Friday, January 28, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part XI

In this week's installment on ways we can improve the foster care system, I'm going to start with one simple sentence:

Ban garbage bags.

To the unfamiliar, it sounds like a silly thing to suggest.

Why would anyone want to ban trash bags? They are useful for getting rid of garbage, and they keep the inside of the cans clean.

And that is exactly why they should be banned...for moving foster children.

Read LT's post, Are YOU guilty of treating foster kids like trash? In it, she wrote:
Have you ever had a trash bag with your treasures rip apart in the middle of the sidewalk as you are being hurried into a worker’s car, leaving a foster home? ...Have you? Do you see how tough this is? On one hand you are being rushed away, on another hand, your "treasures" are on the ground and you want to pick them up… On one hand, the foster parents already said "goodbye," and on the other hand they start to help pick up the "treasures" on the ground...

Now when we were foster parents, we didn't have a lot of kids coming and going. We had three girls come, one girl ran away (abandoning her stuff), one was moved, and the last stayed. When the one child was moved, we were absolutely adamant that she not leave with her stuff in trash bags. We told the worker that we would pack the girl's things in clean (new) moving boxes, as she didn't have luggage and had too much to fit in a single suitcase. To our surprise, the worker ordered us to put her things in garbage bags, because boxes would take up too much space and wouldn't fit in her car.

We went out and bought mesh laundry bags instead. They were inexpensive, yet they had a little more class than a garbage bag. They also had a drawstring close and a nice strap so the bag could be carried over your shoulder.

I was gonna be damned if the kid was going to leave with her stuff in garbage bags, even if it was the way it came.

In fact, all the foster children who came to us brought at least some of their possessions in black trash bags. The first two girls carried everything in trash bags. The last came with a suitcase, a couple of cardboard boxes, and a trash bag or two.

Foster children are not trash. The message we send when we bag their property in trash bags is that their stuff is garbage, which therefore translates into meaning that the children are not important enough to warrant something better.

It probably seems silly, given the systemic and pervasive problems in the foster care system, but it's a small change that might make a huge difference.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part X

This week's installment on improving the foster care system touches on a topic that I mentioned briefly in Part VIII, and is something that affects all youth, though it's an especially difficult problem for kids who age out of foster care. It's even an issue that I'm very worried about for my own child.

The problem is this: how do we prepare foster youth to live on their own once they age out?

This truly is not just a problem that affects foster youth. It's a problem that affects all kids making that important transition from being a child to being a self-sufficient adult. The challenge is that for most foster kids, there are no supports available to them, even though they now say that most adult children aren't fully financially independent from their parents until their mid-20's.

So how do we remedy this problem?

When I was attending high school, long before the No Child Left Behind Act, the senior high made a real effort to put students into academic tracks. The special education kids were put on a track that taught them basic life and employment skills. Many of the kids were put into vocational rehabilitation programs for those with developmental or physical disabilities. The under-achieving, "normal" kids were put into vocational tracks. Girls tended to be guided into classes that taught the skills needed to be a wife and mother, while boys were herded into classes like welding, auto lab, or wood shop, so they might find their way into the trades. The "smart" kids were encouraged to take college-prep classes so that they were ready for the more demanding curriculum they'd face at university.

Nowadays, it seems like schools are so focused on treating everyone the same that students aren't separated in the same way that they once were. Although there are some Advanced Placement classes available (which are usually sponsored by local Community Colleges) there doesn't seem to be as much focus on tracking the less-capable students into employment and life-readiness classes. The focus is on getting kids to pass the state's high school exit exam, which is now a requirement for graduation.

The odd thing is, kids who don't pass the exit exam still receive a certificate of completion. It's unclear, since this is a relatively new change in state law, as to whether or not employers or the military will accept this certificate as equivalent to a high school diploma.

As Mothering4Money commented on Improving the Foster Care System - Part VIII:
I think the whole Independent Living Program needs to be overhauled and streamlined. Each state is allowed to do with it what they wish, essentially, and because of that, teens do leave the system without proper skills and resources UNLESS the foster parent teaches it to them. The ILP should universally teach these skills.

Mothering4Money is spot on with this remark, because there just aren't adequate services for kids aging out of foster care in many communities.

