Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Foster Children & Emergency Shelters

The ideal vs. reality
Ideally, all teenagers would be linked with loving, permanent families before aging out of foster care. Realistically, that doesn't always happen.

More often, teens in foster care find themselves bouncing between various placements -- and sometimes, when a "bed" is not available elsewhere, spending time in an emergency shelter.

Imagine that you are a displaced teenager spending the night in an emergency shelter. What risks might you face? Would you be raped by a resident or staff member? Robbed? Beaten?

Would you emerge from that experience physically or emotionally scarred?

None of these groups is just like the other...
Consider the diverse populations that are often housed together in emergency shelters: juvenile delinquents, emotionally disturbed children and victims of child abuse.

All three populations are treated the same. That means that a physically or sexually abused child who enters an emergency shelter is treated the same as a juvenile offender.

This creates a dangerous and unhealthy environment, where healing is absent, victimization is frequent and supervision is often inadequate. Shelters can traumatize children, and often provide a breeding ground for abuse. Why remove abused teenagers from one unsafe situation, only to house them in another?

Don't call it "shelter"
-Oak Hill Homes, an emergency shelter in Georgia with lax security measures, became a virtual recruiting ground for pimps seeking underage prostitutes. Meanwhile, at a nearby shelter for boys, two workers were fired for getting into a fight with a resident.

-MacLauren Children's Center, in LA County, became a dumping ground for emotionally disturbed children. Employees were untrained to provide mental health services. Instead, they used physical restraint an average of four times per day -- causing broken limbs and other injuries.

It's all about the money
When people in power fail to invest in long-term solutions, facilities designed to house a small number of children for 30 days or less end up becoming long-term way-stations.

Licensed to take in a certain number of children, emergency shelters often end up over capacity. In terms of staffing, both pay and qualifications are often minimal.

The first solution that many state officials suggest is "privatizing." Unlike county-run facilities, private group homes and shelters are required to be licensed. However, like county-run facilities, private shelters need funding and expect some financial assistance from the government.

Licensing regulations supposedly prohibit overcrowding, limit the use of physical restraints and establish minimal staff qualifications and training. However, in Washington D.C., five private "respite centers" proved themselves to be just as inept and unsafe as county-run emergency shelters.

Finding them "a bed"
After the MacLauren Children's Center was closed, foster children (from toddlers to teens) were often housed overnight in the waiting room of an office building, waiting for their LA County social workers to find them a "bed."

Not a "family," adoptive or foster. Not the "best match." Not someone who might care for them and love them. Just a bed; someplace to spend the night. Not knowing where they'd be tomorrow.

This practice has been reported as recently as 2005, when six foster youth waiting in the office ran away.

Interestingly, in New York, some teenagers refused to leave their caseworker's office, finding it safer and more welcoming than the foster and group homes to which they were assigned.

Editorials: Georgia's foster children: Fewer shelters, more dollars a better mix for abused kids. Atlanta Journal, Oct. 24, 2002, p. A20.
Horowtiz, Sari. Short-term shelters for children under fire. Washington Post, Nov. 18, 2001, pgC1.
Larrubia, Evelyn. The state; foster children slept in office... Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2005.
Leonard, Jack. 6 foster kids have fled office... Los Angeles Times, May 21, 2005, pgB1.
Martz, Ron. Child advocate: Shelter funding, security poor. Atlanta Journal, May 20, 2001, pgF1.

Rainey, James. Action urged on homes for troubled youths; shelter: Advocates call on L.A. County to expedite separation of the emotionally disturbed from delinquents. Los Angeles Times, Oct. 14, 1997.
Rivera, Carla. Suit targets counties' shelters for children...overcrowded and dangerous. Los Angeles Times, Dec. 19, 2000, pgB1.
Swarns, Rachel. For children, another night on office cots. New York Times, Nov. 28, 1997, pgB1.
Thevenot, Carri. Plan to cut number of children in institutional care progresses. Las Vegas Review, Nov. 4, 2006, pgB1.

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The foster care system needs help. Too many children are falling through the cracks, are being abused, neglected, and worse, are dying. Please visit www.caica.org for more information. Also, please send us any information you would like to see added to the site for consdiration at info@caica.org.

Thank you for bringing attention to his issue.

Isabelle Zehnder
President and Founder
Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for bringing attention to this very critical problem. You are a such a blessing to those who do not have a family!

Right now in my town they are putting abused children in mental hospitals and juvenile detention due to the lack of foster families.

I personally know of two foster familes that are cashing a fat govt check and severely neglecting several foster kids.

I reported what I saw to thew dept of human services but they told me as long as the kids have a bed and food there is nothing they can do.

It's an epidemic.

Thanks for visiting my blog. I think you are doing a great thing by calling attention to these issues on your site.
Oops. Bad code. It's www.aspiranet.org
Our county does not "match" children, period. When a child needs a bed, placement workers start calling from a list of foster homes they think might have vacancies. The placement workers will tell the foster parents just about anything to get the child placed, and it's not uncommon for the workers to lie about (or at least fail to mention) important details that might make the foster parent say "no."

In our case, we had a violent 12-year-old with Reactive Attachment Disorder placed in our home. The county mental health people knew the child had RAD, but that important information wasn't relayed to us. Had we known prior to placement, we wouldn't have agreed to accept the child. We took her, not knowing that very important piece of information, and had to ask for her to be removed 11 days later after she started getting violent with us and got in a fist fight at school.

It was upsetting and traumatic for everyone involved, and it certainly undermined the trust I have in the system. The county doesn't care about making matches, they only care about beds. Now that I'm fully aware that workers will lie to get a kid out of the office, I think long and hard before accepting new placements.
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