The Children Just Want To Go Home

Writing in a recent article in Surveillance and Society, Lynne Wrennall explains that “there is extensive evidence of harm to families resulting from Child Protection interventions. Families who have been through Child Protection ‘assessments’ are left traumatized, bewildered, betrayed and powerless.”

Wrennall notes that researchers have stated that “children and families drawn into the child protection process frequently find the whole experience traumatic, and sometimes more traumatic than the abuse itself.”

Wrennall continues on to explain that: “There are also financial costs involved in defending themselves, even if Legal Aid is provided. In one case a child’s entire college fund was consumed in protecting her against child removal. The system has a central focus on adoption, though forced adoption is widely regarded as the Family Law equivalent of the Death Penalty. Indeed it can be argued that adoption is the tail that wags the Child Welfare dog. The evidence is that adoptions are more likely than ever before, to be contested by families of origin, that child removal is experienced as ‘excruciating’ by parents and that Mothers who undergo adoption of their children are likely to experience lifelong sorrow and regret. Yet the evidence of harm to families is countermanded by the argument that the child’s interests are paramount. However, the paramountcy argument does not stand up to the evidence that children are mostly depressed while in ‘Care’ and have very poor outcomes from their time in the system. Children’s lives are devastated when child removal is substituted for family support. One child described foster care as ‘distressing,’ crying for his Mother and Father. Assessment was a ‘horrible and frightening experience’ and he says he is ‘very angry’ with social services ‘and will never forgive them.'”

“In the main, children who have been taken into the system, want to return to their families, but their views are largely ignored. Even when they have been adopted, children describe the loss of their families, as the worst thing about being adopted,” Wrennall writes.

Over the course of my many years of conducting research in this field, I have spoken with many children who have had a close encounter of the third kind with the CPS system. Some of those who had been “rescued” into state care could not bring themselves to talk about their experiences in foster care.

Such was the case with Alicia Wade, whom I’d met briefly in September of 1998, some years after her “reunification” with her family.

“She still won’t talk about it,” Jim Wade said to me as Alicia stood next to him looking at me silently.

But some children did speak with me about their experiences in state care. One young girl from Massachusetts told me that her “heart had been ripped apart” due to the separation from her family. She was “lucky,” she said, because her state-appointed foster family was “nice,” but she “felt like a stranger in a strange home.”

“When I got on the school bus, everyone stared at me because they knew I was with a foster family – so I must be a foster kid,” a young girl from South Carolina explained.

“Everyone at the school treated me differently, like, there were black kids, and white kids, and Spanish kids – and that was all O.K. Everybody got along. But if you were a foster kid, somehow that wasn’t O.K., and everybody treated you like some kind of outcast,” she said.

Another young girl quite simply stated that: “Every day, I felt like I was living in a place that I didn’t really belong. All I wanted was for the nightmare to end so I could go home.” She sounded as if she may have been about to start crying, when her mother took back the phone.

These children deserve a voice – and they are routinely denied it. As a recent article in the industry journal Social Work examining the impacts of caseworker turnover on foster care youth explains: “studies publicizing the voices of those who are directly served by the system are nonexistent.”

The authors continue on to explain that: “Children placed out of home by public welfare agencies have a significant stake in employment practices and patterns within the child welfare system. In fact, their interactions with caseworkers can be determinant of future life outcomes.”

So just what did these children have to say? A majority of youths “described the re-traumatization of losing their families that coincided with the loss of a caseworker.”

As one youth explained: “It was challenging for me because once you get used to one person, then you have to change over and over, they are creating an unsafe and unstable environment for us especially when there is already no stability and permanency in our lives.”

Several of the youths had the perception that “administrative policies within the child welfare agencies mandated that caseworkers should not maintain close relationships with their clients.”

As one youth explained: “Every time a caseworker gets close to a kid, the supervisor takes them away. It is like a close relationship is not allowed or something.”

To be sure, some good caseworkers do enter the system from time-to-time, but those are the ones that don’t last very long. As one state ward explains it: “I had a caseworker for two years, from the time I entered care. She was the first and last worker I liked. It was hard to lose the relationship. She had gone the extra mile for me and my siblings. She made sure I had clothes, had a visit. The next worker was very different, and it affected the way I treat all the workers I’ve had since. It affects your ability to trust all workers.”

Another youth explained: “When you keep losing caseworkers, it affects your ability to tell who you can and can’t trust. I should be able to trust my caseworker, but I can’t. How am I supposed to tell who I can and can’t trust when I am out on my own? For instance, people tell me to trust my caseworker who is supposed to be trustworthy, but then they screw me by leaving. The same people tell me not to trust my homies, yet they got my back no matter what.”

The authors cautioned that: “This study used a convenience sample of youths involved in the child welfare system. The participants in this study were older, were leaders, and disproportionately represented the independent living population. Despite these limitations, the youths in this study make powerful statements about the effects of caseworker turnover on their lives.”

These powerful statements indeed do deserve to be heard – and particularly so when the system has such a potential impact on their life outcomes.

So many millions of children have been sucked into the black hole that is the foster care system, only to have reappeared on the streets and in our prisons some years later. To be sure, they didn’t all wind up there, but far-too-many of them did. These are, after all is said and done, among the more common outcomes of being rescued into state care.

