Life fraught with uncertainty for youth in public care

When families fail, we, the community, effectively become the children’s parents. This is a fact of life, whether we choose to recognize it or not. Given the conveniences of modern life, most of us tend to assume that some public agency is taking care of kids whose families can’t.

And are they? How well?

A community’s ability to care for unparented children — or anyone weak, hungry, widowed or imprisoned, for that matter — is a measure of its strength and success as a community.

Over the summer this column will put faces to youngsters who, through no fault of their own, wind up in state care. The Department of Children, Youth and Families has a caseload of roughly 9,000. DCYF supports many of these children in their family’s homes, but others go into foster care, group homes and elsewhere.

Recently, I visited a group home in a leafy neighborhood where I had dinner with eight girls between the ages of 13 and 17.  Each girl has a complicated story of how she came into state care, and to protect confidentiality, the staff was reluctant to give details beyond what the girls revealed. The overarching issues for parents are substance abuse and poor mental health. Some youths are homeless. One girl has no family — mom died, now grandmother is sick, and there just isn’t anyone else.  Another girl sighed and said, “My mom just didn’t know how to be a mom.”

So they came into the care of the state.

Group homes tend to be in tony neighborhoods and large enough to accommodate, say, eight teenagers, an administrative office and a room dedicated to family and individual therapy. At this home, four girls share each of the two upstairs bathrooms — a major point of friction between them. They sleep in two doubles, one triple and one single. All but one bedroom was reasonably neat — “We’re working on this one,” said my guide — and all were decorated with the usual riot of teen-girl taste for too much stuff on the walls and too much bubble-gum pink.

The living room doubles as a place for group therapy, called “house meetings,” where staff and girls deal with issues of living together. Often girls call the staff members “mom,” and many girls stay in touch with the house staff, including a clinical social worker, after they leave. We sat at a huge dining table and ate salad and homemade lasagna. One girl assisted the cook and set the table. Others cleared and did the dishes. Yet another swept the floor. The girls and staff eat together as a family each night and chat about what happened that day and in school. I heard “please” and “thank you” among adolescent digs and shy answers to my questions. Two girls never spoke.

A girl who wanted to be called Jeli said that living in a group home “is like living with a lot of annoying sisters. It can be fun, but it sucks when you leave because you get so attached to the people.”

They talked about their myriad residential placements. Some had been in several foster homes, or “kinship-care” with grandmothers, or in John Hope Settlement House, St. Mary’s, or other group homes. One had been to the Training School. Since 2003, one girl had gone to 10 different schools. Her entry into what everyone calls “the system” began when her school called the state with concerns about her care and well-being. After DCYF visited and investigated the family, she was taken into state care directly from English class.

Another girl interjected, “Yeah? I got pulled out of Spanish.”

Previously, most of these girls were in a “secure” residential facility, a locked house where they are evaluated for 90 days and educated on site.

Many of these youngsters need a giant dose of order. Using the same techniques as high-end therapeutic boarding schools, secure facilities dole out privileges as currency exchanged for compliance with the rules. Only when adults clamp down hard on teen freedom, restoring it incrementally as reward for cooperation, do older teens get control of themselves. Some never do.

One girl said, “I’m different than the others because I’m here for my own issues.”

She’d been a wild child and gotten involved with drugs. But precisely because her problems were actually within her control, she has the best shot of actually going home.

Some girls passionately hope that any day now, their mothers are going to get good apartments and, as one said, “get me outta this joint.”

In private, staff members shake their heads and say that most of the parents are far from ready to bring their daughters home anytime soon.

Two 17-year-olds were about to enter state-supported independent living programs — apartments shared with others, which included some counseling, medical insurance and education. But to save money, the General Assembly just kicked the kids 18 and older out of the system, so the house staff members are trying to figure out how to send these girls to an independent life with no support at all.

Publicly financed social services are always subject to the whims of policymakers and budgets. This is only one reason it’s important to see these girls as individuals and not numbers and dollars. Their lives are at stake.

Currently 325 children live in group homes and 334 are in residential (secure) facilities. The community must get more involved in their care.

Julia Steiny
24 June 2007

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