I see the need for several programs to be in place:
  • Subsidized housing - In our county, the Section 8 subsidized housing program is so overburdened and underfunded that they no longer accept new applications. If you are poor and need housing, you are out of luck if you don't already have a voucher. Exceptions need to be made for foster kids who are aging out, and they should have guaranteed housing until they have a chance to establish themselves.

  • State-sponsored medical insurance - Our state has seen dramatic cuts to the state-sponsored medical insurance program. While the argument can be made that capable, able-bodied adults should have to make their own way, I think it's important to continue to offer aged-out foster kids this support, especially when many of them struggle with ongoing health problems, such as asthma or mental health issues.

  • Life-preparation courses - All foster children, regardless of their future educational plans, should be required to take classes that prepare them for life. They need to be taught the basics of job hunting and resume writing. They need to learn the fundamentals of personal financial management, including how to open (and manage) a bank account, pay bills, and make and keep a budget. They need to learn basic domestic skills, including cooking, cleaning, and perhaps how to make a few basic repairs around the house.

  • Job training and placement programs - Although there are foster kids who do go to college, kids need to learn marketable job skills sooner, rather than later. Although there are scholarships available for those who are academic achievers, the bulk of the kids in foster care are short-changed in their education. They've missed school, lost credit for classes because they've moved around, and are often behind their peers. Although we should do our best to improve their academic achievement, the more pressing concern should be helping these kids to achieve marketable job skills now.

  • Financial safety nets - Even though cash welfare and food stamp programs are hugely unpopular these days, kids who age out of the system should be guaranteed, at least for a few years, a minimum standard of living. This provides them a safety net in case they aren't able to find full-time employment (as is often the case with younger workers) or find themselves suddenly unemployed. Although these programs should, by design, be somewhat sparse to encourage kids to work, they need to ensure young adults don't fall through the cracks and end up unemployed, uninsured, homeless and hungry on the streets.

  • Mentoring programs - All aged-out foster kids should be provided a mentor who can provide support and answer many of the questions young adults might have. Having a resource where a kid can ask questions like, "I'm having problems with my landlord refusing to fix a leaky sink, what do I do?" is hugely important. Having a designated go-to person for the pesky problems that pop up in life can make a huge difference.

  • Substance abuse programs - Although not all foster kids are substance abusers, there are many kids who fall into drug and alcohol addiction as they realize the difficulties of adult life. Programs need to be put in place not only to treat the kids who have become dependent, but also to prevent kids from starting in the first place. It's difficult not to repeat the cycle of substance abuse, if your early life experiences consisted of your birth parents continually drinking or drugging.

  • Domestic violence and parenting programs - Kids who are exposed to an early childhood filled with violence are more likely to become involved in the cycle, either as victim or abuser, in their adult relationships. Foster kids should be given the opportunity to break this cycle, before they and their spouses and children are sucked into this terrible generational problem.

Of course the reality is that even the most carefully-designed support systems will fail if kids don't avail themselves of the services or simply refuse to participate. Regardless of how good the transitional living services might be, there will still be a percentage of kids who will be so done with the system that they won't want to follow even minimal rules for participation. It's hard for a kid, who has been betrayed by all the adults in her life, to trust that the system will work for her.

But these programs should exist everywhere, because it's not right that we destroy whatever family support system a child might have and give them nothing with which to replace it.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part IX

This week's installment of my Improving the Foster Care System series will no doubt generate a certain amount of ire, because it goes against all the do-gooder's view of how the foster care system should work.

I argue that the job of foster parent should be a profession and not something people do as a charitable activity. Although having a desire to help underprivileged or unwanted kids is certainly laudable, I think it gets in the way of a certain amount of professionalism that needs to be present in the system.

In response to Improving the Foster Care System - Part VII, LK left a rather lengthy comment with quite a few links. Although LK's remarks touched on several subjects, here's the part I'd like to address in this post:
For the most part, however, the news preaches the wrong message because about 90% of it is foster parent recruitment campaigns. Talking about how fulfilling a life it is adopting through foster care, preaching happily ever after, etc.

In our local media, pleas for new foster parents are a frequent topic. Often, these stories are accompanied by soppy stories about how foster parenting is "rewarding."

