time. Although her experience is probably anecdotal, one study, which included residential and outpatient treatment modalities, found that 60% of methamphetamine users had relapsed within 12 months.

Those odds aren't good.

I think the reality here is that child welfare services is fighting a losing battle. Until we can find programs that address the deeper societal issues which trap families in poverty and drive people to use drugs, there will always be more kids in foster care than the system can properly handle.

Money certainly would help, especially if it were used to keep families together before they were separated, but it's not the entire solution. There will always be children who will not be safe at home no matter how many interventions are given. There will always be families who can't or won't be able to care for their children properly.

Although I largely disagree with our county's behavior as a whole, most of the cases I know where kids were removed were for legitimate reasons. One child was boiled to the point of third degree burns in a hot shower, another had a sibling beaten to death in front of her eyes, a third was born off-the-charts high on methamphetamine to a mom who refused to get sober and another was a teenager who had been living on the streets, with no parental supervision or support.

How do you decide which of these children should not be in foster care?

I don't know.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Improving the Foster Care System - Part I

If you have followed my writings for any length of time, you probably know that I think the foster care system in this country is just plain broken. The system sucks for birth families, foster families, adoptive families, and social workers.

But most of all, it sucks for the kids.

Through my travels, I've met a number of foster alumni. I follow the blogs of former foster kids, and I know a few in real life. What every one of them says, without hesitation, is just how terrible being a foster kid is.

Although there are many reasons why the kids have bad experiences, one of the largest is that most foster homes stink.

I've thought about that a great deal, and I've realized that the majority of us who are writing or reading about the foster care system, aren't the bad foster homes. We care, we try to do better for our kids, and we try to make their experience as good as it can possibly be. We try to do the right thing, even though most of us are not rich, and the foster care system gives us very little in terms of funding or resources to help us out.

So why is it, then, that so many foster alumni complain so bitterly that they were abused, neglected, or just treated like an ugly, three-legged dog?

I think it's because good foster homes are still in the minority.

The reality is that almost nobody in their right mind wants to be a licensed foster home. In our county, the majority of families who foster fall into one of three groups:

1) They are desperate to adopt.
2) They are extremely religious.
3) They are living on some type of public assistance and want to supplement their income.

There are problems with all three of these groups.

Those that are desperate to adopt won't be in the system for very long. They will hang in as long as it takes to get their desired number of kids and they will drop out. They aren't interested in fostering long-term, and see it only as a means to an end.

The religious folk, unfortunately, tend to feel the need to "minister" to their foster kids. And sometimes, it gets downright uncomfortable, especially for older children and teens who already have their own spiritual ideas. It's nice that these folks are doing what they feel brings them closer to the divine, but not every kid wants to wallow in Jesus along with them.

The public assistance folks are looking to stretch their dollars and kids that go to those homes are stuck living in poverty. Although another $500 per month for a teen sounds like a lot of money to a family whose income hovers near the poverty line, the reality is that kids are expensive. Things like food, clothing, yearbooks and school activities really add up, and that extra money isn't going to go very far if you spend it on the kids. Sadly, a lot of these families don't spend their foster care money on the kids, and the children go without.

How many stories have you heard about foster kids getting chump gifts for birthdays and holidays while biological kids living in the same home are showered with expensive stuff? How many stories do you hear of foster kids being left behind while the rest of the family goes on a fabulous vacation without them?

So what would it take to raise the quality of those foster homes? What would it take to ensure that abuse is less likely to occur? What would it take to make sure that kids are really treated like they are part of the family?

I argue that it comes down to four things: money, training, respite and respect.

I know there are a lot of people who would argue that foster parents should not be paid at all. They should become licensed only if they want to do this out of the goodness of their hearts, and they shouldn't receive compensation at all.

I think we've already demonstrated that this system isn't working. The pay is low enough that most people don't want to become foster parents anyway. Some that do, especially the religious and the desperate for kids, go in with the idea that they are going to help. Even with that idea, we've already demonstrated that families quickly become jaded, and the foster kids become the unwanted interlopers in a household.

So what would happen if foster families were paid well? Suddenly, what is considered mostly a pretty crappy job would become desirable. More families would want to do it, and counties wouldn't be begging for new foster homes. If they paid a large enough base rate and generously reimbursed families for things like clothes, birthday gifts, school yearbooks and field trips, people would be standing in line to get those coveted foster parenting spots.

And once there was a substantial line of families begging to become foster parents, the county could be a hell of a lot more picky. Instead of choosing families who simply passed the background check and stuck around long enough to make it through an insanely-boring multi-week training course, they could be more selective. They could match kids according to their needs and wants with families who could meet them. Instead of a social worker getting a foster kid and working her way down a phone list praying for a bed, she could do a better job of making sure that a Jewish kid ends up with a Jewish family, and a Deaf child would end up in a family that is fluent in sign language.

