Friday, April 27, 2007

Many state welfare agencies keep SSI benefits intended for foster children for themselves??

Letter to the Editor: Stark's foster care bill
San Francisco, April 24, 2007.

Editor -- My friend John Burton correctly points out that we have a moral obligation to assist children in foster care (Open Forum, "Needed -- a safety net," April 8). Unfortunately, we are failing thousands of foster children with disabilities who "age out" of care each year. With no family supports, no nest egg and nowhere to live, many of these children become homeless or incarcerated.

Children with disabilities qualify for federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, yet not every state screens foster children for eligibility. Even worse, in many states welfare agencies view the benefits as a revenue stream and keep the money for themselves.

I applaud Assembly member Noreen Evans for introducing legislation to ensure that all eligible foster children receive SSI. However, more must be done for foster children at the federal level. That is why I have introduced HR1104, requiring all foster children to be screened for SSI eligibility and guaranteeing that eligible children get to keep and save their benefits to use when they turn 18. The former foster children, who lack any family supports, can then use these savings to secure housing, pursue an education or buy a car.


No accountability or records regarding kids who die in foster care

Editorial: Every child's life counts
San Francisco Chronicle, April 24, 2007, pg. B6.

SENATE BILL 39, by state Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, would bring much-needed transparency into California's opaque procedures for disclosing information about the deaths of foster children. As things stand right now, determining when, how and why a foster child died is maddeningly difficult.

Though state law requires all counties to release the names and ages of dead foster children, finding out any more information usually means a trip to court -- where counties can challenge the release of court files over and over again, until the requestor runs out of money and gives up. Making matters worse is a lack of accountability in the system -- no one agency is responsible for gathering all of the information about a foster child's death. The state doesn't even know how many of them die each year.

This is no way to treat our most vulnerable children.

SB39, which undergoes its first hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would correct the worst aspects of this process. Very basic information about these children would be available within five days of their deaths; more (such as emergency response referrals, health records relating to the death, police files and the foster parents' licensing information) would be provided, if a police investigation turned up evidence of abuse or neglect. Petitioners would still have to go to court for the full files -- but judges would have to make decisions on whether or not to grant them within 30 days (it can take years at present), and counties are only allowed to challenge release rulings once.

"You've got to be able to look into cases when children die," Migden said. "We think this ought to be part of a national thrust toward providing transparency into these systems, so that they can be scrutinized and improved."

So do we. SB39 needs to be signed into law.

Homeless families on skid row

Sides Differ on Rescuing Homeless Children
Leonard, Jack, Los Angeles Times, April 23, 2007.

LOS ANGELES -- Sonny Okereke combs the crime-plagued streets of skid row, but the Los Angeles County social worker isn't seeking criminals. He's looking for children.

In a push to reduce homelessness downtown, the county Board of Supervisors has declared zero tolerance for families living on skid row and is concentrating efforts on finding homes for children, even if that means children are eventually removed from their parents.

The rationale for the initiative is simple: Skid row -- with its rat-infested homeless camps, drug bazaars and prostitution -- is no place for a child.

But the role of children's protection workers, who assess youngsters for signs of neglect and abuse, has drawn opposition from advocates for the homeless and skepticism from even some county supervisors.

While Okereke and his colleagues offer families help with welfare benefits, mental health services and housing, critics say the effort unfairly targets the poor and deters some from accepting assistance for fear of losing their children. Nowhere else, they note, do county social workers go looking for abused children.

"I just am very uncomfortable about going through a community, whether it's skid row or Watts, and just saying, this child is out here," said Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, whose district includes part of skid row. "There should never be an assumption that because you're poor, you should be taken from your parents and placed in foster care."

But program advocates say homelessness often is a result of more serious problems, including drug addiction and mental illness, that can endanger children. In at least one case, the failure to adequately assess a child on skid row contributed to his death, said Supervisor Gloria Molina, who has spearheaded the effort.

"It's a terrible, terrible environment, an environment of derelicts and others," she said. "It is our responsibility to do all we can to pull that child out, hopefully with their parents."

The county's Department of Children and Family Services is working to shed its image as an agency bent on breaking up families, and it is prohibited under state law from removing a child solely because a parent is homeless.

Social workers say their priority is to keep families intact. The best way, they said, is to learn why families are homeless and give them mental health treatment, drug counseling or other help.

Members of the skid row team do not have the authority to remove children. If they suspect abuse or neglect, they must call the department's child abuse hotline. Another social worker is dispatched to investigate and decide if removal is necessary.

The team has roamed the skid row area offering such services for two years, and other social workers work out of shelters. The county says the removal of children is rare. From December through February, social workers saw 57 new families and made 20 calls to the hotline. Two resulted in the removal of children.

"Most parents tend to view us as the bad guys. 'Are you going to take our kids away?' " said Okereke, who has worked on skid row for more than 16 months. "We don't do that. ... We try to make them see what services we're providing."

Families have been among the fastest-growing groups of homeless people in recent years. Pinched between rising rents and declining public assistance benefits, more and more families dependent on welfare cannot find affordable places to live.

Nearly 100 children stay in shelters or on the streets in skid row. Hundreds more live in nearby hotels, where families with four or five children sometimes pack into a single room.

At Molina's urging, supervisors two years ago declared zero tolerance for families on skid row, and social workers joined employees from the county's welfare and mental health agencies working in the area. But, concerned about the boundaries of their role, they did not conduct thorough assessments of children.

