Thursday, August 28, 2008

Unmet health needs of young people in and from foster care

Witnesses tell of challenges in state’s foster care system
De Gruy, Leiloni. Los Angeles Wave Papers, Aug. 8, 2008.

Foster children and social workers tell panel, convened by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, that system requires immediate attention.

According to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, the number of children in the county’s foster care system in 2007 fell below 25,000, compared to a peak of 52,000 in 1997.

Despite these hopeful numbers, social workers, foster parents, parents, foster children and community organizations attended a special state Assembly hearing at the California Science Center on Aug. 8 to speak with policy makers about their successes, pitfalls and what they need to fulfill their duties. The meeting was convened by Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, and San Jose legislator Jim Beall Jr.

According to several social workers who testified, many foster children do not possess adequate knowledge on how to gain full access to health care, mental health services, job training and support, alternative education, transportation and other necessities.

“We have learned that long time foster care is not the solution,” said Trish Ploehn, director of Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. “Children aging out of our foster care system at the age of 18 are often unprepared with the challenges of adulthood and are too often alone, unemployed, homeless or in jail.”

On average, less than 45 percent of foster children stay in one placement for more than a year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Those children have either returned to their families, moved to another foster family or group home, been placed under supervised independent living, or become runaways.

Eighteen-year-old Chiquita Jordan, who entered the system at age 10, told the Assembly Select Committee on Foster Care of being “separated from my younger brother … It was really impossible to maintain a relationship with my little brother. He lives [in] San Pedro while I live in Compton. I didn’t know if we would ever contact [each other] again, which was painful because my little brother was the closest to me.”

She added: “When I was 14 my world started changing. My mom was trying to get our family back together but at the same time placement began to be shaky. In a period of two years, from 14 to 16, I went AWOL and was homeless on two separate occasions. I lived in three different foster homes and three different group homes. My grades slipped and I went to two different middle schools and four different high schools because I felt like nobody cared about me … I began cutting myself to numb the pain … I was told by social workers that when I get emancipated I would still get help. I needed health benefits, I wasn’t able to get those. When I was emancipated we moved to San Diego and we were homeless out there and when we came back we were still homeless and I was calling my social worker, who was not returning my call and I left several messages.”

The goal, social workers say, is to teach troubled parents how to rear their children and provide a stable environment. Parenting and family courses already being provided by such organizations as Kinship in Action and Shields for Families assess both parent and child successes and failures, then help find immediate solutions or implement step-by-step plans to get them on track.

According to Norma Mtume of Shields for Families, this course of action is most feasible, as opposed to taking children out of their homes and using more than $4.3 billion in taxpayers’ money each year for the cost of judges, social workers and foster parents.

“The cost of assessment is much less than $500 per assessment,” said Mtume, “so the return value on what we’re doing … is quite worth it.”

Said Shaunda Williams, a new parent who received such an assessment: “I had a baby about 11 months ago, I tested positive for marijuana. A social worker came to my home when I came home from the hospital, the social worker said that there were some concerns with both of my children and I needed to have an assessment to see if I should participate in the drug program. A staff person from Shields for Families came to our home and we were both [her and her partner] assessed. Shields help me enroll in a program and are now working with my family. While I attend treatment everyday, I have a seven-year-old who is picked up after school by Shields staff. He also receives counseling and help with his homework … If it weren’t for Shields, I don’t know where we would be.”

Funding and legislative support, said many of the panel’s witnesses, is essential to providing social workers with needed tools and services so that families can become stable units.

According to Wendy Luke, social worker/supervisor at the Compton office of the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services, overworked employees remain a steady obstacle improvements in the system. With several caseloads each — including those just entering foster care, those coming out of the system and those already in it — social workers find it increasingly difficult to provide the personalized services their clients often require.

Meshay Broadnax, an 18-year-old trying to transition out of foster care, said “I have been in foster care system since I was 9 years old … I have been fortunate enough to only have two placements. Although I’ve had stable placement, my social workers have been anything but stable. I am assuming that I have had about 50 social workers who all acted like they didn’t care, after 21 I stopped counting … I am unable to establish a relationship because they are in and out of my life. Social workers are unresponsive because they don’t know me. Because they have changed so often I never know how I am going to get in contact with them, primary workers that are suppose to be the advocate of my needs.”

In 2006, Broadnax became a victim of gang violence. She was shot in the ankle, which led to surgery and a rod in her leg. She needed therapy but “the new [social worker] did not understand my needs and I was constantly complaining.”

She expressed to the panel that her past experiences with social workers leads her to believe that her transition out of foster care will be difficult due to lack of support from the foster care system.

Luke suggested that “We need funding for case workers to be able to lower their caseload, to be able to ask the question, ‘What is it that you need?’ And also to be able to come back in and do their job. We also need funds for the community agencies to be able to buy the services for the families.”

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