Monday, December 24, 2007

Deaf foster children who literally have no voice

Permanent housing is first of its kind in area
Gustafson, Craig. San Diego Union Tribune, Dec. 24, 2007.

CHULA VISTA – He has bounced from foster home to foster home and state to state over the past decade, searching for a permanent place to lead a normal life.

Such has been the plight of deaf children with emotional or psychological scars who are part of San Diego County's foster care system.

But that same boy is now 17 and an aspiring artist who attends high school and lives in a spacious house tucked in a residential neighborhood in Chula Vista, closer to relatives and friends he had long forgotten.

The home, the first of its kind in Southern California and renovated solely to house troubled deaf children, provides a permanent home for the foster system's most difficult-to-place children. The county has partnered with a nonprofit to run the residence and provide 24-hour care for the children, all of whom moved in last summer.

The foster care system has limited resources for the hearing-impaired, and few social workers are trained in American Sign Language. That means the county sends some deaf children to special group homes across the country at a cost of more than $500,000 annually.

The four children who reside in the Chula Vista home have similar stories to tell: They are victims of violence, abuse and neglect, and they often have difficulty communicating with others because of their disability.

County and child welfare officials hope that having a new home will improve the quality of life for the children.

“Most did not grow up in a friendly environment,” said Walter Philips, executive director of San Diego Youth & Community Services, which runs the home. “We're trying to give them a support structure.”

County officials asked that the teenagers not be named because they are victims of abuse.

The 17-year-old aspiring artist is one example of what can happen to these children. He entered the foster system 10 years ago after domestic violence at his family's home became too much to bear.

Since then, he has lived in six places, including homes in San Francisco, Wyoming and New Mexico. Before he moved into the Chula Vista house in June, it had been six years since he had lived in San Diego County, where his sister and niece remain.

The frequent moves were a result of the county's lack of facilities and expertise to help him. The county paid up to $15,000 a month to send him elsewhere.

County Supervisor Greg Cox said he became aware of the problem two years ago after several deaf social workers raised the issue. Cox said the county had failed to look at alternatives for helping troubled deaf children.

The county has roughly 6,400 foster children, including about 30 to 40 who are deaf, at any given time. Of those, a handful have been deemed too troubled to place in a foster home.

San Diego Youth & Community Services bought the 1,800-square-foot Chula Vista home for $655,000 and renovated it for $80,000. The county gave $310,000 in community block grants to the nonprofit for the down payment on the house. State and federal funds pay for operating costs of $570,000 annually, which include specialized residential care and supervision as well as mental health services.

Lights flicker when the doorbell or phone rings. Clocks flash and beds vibrate as wake-up alarms. Carpets were removed to reveal hardwood floors, so the deaf children can feel vibrations. A video telephone was installed.

Cox said he hopes it will be a model for other counties in how to deal with deaf children.

As for the children themselves, there is a sense of relief that they won't be living in a strict group home as far away as Boston. For the first time in a while, they can focus on what teenagers do best: dream.

A 14-year-old resident said she is finally getting caught up on her school work, an important goal for her because she wants to attend the country's top school for the deaf, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. She said she wants to become a public-service lawyer so she can help deaf foster children who find themselves in similar situations.

The 17-year-old is an expressive youth passionate about video games and drawing. His room is filled with sketches, including a comical take on President Bush and war.

Through an interpreter, he said his goal is to “create my own healthy family” some day. The comforts of his new home – rather than a group home – will help him toward that goal, he said.

“It's better because we have an opportunity to be in a place where we can stay, learn independent-living skills and become established and achieve our goals,” he said.

“It's home for me.”

11 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am excited by this and hoping to get some more information or establish a relationship with these people, so we can do something similar in my county in norther California. Please email if possible with more info at signinghands3@yahoo.com. Thanks so much for the post!

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