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Seeking a Permanent Home

‘I know I deserve a family,’ teen in Virginia’s foster care system still waiting after dozens of moves

By K. BURNELL EVANS • Richmond Times-Dispatch October 27, 2017

Dymond doesn’t unpack.

After 36 moves in five years, the 16-year-old has learned not to hang up her clothes or tuck them into the drawers of the place she’ll leave next. She moved four times over a two-week period this fall. She feels numb, and misunderstood.

“It’s the unknown,” she said of what eats away at her. “You don’t know where you’re going next. You don’t know where you’re going.”

Dymond and hundreds of other teens in Virginia’s foster care system hoping to find a permanent home last year faced tough odds.

Parents looking to adopt often have younger children in mind. The median age of the 747 children adopted last year was about 7, according to state data for the fiscal year that ended June 30. Sixteen-year-olds accounted for only 21 of those, or about 3 percent of overall adoptions.

Although the number of teens entering foster care declined 10 percent between the 2015 and 2017 fiscal years, from 887 to 798, Virginia recently has ranked the worst in the country for the percent of children who turn 18 and age out of the foster care system without being adopted.

Dymond was among the 80 percent of eligible 16-year-olds who did not find a family last year. Krista Watson has been working to change that from the moment she walked into Dymond’s bedroom at an area group home nearly a year ago.

“She can read people really fast,” said Watson, a grant-funded worker at the Children’s Home Society of Virginia who specializes in picking the right family for older children and children with special needs.

Watson’s approach is child-focused and begins with interviews, a daylong review of her client’s file, and the question, “Who in your life makes you feel loved?”

It’s an intensive approach that leads her to track down former teachers, coaches, childhood friends and extended family members with whom a child feels a connection.

Watson, one of three Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiters the Dave Thomas Foundation sponsors in Virginia, came to the Children’s Home Society in August 2009. In that time, her work has resulted in 79 successful adoptions.

Her first meeting with Dymond was full of long silences. Now, the teen said she counts Watson among the two people in her life who make her feel loved. The other is a social worker.

Dymond knows she deserves more: someone to watch “Law & Order” with; someone who will join in her irrepressible fits of laughter; someone who won’t try to change her and, most importantly, someone who will keep her safe.

“I’m loving, I’m loyal, I stand up for myself,” she said. “I know what is and what isn’t.”

She wants to be a mother one day in a way the woman who gave her life and left her with post-traumatic stress disorder never was.

Dymond said the abuse, born of alcoholism, began when she was 5 and ended at 12.

“I had to raise myself,” Dymond said. “At 9, I knew. They said something along the lines of, ‘We can hurt you, but no one else can,’ and (I decided) … I’m not going to let nobody else run over me.” The

Times-Dispatch agreed not to use Dymond’s last name or locality of residence to protect her privacy. Dymond agreed to share her story to combat misconceptions about teens in foster care and to raise awareness ahead of November, which is National Adoption Month.

One out of five kids in Virginia’s foster care system turns 18 and ages out of the system without being adopted, according to the Children’s Home Society of Virginia, a statewide organization with offices in Richmond and Fredericksburg.

Those teens who are not adopted face an uncertain future, according to the agency, which estimates 25 percent will become involved with the justice system in two years; 42 percent will drop out of high school; and 20 percent will become homeless after age 18.

Those challenges compound prior trauma that children entering Virginia’s foster care system typically face.

Neglect was the most common reason children were removed from their homes across the state in the fiscal year that ended June 30, followed by a rising number of cases involving a parent’s drug or alcohol abuse, according to data provided by the Virginia Department of Social Services.

Many of the 2,641 cases reported include more than one reason for removal. Physical or sexual abuse was a factor in a combined 487 cases, and inadequate housing contributed in 434, the agency said.

People “think we’re all troublemakers, that we’re uncontrollable,” Dymond said. Many foster care youth struggle with feelings that they are to blame for their circumstances, she added.

Dymond has learned to advocate for herself in situations where she feels out of place or unsafe, telling social workers, lawyers and judges what she is and is not willing to put up with. She said she has defended herself in six instances that ended in assault and battery charges against her.

“Those were about me protecting myself,” she said. “People put their hands on me, pushed me. When I responded, I took it too far; my senses are heightened because of what I’ve been through.”

She is working through it. The last time a woman grabbed Dymond’s arm, she walked away; out of the group home and into the world, until she found herself in a church whose leaders encouraged her to return to the residence. She did.

Prospective adoptive families who work with Watson and the Children’s Home Society of Virginia take classes to prepare for the life experiences teens will be bringing through their doors, and have follow-up care and resources available after children come home.

No class can fully prepare you for what a child has been through, said Kim Spencer, an adoptive mother of two children in foster care who are now 23 and 15.

