Reforming Foster Care
by Kendra Hurley
Dec 08, 2003
In the 2002 film “White Oleander," Astrid (played by Alison Lohman, right) must live in a series of foster homes after her mother (Michelle Pfeiffer, left) goes to prison.
The scene is a Circle of Support meeting, a gathering designed to help foster parents vent frustrations and share tips for raising other people’s abused and neglected children. (See "A Bridge Back Home” by foster parent Grace Zarate.) Removed from their families, the youngsters are in foster care, a city program run primarily by private agencies that places kids in temporary homes. The children stay in foster care until the situations in their families improve or until they are adopted or turn 21. The families that care for them in the meantime only get about $20 a day, which is supposed to cover all expenses. The foster parents struggle with how to help the young people in their homes without becoming overwhelmed themselves.
Following several deaths of abused children in the mid 1990s, the city began overhauling its programs, including foster care. The reforms included higher salaries and better training for case workers and efforts to preserve families. But the key changes called for creating programs in individual neighborhoods so that foster kids could stay near their biological parents, who, at the same time, would get help close to home.
The issue is not only one of geography. Keeping foster children in their home neighborhoods, the reasoning went, makes it easier for the two families – foster and biological – to work together for the good of the child. "By concentrating child welfare services in each neighborhood, we can assure that all of the important players in children's lives -- parents, teachers, clergy, and social workers -- can work effectively as a team, in partnership with government, to help safeguard children and nurture their development,” Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said in announcing the changes.
But it hasn't been an easy transition. As the city continues to work out the kinks, foster care agencies, foster parents, biological parents and the young people have all felt the growth pains. And it remains unclear just how successful the plan to base foster care in communities throughout the city has been.
Some 24,000 children are in foster care today. Many are there because their families are poor: The city regularly removes children from their homes due to neglect, which can mean anything from crumbling apartments to medical inattention to hours spent alone while a parent is at work. Others have lived through the kind of horrifying circumstances familiar to viewers of movies like "White Oleander" and "Antwone Fisher ." The goal of foster care is to return youngsters home as soon as possible. It is also what most of the young people want. But despite requirements that the city work with the children’s parents, some of the youngsters will never be able to return to their biological families.
For years, children removed from their homes could be placed anywhere in the five boroughs. Not only did these New York City children lose their families when they went into care, they lost their entire worlds: their neighborhoods, schools, friends, churches, and doctors.
“I had missed being home so much,” Shawn Fred, who in the early 1990s was sent from East New York to an upstate residential facility, wrote in Represent, a magazine by teens in foster care that I edit. “I missed my old school where I was known for my artistic skills and my singing ability, and I especially missed my friends.”
The old system also placed burdens on the biological family and the foster parents. Mothers and fathers grieving the loss of their kids had to cooperate with the very agency that had removed their children and, in some cases, kick addictions, find new homes, receive counseling and take parenting classes – and travel to different neighborhoods to do it. "There was a nightmare experience of parents having to travel from one end of the city to another that led to children staying in foster care much too long and parents losing custody of their kids," explains Andrew White, the director of the Center for New York City Affairs at the Milano Graduate School, New School University, who has authored several reports on foster care. (See Sasha Nyary’s topic page for a discussion of one of them.)
Planning for children’s safe return home depends on weekly, supervised visits with their parents. But under the old system, the visits often didn't happen. This was partly because foster parents did not view themselves as helpers to the biological parents, and partly because of the travel involved. “To bring a baby on the subway was a huge hassle,” remembers Sarah Gerstenzang, who was a foster parent then.
The single greatest impetus for change was the death of six-year-old Elisa Izquierdo in November 1995 after she was beaten, sexually abused and starved by her mother. It soon became known that the Child Welfare Agency had let Elisa stay with her mother despite repeated accounts of horrific abuse. Faced with the public outcry, Giuliani dismantled the Child Welfare Agency and replaced it with the Administration for Children's Services. He named former prosecutor Nicholas Scoppetta, a former foster child, as director. Once in office, Scoppetta called for a new partnership, based in communities, between birth and foster families. Although Scoppetta left Children’s Services to become Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s fire commissioner, the effort continues.
A GOOD TIME FOR CHANGE
As a child, Antwone Fisher (played by Derek Luke, left, in the 2002 movie) was mistreated by his foster mother, leaving emotional scars. Later, Navy psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Denzel Washington, right) will help him confront the hurt and fear he still suffers as a result of the experience.
But a few things are clear.
For one, the number of children in foster care has declined dramatically -- from over 43,000 children in 1995 to just over 24,000 today. Much of the change is demographic: The number of foster children boomed when the use of crack cocaine soared in the mid 1980s. Many of the foster children of the crack epidemic, including those who have never been able to return to their families, are simply too old to be in foster care any longer.
