John Kelly’s article, The Foster Care Aspect of the D.C. Missing Girls Story, draws an important connection between recent uproar about missing girls in the District, many of whom turned out to be runaways, and the city’s foster care system. One of the runaways told WUSA9 that she left because her foster mother was mistreating her. She added: ”We should not feel safer on our own roaming the streets than we do with the people that the government is paying to [to keep us in their homes].”
Unfortunately, poor care by the people who are paid to take care of our most vulnerable children is all too prevalent in the District of Columbia. While a handful of outstanding foster parents filled me with awe, it was bad foster parents who finally drove me to leave my job after five years as a foster care social worker in the District. Trying to parent most of the youth in my caseload because their foster parents did not do so finally wore me down.
Things that I did that the foster parents were supposed to do included: take my clients to the doctor, the dentist, and the therapist. Talk to their teachers. Pick them up from school when they were sick. Wait with them for hours at the emergency room.
One foster parent I worked with had never (in a whole year) been to the school of one of her foster children for a meeting, back to school night, or to see her in a performance. The teenager was never able to attend an evening activity at her school because the foster parent would not take her. The foster parent even refused to pick up the child when she was throwing up.
Another foster parent refused to go to a meeting with the child’s teacher and therapist to improve the child’s school performance. She said, and I quote, “If I cared, I would go, but I don’t care.”
A third foster parent knew that her two foster children were getting on a public bus to get to school. But she had no idea what bus they were taking, where their schools were, or that the 15-year-old was letting the 6-year-old get off the bus and find her way to school on her own.
Many of these children have undergone severe trauma and yet they are receiving less nurturing than required by a child with no traumatic history or special needs.
Anyone with experience with District of Columbia foster homes knows that some people foster for the money. Foster parents receive a stipend to cover clothing, transportation, personal allowances and other expenses. However, many siphon off part of the money to meet their own needs.
Children in these homes have only one school uniform, and the foster parent make require them to pay for necessities out of their personal allowance. Many young people have weekend visits with their birth parents but the foster parents pocket the subsidy for those weekends and even longer periods while the birth parents struggle to pay for their visiting children.
I have known several fabulous foster parents, most of whom spend more than they receive in order to give their foster children the best. These parents are not motivated by money. Most of them are providing foster care because they love children and want to have a positive impact on their futures.
Unfortunately, we don’t have enough of these great foster parents. That’s why we don’t fire the bad ones.
Like the District of Columbia, jurisdictions around the country struggle to find enough foster parents, let alone enough good ones, to meet the need. Frequent stories about abuse or severe neglect are one of the results of this situation.
Perhaps we need to find alternatives. These might include foster care communities that provide housing to dedicated potential foster parents, or top-notch boarding schools for foster youth along the lines of the Crossnore School in North Carolina. Perhaps with more nurturing, truly homelike placements, fewer foster youth would run away.