In November 2005, according to a county official not authorized to discuss the case, a man walked into the Midnight Mission with his 3-month-old son. The team gave the father a voucher for a room. A full assessment would have shown that child protection services in Washington state had removed several children from his custody.

Three weeks later, a hotel employee found the baby's body on a bed in the room. The man had disappeared. Coroner's officials said the infant had been struck in the head and ruled his death a homicide.

The killing prompted an overhaul of the skid row team. Social workers now are required to conduct thorough assessments, including a check of a family's child- protection history. A nonprofit agency, Beyond Shelter, has a contract to monitor families after they leave skid row.

Orlando Ward, director of public affairs for the Midnight Mission, said he remains cautious about the county's efforts but noted that the number of families seeking help at the shelter has dipped over the last year.

"We're encouraged that maybe this intense outreach is having an effect," he said.

But Leslie Croom, a community organizer with the nonprofit United Coalition East Prevention Project, cited one couple who sought help only to have their children removed several months later.

Croom lived on skid row off and on while she raised five children
. "Families have the right to live where they want," she said. "The things we believe they are exposed to aren't any different from other communities."

One day Okereke's team noticed a 5-year-old girl playing by the fountain in central Los Angeles' Pershing Square. Her mother stood nearby with a baby asleep in a stroller covered with thick blankets.

Maria Lopez, 37, said she had been homeless for two days. Her boyfriend had been jailed for burglary, and she could not afford to stay in their motel room. She had spent the previous night at a friend's apartment.

"I'm a little nervous," she said as social workers used cell phones to seek housing for the family. "I don't want the system to come in and say I'm a bad mom and take my kids away because of my situation."

The children looked healthy, so Jose Zavala, a supervising social worker, walked the family to a nearby nonprofit agency. Lopez and her two children, Desiree and Derrell, spent the night at a shelter. A day later, she was sent to a hotel room.

Nearby, at the Union Rescue Mission, Shannon Barnes watched four of her five children playing in the narrow office where some of the skid row team is located. A week earlier, her mother-in-law had thrown the family out. With no place to stay, they sought help on skid row.

The team determined the children were well cared for, so the family was waiting for transportation to a hotel near the children's schools.

"God bless you! Thank you, Jesus!" her husband, Christopher Barnes, bellowed as he entered the office. He had just returned with insulin for his diabetes.

The couple said they spent a harrowing few days on skid row, seeing people urinating in the street, walking around naked and eating off the curb.

"I just seen some stuff since I've been here that I've never seen in my life," Christopher Barnes said. "When we met these nice people in here, it just changed our feeling. It changed our hope."

Housing might keep families together

Jill May's saga: After growing up in a family broken by drugs and homelessness, three young adults who built solid lives honor a woman they hardly knew -- their mother
Knight, Heather. San Francisco Chronicle, April 15, 2007, pg. A1.

Lakesha Houston and her two brothers, Ricky and Robert Smith, sat in the front row of the Lewis-Ribbs Mortuary in Bayview-Hunters Point to say goodbye to a woman they had long ago ceased to know.

They had planned the mid-March memorial service for Jill May, a 49-year-old homeless woman who was reed-thin, wrinkled, toothless and addicted to heroin and crack. She was a former prostitute who remained seduced by life on the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin, despite the city's well-publicized efforts to help her.

None of three young adults at the service were surprised by her death, but they were devastated by its gruesome nature. On Jan. 12, two women allegedly kidnapped May off the street, took her to Candlestick Point, doused her with gasoline and burned her alive -- a slaying that made national news for its utter depravity.

To San Francisco residents, homeless people like May -- in tattered clothes, sleeping on cardboard -- are a common sight around the city. But to Lakesha, Ricky and Robert, this woman was not a tragic icon of homelessness, or a sensational news story.

She was Mom.

Jill May grew up in Pocatello, Idaho. She said her mother was a drunk who died of alcohol poisoning when May was 12. She said her father raped and impregnated her when she was 16. She suffered a miscarriage and ran away from home, winding up in the Bay Area in 1976 and working as a prostitute.

May told her story to The Chronicle in 2004 as part of its coverage of Mayor Gavin Newsom's efforts to end chronic homelessness.

After coming to San Francisco, May soon met Smith, a pimp known as "Slick Rick" who drove an orange Corvette and had a stable of 24 prostitutes. May became his most successful prostitute, attracting business from men of all income levels and professions with her magazine-worthy good looks. Everybody called her "Legs."

The couple had three children together. The first was Lakesha.

The family moved frequently, Lakesha said. Her mother always told her she worked in a bar, but at age 12, Lakesha learned from her cousin what her mom really did for a living.

"I cried and asked my dad if it was true,' " she recalled. "He said, 'Yeah, it's true."

She said her parents smoked pot and crack in front of their kids and gave them wads of cash with which to buy fast food or clothes or, for Lakesha, to get her nails done. At the same time, Lakesha said, her dad was strict and made the kids be inside before the streetlights turned on at dusk.

"It was a normal lifestyle to me -- I didn't know any different," she said.

While Lakesha and Ricky Jr. lived for years with their parents, Robert never did. He was born in his grandmother's garage in Oakland, delivered by his father. Robert was taken to a hospital, which wouldn't release him to his parents. His paternal grandparents adopted him.

Life back at home soon went downhill. When Lakesha was 13, she said, her parents were introduced to heroin and were never the same.