I caution that my own results may have some limitations. They stem primarily from unsolicited e-mail communications stemming in turn from my web site over the course of many years, and they are largely derived from telephone communications with parents and with their children.

The “representative sample” that I’d interviewed was somewhat less fortunate than the one in the above referenced study. Indeed, to the very last one that I had interviewed – and there were many dozens of such interviews conducted over the years – the children all despised their would-be saviors. To the last one, they utterly despised every caseworker that they’d encountered while they were “in the system.”

“This bitch would come around every few weeks telling me lies about my mother. She told me my mom was ‘a nobody’ who didn’t care about me. I knew it was a pack of lies,” the girl from Arizona told me.

“I didn’t know what this guy’s problem was, but he wouldn’t let me go home. It was like he had it in for me and my whole family,” the young boy from New York City told me.

“Man – this woman was twisted. Every time she came around I heard a different story. It was like: ‘Lady – make up your mind what the hell your story is already,'” said the young boy from Orlando.

“The bitch didn’t give a damn about me, or my momma, or anything. It was all about her ego trip, and nothing else,” said they boy from Minnesota. “Now I’m back home taking care of my momma because she always took good care of me.”

Then there was the 13-year-old boy who told me: “It was like: ‘Why the fuck are these people in my life? Why won’t they just leave us the hell alone?'”

There, for all the world to see, is one child’s personal “assessment” of his Child Protective Saviors.

But his story doesn’t end there. It took his parents nearly two years to get him home, but in so doing they’d wiped out his college fund to pay the legal fees. Add to that the cost of the second mortgage that they had to take out on their home.

“If we were renting, and without equity in our home, I don’t know how we could have paid the legal expenses,” his father told me. “They wiped us out, and now I don’t know how I can afford to put him through college anymore.”

Some other children are not so fortunate to have returned home. Some are still in care.

“I call my mom on my Tracfone every weekend. My foster parents don’t know I have it. Everybody keeps telling me that she doesn’t love me – but I know they’re all lying,” said the girl from San Jose. “They’re all a bunch of Goddamn liars!”

Her mother is struggling to get her back. Her court-appointed attorney won’t return her calls. Sound familiar?

In one of my published articles, I devoted a section to giving voices to the children who had been rescued into state care. “The children know they belong with their families, and not in the hands of strangers,” I wrote. I stand by that opinion today with greater conviction than ever before.

According an article in the Los Angeles Times, lengthy interviews conducted with children and parents from 200 randomly sampled cases revealed no surprises. Parents who were separated from their children felt they had been unfairly separated. As for their children, the article explains: “At least 80% of the children, asked to name three wishes, mentioned that they wanted to be with their mother or father. Many tended to believe that the separation was their fault.”

In San Diego, staff from the Child Advocacy Division of the Department of the Public Defender and from the University of San Diego Patient Advocacy Program sought to obtain the views of children under the juvenile court system, interviewing 23 children. The average age was 14.9. Seventy-eight percent were either in an acute psychiatric hospital or a group home at the time of the survey. The remainder were either in a shelter or residing with a family member. Seventy-four percent were dependents of the court, 6% were wards.

These 23 children were placed in a total of 198 placements, an average of 8.6 homes per child. The average time “in the system” was 4.25 years. The children described a system in which they felt trapped, punished and personally disempowered. One child described a particular group home as “. . . a storage place. You were alive but not living.” In describing where they would like to go next, nearly 83% said they wanted “out of the system,” either through legal emancipation or being returned to either a parent, grandparent or other relative.

Among the comments from some of the other children in the group:

“The system is a punishment. They look at you as a file or paperwork, not as a person.”

“The system messes you up. You are always being threatened with being moved to another foster home.”

“Don’t get used to one place because they will move you, they will toss you around like a ball.”

“No one listens to you, no one believes you.”

Remarkably similar narratives were told by five Missouri foster children at an event sponsored by the Child Welfare League of America. All five children lived in residential treatment centers for emotionally disturbed children.

“I had to go to court this past June, and there was a lady there who I’d never met before who made a recommendation about what was best for me,” said 18-year-old Sheila. “A month later, I saw her again, and she didn’t even know who I was.”

Said 14-year-old Ashley: “At first I was told I’d be in care one month, and then another month, and then another. It’s now been five years. I was first taken some place just to sleep overnight, and the next day the social worker took me to a children’s home in the country, two hours from St. Louis. I was really disappointed because I was so far from home.”

“I hate it when the staff members yell or act mean or hold a grudge or won’t get me something that I need,” said 15-year-old Heather. “The worst experience I’ve ever had was when the male staff watched while I took a shower,” she said. “When I was taken out of my home at 12, I was put in a place for runaways and kids with drug problems. I wasn’t a runaway, and I didn’t have a drug problem.”

Said Heather in closing: “I hope all of you were hearing what we had to say, because you are in a position to make things easier for kids.”

I hope that policymakers out there will indeed take heed of that.

The vast majority of the children in your fractured foster care system just want to go home. Give them that chance. Give them a voice. Just let them speak for themselves.