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Lost in the Shuffle

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Bala Cynwyd’s Len Bernstein is the unofficial adoptive dad of an 18-year-old girl he calls “Sally” to protect her privacy. She’s been in Philadelphia County’s foster care system since 1999, but until Bernstein was appointed her mentor by the Support Center for Child Advocates (SCCA) two years ago, she’d received virtually no parenting.

Sally’s mother has a drug problem, her siblings are scattered, and her father is deceased. Home was basically just a bed and a roof. No one had any interest in her education. In fact, if it weren’t for Bernstein, her anger management issues and poor academic performance most likely would’ve gotten her expelled.

Sally was kicked out of one foster home when a social worker requested receipts from the parents to account for money that was supposed to be going toward her care. Bernstein describes her as “very bright.” Still, he’s not so sure about her county-supervised living situation, which he says is totally unsupervised.

“There are kids in our own backyard who don’t have homes. To not do something is unacceptable,” Bernstein says. “We need to change the story for these kids.”

While most Main Line parents are tucking in their offspring with a bedtime story or a chat, 6,000 local children are climbing into beds that belong to other families. Some are fortunate to have escaped violent homes, while others are sadly among the 1,000 abuse cases reported each month.

From 2001 to 2006, 27 children died of abuse, or amid suspicious circumstances, under the watch of Philadelphia County’s Department of Human Services (DHS)—a startling fact brought to light by former Mayor John Street’s Child Welfare Review Panel in June 2007. The report cited “significant systems failures” and asserted that the child welfare agency was “confused about its mission” and “resistant to change” while “failing to protect the city’s most vulnerable children.” The panel made it clear that comprehensive reform was the only acceptable response.

To those who’d been paying attention, like the Philadelphia-based SCCA, these findings substantiated what they already knew: The city’s foster care system was tragically broken.

For several years, SCCA social workers and advocates had heard the stories of sexual and physical abuse from children currently in the system and those who’d “aged out.” Some had lived in homes where the refrigerator was locked; others had no toiletries and were ashamed to go to school, fearing ridicule from other students for being dirty and poorly dressed.

Hearing one story is enough. To hear so many all the time is downright heart-wrenching, particularly in cases where the cycle of abuse continued from placement to placement.

“Most people don’t get a steady diet of the internal, physical and sexual abuse that goes on. There are success stories. But along the way, there is a shocking amount of trauma,” says Wendy Demchick-Alloy, director of the Montgomery Child Advocacy Project in Norristown (MCAP), an organization that provides free legal representation and social services to Montgomery County children who are victims of abuse and neglect.

Finding compassion for a system that has demonstrated such a poor record of caring for its charges is difficult. Losing even one young person to abuse or neglect wholly undermines the concept of child welfare. And while few will tolerate any semblance of forgiveness, it’s important to get a perspective on the challenges and limitations impacting the region’s child welfare organizations.

Exposing the pitfalls of the foster care system creates much-needed awareness. But it also has the potential to deter would-be foster parents and dissuade volunteers from giving time where it’s so desperately needed. “It’s amazing that we’re in one of the most affluent communities in Pennsylvania, and [a few] miles away from us, this is happening,” says Bernstein. “The situation here in Philly is just a microcosm of what goes on in urban environments throughout the country.”

THE COMMON MISPERCEPTION IS that children removed from their homes and placed in foster care are, in some way, “bad.” But while many do have severe emotional or behavioral issues, others have experienced physical and sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, substance abuse or physical/mental illness in the home, or the death of a parent.

Ideally, this separation period is de-signed to enable parents to seek help, with the goal of reuniting with their children. Statistics, however, prove otherwise. The system is supposed to provide a permanent home within 18 months. This rarely happens. In extreme cases, the rights of biological parents are terminated.

There are numerous county-run and private foster care providers in the region working in tandem with the Department of Health Services, which has a massive caseload and relies on outside agencies to assist with placements. Locally, they include Children and Youth Services in Delaware County, Presbyterian Children’s Village in Bryn Mawr, and Child & Family Focus in Valley Forge. Care levels range from traditional housing and counseling, to therapeutic programs for children with mental health and emotional/behavioral needs, to treatment programs for kids with substance-abuse histories.