The other benefit of higher wages would be that the county could expect more in terms of the amount of training foster parents receive. Currently, most counties have pretty minimal annual training requirements because they know most foster parents aren't going to take any more training classes than they possibly have to. Worse, most of the classes offered are the same old tired repeats. How many times can you take the Love and Logic course without falling over dead of boredom?

In our county, the quality of the training classes was really bad. I remember taking one parenting class that advocated we use discipline techniques that aren't allowed for foster kids. One training suggested we withhold meals, or take the door off a misbehaving child's room. Although that might be okay for a birth child, with foster kids, it's definitely not okay.

Improving the training also means that parents are better-equipped to deal with serious behaviors. Our county offers no training on how to calm a raging child, or even what the protocol should be when a kid gets violent. They tell you that you aren't allowed to hit or restrain a kid, but what are you supposed to do when your teenage foster son is dismantling your living room?

Sure, you can call the police, but even that is discouraged. Wouldn't it be better if the training classes addressed that? Wouldn't it be better if parents knew what to do and how to calm volatile kids before they got to that point?

Respite is a hugely important component that is often overlooked. Parents, especially those who are parenting really tough kids, need a break. In our county, there is no formal system for obtaining respite. Once you take a kid, he is yours to keep until he moves on to another foster home or is reunified with his birth family.

Now I don't think that respite should be used as a tool to dump an unwanted kid while the family goes to Disneyland, but something needs to be in place so that parents (and families) get a break. It's hard living with a child who rages. It's hard living with a kid who lies, steals, or hoards food. It's hard living with mental illness.

Parents do a better job if they get regular breaks, because it allows them time to decompress and come back fresh. We had a child who had been diagnosed with RAD in our home for 11 days, and it was a nightmare. When she was moved to another home because she was becoming violent at home and at school, we were exhausted. I can't imagine what it would be like to parent her for months or years at a time without a break.

Finally, I think that foster parents need to receive the respect they deserve from social workers and other professionals who come into contact with them. Although our county paid huge lip service to the fact that foster parents are "a member of the professional team," we were never treated like team members. Decisions and plans, many of which required our participation or cooperation, were often made without consulting us. Our input was ignored or minimized because we were "only" the foster parents. It didn't matter that we were the people, in the trenches, living with these kids 24/7 and would likely be the ones to best be familiar with their needs.

The interesting question, really, is this: why is nobody interested in solving this problem? Each year, the budgets for social services and child welfare are cut, foster family stipends and reimbursements are threatened, while everyone involved beats their chest and gnashes their teeth in complaint.

If children are so important to our society, why is it that we make their care such a low financial priority? Why is it, knowing that a huge percentage of these damaged and abused children will eventually age out of the foster care system and begin to fill our homeless shelters, mental hospitals and jails, that we aren't doing something to create a better outcome?

How can it be acceptable, in this great nation of ours, for a child to be removed from his so-called "dangerous" home, only to find himself uneducated, jobless and homeless on his 18th birthday?

I don't know.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Another Life Destroyed by the Foster Care System

I realize that I haven't posted anything on any of my blogs since early June. Since that time, I've received quite a few very nice e-mails from people wanting to know how we are doing. I'm not ready, given all that has happened, to share much about my personal life other than to say we are all doing fine.

What brings me to break my four-month silence are some very disturbing events that have transpired in the life of another blogger. This news is so upsetting, so disturbing and just so damn sad that I simply had to say something about it.

I have been following the RVing adventures of Tioga George for quite some time now. He is a retiree who blogs about his travels in Mexico. Recently, George had to fly home to California for a family emergency.

His family emergency involved his son, a foster parent, who was accused of hurting one of his foster children.

His son committed suicide.

I am just so shocked by this story I can hardly breathe. All I see here is another life literally and completely destroyed by the foster care system.

I've lost count of how many foster and adoptive families, including myself, who have had to bear the burden of false allegations of abuse. Many bloggers have stopped writing and gone silent because of the threat of CPS investigations.

My heart goes out to George and his family. I can't imagine the anguish and grief they all must be experiencing right now.

But I am also disgusted. Once again, the child welfare system has been allowed to run out of control. It accused a good man of doing terrible things, and sent the police over to trash his house, all based on the garbled words of a mentally disabled child.

Child Protective Services is out of control and must be stopped. If you are a victim of your state's child welfare system -- speak out. Write your legislators, talk to the media, and tell your story.

Yes, vulnerable children deserve to be protected. However, the system fails to protect children, does not reunify birth families, and leaves foster/adoptive families holding the bag.

