15-39 Segment 1: Foster Care: How can we make the system better for all?

Synopsis: When a child is placed in foster care, she’s already been through the traumatic experience of being removed from her family’s care, and now faces an uncertain future in a new home – sometimes worse than the one she left. We discuss the successes and failures of the system and hear about what can be done to strengthen it so that children receive the best care available, foster families get the support they need to help a child with the transition, and caseworkers receive the support they need to do their jobs.

Host: Gary Price. Guests: Howard Talenfeld, President of Florida’s Children First, the state’s leading child advocacy organization; Christina Spudeas, Executive Director of Florida’s Children First; Ashley Rhodes-Courter, former foster child and now a foster mother, author of the book Three More Words.

Links for more info:

Improving the Foster Care System

Gary Price: There are millions of children in foster care in this country – either with families or in group homes – and many of them are shuffled around from place to place with nowhere, really, to call home. Systems around the country are overcrowded, with caseworkers carrying heavy loads and, unfortunately some kids fall between the cracks. How do children end up in foster care? And how can we improve the system so that children, families and communities are better served? We talked to two Florida foster care specialists and also to a Florida mom, who was in foster care herself, to gain some insight into the system there, and hear what’s being done to make it better. Christina Spudeas is the Executive Director of Florida’s Children First. She says that there are a number of reasons why children of all ages end up in care…

Christina Spudeas: A household where we know that there is known domestic violence, parents have mental health or substance abuse issues, and it’s to the extent that they’re not able to care for their children. Usually we see cases of neglect, the most common type of case, and it usually has to do with those type of issues and that’s why the lack of services in various parts of our state and in various parts of the country really have a great impact on leaving the child in the home safely and removing the child.

Price: Howard Talenfeld is the President of Florida’s Children First, the state’s leading child advocacy organization. He says that it’s not always just one incident that causes a child to be removed from a parent’s home. There are sometimes “red flags” from previous reports that authorities need to consider…

Howard Talenfeld: In many cases you can see domestic violence. Later you might see sexual abuse. At other times in cases you can see the use of drugs and abandonment of the kids. So what has happened in Florida is it’s critical in assessing risk overall to look at the prior cases, the red flags so to speak, of the types of abuse that have taken place previously, the types of reports that have taken place. Look at the patterns and assess risk using a risk assessment instrument which is much more effective in terms of making that ultimate determination to remove children.

Price: Once a child is removed from the home, there can be an effort to reunite the parents with the child. Talenfeld says that the authorities in Florida look at what happened to cause a child to be removed and address those issues…

Talenfeld: Typically what is supposed to happen is that the parents go through a process if they’re taken into foster care where there is a case plan that is created for the parents, each of the parents involved in the home. And when that case plan is created, the case plan is based upon assessing a parents’ needs. What caused the child to come into care? What other factors that show up in the assessment? What happens is that they do comprehensive behavioral health assessments that include the parents, the children, to figure out what it takes to make the home safe.

Price: He adds that the system has gotten better, and the authorities are learning more about the parents and the situation that the children are in than they did previously. However, there are still problems with the private agencies that oversee the cases…

Talenfeld: The other side of the coin is that there are many cases we see in the state where the private agencies that case-manage the child are up against a race to beat a one-year reunification period, so we’ve still seen many situations where children are returned to unsafe homes because the parents are not equipped to save them. I was looking today at a case involving a recent death where a child was returned home, here in Broward County Florida, where there were very serious indications the mother did not have stable housing, very serious indications she did not receive and was not receiving mental health treatment for schizophrenia, she was returned home and allegedly smothered her child. And the child originally came into care because of an alleged act of smothering.

Price: High caseloads for social workers are a big factor in most foster care systems. Talenfeld says that in some places, the caseload is overwhelming…

Talenfeld: I’m just looking at one entity, the one in Broward, where they’re showing 32.40 is the number of certified, or cases certified in the case management ratio. Depending upon how you measure, the Child Welfare League is recommending 12.

Price: But heavy caseloads don’t always mean bad care. Spudeas says that some agencies can make the system work with strong leadership within the organization…

Spudeas: We have an area of Florida where the turnover is less five percent. Where people have been working there since the beginning, in the oldest CBC — community-based care — provider in Florida. And that’s because they have a culture inside of there where they support and work as a team. And their caseworkers feel like they’re not left out in the lurch and making decisions by themselves, they’re working together. And their CEO of their company works on-call and works with them. So, when there is a problem – and there’s going to be problems, and there is going to be a mistake made and there’s going to be a bad judgment call made at some point – but when that happens they don’t vilify that person, they support them and they work with them and they make the system work better. So, sometimes you have to look internally as to why we have that type of turnover.