My opinion here is that if our county treated foster parents with even the smallest shred of decency, the turnover wouldn't be nearly as high. Our county wouldn't be stuck in an endless recruitment cycle in search of more and more gullible foster families who ultimately end up quitting in disgust.

Of the five families that attended our foster parent training session, none are still providing foster care for the county. One man was a grandparent, forced to take the class so he could provide kinship care for his grandchildren, one family adopted and moved away, two more families adopted and then quit, and the last disappeared.

Although two or three of the families in our class might never have been interested in providing long-term foster care, at least one or two might have been willing to stay on.

We likely would have stayed on had the system treated us better. Had the system provided us with a decent wage for our work, appropriate services for the children in our care, and reasonable amounts of respite, the work would have been endurable. Had we been treated like professionals instead of a necessary, but unwanted burden on the system, we might very well have stayed on. However, when we were treated more like criminals than caring professionals, and we had to fight, at considerable personal cost, for things to which our foster kids were entitled, it certainly didn't make us willing to hang around for one minute longer than absolutely necessary.

I would never agree to be a foster parent again.

The real problem with the foster system as it currently stands, is that it sets too many people up for disappointments. Childless families are fed a line of bullpucky that claims they will be building families, perhaps even forever families, and that everyone will go sailing off into the happy sunset. Foster kids are told they will be living somewhere "better." Birth families are promised they will get their children back. Many kids who ultimately become available for adoption do not find their perfect "forever family," no matter how much they want it*.

I think this Pollyanna attitude is best explained by the article LK linked to above. In it, Laura Eggerston wrote:
I'm also waiting for the day Miranda will call me Mom again — or maybe even Mommy.

At 17, Miranda reunited with her birth mother, who has since died. The struggles with divided loyalties that plague many children adopted when they are older resurfaced. Miranda felt disloyal, I think, as if she was rejecting her birth family when she called me by a title that both of the women close to her heart had shared.

Now she calls me by my first name. It sounds awkward to me, and perhaps to her. I understand that the point is to create distance between us, especially when she feels on the verge of getting too close. She can't quite bring herself to acknowledge our relationship directly.

I think it's unrealistic for anyone who adopts an older child to expect to be referred to by the honorifics of mom or dad. Can it happen? Yes. Should we expect it? No. As much as the world might want me to be, I will never be my adopted daughter's mom. I can be her parent, her guardian, her caregiver. I can even be an important person in her life with whom love is shared.

But, I can't be her mother. I didn't bring her into this world, and I can't hide behind an infant adoption where my child knows nothing different. Her mom is not me or my wife, and no amount of tap-dancing around the truth will ever change that.

So to improve the foster care system, we need to get really honest about what the foster care system is supposed to do. The foster care system isn't supposed to create forever families. It isn't supposed to create wonderful, happily-ever-after stories. It's supposed to provide a safe, temporary spot for abused kids to stay while their birth parents get their lives sorted out.

I think recruiting desperate-to-adopt families into this system is a huge mistake, because it makes it hard for families to say goodbye to the kids who really should go home. Yes, there are kids who can't and won't ever go home, but those children should be in the small minority, not a whopping 50% of the kids taken into care in our county.

Foster families should be recruited from groups of professional people who know the kids are going home and are happy with that outcome. Yes, they should be caring people, but they shouldn't be so emotionally involved that they are blinded to what's really the best thing for the kids involved.

And this is why foster parents should be paid, and paid well, to do the job of foster care.

* Here is just one example of of a foster child who was never adopted.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part VIII

In response to Improving the Foster Care System - Part VI, LK wrote:
This is a good post, but you leave out a lot of factors. For example, about half of the girls become pregnant. A quarter of these become homeless, and foster care has contributed to 35% of the US homeless population, a quarter get incarcerated. Less than half have a high-school diploma.

Many states are addressing this issue by keeping the kids in care until age 21. Supposedly this helps to prepare them a bit, but many choose to opt out of this when they turn 18 because they're sick of it.

To me...

This issue is the ultimate hypocrisy because you have all of these foster parents out there talking about how they provide loving homes and care so much for these kids, until the money is cut off and they get booted out on their butts.