“You can’t go into it expecting the relationship to be, ‘You’re my mom and I love you,’ ” Spencer said. “The main thing to remember in working with teens is that you need to meet them where they are, accept that your world is going to change and pick your battles — allow them to have some control.”

She learned the latter lesson when she and her husband, Jim, went to pick up their first child, Aubry, then 14½. The three had spent time together leading up to that day, but Aubry ran when it was time to go home, which then was her general response when things became overwhelming, Spencer said.

“She took off, and we asked when we found her: ‘What would it take for you to come home with us?’ She said she wanted to say goodbye to her friends,” Spencer said. “So we said, ‘OK, we’ll come back (in a few days),’ and it worked.”

Aubry had already moved 10 times, Spencer said. A child in the foster care system will enter an average of 2.5 homes before being adopted, according to the state.

“You have to come into this with your eyes wide open because it’s not for everyone,” Spencer said of adopting older children. “But it’s so, so worth it.”

She laughed, recalling a friend’s admonition against adopting a child over age 10 before even Aubry had entered their lives. The couple are thinking of adopting a third teen from the foster care system.

There were nearly 800 teens in foster care, including Dymond, as of this summer. The number of those who were available for adoption was not immediately available.

The wait takes its toll.

“Eventually, you feel like giving up,” Dymond said. “I’ve been told so many times, ‘You’re going to find a home; we’re going to find you a family.’ ”

“I know I deserve a family.”

In bad moments, she blocks out her feelings and, in good moments, she waits for the bad ones to return. In between, she writes poems, reads James Patterson, and listens to hip-hop and R&B.

Dymond doesn’t share her writing, but she did share her dreams for the future: a strong support network, three children — including a pair of boy-and-girl twins, and a job in government, helping people.

“Maybe a corrections officer,” she said. “When I was locked up, I didn’t have anyone to talk to. Maybe I can be that person for someone else.”

For now, she will continue to keep her clothes in a suitcase where they shouldn’t belong.

Ways to Limit Foster Care to Those Who Need It

POSTED JUNE 4, 2017, BY THE ANNIE E. CASEY FOUNDATION

The number of children in foster care grew during the past three years, rising to nearly 428,000 kids in 2015, up from 397,000 in 2012. The story behind the numbers is complex, but experts suggest that three factors account for much of the increase:

  1. more parents are struggling with opioids and other drugs;
  2. more judges have reservations about juvenile justice facilities and make referrals to child welfare instead; and
  3. many child welfare agencies are grappling with inadequate decision-making practices.

“In Casey’s work across the country, we see that child welfare agencies are under pressure to help children and parents when drugs are involved,” says Tracey Feild, managing director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Child Welfare Strategy Group. “But successful approaches exist and can be implemented. Does your community have evidence-informed practices? Are they funded and readily available? These are the questions communities need to be asking.”

Feild explains the role of judges in rising foster care numbers. “As more judges understand the harm that juvenile justice facilities can do to children, more are ordering children to child welfare placements instead.” There can be some benefits to that choice, she says, although she points out that serving the needs of those children often is not a strength of child welfare agencies. She proposes an alternative. “Whenever possible, we believe communities should be investing in diversion programs — programs that meet kids’ needs for mental or behavioral services or provide help with family conflict resolution while kids and teens live at home, rather than in foster care or group placements.”

In addition, child welfare agencies can improve decision making to ensure that only children or teens whose safety is at risk are brought into foster care. Two key approaches can help child welfare systems make better decisions about child safety:

  • Improve how decisions are made at the front-end of the child welfare system. A recent study finds that nearly four in 10 kids are involved in maltreatment investigations by the time they are 18. “We have to get better at investigating and substantiating child welfare investigations,” Feild says, noting that Casey’s On The Frontline work is exploring how to do that.
  • Include more people in agency decision making. “We have learned through our two decades of partnering with child welfare systems that child safety and well-being are improved when parents, kin and foster parents, and members of the community are involved in helping identify solutions and resources for a child,” Feild says. One way to do that is to implement Team Decision Making, a process that brings more people to the table to determine a families’ strengths and ability to meet a child’s safety needs. Other approaches involve boosting agencies’ support for and engagement with kin and foster caregivers who want the best for kids in their care.

“We face today the same struggle that has dogged the field for decades: Ensuring that you leave at home kids who are safe and bring into foster care those kids who are not. However simple that sounds in theory, it is extremely difficult in practice,” Feild says. “As the number of kids in care continues to climb, we must redouble our efforts to help agencies implement effective approaches to meeting kids’ needs at home or, if being removed from home is a possibility, involving in decision making those who can identify a child’s best interests. When nearly four in 10 children encounter the child welfare system from birth to age 18, it is important to get this right.”

