When he was six years old, James* entered foster care after the state heard that his brother had been physically abused. Over the next two years, his life became increasingly uncertain as he was shuffled through 12 different foster care placements in four different counties and was assigned a revolving door of caseworkers. James spent a significant amount of time over this period in emergency shelters, settings that typically house dozens of children, rather than in a family home. He was separated from his brother and at times went months without seeing him.
James would also go months without receiving a visit from his caseworker. In his first two years of foster care, the state received six different allegations that James had been abused or neglected by foster parents, once after he reported that a foster parent had whipped him with a belt. After one such allegation, a state document urged that “he needs to be somewhere safe.”
When a child’s needs are ignored, the impact can be devastating. This is especially true for children in foster care, whose entire lives are at constant risk of change or loss. Children’s Rights knows that the converse is also true: when you demand that all children receive the attention that they deserve, it can have a tremendously positive effect on their lives. Since its founding, Children’s Rights has brought numerous class action lawsuits on behalf of children in foster care just like James to make sure that they get the care that they need.
Having seen in my own life the impact that care and attention can have for a child, I decided to become a staff attorney at Children’s Rights in 2012 and joined a group of dedicated advocates. One of the great privileges I have had since then is witnessing the courage that kids in foster care bring to impossible circumstances. That determination is on full display in this year’s Fostering the Future campaign. As our contributors demonstrate, all children in foster care bring their own needs, strengths, and history to their experiences in the system. Each child has a unique story to tell.
But even amid this diversity the failings of many foster care systems are predictable.
A permanent home remains elusive for many in state care. Countless clients of ours, just like James, have been moved through dozens of foster homes, shelters, hospitals, and even beds in state office buildings. And when there aren’t enough foster family homes available, many children are unnecessarily left in institutions for years or even for the remainder of their childhoods.
Consistent visits from their caseworkers also remain beyond reach for many. In nearly all of the systems we strive to reform, many caseworkers are assigned caseloads two or three times the size of national standards. Imagine the most work you could possibly handle at your job — then triple it. With so much to do in a day, even the best caseworkers simply can’t make sure that all these children, for whom they are the last line of defense, are receiving the attention they need to be safe and secure.
Many children don’t know whether they will ever see their sisters and brothers again after they are put into separate foster care placements, or moved to different cities, for the sole reason that the right foster home — one that can care for all the siblings — isn’t available.
And far too often, children suffer beatings, sexual assault, rape, or neglect after they enter foster care. These stories of abuse are enough to leave you speechless. It is unacceptable that any child in the care of the state would have to wonder, “Will I be safe today?”
At Children’s Rights, we know that these children deserve better. Moreover, children in foster care have a legal right to better, and we bring their stories to the courts to demand reform. Through hard work and committed legal advocacy, we have won court orders and settlement agreements across the country. These victories have led to on-the-ground reforms, including the hiring of more caseworkers so children receive frequent visits, moving kids out of shelters and institutions and into family foster homes, recruiting more foster families to keep children close to their homes and communities, and changing systems to ensure that kids are safe in state care.
But there is more work to do, and we need your help. Please continue to share these stories and help raise awareness of what needs to change. The simple click of a mouse can make a world of difference in making sure that children have safe and stable childhoods.
Joshua Rosenthal is a staff attorney for Children’s Rights
*This name has been changed to protect the child’s identity.
Published on May 15, 2014 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign.