Monday, January 01, 2007

One in three foster care alumni were abused or neglected in state care

Family business
As more foster youth fall through the cracks, some call for stronger oversight of the system to weed out unscrupulous care providers

Piasecki, Joe. Pasadena Weekly, June 29, 2006.


It’s getting worse out there, and George Lozano can see it.

As executive director of Hollywood’s Covenant House youth resource center for the past seven years, Lozano has watched the streets fill up with more and more homeless kids each year.
And the more who show up, the more they have increasingly complex psychological, social and physical problems.

“Some of the mental health issues and substance abuse issues seem to be more severe than they were, let’s say, 10 years ago,” he said. “The numbers are increasing, at least the number of youth that we find on the streets, and what remains very constant is the great majority of those [children] have been in the foster care system.”

But why, with unprecedented resources becoming available to kids leaving foster care in Los Angeles County, would the problem be getting worse?

That might have something to do with other numbers, suspects Jill Duerr Berrick, a professor with UC Berkeley’s Center for Child and Youth Policy and a member of the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care.

Those numbers reflect how often state licensing workers check up on some foster homes (only once every five or 10 years), how often foster children see their social workers (as little as once a month) and — with such limited oversight — how often already troubled kids in county care are neglected or abused by those who are paid to care for them.

“When you look at the data, it’s a little curious. Look at the official reports of abuse in foster care and the numbers are strikingly low, that less than one percent of kids in foster care are abused in foster care [the federal standard is .57 percent]. On the other side of the coin, talk to kids in foster care or former foster youth and they will tell you that they have experienced a rather more difficult path,” she said, noting a recent study in the Midwest that found that as many as one in three former foster children report having been abused or neglected while in state care.

From January through September of last year, only 1.4 percent of LA County foster kids suffered substantiated maltreatment by caregivers, according to reports on file with the state Department of Social Services.

But, “What the state is reporting is probably the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot under the surface when you talk to kids individually,” said Carole Shauffer, director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, which has successfully sued the state and various counties numerous times for failing to adequately care for foster children.

Even for those whose needs for safety and basic care are being met, the instability that comes with being in the system presents unique challenges to their well-being, especially when it comes to educational opportunity, said George McKenna, assistant superintendent of the Pasadena Unified School District. Due to an unusually large number of foster families and group homes in the area, PUSD serves a higher percentage of foster youth than any other school district in the state.

“Their academic achievement and social adjustment is often challenged by the inconsistencies of care they get. Some homes do a very good job, others — it has a lot to do with the parent, biological or otherwise,” said McKenna, who explained that area schools officials often can’t find a single consistently responsible person to contact when a foster child is struggling in school.

“The standards vary widely,” said Shauffer of group homes, some of which don’t allow kids to make phone calls, even to their social workers.

During his tenure in Pasadena, McKenna has become aware that foster care is “a thriving business. A lot of people do very well on funding they receive for foster care,” he said.

The kids feel it, too.

Ebony, a 21-year-old former John Muir High School student who became homeless when her time in county-sponsored transitional housing ran out, said with some foster parents or group home operators, the care-giving business is all about the money.

“She wouldn’t feed us for days,” Ebony recalled of one foster parent in Colorado, where she stayed before coming to Pasadena to live with relatives. Though most of her caregivers weren’t nearly as cold, she found no one who seemed to care, no one who realized that “This is not just a paycheck — you’re going to affect our lives.”

Like other youth interviewed for this series who are now seeking jobs and mainstream housing, Ebony asked to be identified only by her first name. She and others shared memories of foster parents who did not provide adequate food or clothing, failed to make sure they went to school and even indulged in drug and alcohol abuse in their presence.

As terrible as all that sounds, such stories are common among foster care system graduates from all over the country, many of whom end up in Greater Los Angeles for the sunshine, available services and a chance at a new life.

“It’s a huge problem, and it’s an oversight problem,” said Shauffer.

Saints and sinners
Not just the failings of a few rotten apples, inadequate foster care is a systemic failure, said Duerr Berrick.

“The ones who are doing good work I put in the category of saints,” she said. However, “a significant minority of foster youth tell us the quality of care they got was very, very poor.”

With California foster parents being paid about $500 per month, per child, “It suggests some sort of disconnect with the standards of what we expect from caregivers and what we pay. In every single study of foster parents, the parents’ principal complaint is insufficient support,” said Duerr Berrick.

While many foster parents struggle without enough resources, state oversight of group home care is hardly enough to make sure everyone is doing a good job. Under former Gov. Gray Davis, state monitoring of licensed group homes was downgraded to about once every five years, and in some cases 10 due to backlogged caseloads.

And because so many oversight visits are pre-announced, “We have higher standards for restaurants than for the quality of foster care,” she has concluded.

There are people looking out, though. While the level of supervision varies for foster homes, each must contract with county officials and are checked on by social workers during scheduled monthly visits with youth, said Stu Riskin, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

But visits by county social workers who are burdened with near-impossible caseloads just aren’t enough to make up for a lack of regular state inspections, said Jennifer Rodriquez, legislative and police coordinator for California Youth Connection, an advocacy organization operated by former foster youth.

“Many foster youth have had the experience of knowing another youth that was reporting abuse and seeing it was meaningless, so a lot of youth don’t report it, will run away from the placement, tolerate it or ask to be removed,” said Rodriquez, who not only hears such things from kids but lived through it herself.

“I reported that there was abuse happening in one of my group homes and I wasn’t believed,” she said. “I decided from that point on that I wasn’t going to use any of the systems that were in place to deal with complaints.”

A similar thing happened to Sandy, a homeless former foster youth interviewed by Human Rights Watch for a recent report on kids leaving the system. She said she had been sexually abused in care but was afraid to report it, mostly for fear of being moved somewhere even worse.

Not that all victims are old enough to make a choice. Earlier this week, LA County’s Office of Independent Review released a report blaming the beating death of a 2-year-old foster child in Alhambra on negligence by the social workers and supervisors who placed the child in the abusive home. LA County District Attorney Franco Baratta, who is prosecuting the couple charged in the death of little Sarah Chavez, would not comment on the case.

Anthony, an 18-year-old living on the streets of Hollywood, told the Weekly he ran away from a physically abusive foster home in Michigan. The only oversight of that home came from his social worker, who had such a friendly relationship with the abusive foster parent that he felt she wouldn’t believe him, as he already had a reputation for misbehaving.

Thanks in part to lobbying by California Youth Connection, however, there are systems in place to help foster youth in crisis.

At both the state and county levels, a foster care ombudsman is available to hear complaints by and advocate for youth who, like Rodriguez once did, feel they have no other recourse.

Within the past year, the California Foster Care Ombudsman’s Office heard 937 complaints and took more than 600 calls for information about the system from current and former foster youth, foster and biological parents and others. Of those complaints, 96 were about rights violations, 62 involved abuse and neglect of foster youth and 187 pertained to problems with placements in foster homes, according to state records.

However, foster care ombudsmen at both the state and county levels are not fully independent investigators; a few of them told the Weekly they need permission from their departments before speaking with reporters, preventing comment in time for this story.

Digging deeper
Then a 16-year-old crack addict who had suffered sexual abuse, JJ had a rough landing in foster care, and it wasn’t long before she ran away from those who were supposed to be caring for her.

In an LA-area foster home with seven other youth, she felt invisible.

“With the amount of kids that were there, not everybody got what they needed. Myself, I didn’t get enrolled in school for three months,” she said. After moving to a different home where both foster youth and foster parents openly used drugs and alcohol, she went off on her own and soon became homeless in Pasadena, where she once again was exposed to drugs, poverty and indifference.

For a crash-course in area youth homelessness, the very real aftermath of failures in the state’s foster care system, catch a ride with Saul Zepeda. He’s an outreach worker for Pacific Clinics’ Healthy Transitions Program in Pasadena, which has connected JJ and dozens of others to housing and other much-needed services.

Zepeda spends his days combing vacant houses, parks and other places in the San Gabriel Valley offering hygiene kits, contact information for services and on-the-spot counseling for youth in crisis.

This reporter got a brief but striking tour earlier this month, guided not just by Saul but by Ebony and Queenese, an 18-year-old former foster youth who grew up in San Diego. There was a lot to learn.

Just outside of bustling Old Pasadena, about two blocks up from the Gold Line Station at Central Park, is a vacant, back-lot house where several homeless youth have sought shelter. While hosting some of this summer’s hottest free concerts, the Levitt Pavilion band shell in Memorial Park is also a place under which homeless youth have been known to sleep. In the city’s more economically depressed Northwest area, homeless youth are everywhere — in rundown homes with overgrown lawns, alleys, boarded-up buildings, or just walking around with nothing to do, said Zepeda.

Along the way, we pass a young man with a baby. He doesn’t look homeless, but Ebony knows he is. She too had been invisibly homeless, traveling the country with her mother and siblings, squatting in vacant houses and living in hotel rooms with her increasingly mentally disturbed mother.

“There’s a big population that people don’t realize,” said Gina Perez, director of the Healthy Transitions Program, which has delivered services to hundreds of kids and found homes for 71 homeless youth.