Obviously, an agency’s effectiveness can depend on the amount of financial support it receives. Public entities run primarily on government funds, which everyone agrees aren’t enough. “We find money for the things that matter,” says Frank Cervone, director of SCCA. “The only question is what matters. We live in a world of tremendous wealth; people have savings accounts that far exceed what they could ever use. We can’t afford the level of investment our children need, but we’re funding a war in Iraq. The war at home is similarly as valuable.”

Financial limitations are reflected in inadequate staffing and resources for agencies, and a lack of training and support for foster parents. Training obligations vary by agency, but typically a foster parent must devote eight hours a year to a workshop. On the surface, eight hours may not seem like a lot. “Training could and should be more rigorous,” says Cervone. “But that deters people. Many foster parents are outstanding, and the licensing agencies do have their checks and balances. Anyone who thinks people are in this for the money … I can tell you, it’s a ridiculous sum.”

Others do question the motivations of some foster parents—namely those whose homes seem to operate under a revolving-door policy, with kids coming and going. That’s why screening is so crucial.

“Bringing someone into your family as a foster parent is an extremely intimate experience,” says Darlene Hewitt, director of Presbyterian Children’s Village. “You have to be honest, and you have to let families know what they’re getting into. The bar has been raised in the past year. We’re fortunate because our parents are good about adopting, which helps everyone.”

Presbyterian Children’s Village is also a licensed adoption agency, which speeds up the process. In 2007, it served 83 children in foster care and 103 taken in by relatives under kinship care.

Not surprisingly, outcomes are better for foster children and families outside the city’s welfare agencies. “There’s a day-and-night difference here in the county,” says MCAP’s Wendy Demchick-Alloy, a former district attorney and child advocate. “The wait for placement for kids is notoriously and painfully long through DHS. It was intolerable to see some of the records on these kids. Our kids get into homes faster, there’s more accountability, and the quality and quantity of services is so much better—the level of professionalism and staff devotion, too. Apathy is not something [we] present.”

Courtrooms are an all-too-familiar sight for many foster kids. Often, multiple trials happen simultaneously, handled by different arms of the court and different attorneys. It’s common for kids to be shuffled from hearing to hearing without anyone to explain the proceedings or simply serve as a shoulder to lean on. “There could be a criminal case of sexual assault [running] simultaneously with a protection of abuse petition, which comes out of a different division,” says Demchick-Alloy.

Sometimes courts don’t communicate enough to reveal a conflict in representation—like when a lawyer is representing both the child and the perpetrator. “One of the worst-case scenarios is when a child has to testify against the person who abused her, and there’s no one by her side,” Demchick-Alloy says. “Our advocates fill that gap.”

Not all children are assigned a child advocate. One of MCAP’s jobs is to assess a child’s needs and then petition the court. Once appointed, the advocate’s role is to serve as a watchdog, protecting a child’s interests. But just as social workers are overloaded with cases, so are many advocates. Still, at MCAP, the ratio of attorneys to foster kids is lower than at its urban counterparts, allowing for better communication and stronger relationships.

Montgomery County attorney Ross Weiss is the advocate appointed to Rachel Librett, who was kidnapped by her mother, Claudia, in 2003 and returned just last year. “The county bends over backwards to help us do our job, and most of the lawyers I know get significant pleasure doing this,” Weiss says. “It’s easier to have an impact when you’re dealing with one kid at a time. The proportions are higher, and things don’t move as fast in the city.”

In Delaware County, the Media-based nonprofit CASA/Youth Advocates facilitates the safe, permanent placement of abused and neglected kids. Its volunteers investigate a young client’s needs and circumstances, and then submit reports to the court with recommendations regarding the child’s best interests. CASA volunteers are not lawyers, though they are trained and sworn in.