Price: Not all kids are sent to foster families. Sometimes a child can end up in a group home instead. Ashley Rhodes-Courter knows first-hand what it’s like in a group setting. She was in the foster care system for 10 years before being adopted – part of that time in a group home. She writes about her experiences in her memoir, “Three More Words.” She says that the group home offered her some stability for a while, but families are better. However, some children need the specialized therapy that can be accessed in the group environment…

Ashley Rhodes-Courter: While I was there, the kids received both family therapy and individual therapy every single week. We had access to recreational activities, and sporting events in the community and I got to stay in one school for longer than I had stayed in any other school, so I think there really is a place. It definitely wasn’t a perfect fit for me because I didn’t have a lot of the really intensive, specialized needs that many of the other children had. Like one sibling group that was there they had been locked in a closet with their hands super-glued to a wall. So I was exposed to kids that were working through a tremendous amount of trauma and that kids that would swallow glass, and one kid ripped off their braces and, you know, ate the pieces. So it’s like you’re definitely exposed to things that are really intense, but at the same time, group homes provide a setting and fresh staff and the kind of specialized care that maybe a traditional foster home can’t provide in some cases. So it’s never an all-or-nothing kind of scenario, and I always advocate that we have a multitude of solutions and possible placements for kids.

Price: The fact that she was in 14 placements in 10 years pinpoints some of the difficulties children and agencies face in finding the right setting for a child. Rhodes-Courter says that there are many reasons why a placement doesn’t work out and a child would be moved to another home…

Rhodes-Courter: In my case, sometimes I was moved into a home and then the foster parents would get into legal trouble; or maybe the home was overcrowded, it was only supposed to be temporary; sometimes they moved children into a home to be with siblings, and then something happens and the siblings have to be separated; or sometimes children change the level of care, so if a foster home is only licensed for traditional foster care but the child develops therapeutic needs or medical needs, well that’s a different type of foster home, so sometimes children are moved just because an agency doesn’t want to either pay higher board rates or, in one case they tried to move one of our children to be closer to a biological relatives, and we said this is crazy. Like we were happily transporting, you know it was like an hour and a half each way, but we were doing that because we want stability for the child. But, you know if you have a foster parent who’s not willing to do these extras, children can be moved for the smallest of (reasons). It can be on the whim of the foster parent. They literally wake up one day and say, “Oh, I’m not really feeling this kid. Let’s get him out.” And then, you know it takes a phone call.

Price: Rhodes-Courter was one of the lucky ones – she found an adoptive home when she was 12. She didn’t make it easy for her adoptive parents, though, constantly testing them with unruly behavior to see if they would send her back. They didn’t, and now she’s grown up and a mom of three – one adopted from foster care. She says that she got the help she needed and this was part of what helped her to adjust…

Rhodes-Courter: I think it’s essential that families, either foster families or adoptive families, have access to mental health services and therapy. My parents contacted a variety of colleagues and professionals when dealing with all kinds of little issues. There were times when I wouldn’t eat the food that my mom cooked, or I had an attitude or I would lie about stupid little things. You know they were constantly checking with professionals and reading books and staying informed and focusing on why these behaviors were occurring. So I think it’s a great idea to have some kind of therapist or someone on speed dial at times to navigate some of these really complicated issues, because just being in foster care itself is a tremendous loss for children but it’s not one that has to cripple their lives.

Price: Psychological care is important, but so is care after a child “ages out” of the system. Kids who reach the upper age limit – often it’s 18 – are removed from foster homes with nowhere to go and only a high school education. Without help to further their educations and find employment, they can end up homeless, in prison or victims of crime. Spudeas says that Florida realized that something needed to be done, and instituted a program to give older kids a better start in life…

Spudeas: I am proud to say, because really Florida is really a major leading the nation in this one, we give full college tuition in state schools to our kids who have aged out of foster care, or been adopted at age 16, or gone into permanent guardianship, or left a relative or a non-relative placement. All within the last two years, those were add in too. So any child that at age 18 is in a relative, non-relative foster care or been adopted recently will be able to go to college.

Price: More needs to be done to improve foster care, such as increasing funding for experienced mental health workers for kids. We also need more counseling for families so that problems in the home can be addressed before a child is removed, and to help reunite foster children with birth families if possible. Howard Talenfeld and Christina Spudeas invite listeners to find out how their organization is changing the foster care system for the better, by visiting FloridasChildrenFirst.org. You can read a firsthand account of how one foster child made it through the system in Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s book, “Three More Words,” available in stores and on her website at Rhodes-Courter.com. For information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on i-Tunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.

 

 

 

 

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