Inspired By the Children We Serve

Kate Wood-largeI arrived at a row of rundown white single-story buildings surrounded by an old chain fence with overgrown weeds. It was strangely quiet for a place where dozens of children were supposed to be housed. After entering the gate, I crossed an open courtyard with nothing but a lone picnic table and then went into a small room in one of the buildings where M.H. was waiting. Sitting on an old couch and staring at the floor, M.H. didn’t even raise her head when I entered the room.

At 16, M.H. has been in foster care most of her life. In a quiet voice, she explained that she had been in at least 12 foster placements and had suffered abuse in some of the homes. One foster parent choked her and threatened to return her to the foster care agency if she acted up. Now, at this group facility where children are placed in solitary confinement if they misbehave, all M.H. can talk about is how much she just wants soap that won’t aggravate her eczema, but the facility staff refuses to provide any. Since being at the group home, M.H. has lost weight and desperately wants to be with a family. However, her social worker – her third since entering state care – has told her there are not enough foster homes and there is no other place for her.

Unfortunately, while investigating the child welfare system in South Carolina, I found that stories like M.H.’s are not uncommon. Stories of young people who were hit with belts, punched and sometimes sexually assaulted all while in state custody. Many of these children are moved through an unthinkable number of placements and institutions, never forming lasting relationships with any adults or finding permanent families. One young man had been in an astounding 28 placements throughout the entire state of South Carolina. Another described being moved between so many different homes that he felt unwanted and compared himself to “trash,” thrown away and forgotten.

Because there are so few foster homes, children are often inappropriately placed in group care placements. One young woman I met described in heartbreaking detail the abuse and neglect she suffered at the group facility where she languished for almost a year because, as her social worker said, there were no homes available for her. A.R. rarely had enough food and she and other residents would hoard it when possible. The physical conditions of the facility were unsanitary and in disrepair. There were feces on the floor of the shower for over a month during her time there. Adults at the facility inappropriately touched A.R. and one made sexual advances while she was housed at the facility. She reported this and the other conditions to anyone who would listen but no action was taken. It got so bad that she ran away to her physically abusive mother’s home. She would rather risk further harm by her mother than stay at the facility.

Even though this was the first time I was meeting her, A.R. shared with me that she felt so desperate and rejected that she resorted to self-harm. Despite being evaluated as needing therapeutic services in February, the facility did not take her to receive any treatment until October – even after being hospitalized for cutting her wrists. As she described what she had lived through, you could hear the disbelief in her own voice. Too many of these children, just like A.R., go years without adequate medical and mental health care. Children are hurt physically, psychologically and emotionally, and are placed at constant risk of such harms while in state custody.

For all of these reasons, Children’s Rights decided to take action and hold the South Carolina Department of Social Services accountable for these longstanding systemic failures. We are calling on the child welfare agency to build the infrastructure necessary to support a sufficient number of good foster homes, and ensure reasonable caseload levels so social workers can be effective in their work to keep kids safe. And we are demanding that kids in foster care get the medical, dental and mental health services they desperately need.

I became a lawyer to advocate for vulnerable youth, and there is no population more vulnerable than children torn from the only families they have known, then placed into a system that treats them like they have been thrown away and forgotten. At Children’s Rights, our work across the country allows children in foster care to have a shot at secure, safe futures. After spending over an hour describing her harrowing history in foster care, M.H., without hesitation, agreed to be a part of our lawsuit against the child welfare agency. She even chose the pseudonym – Michelle – that would go on our complaint.

Along with our other brave plaintiffs and dedicated advocates on the ground, I know we can make a difference. And years from now, the reform we believe is possible in South Carolina will be known by the name of the courageous young woman who shared her story so that many other young people could have a better future – Michelle H. v. Haley.

Published on May 7, 2015 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign. The opinions expressed herein are those of the blog author and do not necessarily represent the views of Children’s Rights or its employees. Children’s Rights has not verified the author’s account.