They'd sleep all day and host big parties at night. They kept four or five pit bulls. Lakesha said she got scared when strangers would come to the house to do heroin and crack with her parents, and she slept with a knife under her pillow. Sometimes her parents would leave their Oakland home at 3 a.m. to go to the Tenderloin and keep partying, she said.

"It just became not a home at all. It was literally turning into a crack house," she said.

Despite Ricky Jr. begging her to stay, Lakesha left home at 14 to move in with her best friend's family. Two years later, she was pregnant -- she says she wanted a baby so somebody in her life would love her. She graduated from high school on time and began working in retail stores at 18.
With Lakesha gone and his younger brother, Robert, living with grandparents, Ricky Jr. was left alone with his mother and father. When he was 9, the family was evicted from their Oakland home and moved to the Tenderloin, bouncing around between single room occupancy hotels.

His parents pulled him out of school and insisted he stay inside watching TV until 3 p.m. every day so police wouldn't see a truant child on the streets and arrest them. When schools let out, Ricky Jr. was allowed to go to a local recreation center to play basketball with the other kids.

He'd see his mother standing on the corner, getting into cars with strange men, he said. Even as a 9-year-old, he knew how his mother made money. The kids at the recreation center called his mom a hooker, and he got into fights defending her.

Ricky Jr. said his parents stayed up for days doing drugs and then slept for 20 hours in a row. He had to steal money from his father to buy food and remembers being hungry a lot. But his parents always told him things would change.

"They always told me they were going to get better and everything -- they were selling me a dream," he said. "They always told me they were going to get themselves together and move to a better house and promised me everything a kid could want."

But his dad kept doing drugs, and his mom continued working the streets. Ricky Jr. was often left by himself. One day, when he was 10, Ricky Jr. ran several blocks to the South of Market apartment that his sister was sharing with her then-boyfriend. Lakesha helped him move in with his grandparents and younger brother.

Ricky Jr. had missed third grade, but was enrolled right into fourth grade and managed to do just fine. "I did the opposite of what was expected of me," he said. "Everything that was going on in class, I just picked up easily."

He said the one thing his classmates could do that he couldn't was write cursive, but he eventually caught up in that area, too.

In 2001, the kids' grandparents passed away months apart, and Ricky Jr. and Robert moved in with an uncle. They both earned a B average at Skyline High School in Oakland, where Ricky Jr. played on the basketball team and Robert on the football team.

"We don't want to be like our parents," Robert said. "We have to have our own drive, our own motivation."

His goal, he said, is to become "the opposite of what they were."
In San Francisco, residents see homeless people like Jill May every day and simply pass by. Few would guess how many of them have children.

University of Pennsylvania Professor Dennis Culhane, a leading homelessness researcher, said that nationally, 76 percent of homeless women are mothers, and 57 percent of homeless men are fathers.

But the typical story doesn't go like the one depicted in last year's movie "The Pursuit of Happyness," in which Will Smith played a real-life San Francisco homeless man who is also a wonderful father.

Only 15 percent of homeless parents nationally have one or more of their children living with them. The majority live with another relative, and some are placed in foster care.

Not much research has been done on what happens to these children, but Culhane said one fact is clear: "We know that homelessness directly leads to family separations, parent-child separations."

There is a nationwide push to get chronically homeless adults into housing. One benefit is that it often helps these adults reconnect with their children.

"Not necessarily living with them," Culhane said, "but re-establishing a relationship."

Last fall, with the help of the city's Homeless Outreach Team, May finally got into permanent housing. But she still spent her days on Jones Street using drugs.

And she would never see her children again. Or have the slightest idea of what they had done with their lives.

Lakesha, 26, manages two Victoria's Secret stores and owns a home in Oakland with her husband, Thomas Houston, who drives a truck for Coca-Cola. She has a 9-year-old daughter, Kaleah, from a previous relationship.

Ricky Jr., 20, is a sophomore at San Jose State University and plans to major in computer science. He won a scholarship for an essay he wrote about his childhood.

Robert, 19, is a freshman at Chico State University and is majoring in business administration.

Lakesha got the telephone call in January. Her mother was dead. She immediately phoned her brothers.

"I was on campus walking with my friends (when I got the call) and I started crying," Ricky Jr. said. For the first time, he told his college pals about his family background. "They were, like, shocked. That's, like, something you see on the movies or hear about, but you don't ever think it could happen to someone you love."

Lakesha, Robert and Ricky Jr. immediately began planning their mother's service. They needed closure, they said, and couldn't let her die without some sort of formal recognition.

"She's still our mom, and she deserves it, you know?" Ricky Jr. said. "That's our responsibility, being her kids."

"I always assumed I wouldn't see them (her parents) until they passed away, but I always thought it would be due to their lifestyle -- the drugs," Lakesha said. "To know that it happened the way it did ..."

Her voice trailed off.

"I miss her because that was my mother, and I love her," she continued. "I know she didn't deserve to die that way."

Lakesha, Ricky Jr. and Robert have become increasingly close over the past few years.

"We do have people who have the same last name as us, but we know that ultimately, it boils down to the three of us," Lakesha said. "There's just a bond between us that will never be broken."

When Lakesha got married in February, her brothers were there -- in their tuxedoes and boutonnieres -- but her father was nowhere to be found. Soon, that was about to change.

Weeks later, Ricky Smith Sr. ambled into the Bayview mortuary shortly before the memorial service for Jill May. About 15 people showed up.

Ricky Sr. was wearing a gray suit and beige shoes. He headed into the back room, where the rest of the family was praying with a minister.

