Thursday, August 28, 2008

If you can't be a foster parent, why not be a mentor?

Wanted: Earth Angels to mentor, befriend, and encourage children in foster care
DeRegnier, Diana. American Chronicle, Aug. 28. 2008.

So often we hear about abject poverty of children in other countries. Less often, we learn about the circumstances 800,000 American children face which results in their being taken into foster care.

The intent of this article is not to compare the misfortunes of one with the other but to serve as a reminder that severe deprivation exists close to home which can be best remedied with a generous dose of compassion, attention and guidance.

If you are unprepared for taking a foster child into your home, there is still much you can do. Money is always needed, yet more important are the needs that bear no cost but time and integrity. What these children hunger for most lies in the heart and soul of adults and peers.

As a former foster child I remain alert to how society deals with children who have become wards of the court through no fault of their own. The best presentation I have ever seen was the 2006 ABC Primetime feature "Calling All Angels" with Diane Sawyer. For once, the foster care system was presented from the perspective of children who had been bounced from one home or facility to another, always longing for the parental love most children take for granted.

On that Thursday night in June, Primetime was preempted for more than 10 minutes for the enthralling end of the National Spelling Bee which was guaranteed to draw millions of viewers. While the audience and contestants bemoaned yet another delay for commercials and a re-staging of a supposedly spontaneous moment with the finalists, home viewers may have wondered how ABC could cut into the feature program on children in foster care that had been promoted for days.

As if preplanned, one spelling bee contestant had been tripped up by the word "weltschmerz" which Spelling Bee officials defined as a comparison of idealism to the real world. The Encarta online Dictionary calls it "sadness felt at the imperfect state of the world, especially at the behavior of human beings." They would have done well to cut to Primetime for examples.

Moments after Katherine Close won the competition, she was asked how important it is to have her parents' support. Katherine answered, "So important. You can't do anything without moral support." Katherine Close may not have known the power of her statement in light of the program that was to follow. In that moment of synchronicity Katherine became an advocate for "Calling All Angels," which had been billed as an appeal to the nation for each of us to step up in support of dispossessed children.

Diane Sawyer finally began the program with video clips of foster children struggling to count in their head how many foster homes and placements they have been in. Yet, if you didn't hear the words, you wouldn't know that they are any different than any other children caught in a quiet, pensive moment. They are clean, well-mannered and composed. They calmly tell us that they have been taken from their parents due to neglect and abuse, yet their wish for when they grow up is again and again to be a fireman, nurse, crime fighter or super-hero – "someone who can help people." And we realize the courage and generosity of the young survivors.

When Ruben's three younger brothers were adopted he was devastated. "It hurts a lot to be rejected," he says. Perhaps foster parents believe he is too old to need them. Ruben has never been able to call a place his. It was always "somebody's house, not my house." But Ruben refuses to give up. Even at 18 Ruben clings to hope that someone will open their doors and their hearts to make him part of a family.

Ruben and his brothers were removed from their mother because of neglect. Yet 10 years later he remains devoted to her memory. He says he wants to fulfill her wish for him to be happy and to do good things. "If you give up you're a loser, and I'm no loser," Ruben declares.

Fifteen year old James, who lived in 11 homes before he was adopted, imparts wisdom easily missed by those from better circumstances: "When you bounce from place to place, you lose a piece of you every time you move." Later in the program, they cut to another clip of James and his voice quivers as he tells us, "You should be extra kind to these children, they've been through a lot." Has he forgotten that he's one of them?

For the first time I've ever seen, national television has gone straight to the children to learn about the hell-holes they have come from. We hear their testimony rather than parents bemoaning their lot. In the children's eyes and visible hearts we see wounds and scars inflicted in unimaginable conditions. Those near the age when social services will no longer be available to them show fear. On the lips of each is "what's going to happen to me then?" Yet they profess tenacity, more hope than hopelessness, and determination to rise above their circumstances.

Diane Sawyer moves cautiously into facts behind the children's rescues. Latest statistics cite 800,000 children passing through the system each year; 500,000 are taken into foster care; 118,000 are available for adoption. In an already inadequate and burgeoning system, methamphetamine use has spawned an epidemic of abusive and negligent parents. Civic leaders call upon Faith communities to help with the rising crisis.

Before meeting children who are among the most severely traumatized, Sawyer introduces us to Sky Tanghe, a devoted social worker at Maryhurst, a unique facility in Louisville, Kentucky. Maryhurst offers nine programs for 600 of the state's most vulnerable and troubled young girls. Sky considers herself fortunate to have a caseload of 19 rather than the 30 – 60 cases workers in some areas of the country are expected to manage.

Emily Smith, another counselor at Maryhurst, was once a resident. "This isn't a job for me. This is a love for me," she says.

Judy Lambeth, CEO and president, tells us the children at Maryhurst are those who nobody else can handle. "They hate themselves so much they can't handle success." Maryhurst offers the last chance to develop tools for re-entry into society.