In 2004 and 2005, nearly half of the 289 kids served by the program had been in foster care, and several now live at Pacific Clinics’ Hestia House, a transitional housing duplex on Orange Grove Boulevard. Plans are also in the works to open a youth recovery center in Baldwin Park to target the underserved and little understood Asian-American homeless youth of the San Gabriel Valley, she said. For now, the overwhelming majority of homeless youth served by Pacific Clinics are black and Latino.

A more common denominator, explained Zepeda, is that they find it difficult to follow through with things, to help others help them.

“They never had anybody to show them how to do things and they have a difficult time following directions. Nobody’s ever sat with them and showed them how to do certain things, how to make a proper call for a job interview,” he said.

Making things doubly hard, homeless youth usually try not to look homeless or in need.

“They want to be part of the young generation that appears to be doing OK, but inside they’re really hurting and in need. They disguise what they’re feeling so no one will know,” said Zepeda.
David Brinkman, executive director of Hollywood’s My Friend’s Place youth drop-in resource center, said homeless kids rarely identify with homeless adults.

“They fear seeing their own reflection in that population,” he said of the nearly 1,500 homeless youth who go to My Friend’s Place each year, about half of whom are former foster youth, many of them victims of physical or sexual abuse.

“For those who live on the streets it is a safer environment for them than their home was,” said Brinkman. “We don’t have youth who come to our door because they’re poor.”

Not only is it difficult to engage homeless youth, it could take as long as a year in therapy before they’ll talk about experiences of physical or sexual abuse at their former homes or in the streets, said Perez.

“Drug pushers or other older people sell them for sex in order to [let them] get what they need. Substance abuse is a huge, huge issue. Ninety-five percent of kids in the streets use substances,” she said.

Street portrait
Outside the Tommy’s Burgers on Hollywood Boulevard, Brian Chytka, the 22-year-old whose visit to My Friend’s Place began this series, shows me the red mark a heroin needle left on his arm. He wears it like a badge of honor, showing those who are willing to look at him who he is and where he’s been. In a way it sums up very quickly the discussion above — the inexorable link between life in foster care and life on the streets, the connection between the numbers Duerr Berrick questions and Lozano’s huddled masses.

It’s also a badge Chytka would like to exchange for something better.

“I want to get sober and get off heroin. I want to get a job,” he said. I said I’d try to find him some help and gave him my phone number, but it’s been more than a month and he hasn’t called.

For Chytka, self-destructive drug use is more than a symptom of street life. It’s a big part of the reason why he’s here in the first place.

“My mom and dad were hardcore dope fiends, and the state came in and intervened and took me and my little brother Chris away from my dad, but my mom just gave up on us, you know. She didn’t care,” said Chytka.

“They put us in a foster home … and they were very abusive toward us and they were sexually abusive toward their son, Bubba. They tried doing that with me and my brother, but we rebelled. We broke their big-screen TV and we poked holes in their water bed. And in retaliation they literally beat my ass bloody with a switch.

“A social worker came and took us from them. They brought us to a house and the lady’s name there was Vivian; she was a very, very loving, kind mother — the closest thing I ever had to a mother. My dad got us back after that. He cleaned up, got a job,” said Chytka.

But then dad started doing drugs again after an abusive stepmom came into the picture, and he lost custody of the kids one day after shooting up before a hearing with a family court judge.

“That was Jan. 11, 1998. After that I was really pissed at my dad. I wouldn’t even look at my dad, or every time I did I’d give him a really hateful glare, right.

“I wouldn’t let my dad apologize and say he loved me or anything, right. I got on that phone and I ripped him a new asshole, and my closing words were, ‘I hate your guts you old man and I hope you fucking kill yourself, man.’ And my fucking dad killed himself the next fucking day,” he said, a catch in his voice showing how much it still hurts.

“I was sent to juvenile hall and all these group homes where they’d tease me for crying, and I had to fight them. I said ‘fuck this shit,’ so I kept running away. That’s how I came out to Hollywood and became a gutter punk. That’s how I got introduced to heroin, due to running away from a group home. I’ve been on the streets ever since.”

At My Friend’s Place, Brinkman sends the message that drugs are the wrong way, but, privately, he understands it’s not that simple.

“Who am I to pass judgment on a youth who isn’t ready to get sober yet because of how desperate his future looks at the moment?” asked Brinkman, who has both buried his clients and has seen their spirits crushed when they grow into adults living on Skid Row.

“It’s hard to always be optimistic about their futures,” he said.

How To Help:
To make a donation to Covenant House California, call (866) 268-3683 or visit www.covenanthouseca.org and click Giving.

For information on how to help the Youth Law Center, call(415) 543-3379, ext. 3914, or visit www.ylc.org/help_us.php.

Call (415) 442-5060, ext. 11, or visit www.calyouthconn.org to support California Youth Connection.

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