Upon seeing her father for the first time in 10 years, Lakesha stood up, grasped him tightly and wailed, tears streaming down her face.

For a second, Ricky Sr. didn't recognize his own daughter and said he thought she was one of his sons' girlfriends.

"Lakesha, your hair has gotten so long," Smith said, a big smile spreading across his face. "Last time I saw you, it was short."

He looked at his sons, still sitting down and said, "What up, dawgs?"

They smiled, looking nervous but also happy.

Everyone took their seats for the service. At the altar was a photograph of Jill May, with the long, dirty blonde hair, the pretty eyes and the great cheekbones That's how her three children remembered their mother -- not the bedraggled, scab-covered woman whose photo in The Chronicle reminded them of a public service announcement about the dangers of heroin.

An organist played "Amazing Grace," and a minister talked about how God is with us even when we make mistakes and hurt others in our lives. Grace, he said, "means God will keep us even when we don't want to be kept."

May's three children, clad in black, stood and read a poem that Lakesha had written. It was entitled "Mom."

We will keep you in our hearts 'til we are called home
Where we'll meet and finally have that happy home
The place that we have always wanted
But never really known
The place where we will have our Mother
This is the place we will call home

After the service, Ricky Sr. posed for pictures with his children, and the family chatted outside the mortuary for a while.

"Oh man, I'm really proud of them," said Smith, who lives in a single occupancy hotel in the Tenderloin. "Really, really proud."

They all vowed to keep in touch and then went their separate ways.

Back in 2004, May told The Chronicle that she had big dreams. "Just one day before I die, I'm going to see the Statue of Liberty," she said. "I'm going to get on a Greyhound bus, see the country. Go to school, get a job. I want to do normal things."

Lakesha said she'd like to scatter her mother's ashes in New York to fulfill her dream.

Lakesha has also told prosecutors that she will give an impact statement on how her mother's death affected her when May's alleged killers go to trial.

Mia Sagote and Leslie Siliga have been charged with murder and murder in commission of a kidnapping, which could lead to life in prison without parole. They have pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors say the killing stemmed from $150 that Ricky Smith Sr. owed the women.

Whoever took her mother's life, Lakesha says, "thought she was some homeless person -- that no one would care, that she would just disappear and no one would notice. I'm so glad they were proven wrong."

About the story
Jill May was first profiled in The Chronicle in December 2004, when the newspaper was examining San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s new outreach effort to move the homeless off the street and into housing and social service programs. For May, the addictions to drugs proved too difficult to leave behind. In January 2007, she made national headlines when she was slain — doused with gasoline and burned alive at Candlestick Point. She was 49.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

For most Americans, transition to adulthood is not complete until age 26

Working together to foster success
Mickelson, Jim. North County Times, April 24, 2007.

It happens every day ---- someone comes into your home and states: "You have to leave now and go live with someone else." If you refuse, the police will forcibly remove you. Over the next few years, you will be moved from place to place, having to adjust to new people, new environments and new rules.

That is a short synopsis of what happens to a child who is put into the foster care system. May is Foster Care Month. Why we celebrate a flawed system with a special month is beyond me.

Most teens ---- long past the "cute" stage ---- stay in the system until they turn 18, when they are handed some plastic garbage bags (known as "foster care luggage"), and told to find a place to live, find work, get transportation, etc. It's known in the field as "aging out."
When faced with these challenging life issues, too few undertake the education and training necessary to compete in today's economy.

Here in North County we have San Pasqual Academy, a first-in-the-nation residential education campus designed specifically for foster teens. The academy is a collaborative effort of New Alternatives Inc., San Diego County Department of Education, San Diego County supervisors and others.

The academy's staff understands the importance of preparing youth for the transition from care. They know the single most important contributor to resiliency in youth is being connected to a knowledgeable and caring adult. So how do they "send them off" and still be there?

In comes Cal State San Marcos, just 14 miles down the road. Although a fast-growing campus, it remains student-focused and is no stranger to foster care: It offers Tutor Connection for elementary foster kids and the ACE Scholars program for emancipated foster youth to help them make the transition from care to college to career.

To facilitate this transition, CSUSM will sign a Memorandum of Understanding with San Pasqual Academy on May 3 to address college preparation, recruitment, retention and increase the academic achievement of San Pasqual Academy students enrolled at CSUSM. It's part of CSUSM's ongoing effort to assure that all young people in the region get a chance at a college degree.

San Pasqual Academy receives no state dollars for their efforts after the youth ages out, nor does CSUSM receive state support for the ACE Scholars program.

Unlike other states where the youth can opt to stay in the system until 21, California becomes the "absent parent" once the teen turns that magic age of 18.

Most Americans believe the transition to adulthood is not complete until age 26 and that completing an education is the hallmark of adulthood. With the work of the California Select Committee on Foster Care, we have an opportunity to address many of these issues of aging out of foster care with pending legislation.

If we don't make the needed changes in policy, California will remain the "absent parent" to these young people who are already too familiar with that kind of role model.

-- Vista resident Jim Mickelson is the ACE Scholars Services Advisory Council chairman and is former director of children's advocacy at Palomar Pomerado Health.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Or maybe some foster care alumni choose to skip Mother's Day

Celebrating Mother's Day and National Foster Care Month
Lillpop, John. NewsBlaze, April 23, 2007.

To most Americans, Mother's Day is a very special day, set aside to honor and thank that beloved woman who gave the most precious gift of all, life itself.

Cards, flowers, candy, and perhaps a nice meal in a restaurant are lovingly lavished on the women who bring new life into the world.

