Giving Kids in Foster Care a Fair Chance

By Stephen Dixon

One early afternoon, I was sitting under a Stephen-Largesmall flowering mimosa tree in our yard when our neighbor Brenda walked briskly up the road carrying her infant. As she got closer, I could see that Brenda was covered with blood. She explained that she had stabbed a “friend,” that the police were coming and that she needed me to care for her baby, Michael. I took him in my arms, not sure what would happen next. 

As I sat under the mimosa, I realized for the first time the need for a good foster care system. I didn’t actually think “foster care.” It was more like, “This little baby needs some kind of safe place to live.” Brenda once did too. She had grown up in dangerous foster care situations and then juvenile detention.

Now, 25 years later as an attorney at Children’s Rights, I have met countless dedicated foster parents that could have helped Brenda and thousands of others like her. But I also have visited homeless shelters and spoken with young people aging out of foster care. They share Brenda’s experience of never getting a fair chance. These young people talk about being hit with belts and coat hangers, punched, kicked, sexually assaulted, all while in state care. One boy told me that when he was 9, a son of a foster parent tried to rape him. He defended himself with a knife and ended up stabbing the son and the foster father—his innocence gone forever. Far too many are unable to fend off sexual assaults.

So many of these young people recount being moved through a seemingly unending series of homes and institutions, never completing a school year where they started it, never making friends. One young man spoke of being moved four times during the 9th grade, three times in 10th grade, twice in 11th. The number of placements we have heard of for a single child is mind numbing: 10, 15, 24, 47, 60. One young person summed up the emotional damage when she told me, “I felt like no one loved me and nobody wanted me.”

Too many caseworkers are overworked, have few resources, and spend long hours on weekends and evenings to try to accomplish their tasks. It can be an impossible job when caseloads are out of control, which explains why they have little incentive to remain in their low-paying jobs. Some youth have told us about having 10 to 15 different caseworkers. A number have said that caseworkers show up at court hearings, having never met them before that day.

Abuse and neglect in foster care leads to additional trauma, serious emotional and psychological pain and “acting out,” which is when psychotropic medications can come into play. There is no question that some children need medication. But many describe psychotropic overmedication that had them feeling like “zombies,” failing school, unable to carry out normal daily functions. One young woman told me of being placed in care after her mother died, only to be separated from her sister for years. She said she was put on psychotropics to deal with these losses. She wondered why they simply hadn’t let her see her sister instead.

Thankfully, we can do something about all of this at Children’s Rights. We bring legal cases that protect children, so they are not harmed after they are brought into foster care. Our work allows these children to get the help they need in myriad ways, including: making sure child welfare systems recruit and support a sufficient number of high-quality foster homes; ensure reasonable caseload levels so social workers can be effective in their work; and provide careful oversight of foster care institutions, for kids who really need them. Foster care can be safe, and children in foster care can thrive and become happy, healthy adults.

I like to think that Brenda and her baby Michael could have benefited from a stronger foster care system.

Several hours after Brenda left her baby with me, she came back from the police station to retrieve him. In a couple of months, the child was removed by the local child protection agency. Brenda had been feeding the child undiluted formula because, having difficulty reading, she didn’t understand the instructions. The child suffered brain damage and could never speak normally. After coming in and out of state custody several more times, Brenda’s parental rights were finally terminated. Michael, though freed for adoption, was placed in long term foster care–their story seeming to come to a despairing end.

It was an incident that I had in mind when I decided to join Children’s Rights, where it is a privilege to work with strong legal advocates who fight to protect large numbers of children–children who, like Brenda and Michael, deserve a fair chance in good foster care and ultimately, in permanent, loving homes. The strength, compassion and effectiveness of the advocates at Children’s Rights is unmatched, but it is certainly compounded by people like you who are following “Fostering the Future.” Our work is far from done. We thank you for spreading the word about this National Foster Care Awareness Month campaign, and hope you will continue to bolster our mission and help us make sure every kid in state care gets a fair chance.

Published on May 26 as part of Children’s Rights 2013 “Fostering the Future” campaign.