Speak out. The injustice needs to end!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Peace. Out.

Given life's recent events, I've spent the last several days doing a lot of thinking. I've had to come to the unfortunate decision that I should stop blogging.

Now it's not that I don't have anything left to say. I have plenty to say about a wide variety of things, not just foster care and post-adoptive life. I have things to say about politics, personal finance, Judaism and a great many more topics, but now is not the time to voice those opinions.

Over the past few days a lot of disturbing things have happened. I've received a number of threatening e-mails, our daughter's camp has confirmed that they have received at least one suspicious telephone call, and I've been made aware that a third abuse allegation has been made to social services.

We've already been in contact with the Department, and don't yet know how things will turn out. Either things will end as a big, fat annoying nothing like the other two allegations, or they won't. In either case, FosterEema and I have had some very long talks about what this means for us. Whatever the outcome, we have come to an accord on a number of issues that divided us, and are at peace with whatever happens.

I have to admit, even as creepy as all this has been, that there's a part of me that's the tiniest bit flattered by the attention. I find it hard to believe that a blog, which I thought hardly anybody bothered to read, could inspire such incredible passion in people. If I stumble across a blog that I don't like or that offends me, I just drop it from my feed reader. I can't imagine being inspired enough to go to the effort of hunting someone down and stirring up trouble in their personal life.

The worst of this isn't that someone has caused trouble for me. It's annoying, but it's not the end of the world. This boils down to a certain amount of harassment and some public embarrassment, but that's really about the extent of it. I think the person or people involved in this know that they are walking a very fine line between what constitutes free speech and what becomes criminal harassment.

So I've been embarrassed. Big deal. Heck, I've done plenty to embarrass myself before, and I'll likely do it again. It's part of life. Once, I managed to spill enchilada sauce all down the front of my shirt during a lunchtime job interview, so it's not like feeling stupid in front of others is a new experience. What makes this so bad is the upset it has caused Danielle.

Danielle has an inordinate amount of fear when it comes to social workers. From her perspective, social workers do nothing good. During her stay in foster care, workers constantly talked about moving her to another foster home, but never did. During the year prior to her adoption, we had a worker who would tell her, "I'm doing everything I can to make sure you stay," while at the same time fighting against us as hard as she could in court. She even went so far as to say things that weren't true while testifying, and she wrote statements that were provably untrue in her reports. Because of this, Danielle sees social workers as liars whose sole purpose is to remove children from their homes.

Danielle is the big loser in all of this because another investigation means yet another visit from social workers. Not only will they want to talk to us, they'll want to speak with Danielle, which will be quite upsetting to her. The first time an abuse report was made against us, a social worker showed up at her school. She called home, traumatized and upset. The second investigation, though brief, was much the same. Each time social workers talk to her, she is terrified.

This just seems so senseless.

In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn't have written so openly about my feelings, as it has obviously gathered the ire of some people. Although there are a great many foster and adoptive parents who write about their experiences, most aren't so open in their blogs. Perhaps it is because they fear criticism from the wider community, fear exposure, or feel guilty for having strong feelings about their troubled children.

When I started blogging, more than four years ago, I couldn't believe some of the stories I'd read and heard about foster care. I couldn't believe that the system could be so broken and that kids could be so troubled, until it happened to me. In many respects, I think my experience has been worse than some (though better than others) in part because my wife and I are queer. I think most of the scrutiny we were under prior to Danielle's adoption was motivated purely by discrimination, and it has also been at least part of the motivation for the abuse referrals after.

Do I regret blogging? Absolutely not. Perhaps I should have been more circumspect in what I said, but I think the story needed to be told. People need to be aware that the foster care system is broken, and that damaged kids are being adopted out to families without the needed and necessary supports being in place. When it comes to post-adoption support, the government's attitude seems to be, "well, you adopted the kid, now she's your problem."

If you look at the situation from a societal perspective, this is an incredibly stupid and irresponsible attitude. It is today's troubled and damaged kids that become tomorrow's criminals and prison inmates. Given that the annual cost of incarcerating someone in prison averages about $23,876 a year, and many offenders return again, again and again, it would seem wise to put programs in place to prevent this outcome for our at-risk youth.

Just like so many things in life, society finds it easier ignore the root cause of problems, preferring to address them after the damage has already been done.

My story is a story that needed to be told. Although some might worry about the damage it would do to Danielle, we've talked as a family about a great many things I've discussed here. Some of the more difficult topics were discussed more gently than I've voiced here, but we have shared them as a family. Even without discussion, Danielle understands just how difficult her behavior can be. When asked, "How would you feel if...?" she expresses many of the feelings that I've shared here. Danielle, too, sometimes expresses regret about the adoption. She recognizes, as do we, that there are a lot of things we wish were different.