We celebrate our moms for their strength, unconditional love, and for just being "mom."

But for some, the cards, flowers, and candy are sent to a woman other than one's birth mother. That will be the case for many of the 513,000 American youth currently in foster care because of a family crisis, or due to child abuse and neglect.

For such youngsters, it might be a foster or adoptive parent, a grandmother, an aunt or another relative, who they wish to thank and honor for raising them to be all they can be.

Therefore, as we celebrate Mother's Day in May, we also observe National Foster Care Month as a way of calling attention to the year-round needs of America's most vulnerable children.

With more than 12 million foster care alumni in this country, there are countless stories of inspirational women who have come forward to be a "Mom" to a young person in need.

Newsblaze is proud to announce that we will run a series of stories to honor some of the non-traditional mothers who have provided extraordinary foster care to children in need.

Please visit the Foster Care Month web site for more information about the heroic and loving care provided by women who serve as foster parents.

Cost-benefit ratio of investing in foster children

Foster kids face future of homelessness
Steffens, Sara Steffens, San Mateo County Times, April 23, 2007.

When a foster youth becomes homeless, no one social worker, guardian or child welfare department is to blame. Like most states, California has failed to provide an effective safety net for the more than 4,000 children who age out of its foster care system each year.

In ordinary circumstances, young adults count on continued financial and emotional support from their families and are almost never completely on their ownafter turning 18.

A typical parent spends an average of $44,500 on a child after he or she becomes an adult, "and that doesn't include the kid being still in his room at home," said Robert Fellmeth, executive director of Children's Advocacy Institute, based at the University of San Diego School of Law.

By contrast, foster youths get a median of $5,000 in public support after aging out of care.

"Most kids don't get anything," Fellmeth said. "Most kids get zero. (They get) 'Hit the streets with your clothes in your trash bag.'"

One study says that at least one in five former foster children becomes homeless within a few years of becoming a legal adult. Other research, using broader criteria for homelessness, sets the figure as high as half.

In recent years, a growing number of programs have begun trying to help better prepare foster children for independence.

But public and volunteer services remain fragmented, sporadic and largely symbolic, Fellmeth said. "The problem is scale," he said. "The problem is (lawmakers) want to feel good and not spend the money."

In the face of tough odds, some former foster youths do manage to finish their education and build productive lives.

Two bills pending in the state Legislature this year could help prevent foster youths from becoming homeless.

One, AB845, would add $15.5 million to THP-Plus, a state-funded transitional housing program for former foster youth ages 18 to 24.

Right now, the program can only house 167 young adults statewide.

The new money, also recommended in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget, would expand that to 1,000 — enough for about a quarter of those who become homeless after aging out of foster care, said Amy Lemley, policy director at the John Burton Foundation for Children without Homes.

"It's still not meeting the goal, but it would be a significant investment," she said.

The proposal seems to be winning support from both sides of the aisle, Lemley said.

Another bill, AB1331, would allow teenagers with serious mental or physical disabilities to apply for Supplemental Security Income before aging out of foster care.

About 15 percent of youths leaving the foster system potentially are eligible for SSI, but only 3 percent receive the payments, Lemley said.

Waiting until 18 is too late: The average time to process and review an SSI application is more than 440 days.

"For a youth with a serious mental health or physical disability, they've often just disappeared by then," Lemley said.

Although not on the legislative agenda, two larger reforms could brighten the future of foster youths, Lemley said.

The first is allowing youths to voluntarily remain in care until age 21, as New York and Illinois do.

Equally important are efforts to support fragile families, keeping children out of foster placement in the first place, Lemley said.

"Foster care was never designed to be a long-term environment to raise children," she said. "It just doesn't have the rich support that a family provides. A family's a lot more than just a program."

Only a fraction of families contacted by child protective services departments end up having children removed from their home. New models offer voluntary services to the rest, and many take them up on it, Lemley said. Such strategies can be nudged along by waiving rules to allow federal child welfare dollars to be spent on children not in foster care.

Along with the Children's Advocacy Institute, Fellmeth proposes a more radical solution.

In the five years after foster children emancipate from care, the state should commit to spending $47,000 on each of its former charges,
Fellmeth said.

Guardians would act as parents normally do, ensuring the money is spent according to a predetermined plan integrating housing, education, job training and other needs.

The commitment would cost the state $160 million but would save twice that much in costs of incarceration, welfare and lost productivity, according to the group's cost-benefit analysis, Fellmeth said.

So far, he says, legislators have been unenthusiastic about finding money to pay for the guardianship plan. And the Mental Health Services Act, which includes former foster youths among its target populations, distributes its tax revenue according to plans designed by individual counties.

Society would be more concerned about the needs of former foster youths if more people got to meet them, Fellmeth said.

"They are very deserving people," he said. "These are kids who are trying, kids who have been mistreated and all they care about is their sibling and the parent who mistreated them. They have total generosity of spirit."

Monday, April 16, 2007

Siblings separated in foster care are reunited at this event

Siblings in foster care get a day together
Brothers and sisters ecstatically reunite at event, some after months apart.
Slaby, Margaret. Fresno Bee, April 15, 2007.

The Department of Children and Family Services and Aspira Foster and Family Services hosted a Sibling Spring Fling for brothers and sisters who have been separated by foster care and probation placement. These two siblings had not seen each other for eight months because they are living in different cities.

The sun was hidden behind clouds, but smiles brightened Woodward Park on Saturday as brothers and sisters who hadn't seen each other in months were reunited.