We Are Abandoning Children in Foster Care

By Rita Soronen

In 2012 in the United States, 23,439 children in foster care turned 18 and were “emancipated” or “aged out.” In simple terms, most of them were put out into the world on their own without housing, financial assistance or emotional support.
Take Adrian, now 27. After being placed into foster care at 6 because of his mother’s drug and alcohol abuse, he stayed in care, moving from home to home, until he was 18 and too old for the system. He found the strength to try to put himself through college, using the county van his caseworker helped secure to move there.
His roommate got to go home on school breaks and had a mother who called to check in on him. Adrian had no one to call when he struggled at school — nowhere to call home, no one to send a gift, no one to see how he was doing. He worked nearly 60 hours a week just to pay for college, and when eventually his grades slipped, he was kicked out. He struggled with the ups and downs of depression. As Adrian said of children in foster care: “We are not equipped to go through this world alone.”
In 2012, U.S. authorities received more than 3.3 million reports of abuse, representing about 6 million children,or 8% of the child population. From those reports, after investigation and intervention, about 400,000 children were placed in foster care, and of those, nearly 60,000 were permanently taken away from their families of origin.
These are children who were neglected or abused by parents — physically or sexually or both — so egregiously that a judge permanently severed the parents’ rights to claim the children as their own. Terminating, or legally ending, the right of parent to raise a child is not something a judge decides lightly. In fact, parents receive every legal, social and system opportunity to keep their families intact — too often putting the child at risk of emotional or physical harm.
Because we know that children thrive in families — not institutions or transient, temporary care — we made a promise to those children. We promised the day they were permanently separated from their families that we would find them new ones. A place to call home, to be loved, supported and cherished, as every child should.
We failed 23,439 children last year, and legally emancipated them from care. This world is not an easy place for children to grow and thrive on their own. Too often it is not even safe place.
Make no mistake, many dedicated and skilled adults step forward to care for these children, as their social workers, counselors or temporary foster parents. Some even stay connected once a child leaves care.
And some states have worked hard to extend foster care to 21, but resources for older youth are limited and difficult to access. A Health and Human Services report found that the federal Foster Care Independence program meant to help foster children make the transition to adulthood is inconsistent from state to state and provides too little for these troubled young people. And it simply is not a substitute for a family.
Considering the trauma these children have endured at a young age, the moves from foster family to foster family and the abandonment they feel, it’s no wonder they are at a higher risk for a grim future.
Conservative studies find one in five will become homeless after 18; at 24, only half will be employed; less than 3% will have earned a college degree; 71% of women will be pregnant by 21; and one in four will have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder at twice the rate of United States war veterans. And too often, many are at risk of moving back into government systems — from juvenile centers to prison.
Renee, now 25, was young when her mother became addicted to drugs and could no longer care for her and her brother. They were placed in foster care, moved around within the system, and eventually aged out. She had nowhere to go after foster care.
Now on her own as a young adult, she’s facing obstacles that could have been avoided. Renee told me that, “For children who have never been on their own before, they’re really in a bad situation once those first few months of support stops. If I can’t pay a bill, who’s going to help me pay it? I had to be a trailblazer, that’s all I knew. It was a survival tactic. I still feel like I don’t have any guidance. Everything for me is trial and error, and I hate that.”
And for Dante, it was really very simple: “I just wanted a family and a home,” he said. After nearly 12 years, he left foster care with neither.
There is a cycle of violence and helplessness innate in the lives of the hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S. foster care system. And yet millions of Americans are unaware that thousands of children remain in this cycle, and those charged with their protection fail to commit to better solutions for educational and vocational support, employment, life skills training and secure homes.
It is our duty as a nation to end this cycle. We made promises to these 101,000 children in foster care waiting to be adopted that we would find them safe, supportive homes. We must take the lead and work harder to do that. If children have been permanently separated from their families and freed for adoption, it’s unacceptable that they end up without one.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and is followed in May by National Foster Care Month. Take these opportunities to call your U.S. representative or senator, speak with your state representatives or write a letter to your governor to urge them to focus on the foster care system to make the health, safety and welfare of children in their states an uncompromised priority.
We can make the life of each and every American child a cause for celebration and joy. We must demand justice and safety at every level for children, not only because it is their basic human right but because those who grow and learn in just environments and with the protection of families ultimately create humane and thriving societies as adults.

Child Care Microsite Now Available

VDSS’ Divisions of Child Care and Early Childhood Development, Licensing – Children’s Programs and Public Affairs have been working collaboratively over the past few months to design and develop the department’s first ever child care microsite-www.childcareva.com/.  The site will serve as an online “hub” for child care tools, resources and information. Designed specifically for parents, providers and other interested parties, this microsite is a wealth of knowledge in a variety of areas including licensing, legislation, child care options and guidance, search tools and much more. The microsite’s functionality is user-friendly to ensure intuitive navigation and a more engaging experience. Check out the new microsite today!