Bottom line, despite all our extreme frustrations, we do care about one another. We care about Danielle, and I think she cares about us, even if she isn't always able to express it.

As for me, this isn't the first online forum or community in which I have participated, and it certainly won't be the last. I cut my teeth online back in the days before the Internet, and I can't imagine not being an active participant in the online world. Ideally, I'd like to bring back my blog at some point, but now is definitely not the time to do so.

To my bloggy friends, whether I know you or not, I send my thanks and appreciation. Your support, comments, and constructive criticism have meant a lot to me. Your kind words of support and good thoughts have given me strength during some of my darkest hours. There really aren't adequate words to thank you.

To my trolls, haters and stalkers, I also have words of thanks. Your remarks, though often profoundly unkind, have made me think. They often have made me consider my actions and challenged my beliefs. Even if I rarely agreed with you, debating and defending my actions was most certainly worthwhile.

If you have been following my blog for a while, I hope that my words here have been of some value. Whether you are one of my supporters or not, I hope that I've managed to make you think, too. I hope that for those of you who are considering fostering or adoption, that I've opened your eyes to what can be a very dark and troubled system. For those of you who are already fostering or have adopted, I hope that my story has made you feel just a little bit less alone. If you are parenting a troubled child, you are not alone. I hope that the discovery of knowing that there are other parents who are struggling, as you struggle, reduces your sense of isolation and despair.

I'd like to think of this message not as a "goodbye" or "farewell," but more as a "see you later." I have every intention to come back to the blogging world at some point, though I don't know when, or what form, that will be. Please leave me in your blog readers and RSS feeds, because if and when I come back, that announcement will be here. If you'd like to stay in touch, please feel free to shoot me an e-mail. My address can be found on my profile page.

Although the damage done to Danielle by my Internet stalkers is pretty significant, I'm also sad that it has done damage to my readers. I am sure people will pause and wonder how the story ends. What will the results of the child abuse investigation be? How will Danielle behave after she returns from camp? Will FosterAbba and FosterEema be able to resolve their differences and strengthen their relationship?

It makes me sad that I might not be able to tell you all how the story ends. Of course I don't know how it will end, either.

So for now, I send you all a cyber hug. Know that I am thinking about you, and that I know you are thinking about me.

Peace. Out.

- FosterAbba

Friday, June 4, 2010

What Happened to Your Blog?

Over the past 24 hours, I've received a fantastic number of e-mails from people asking, "What happened to your blog?"

Here's the answer:

We have discovered that one or more people from the Internet have taken it upon themselves to cyber-bully, stalk and harass us. We've received a number of directly threatening e-mails including statements that they intend to make false reports of child abuse to the authorities. These messages have made it clear that the group's goal is to have Danielle removed from our home at any cost. Some of these messages have included our personal identifying information. There is also some indication the group may be aware of Danielle's current location, and may be planning to harass or abduct her.

We are taking appropriate security measures to ensure her safety.


These people may not realize it, but cyber bullying is a crime on both state and federal levels.

The federal law states:
Whoever...makes a telephone call or utilizes a telecommunications device, whether or not conversation or communication ensues, without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person at the called number or who receives the communications;...shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both. [47 U.S.C. 223(a)(1)(C)]

Forty-seven states now have laws that include electronic communications in their stalking and harassment laws. Many of these states take this behavior seriously. Missouri, for example, has made this type of conduct a felony.

Since some states require that victims of cyberstalking formally demand that the harassment stop, here is my message:

    Stop harassing me, my wife, my child, my family and my personal and professional contacts. Stop sending me threatening messages, and do not attempt to interfere with my child while she is at home, at school or away. Furthermore, my blogs consist of copyrighted material, and under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Pub.l. 105.304, 17 USC 512 et seq.) I demand that you cease and desist from redistributing my copyrighted materials, and that you immediately remove all copies of my copyrighted materials from the Internet.

A great many of these messages that we have received seem to indicate that the person or persons behind all of this are operating under the mistaken impression that removing Danielle from our home will be some type of rescue, and that she will be better off returned to foster care than remaining in our home.

I can't speak about the reality of foster care in other communities, but what I can say is that in our county this is most certainly not true. Our county's budgets are dwindling, and supportive resources for kids in foster care are becoming fewer and fewer. Whether you agree with our parenting style, or believe that we are bad parents, it's highly unlikely that ripping Danielle away from another family and returning her to foster care could possibly be in her best interest.

Knock if off, you guys.

By the way -- Danielle is safe and we've had communications with her and her current caregivers. All is well and she is doing great.