One brother and sister, who have lived in separate foster homes for about eight years, were so happy to be together that they couldn't stop hugging.

"We're so close," said the 15-year-old girl. "I miss hanging out with him, giving him hugs and having someone who looks up to you."

She and her 12-year-old brother live in different cities, and it was the first time they had laid eyes on each other in eight months, even though they talk on the phone daily.

The Fresno County Department of Children and Family Services asked that the children not be named. About 35 foster children ages 9 to 18 gathered for the Sibling Spring Fling, an effort to address a problem common in the foster-care system.

"The unfortunate part of our business is we can't always keep all these kids together,"
said Cathi Huerta, the department's interim director.

"At an event like this, we can bring them together -- even if it's only for an afternoon."

Aspira Foster and Family Services, a nonprofit agency, also helped organize the reunion. According to the Aspira Web site, 54,302 children in foster care in California have siblings, and one-third of them are separated.

One of the biggest challenges in keeping siblings together is trying to find foster homes that are big enough, said Samantha LaGrasse, a social work supervisor with the Fresno Aspira office.

"Sometimes there's just not enough bed space," she said.

The California Department of Social Services Community Care Licensing Division regulates foster care.

One regulation mandates only two children per bedroom, and those children must be within 5 years in age.

Another challenge is finding foster families willing to take large groups of siblings.

Rebeca Pessoa, 13, one of about 35 volunteers at the event, said she couldn't imagine being separated from her two older siblings.

"If they're not there, I get bored," said Rebeca, whose sister, Cecilia, 14, also helped at the event. "Sometimes foster kids don't get to see their siblings, so this is really good. This is a whole day they can spend with their family."

Rebeca was one of five members of Girl Scout Troop 4841 that troop leader Vickie Klassen, also a social worker, brought to the spring fling. Troop members arrived at 9 a.m. to organize food and drinks.

Lara Yrigollen, 14, Victoria Paynter, 12, and Rebekah Olson, 12, said they came simply to help the foster children.

Two of those foster children -- an 11-year-old boy and his sister, who turns 12 this month -- kept teasing each other and grinning.

The two were placed in separate foster homes about a year ago; they see each other once a month.

"I haven't seen him since last month and wanted to see him," said the sister.

The event was held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. as part of the Sibling Connection Initiative. Aspira created the initiative in 2005 to provide year-round opportunities for siblings to get together, as well as to increase community awareness. Aspira provides foster care and adoption services throughout the state.

Funding for the event came from several sources, including grant money from the California Connected by 25 Initiative, said Lisa Nichols, initiative coordinator for Fresno County. The initiative's goal is to help with the transition from foster care to adulthood.

The spring fling included food, music by Central Valley Mobile DJ, face painting, bingo and a bounce house. There also were activities to strengthen family ties, such as a "get to know your sibling" questionnaire and bracelet-making.

To help children stay connected, goodie bags were handed out with stationery, envelopes, stamps, pens and photo frames and albums. Volunteers took photos that were given to children before they left.

"This is for siblings who don't have the chance to have fun growing up together like we did," said Caroline Avila, who recruits foster parents for the Fresno Aspira office and helped organize the event. "This means everything to them."

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Ventura County foster care statistics

Foster care statistics
Agoura Hills Acorn, April 12, 2007.

Did you know . . .
+In Ventura County, there are about 85 females between the ages of 16 and 19 in foster care. Of these young women, 16 are pregnant or already parenting.

+It's estimated that 25 to 30 female foster youth in Ventura County will be emancipated this year.

+According to national statistics, 50 percent of youth leaving the foster system are homeless sometime during the first 12 months after emancipation.

Story provided by the United Way of Ventura County

Two-year-old girl dies in Sacramento foster care

Probe sought of dead girl's medical care
Enkoji, M. S. Sacramento Bee, April 11, 2007, pg. B2.

The family of a 2-year-old girl who died in March from an apparent illness while in foster care is calling for an investigation into her death.

The girl's parents, along with their attorney and the NAACP, had sought to have a surviving brother removed from the same home, and Sacramento County Child Protective Services said Tuesday that already has been done.

The 4-year-old brother was moved to another foster home after considering what would be best for the boy, said a spokeswoman for the agency.

"He's been seen by a doctor and he's healthy and well," said Laurie Slothower, the spokeswoman.

She emphasized that the change was not made because of any issues with the foster parents, who have a clean record with no complaints.

Jayla Thompson Fox died March 28 from what appear to be natural causes related to a lung infection, according to the Sacramento County Coroner's Office.

Her parents, Briayna Fox and Tyrone Thompson, are accusing Child Protective Services of failing to ensure that Jayla got proper medical care, according the Sacramento branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The NAACP, the parents and their attorney are staging a news conference and prayer vigil today at 7 p.m. on the west steps of the state Capitol.

Slothower said that after a child dies, the agency always does an investigation, which includes review by medical experts from UC Davis Medical Center.

Monday, April 09, 2007

New federal law requires concurrent planning

Foster parents step in to help kids who've had a tough beginning
Nugent, Mary. Enterprise Record, April 9, 2007.

Liz Griffin knows what trained foster parents can do for babies and young children who have had a tough beginning. "These foster families are unbelievable," she said. "They open their homes to children who come from the most dire situations."

Griffin, who has worked several years as a senior social worker in charge of foster care licensing for Butte County, is talking about the foster parents who are trained through Butte/Glenn Options For Recovery. The program trains people to be foster parents for infants through children age 5 who have been exposed to drugs and/or alcohol or are HIV positive (see side story).