Still, more help is desperately needed. Philadelphia is ranked fifth among cities throughout the country in terms of the sheer number of children in foster care. Currently, SCCA has 800 active cases. “And that’s just a fraction of the kids in the system,” says Bernstein.

EDUCATION IS ANOTHER GLARING concern when it comes to foster kids, who are twice as likely to drop out of school as other teens. “We’re failing 75 percent of our kids, and we’ve got the study to prove it,” says SCCA’s Cervone, citing a report released in 2006 by the Philadelphia Youth Network. “The classic measure of how well a child welfare organization is doing is [whether it’s] keeping kids safe and alive. Over the past couple of years, it’s doing better than it had been. But if I had to grade it, I’d give it a C+.”

Finding solutions—and the money to execute them—has always been the system’s greatest challenge. With the lashing the DHS took following last year’s Child Welfare Review Panel report, the hope is that the urgent need for change will finally be recognized. Experts say that providing services before, during and after foster care must become a priority, along with tweaking budgets to provide “flexible dollars” for at-risk kids and a stronger investment in prevention.

Then there’s the issue of how to keep kids out of the system and in contact with their families. Kinship care is proving to be a positive solution—but again, resources are lacking to alleviate the financial and emotional drain on relatives. Stronger intervention and support for biological parents would reduce the number of kids in the system and cut the time spent in foster homes. Meanwhile, increased counseling, education and visits to placement providers would aid foster parents.

If more kids were placed in suburban homes, some of the pressure on urban organizations might be alleviated. But until the financial floodgates open, sweeping reform won’t come easily. But with National Foster Care Month coming in May, the timing is perfect to take action on any level.

“There are a lot of families doing wonderful things,” says Presbyterian Children’s Village’s Hewitt. “The tragedies are horrible, but they don’t represent all foster care situations.”

RESOURCES
CASA/Youth Advocates, P.O. Box 407, Media; (610) 565-2208, delcocasa.org
Child & Family Focus
, 11 Davis Road, Phoenixville; (610) 783-1788, childandfamilyfocus.org
Children and Youth Services
, 100 W. 6th St., Media; (610) 891-5258, co.delaware.pa.us/humanservices/childyouth
Montgomery Child Advocacy Project
, 409 Cherry St., Norristown; (610) 279-1219, mcapkids.org
Presbyterian Children’s Village
, 452 S. Roberts Road, Rosemont; (610) 525-5400, pcv.org
Support Center for Child Advocates
, 1900 Cherry St., Philadelphia; (215) 925-1913, advokid.org

 

 


Picking Up the Pieces

Unlike most teens, who welcome independence, foster kids often greet their 18th birthdays with trepidation. While some may be relieved to escape the system, they also face a whole new reality. Suddenly, there’s no housing or medical care, and their educational deficits—poor academic performance, higher rates of grade retention, lower scores on standardized tests, absenteeism, tardiness, truancy, dropping out—put them at risk for homelessness, criminality, drug abuse and unemployment. And with the loss of their child advocates—often the only people who’ve kept them grounded—many are ill prepared to handle life on their own.

“Basically, they’re given a trash bag full of their belongings—which usually just amounts to some clothes—and are put out on the street,” says Ardmore’s Sharon McGinley, an unofficial foster parent and board member for Philadelphia’s Support Center for Child Advocates.

There are varying degrees of support within existing child and youth welfare organizations. Philadelphia County’s Department of Human Services (DHS) strives to engage youths in group activities, school and career planning through its Achieving Independence Center. On paper, the program looks great. But with an overburdened foster care system, it’s impossible to effectively reach those who’ve outgrown the system. Most programs focus on initiative, making them less suited to disengaged youths who might need more hand-holding. Bridging that gap and increasing participation is an ongoing challenge.

One successful model for transitioning foster kids out of the system is Palm Beach, Fla.’s Turtle Nest Village, founded by licensed social worker Elizabeth Brown. Ninety-six percent of those who complete the program are able to support themselves. By comparison, the national figure is just 20 percent (after four years away from the system).

