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Over half a million children are in foster care or some other kind of out of home placement today. Do these children all really need to be there?

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Tough Lives; Tough Choices

by: Annette M. Hall
Posted July 6, 2006

After having read numerous accounts of children who have been removed from their home and placed in foster care, I can't seem to shake the grief, the hopelessness and sorrow that I'm left with each time. It is a parents instinct to protect their offspring. Heck, for that matter, have you ever come upon a bear cub, only to have an irate mother bear hot on your heels? While I haven't actually experienced it, I can imagine the horror.

In case after case social workers have intimidated, harassed, and even taunted parents with the power they have over their children. Their favorite trick is to threaten the parents that they will never see their children again - and sometimes they even manage to pull it off. Yet, they seem surprised when a loving mother or father - under normal circumstance - simply snaps and becomes hostile and aggressive. This is a natural instinct.

Actually, I'm shocked that more parents don't go after caseworkers and judges, especially after their parental rights have been terminated. What do they have to lose at that point? How do these parents manage to put their lives back together? The answer is, quite simply: they don't. The system is set up to ensure that even if they manage to get their children back, they will live in poverty for many years to come. If their children don't come home, the children are left scarred for life and the parents usually drown themselves in drugs and/or alcohol to deaden the pain and agony they have endured.

Today I want to talk to you about children in foster care and those who manage to escape it. And how we can all help.

Children in Foster Care

Let's start near the beginning. What is foster care and what does it mean?

Foster care placement is never a happy time for a child, even if that child has truly suffered abuse. His or first loyalty is always to the parents. If the parents (as more and more are today) are drug abusers, the child often suffers from co-dependency, feels the need to care for the "sick" parents and is often in the adult role in the parent/child relationship. The child will go to great lengths to protect the needy parent.

I've personally known children who were left in vehicles, parked outside of crack houses at 4 a.m. at the tender age of 5. Both parents were drug abusers, each spending time in and out of prison. This little boy had an older sister who served the mother role in his life. She was his protector, communicator and security - and though she was only 11 years old, she was wise well beyond her years.

Would these children have been better off in foster care? Fortunately for these children, they spent most of their young lives with their grandparents (whenever mommy and/or daddy were in prison). The children preferred to live with their parents whenever possible and hated living with the grandparents, but the alternative (foster care) would have resulted in far worse results, in my opinion.

The young lady is now about 24 years old, she works everyday, drives a new car, has a nice boyfriend or could even be married at this point (the last word I had regarding her was a year ago). Those who have known her all her life are proud of her and her accomplishments, as I am. I know this young lady well enough to know that if she had been forced into foster care, she would have done anything to escape and would in all likelihood be living a totally different life than the one she has made for herself. For all practical purposes, she made it; she is a survivor and can be proud of her accomplishments. She could have ended up pregnant, on drugs and homeless at the age of 14, like many other children.

Just for Kids

Annie was 12-years-old when her mother got remarried to a man who was a control freak. He was going to fix everything that had been broken, including the children. The young girl who had been her mothers right-hand, the one mommy always turned to for comfort, a chat or just a good cry, was now left without her friend and confidant. The more the new husband pushed, the harder the girl pushed back.

Playing the Foster Care Shuffle

Finally, at the age of 13 she made several run-away attempts, only to be caught and brought back home each time; until finally she refused to return home and was placed in foster care. The first foster home was an intake home where they housed children for up to 14-days. It wasn't home, but they made Annie feel welcome, didn't have a lot of rules to follow and let her have time to herself. She was free to hang out with her friends, so long as her minimal chores were done. It was a dream come true.

When the two weeks were up, she begged them not to move her, but "rules are rules" and a new "home" was found. This home was totally different, in a new school district, in an area she had never been to before. Annie decided to make the most of her situation and took on a new identity and a new look for her new school. For the first time in her life, she was part of the in-crowd, she was cool and everyone wanted to be her. (If they only knew the truth... but they could never know.)

After a couple months she was moved again, no reason was given. Foster parents can decide for any reason - or no reason at all - to have a child removed from their home. So, with no warning, and no explanation, she was moved to a new home, then another and yet another.

Finally she was placed with a family in the rich part of town, in a huge house. She felt lucky after some of the homes she had stayed in. In one home she was forced to deal with cockroaches, something they never had in her home growing up. In another she had to sleep with another girl.

The parents had two children, a five-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl. Annie was expected to do dishes every night, clean up the table, take out the trash and watch their children on certain days. She was free to come and go, if her work was done. The days passed into months, life was okay until the family decided to go on a camping trip. Annie woke up one night with the foster dad hovering over her, touching her. She was frightened at first, and then she became angry and felt betrayed.

She had been writing her boyfriend, who lived in another state for months, so she wrote to him about the incident, but before she could mail the letter, her foster mom went through her things and stumbled upon the letter. When she confronted Annie about the letter, she accused her of telling lies and called her caseworker to have her moved once again. At this point Annie decided that she had had enough. She bolted out the back door with only the clothes on her back. She ran to a new acquaintance's house, where she stayed for several days while she made plans.