LK brings up a valid point here, which is that kids are tossed out of the foster care system at 18. I see this as a huge problem, though I don't agree with LK's conclusion that kids are being tossed out because their foster parents don't love them and they aren't getting a check.

Yes, I will agree that not getting support money is part of the reason that kids get tossed out, but it's not the only reason.

In our county, anyone living in a foster home who is over the age of 18 must pass a background check. This means that adults in the home have to be completely free of recent criminal history. Unfortunately, many foster kids have a criminal record. Even if their crimes are relatively minor, such as shoplifting, or drug possession, that's still enough for them to be prohibited from living in the home if there are other foster children present.

Even if a foster child manages to make it to adulthood without a criminal record, issues of housing still remain. Our county also has a rule that prohibits anyone over the age of 18 from sharing a bedroom with another foster child. So, if the soon-to-be-adult is living in a typical foster home where children share rooms, he has to move out of the bedroom on his 18th birthday.

If a family's house is small and there are no free bedrooms, where is the young adult supposed to sleep? The living room sofa? The garage? Where is he supposed to stash his stuff, once the bedroom is closed?

This puts foster parents in an untenable situation. Either they can stand by their adult foster child, or they can continue to care for the minors in the home. Under many circumstances, they are not allowed to do both.

It's a stupid situation, and foster parents are forced to make very difficult choices.

I think that it's absolutely imperative that our foster care system provide better help to foster kids who are making that important transition to adulthood. When a kid hits his 18th birthday, has he really changed all that much from the previous day? If he was sharing a room with his foster brother when he was 17 years, 364 days old, does it makes sense that he cannot stay there a day later? If he had a criminal history, it's the same one he carried with him the previous day. Nothing changed in terms of the people, personalities or situations involved, but a magic date on the calendar makes everything different.

I don't think, though, that foster families put their young adults out just because of silly rules. Some of those reasons are because of the kids themselves. If you have a young adult living in your home who is verbally, emotionally or physically abusive, you aren't necessarily going to want him to stay past his 18th birthday, regardless of how much you love him. If stealing, fighting and disrespect are part of his regular menu of behavior, are you going to want him to stay once he reaches adulthood?

Probably not.

Although I don't think that money is the sole reason foster kids get booted, it is a contributing factor. Most fostering families that I know are not wealthy, and supporting a young adult who has no job, no income and no prospects is very difficult. As so many foster kids "graduate" from foster care without a decent education, job skills, or even the prospect of a job, it's a tough situation. It's very hard from a financial perspective to indefinitely support someone who can't or won't contribute to the household finances. If you add to that behavioral or substance abuse problems, it would be hard for any parent to endure for very long.

Even for states who have decided to extend foster care until age 21, the problem still exists. Many kids, when they reach the magic age of 18 are simply done with the system. They don't like being told what to do, having to follow rules, or comply with restrictions. They resent having to follow behavioral rules required for a continued stay in the household, and so they split.

"I'm 18," they say. "You can't tell me what to do."

The problem of kids aging out of foster care is a more complicated problem than cruel foster parents pitching kids out on the street for lack of a monthly support check. Rather, I think it's a systemic failure.

So how do you make it better?
  • Extend foster care to age 21 in all states - Even if kids don't avail themselves of the additional help, it should be made available to everyone.

  • Remove the requirement of a clean background check for kids remaining in their foster homes - Kids shouldn't be mandated to leave their homes because they did something stupid. If the foster parents are willing for them to stay on, they should be allowed to do so.

  • Remove the "no sharing bedrooms" rule for former foster kids - Again, if a kid shared a bedroom when he was 17 years, 364 days old, why should he be forced out on his 18th birthday?

  • Create educational/job training programs for foster kids - Although there's no guarantee that anyone will graduate high school with a diploma, every effort should be made to ensure that happens. Likewise, kids should be placed into job training programs once they hit their teen years to ensure that they have marketable job skills as young adults.

  • Ensure that foster children have adequate mental health care - I've said this before, and I will say it again: if children do not receive adequate mental health, medical and dental care, they do not not have a fair chance at success. We have got to stop making excuses about how there is no money and there are no resources to help these kids. If the state sees a need to take the kids into care in the first place, they owe them the proper supports.