Already an activist for foster care reform, McGinley was blown away when she first discovered Turtle Nest in early 2007. “I didn’t get a chance to visit until this January,” she says. “But the benefits of Turtle Nest are inspiring. What Liz is doing with these kids is amazing. They’re actually starting to care about life. This is the first time most of these kids have felt safe. That’s what I want to emulate—the assurance of respect and safety. So many are failed by the system.”

The statistics are beyond comprehension: Two years after being discharged from foster care, up to 45 percent of unassisted youths will experience homelessness, half will be unemployed, and less than half will have a high school diploma. Within four years, 41 percent will be on some type of public assistance, and they’ll be three times more likely than the rest of us to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, seven times more likely to be drug dependent, twice as likely to experience alcohol dependence, and seven times more likely to suffer from bulimia.

“These kids spent most of their childhood feeling their lives had no value,” says McGinley. “They can’t be expected to suddenly become contributing members of society. Emotionality aside, giving these kids the attention they deserve, showing them that their lives matter, makes fiscal sense.”

For the past four years, McGinley has devoted her own resources to helping a small group of young adults transition into the real world. She’s accompanied them to medical treatments, and court and legislative hearings. She even commissioned a documentary to help raise awareness.

“When these kids are in the system, they’re not thinking about the future,” says McGinley. “What they’re thinking is that their lives aren’t worth anything.”

According to McGinley, 25 percent have endured some form of homelessness, 46 percent haven’t completed high school, 60 percent haven’t had steady employment for a year, 29 percent have substance abuse problems, and 33 percent of females have been pregnant at least once by age 17. And most are unable to communicate their stories to those who could help.

“They train social workers not to get too close,” says McGinley. “Sixty-three percent of these kids get re-abused right under our noses. The stories are gut-wrenching—trying to crack 18 years of pain isn’t easy. It all comes down to showing these kids that somebody cares. Sometimes, one person is all it takes.”

One of McGinley’s kids is Eddie Lewis (pictured above with McGinley and a few of the other young people she’s helped), a founding member of the Support Center for Child Advocates’ Client Advisory Group and the namesake of a new venture called Eddie’s House. Along with the rest of her unofficially adopted kids, Lewis has been instrumental in getting the project off the ground and, even more importantly, creating awareness among social workers and child advocates about the atrocities endured by many in Philadelphia County’s foster care system.

Scheduled for launch this month, Eddie’s House is a 24-month program composed of education, work readiness, life-skills training, mentoring and counseling. Kids will be housed, two in an apartment, in Germantown and Mount Airy neighborhoods. The program will provide food, medical, psychological and resume services, and a life coach. Group meetings will be held monthly to discuss work placement, finances, medical issues and other concerns.

A 90-day probation period holds Eddie’s House participants accountable for their actions, ensuring a level of personal commitment to finishing high school or obtaining a GED, getting a job, applying for student loans, paying bills and living independently.

Along with financial contributions—$400,000 will fund 10 kids for two years—McGinley is accepting donations of furniture, bedding, cookware and other home accessories. Startup seed money and rent subsidies are also top priorities. “I’m so inspired by the depth of compassion and kindness I find in these young people who spent their lives in the foster care system, and so horrified by the abuse and abandonment they experienced,” McGinley says. “It was so hard for me to understand how people who had so little wanted to give so much. Hopefully, because of their efforts, another child can have a better experience.”

To learn more, e-mail Sharon McGinley at sharmcginley@hotmail.com.


Foster Care by the Numbers
21,691 Number of kids in foster care in Pennsylvania
47.9 Percent between the ages of 13 and 21

13,687 Number of kids waiting to be reunited with their birth families
2 Average number of birthdays a child spends in foster care
34 Percent who live in three or more foster homes
17.2 Percent waiting to be adopted
40 Average number of months foster kids wait to be adopted

7,711 Number of foster children returned to their parents
949 Number who’ve “aged out” of foster care at 18 or older
2,060 Number adopted

Source: Pew Charitable Trusts from kidsarewaiting.org (last amended in 2007)