"The county has taken a proactive stance with the drug endangered children's program, to ensure foster parents are trained to recognize problems in the youngest children," said Griffin during a phone interview from her office in Oroville.

"Some are born to moms abusing drugs or alcohol and have to withdraw. Their nervous systems are affected. They feel things too much: light or sound or motion or texture. There is a lot more to it. There are behavior problems and when they start school they may be learning disabled, those sort of things. We need to address it early on."

She said the reasons foster care is a necessity are not complex.

"The primary reason is neglect. And the number one reason children are removed from their parents is the mom, or the mom and dad, are using or abusing alcohol or drugs,"
said Griffin.
"In our county, meth (methamphetamine) is the big one. Meth is devastating for the brain. These parents think they're doing a fine job but using drugs makes them delusional, gives them an exaggerated sense that everything's fine. But these children are languishing with no food, inadequate everything."

Griffin said a new federal law requires "concurrent planning — That we do all we can to reunify a family but look at what we can do if a family can't reunify. It's working two tracks at the same time."

When children are removed from a home, parents must demonstrate they can become responsible to raise their children.

"They have to prove to the judge they are making significant progress. If they do nothing, the judge can terminate parental rights and that opens the door for people who want to adopt children."

Birth parents are given six months to improve their situations. With a "good faith effort," said Griffin, they may be allowed a second six months.

Some birth parents do succeed. "Foster parents have to realize if the birth parent succeeds, they will have to say good-bye (to the foster child)," said Griffin.

People are willing to take the challenge, she said. "The more the word spreads, it's becoming more known this is a means for potential adoption," said Griffin.

The risk of adopting a child with problems through Options is not any greater than the risk of adoption in general, she said.

"People spend huge amounts of money to adopt a foreign baby, but there are no guarantees with any adoption. These (Options) kids can be affected very minimally, while some are significant."

When children have been affected by alcohol, the disabilities are the most serious. "That's mental retardation, fetal alcohol syndrome. Facial anomalies identify these children, but you could have a little of this or a major affect, where a portion of the brain has not developed. With alcohol exposure, it gets to a point where they can't improve.

"With drug exposure, a lot can change and there can be improvement."

People who go through Options to be foster parents and possibly adopt are screened and trained. Wanting to adopt a child is not a requirement to be an Options For Recovery foster parent.

Griffin said she is impressed with the people who foster children through Options. "In my foster parents, I see it changing to be a younger group of people. Gay couples, single people — all kinds of people can adopt."

On an average, 160 to 200 children that are newborn through age 5, become a part of Butte/Glenn Options for Recovery each year. These are children who are generally neglected because of their parents' drug and/or alcohol abuse and have been removed from their homes. They also may be HIV positive.

They go to foster parents trained by Options for Recovery to care for children with problems specific to drug and alcohol exposure. "Of 160 children, about 30 are from Glenn County. Butte County is just bigger," said Sandra Tonjes, who coordinates the program.

Options for Recovery plans a training for foster parents April 24 through June 19. Classes will be 9 a.m. to noon Tuesdays and Thursdays at Butte College Foster/Kinship Education, 2491 Carmichael Drive in Chico.

Classes will feature topics relevant to caring for substance- and or alcohol-exposed babies and young children. They will include addiction, childhood development, foster parent testimonies, newborn and infant care, nutrition, contagious diseases, infant massage, HIV/AIDS and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, boundary setting, first aid, grief and loss.

Speakers and presenters will include social workers, early intervention specialists, teachers, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, dietitians and marriage and family therapists.

Options for Recovery is always seeking foster parents because the need is always there, said Tonjes. In 2006 in Butte County there were:

-- 30 adoptions

-- 250 family reunifications

-- 34 guardianships

-- 32 emancipations.

"These figures come from Butte County Children's Services and include all the children in the county who were detained," she said. "They include adoptions that have been finalized, but not the ones that are pending." No figures are available about Butte County adoptions specific to the Options for Recovery program, she said. There are more than 700 children, birth through age 17, in foster care in the county.

Options for Recovery started in 1991 with a consortium of counties, and Butte was one of them. A pilot project, it was one of 11 counties in California that offered the program. In 1997, Options for Recovery became a permanent program of Butte County Social Services.

For information about foster parent training, call 538-7896.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Foster teens learn to cook in Life Skills 101

Foster Teens Learning to Cook it Up with Life Skills 101
Steele, Debra, Fresno, CA:, April 5, 2007.

A group of Fresno teenagers in the county foster care system got a lesson in culinary arts as part of a program called Life Skills 101.

These teenagers had the best of both worlds on Wednesday. They learned how to prepare a delicious and nutritious meal while having fun at the same.

Larry Hood, high school senior, says, "It's a mixture of both to me. It's really evened out, you got your difficulty parts, its already organized that's were the easy part comes in and then you just put it all together and you mix it really nice and smoothly."

Larry Hood is an 18 year old senior in high school and part of the Fresno County foster care system. He and the other teenagers at this workshop will be graduating high school and leaving the foster care system and heading out into the world on their own.

Today's life skills 101 lesson taught them the fundamentals of preparing a meal. Annette Brown, Fresno County foster care system, says, "It's a normal thing that you would be taught by your mom and dad in order to go ahead and know how to cook when you left home. But just because you are in foster care, you might not have that opportunity."