After a March 2002 court ruling said domestic violence alone was not sufficient reason to take children away from their mothers, some children who might once have gone into the foster care system are now remaining with their parent. The city has appealed the decision, and a hearing is scheduled on December 9. (See related story.) But if it stays in effect, some experts hope this could cause the number of children in the foster care system to decline.
Whether or not the number of foster children continues to decline, some experts believe now is an opportune time to make change. "The beauty of the fact that there's far fewer kids in foster care now is that you can manage the agencies better and make sure they're doing better," says White.
And there are signs of concrete progress: In 1998 about 5 percent of children were placed in their community district of origin. Now close to 23 percent are placed close to home. The biggest success has been in placing children in the same boroughs as their birth families. In 1998 about 30 percent of kids stayed in the same borough. Now, nearly 75 percent do.
BACK IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
To accomplish this shift, the nonprofit agencies that work with foster children have had to set up shop in the communities and learn about services available in the neighborhood. "They'll know that the afterschool program in that school was a really good one . . . or which mental health program is particularly responsive to teenagers," explains Jim Purcell, the executive director of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, which represents foster care agencies. "When they're simply sitting in an office. . . they may not know that.”
Some social workers in the Bronx, the first borough to implement neighborhood-based reform, are becoming experts in their neighborhoods, according to a Citizens’ Committee for Children report released last year. But the new policy has not spread to all the neighborhoods. “I don’t think social workers have really felt the change yet,” said one Brooklyn-based social worker who asked to remain anonymous.
Expertise alone is not enough. Some neighborhoods may simply not have the services that foster children need. Almost two-thirds of all kids in the city’s foster care system come from only 18 of the 59 community districts. The Citizens’ Committee for Children report found that many of these neighborhoods lack affordable housing, mental health and substance abuse services.
Finding foster homes in the designated neighborhoods has also proved difficult. Most people in foster care come from the city’s most distressed communities. Finding neighbors who can house added children, especially groups of siblings or teens with children of their own, can be tough.
When Lakia Holmes had to leave her family, she was eager to stay in her neighborhood, Central Harlem, which has the highest number of children in foster care in the city. But, she wrote in Represent, the home she was placed in was ridden with problems, including alcohol and drug abuse. “If moving would’ve been hard, living there wasn’t easy either,” she said. “My grades dropped so bad that if there was a grade below F, I would have got it. I started cutting class, shoplifting and doing other things I normally wouldn’t do. I thought about committing suicide and then I started to try it.”
And some children benefit from being away from their communities. Holmes eventually found a good foster home in Queens, and even though Fred thinks it is “a good idea to keep kids in their neighborhood,” he says going away may have helped him. “Upstate, I had gone to therapy,” he wrote. “It helped me talk about my problems. I gradually learned how to control my attitude and started to stay in school. I began to realize that I couldn’t continue to act like a child if I wanted to be treated like a young adult. The system helped me to become more responsible and mature.”
And “if a kid is in danger in this particular community, if the local gang is after this kid, then it’s not a good idea to keep him there,” says Purcell.
But the city penalizes agencies for placing kids outside of their community district, even if it is the right thing to do. “If the rigidity of the rules are preventing [reform] from working as well as it can then that has to change,” says Edith Holzer of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies.
Shifting to a neighborhood network has been costly for the private agencies overseen by children’s service. The city has not reimbursed many agencies that that had to buy or lease office space in the neighborhoods. Consequently, some racked up enormous deficits, and a few had to close.
One thing that is clearly working, though, is the Circle of Support groups. Agencies say they help them build ties in the community and recruit new foster parents. Foster parents say the meetings give them a chance to discuss the ins and outs of foster parenting as well as how to navigate local agencies. And the Circle of Support provides foster parents with an opportunity to discuss the potentially tricky relationship between parents and foster parents. (See story by Zarate.)
Negotiating that relationship may be one of the most difficult challenges facing the reform effort. Agencies, social workers, foster parents and birth parents are all being challenged to rethink their roles and to work as a team to help get the children out of foster care and back home quickly. For some, the change has been unnerving. Minerva Rivera, a foster parent in Queens, says that she has heard complaints in her Circle of Support group about foster parents who feel threatened by the proximity of biological parents.
But some foster families have proudly accepted the change. One foster parent at the downtown Brooklyn Circle of Support group talked about the weekly dinners she and the foster children in her home had with their parent who lives a few blocks away. "She comes to my house every weekend and cooks," she said. “It’s beautiful.”
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