Twenty years ago, I wrote an article about a retreat sponsored by The Missouri Division of Family Services for foster children, aged 14 to 18. The purpose of the retreat was to help DFS learn, understand, and deal more effectively with the problems of foster children. The kids were encouraged not to hold back, to be honest and “tell it like it is.” These are excerpts from that retreat followed by an up to date response from my expert.
The Coordinator of the program, warned me ahead of time that the children were angry, hurt and in pain.
I had been asked to appear on a panel made up of a juvenile judge from Memphis, Missouri, a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) from St. Louis and a juvenile officer from St. Louis County, all really neat people and dedicated enough to drive many miles in the pouring rain to be there.
After lunch, we found ourselves facing fifty quiet, polite, attentive young people. We took a few minutes to explain our roles in the system and then asked the children if they had any questions.
It started off calmly. A tall, good looking fellow about 17 years old stood up and said, “I’ll like to ask the judge why is it that judges never listens to the kid?”
Fifty pairs of serious eyes shifted from the boy to the judge.
He said he couldn’t answer without knowing more of the circumstances and could the boy be more specific?
He could. His father was an alcoholic that had beaten the boy for as long as the boy could remember. “But what’s worse is I have two little sisters.” His eyes filled with tears. His father had been both physically and sexually abusive to them. As he told his story, his voice rose with anger and anguish.
“So when I tried to tell the judge that if he sent my little sisters home, that my old man would just keep on abusing them, the judge sat there and diddled with his pen, tapping out some dumb rhythm, rolling his eyes up. And you know what he did?” the boy was now sobbing without shame. “He didn’t pay no attention to one thing I said. He sent me to a foster home and sent those two little girls HOME to be beaten up on or worse.”
The room was dead quiet. Slowly, everyone looked back to the judge.
The judge said something to the effect that often, one parent or the other requested that the child not be allowed to testify.
“Bull . . . .!” replied the boy.
We on the panel now knew it was going to be a long two hours.
A pretty girl of fifteen stood up. She and her group had some questions.
“A lot of us,” she said, “have wanted desperately to be adopted, to have real families of our own, but we can never be adopted if our parents won’t sign the papers. Right?
They don’t want us but they won’t sign no papers. How come you can’t fix that?”
“Another thing. When I was taken out of my home, I signed a contract with the judge and DFS. The judge told me if I did everything exactly like the contract said for six months, they would find me a good placement. Well, I did every little thing, Judge,” she said defiantly, “but after six months, they told me they didn’t have a good placement or any placement.” Her voice rose. “So you know what?” Her face was red and fighting back tears. “They lied. That Judge and the DFS worker lied.”
The juvenile officer tried to explain that they may not have had a good placement available right at that time but she answered, “Then they shouldn’t have promised.”
One blond child told how she’d been sexually abused. She went to the police and suffered the embarrassment of explaining in detail what had happened to her. She answered all of the policemen’s probing and intimate questions and then, “Guess what?” she said. “They made ME take a lie detector test. How come they didn’t make HIM take a lie detector test? Well, I know why. ‘Cause they didn’t believe me. That’s why.”
The Judge said that lie detector tests are inadmissible as evidence in court.
“Then why did they make ME take it? That bastard is still out running around and he has a three year old daughter. What do you think is going to happen to her?”
I spoke up to explain that a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) only has one case and that we are in constant contact with ‘our child’ to represent his or her best interest and to keep the court well informed regarding the case. “If you don’t have a CASA, go to your GAL attorney or your DFS worker for help or write a letter to your judge. He’ll listen.”
A girl rose. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, “ she said, “but I tried that. I told my DFS worker and my legal aid attorney that the man who was then my foster father was sexually abusing me. They nodded and patted me on the back and promised to do something. That was months ago and I’m not in that home no more but he is still a foster parent.”
Finally, a little dark curly-headed girl sobbed out her story of lifelong parental molestation. “We kids didn’t do nothing but we got taken away from our Momma and our school and our friends and HE still lives with Momma and has had two more baby girls for him to play with. What kind of law is that?” She dropped her tear-streaked face into her hands and slowly sat down.
So what’s changed? I asked my expert, Lynn Barnett, LMSW, who has had much experience in this area.
Lynn’s response: “The biggest change is that foster parents must now take a number of classes or workshops over the course of a year. 30 hours of training are required and deal with everything from forming bonds and attachment to appropriate discipline for teens. It is very comprehensive training.
Even more training is required of foster parents who take children with intense behavior problems and/or severe medical issues. Each foster parent must take an intensive refresher course each year. The trainings must be approved by the state agency with which the family contracts. I have attended excellent trainings for foster families in Missouri and in Kansas as well.
Foster parents must now provide the agency with credible references and undergo federal background checks and fingerprinting. No one with a history of abuse and/or a felony conviction is permitted to become a foster parent. If a child reports abuse, the investigators respond immediately. If the charge is reliable, the child is instantly removed and the home closed for good.
Family preservation services are much improved Families now have a chance to develop skills and stay together with support from the community mental health system. Social workers connect the family to vital community resources that help with things like utilities, bus passes and food pantries.
In the 70’s and 80’s, state agencies wanted to preserve their foster home beds by forbidding foster parents from adopting their foster children. That is no longer true. Foster parents can now choose to adopt foster children provided the birth parents have had their rights terminated. This is a big change.
Kids today don’t have to move from home to home, thus losing those important “attachments” they develop. Fewer moves mean healthier kids.
I realize that some teens believe no one is listening to them but consider this. Those same youngsters have spent a lot of energy messing up their lives, defying authority, getting kicked out of school or making bad grades. The kids who are obeying the foster home rules, help out around the house, make decent grades, and do their best to get along in the system are most often heard by their case managers, attorneys, CASAs and judges.
One teenager at the retreat was so upset about a sibling being left with the abusive father. While that has not ended altogether, it happens much less often. If one child is taken from the home due to abuse, most often, they all are. In cases where children could be endangered, home witnesses and therapists provide assessments and act appropriately.
Of course there are a few foster families that do it ‘for the money’ but in Missouri and to a lesser degree Kansas, it doesn’t pay all that well. Foster homes that take ‘high needs’ or ‘intensive rate’ kids deserve and receive more; as much as $45 to $64 a day.
Space prevents me from going into more detail but if you have questions or comments, we’d be glad to hear from you.”