Asked what is the most important thing the children need. Lambeth replies, "I would want for all our girls, our kids, to have one adult in their life that they can count on for the rest of their lives."
Eleven year old Summer is, at once, typical and unique. When Summer was taken from her drug-addicted mother a doctor had to surgically remove cockroaches from her ears. Since the age of six, Summer had been molested by men who paid her mother to have sex with them.

Summer was adopted by the Sally and Wayne Meyers. The Meyers regret having to relinquish Summer but they must protect the three younger children.

We are told that those who have been sexually abused often act out as a form of power, affection and manipulation. Something they don't say in the program is that sometimes sexual abuse is the most affectionate touching the child has received. Sometimes, that is the only time they hear anyone say "I love you." It may become the only way they know how to ask for attention, comfort and reassurance that they are valued.

Summer works hard for perfect grades. Try that after attending numerous schools and with memories of violence, sex and drugs running through your mind.

Summer is sure her adopted mom wants her back. The mother does not. She asks Summer, "Is it safe to bring you back home?"

Summer answers "No." Then quickly changes the subject to something pretty, "Look over there," she says and points to blooming Daffodils.

Summer's favorite song is "Jesus Take the Wheel" by Carrie Underwood: "Oh, I'm letting go. So give me one more chance. Save me from this road I'm on."

Diane tells Summer she has beautiful eyelashes. "You do too," Summer says.

Diane tells Summer hers are false and invites her to take them off. Summer gently lifts one and pulls back with a groan. "Ooh!" they both laugh.

At bedtime Summer drags a pillow and blanket to the floor where she prefers to sleep. Diane tells us, "For tonight, no one can come in and hurt her."

Still, there is a spark in this damaged little girl that will not be extinguished. When Diane asked who she would be if she could be anyone in the world, Summer says, "I want to be myself -- not anybody else. Just me. … Because I wanna learn my real self."

Another child followed in "Calling All Angels" is 14 year old Whitney who cuts herself. Though her mother is a drug addict Whitney thinks she caused her mother's problems. Whitney's mother also grew up in foster care.

In the last four years Whitney has lived in five foster homes. Yet she takes full responsibility for her behavior. "It was my decision to skip school. It was my decision to do drugs. It was my decision to stay out all night."

Judy Lambeth says that girls like Whitney can benefit from the highly structured, intensive team approach to treatment and the belief that "if somebody cares for you when you're at your worst – and that's true for all of us -- then we know we're loved."

Lambeth goes on to say, "When you know their history in the context of meeting them and seeing them, then you see the hope."

Many may remember in the news in 2003, four New Jersey brothers who had been adopted by a couple who then starved and beat them. Authorities finally stepped in when the oldest was caught rummaging through garbage cans for something to eat. At 19 he weighed only 45 pounds. His brother Keith was 14 and weighed 40 pounds; the 10 year old, 28 pounds; and the 9 year old, 23 pounds.

Now adopted by Fulvia Mitchell, Keith has changed even his name. He is now Tre Shawn Mitchell in honor of a new brother and cousin. Tre has gained 90 pounds and has grown 13 inches.

When the boys first came to live with Fulvia they would ask permission for every normal behavior. They asked if they could go to the bathroom or brush their teeth or watch television. Tre ate constantly until his new mother took him to the kitchen, "I showed him that the cupboards are full. The refrigerator is full. I am not going to deprive him, or mistreat him, that he is safe," his guardian said.

Over the next few days "Calling all Angels" was followed by other ABC News programs with "A Call for Action" on World News Tonight; Night Line; Good Morning America; and 20/20.

One segment addressed "aging out" regarding children near the age when they will no longer qualify for foster care programs, mentoring programs like Adoptment and the Torch Program, a resource in Pittsburg that focuses on an alternatives to foster care and the trend to internet adoption.

We were introduced to Heart Photography, a national network of professional photographers who have replaced the children's traditional file mug shots with museum quality photographs that also appear in exhibits across the country.

The ABC News Web site provided video clips from the programs; full-length articles by researchers for the shows; links to 20 child welfare organizations nation-wide; and message boards to communicate with other viewers about what was seen and felt. Ruben, whose brothers were adopted, generates the most discussion and numerous offers to adopt him despite his age.

There were few postings regarding the Spelling Bee.

In the background of a video clip of a little girl named Amanda, who was being photographed for an exhibit, another girl stood sideways near the wall, clearly in the camera's line. She stood silent, shrouded in sadness, then slowly moved out of view.

Representing the Torch Program is Doug Anderson, a retired vice-president of a major Wall Street investment firm. He was also once a child in foster care. Anderson is now a mentor: "These children need something other than the system," he tells us.

Among the success stories, we find a father, Howard, who cleaned up his drug addiction, got a job and took parenting classes. Howard tells us the benefits of his changes are that his children say I love you, and he adds, "I heard them say good morning."

Any gesture, big or small, beneficial or detrimental, in a foster child's life will impact them for life. Everything has meaning, amplified by their circumstances. Please find a way that feeds your soul to also feed theirs.

By coincidence, one segment of The Oprah Show today is about children in foster care. Her audience has collected 34,000 pairs of pajamas for foster children. And I guarantee, those pajamas will be treasured as much for the act of generosity and caring as for the comfort and warmth they will bring.

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