Homelessness

There were times she lived on the streets and once lived under a bridge in the middle of winter. Meals were often whatever she was able to scavenge. It was a hard way to live but the experience left an indelible impression in her mind and with it, the knowledge that caring good-hearted people still existed in the world.

She eventually landed a job in a local restaurant, where she worked washing dishes and making salads. In those days you didn't have to provide documentation to work, so Annie was able to lie about her age (she was 14, her employer was lead to believe she was 27), in order to obtain work.

After she had earned enough money for a bus ticket, she traveled to Ohio, where she got a job in the library, then at the local newspaper. Her first apartment had a shared bathroom and a loft but it was only $65.00 a month. During the next nine months she was unable to contact any family members or friends for fear of getting caught. It was painful to spend Thanksgiving alone, with only corn flakes and water to eat, but it was better than the alternative of being sent off to another foster care placement.

Annie dropped out of school with a ninth grade education. Yet she was determined to make it, so she worked hard, made a lot of mistakes, passed her GED test with high marks and even took a few college courses for good measure, earning straight A's. During this period she often worked three jobs just to make ends meet.

Would Annie have been better off had she stayed in foster care? I can tell you with all certainty that she would not have been. She would have been beaten down by the system, stripped of her self-esteem and ended up an angry young girl.

Children placed in foster care are forced to leave everything they own, all their worldly possessions, their friends and family, pets and everything that has ever been familiar to them. They are placed with people who have different values; they have no connection with the child, so there are no hugs, no comfort and certainly no companionship or feeling of belonging. The child is kept in the dark regarding their circumstances and end up losing all control over their lives.

Often there is no accountability. The child is many times allowed to run the streets, to make whatever friends they choose, without parental supervision and oversight. This often leads to a child getting in with the wrong crowd, especially if there are other children - or adults - in the home who have behavioral problems, drug problems and worse.

You may be wondering why I am telling you all of this? It's simple. What we as parents are facing is getting worse instead of better. Child protective service workers have all the power, the courts refuse to protect children from harm, and the parents' hands have been tied. What alternatives do we have besides all out war?

A History Lesson

If you remember your history, during the civil war, blacks in the south were called slaves and treated as such. Many people risked their lives to help escort the slaves to safety in the north via the "underground railroad." The risks were high but so were the rewards. Many lives were saved during those dark times in U.S. history.

We have begged and pleaded for investigations that have lead nowhere. We have filed complaints in court, petitioned our congressmen and women, all to no avail. How can we continue to stand by and allow innocent children to be taken away from everything they know and love?

Why haven't we networked and moved families to safety at the first sign of trouble? We all have homes and lives, yet we stand idly by wringing our hands and achieving nothing. It must stop. The destruction of the family must end or we must act. To do otherwise is a sin against God.

Children are left searching for the parents they have lost, but the child protection agencies will not offer them assistance in locating their lost families once they age out of the system. We must make our websites available to help reunite families who have become estranged.

As citizens we must all ask ourselves what can we do? Where can we offer assistance? I want to help be part of the solution, not part of the problem, and I am asking you to help be a voice for these hurting children.

Make a Difference

You can offer assistance to a family in need.

  • Stop participating in the Amber Alert system. Have you ever visited their website and read the descriptions? Most of the children on the Amber Alert website are runaways from foster care or they have been kidnapped by a parent. If a parent is willing to risk stealing their own child and face the consequences for doing so, don't you think there is a larger problem?

    The courts are notorious for giving a child to the wrong parent, the parent who is the sex offender, and the parent who is abusive or simply neglects the child. The loving, concerned, caring parent is rarely the parent who gains custody. Ask yourself why that is? I believe it is to develop a position of control over the custodial parent, so they have one on the back burner. They know they can always go back and snatch that one up and be "justified" in doing so.

  • Stop turning your neighbors in to child protective services. If the abuse is real, call the police for immediate assistance. If you suspect neglect, offer your assistance, contact family members and friends, and offer to help the parent in crisis. While calling CPS might provide temporary relief of an existing problem, in the long-term, the entire family, including the child, is worse - not better off. Don't always look for the easy answer, attempt to find the best solution to the crisis.

There were no easy answers for Annie. She made a choice and she lived with the choices she made. Most children are not that lucky or brave. Most children are forced to live with the hand they are dealt. I don't ever want to come face to face with Annie again, the pain is too much to endure and the hurt has stuck with her a very long time. Today at 45 I am strong, I am able to stand up for what is right and make a difference in the lives of those who can't stand up for themselves. I want to be on the winning side for once in my life, but mostly I want to do what is right.

The information and ideas contained in this article should in no way be considered legal advice. Always seek the advice of an attorney before making any legal decisions of any kind.