At the California Institute of Technology, they prepared chicken parmesan with pasta and broccoli. They learned the basics like the proper and safe way to use a knife while chopping up vegetables.

Elizabeth Corneliuson, Junior League of Fresno, says, "In addition to the cooking skills, it is also them being in an educational environment and many of them may chose to look into going to a culinary institute or some of the other programs that the institute provides."

The program is sponsored by the Junior League of Fresno, a group of women who focus on children and education. Larry says the program is a big help, "Me, myself, I'm going to be cooking. I want to run my own business in the future, so this has really helped me."

Life Skills 101 also provides a host of other workshops that include financial planning, money management, resume writing and getting prepared to join the workforce.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Incarcerated mothers visit with their children

Visiting loved ones in prison
Garrity, Bridget. Los Angeles Tidings, March 30, 2007.

Donna, a petite blond, is sitting on the floor with her four-year-old granddaughter Dreena in her lap, explaining why, after her daughter Amber's incarceration, her home nearly went into foreclosure. "The rental cars, the hotel rooms, the phone bills..." She becomes teary. "See, I'm crying already," she laughs.

It's 5 a.m., and 72 people have gathered in the pre-dawn hours to ride a bus 265 miles to see their incarcerated mothers, daughters, and sisters. Many cradle sleepy toddlers and infants in their arms.

Today, a bus goes to Chowchilla, the first of its kind in the state (or in any state) funded by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to bring family members to their incarcerated loved ones; this group is its first riders. The Chowchilla Family Express heads off a series of 26 free trips to Chowchilla's Central California Women's Facility and the Valley State Prison for Women, together the largest women's prison in the world.

"It's been a long time coming, but it's here and it's rolling," says State Senator Gloria Romero, along for the inaugural trip. The sense of accomplishment and joy --- even relief --- is palpable.

Ethel is eager to tell her story. In tow are Ethel's daughter, 12-year-old Sabrina, and three-year-old granddaughter, Msalijah. Msalijah's mother is at Chowchilla; her father, Ethel's son, is in prison as well. Ethel herself did time twice at Chowchilla. Both times she had infant children, and during neither incarceration was she allowed to see her children.

"When I got out in '94," she recalls, "it was the hardest, because I had to do a year of [drug rehabilitation], and Sabrina really didn't know who I was. She was afraid to come to me."

Ethel's situation underscores Wendy Still's observation that collaborative efforts are critical in breaking the intergenerational cycle of incarceration. Still, the associate director of Women's Offender Programs and Services, points out that family reunification is crucial to successful re-entry.

"We know that children with attachment disorders are twice as likely to become offenders themselves," Still says. "Children's attachment to mom is as critical to their development as it is to their mother's rehabilitation."

Natalya is on the bus to visit her mother, Karen. With her are her own daughter, Jaelen, 3, and Jaelen's great grandmother, Baby --- four generations of women. Twenty-four-year-old Natalya recounts how she did not see her mother for months after her offense, not until she was watching TV and her mother's photograph came across the screen on "America's Most Wanted."
"She didn't come to us, she didn't go the police," Natalya notes sadly. "She ran. She was scared."

"It's not enough to be tough on crime, we need to be smart on crime. Tough is not enough," says Romero. About 200,000 children in the state have an incarcerated parent. Of that number, about half never get to see their parent during the course of incarceration. Many women are placed in facilities hundreds of miles from their families, with few visitors. Romero notes that the "bad mother" notion often comes into play, further alienating women from hopes of reunification.

Stills agrees. "If a child doesn't see his incarcerated mother within 15-18 months, parental rights are no longer protected."

The Chowchilla Family Express, directed by Eric DeBode, is the result of a collaborative effort among St. Joseph of Carondelet Sister Suzanne Jabro's non-profit organization, Women and Criminal Justice, Still's Gender Responsive Committee, Romero's Commission on Public Safety, and the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"We're putting the big 'R' back in rehabilitation," comments Mary Lattimore, chief deputy warden of CCFW, who emphasizes the institution's "absolute" support for the endeavor.

The first riders arrive in style: a red carpet, and a swarm of photographers and cameramen. "I feel like a movie star!" says one participant.

Inside the prison, the women wait, eagerly looking through the glass windows of the visiting room for any sign of their loved ones. Upon reuniting, the room is filled with tears, laughter and delight. It's not until little Jaelin calls off the press ("I just can't do this right now!" she says to a photographer), that reunification truly begins.

Ethel's daughter fusses with Msalijah's hair, admires it, then fusses with it again. Across the room, Natalya's mom presses her for news of school. Before long, families are playing games, sharing stories, and enjoying each other's company as if no time had passed --- as if they might be sitting around the kitchen table at home.

In the small grassy courtyard outside, the children play games of "Red Light, Green Light" and "London Bridge." Mothers take turns watching each other's children. When Dreena's mom excuses herself for a moment and returns, she sighs, "I wish I hadn't missed a minute of this," to which Dreena responds with open arms, "Oh, Mom! Come here and let me give you a hug!"

The atmosphere is joyous and family-like. It could be any city park in the country, except that here, there are only four precious hours for a mother to take delight in and bestow love upon her child.

As the visit nears to a close, the first riders embrace their loved ones, and tears flow. Several reminders are given by the guards that it's time to go. Back on the bus, goodie bags and teddy bears are passed out as the bus departs to ease the separation.

On the journey home, the children use the toys to process the day. Says one little girl's bear to another little girl's bunny, "Hi, daughter! I got out of jail today! It's your mom, and I love you."