On The Frontlines: From CR’s Interim Executive Director

Sandy Santana

Sandy Santana

On any given day, there are approximately 400,000 children in U.S. foster care. We will meet few, if any, of them. State systems determine where they live, who they see, where they attend school and countless other details of their lives. If they are fortunate, they are safely reunited with their parents, placed in stable and supportive foster homes or adopted by loving, permanent families. But far too many are pushed through a labyrinth of shelters, family homes, group homes and residential treatment centers, leaving them with uneven educations and uncertain futures.

This should be a cause for sustained national outrage. Yet foster children are invisible to most of us and lack the political power to lobby for change. So when advocates stand in the gap, agitating to no avail, when budgets continue to be misallocated or cut on the backs of children, a lawsuit is often the only remaining instrument of change.

That is why Children’s Rights, along with local counsel, recently took a stand in South Carolina and Arizona. Early this year we filed class actions on behalf of the states’ foster children to address several longstanding problems which, until now, have seemed intractable — and have harmed thousands of kids.

The named plaintiffs in the cases include Zahara, who, at just 5 years old, was placed in a secure facility for children with severe mental health needs. She was put on powerful psychotropic medications and waited months for visits from her grandparents and brother. She described the half year she spent at the facility as the “worst time in [her] life.” She has now been moved through 13 placements and had at least six caseworkers.

And there is B.T., 14. Arizona’s goal for him is adoption, but after spending half his life in foster care, being moved through a series of family homes, group homes, shelters and hospitals and experiencing one failed adoption, B.T. says, “I feel like I get tossed around like a bag of chips.” The Department of Child Safety has denied him much-needed mental health care, despite B.T. threatening to kill himself at just age 6.

Our cases tell these tragic stories, but we also hear of remarkable resilience. We are grateful to the brave young people who are contributing to our third annual Fostering the Future campaign this May. The blog-a-day public-education venture, timed to National Foster Care Month, includes first-hand accounts of those who have been impacted by foster care — and while the majority describe years of struggle, so many offer a message of hope to those still in the care of the state. The campaign grows in reach every year, spreading the word about a desperate need to further reform child welfare systems.

Over the past few months, we have also begun leveraging our child welfare experience in new and exciting ways. In December, we added our expertise to a chorus of advocates seeking the end of solitary confinement and improved conditions for adolescents and young adults at Rikers Island. The following month, the New York City Board of Correction codified the city’s pledge to eliminate solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds.

We had a strong start to 2015 and look forward to reporting on victories to come. And we thank you for your role in helping transform the lives of thousands of abused children. We may never meet them, but by supporting Children’s Rights, you help ensure that not one of them is invisible.

Read additional articles in Notes from the Field, the Children’s Rights Newsletter: