Monthly Archives: February 2011

I’ve Always Had my Voice

In a single lifetime it is amazing what obstacles can be overcome and the successes that reveal themselves. Being taken away from my home at the tender age of ten gave me a 1st hand account of State Dependency.  I can personally say State Dependents cannot escape the system or how others view them. Foster care meant constantly paying for the mistakes my parents made at a very high price. I no longer had a Mom and Dad, I lost out on having a childhood, I was often judged,  I moved from home to home, I was stripped of everything I knew,  and I moved from school to school.  I was forced to live my life as a State Dependent; however, I turned my life into a success.

Being a State Dependent made me pay for my parents’ mistakes. Both of my parents made bad choices which lead to significant family problems. My Mother and Father were both drug addicts long before I was born. After my arrival the drug use worsened; my Father used drugs to calm his schizophrenia, and my Mother used drugs just for the high. As years went by, my Father became a raging alcoholic. He began to batter my Mother until her face was purple and his hand was red and swollen. My Mother did not just stand there; fights would break out daily between them until my Mother threated to call the police if he did not leave. After my Father moved out, my Mothers’ drug use continued. When she didn’t have money for drugs, she looked the other way while her friend took a payment he felt was just. In many cases I was the payment. My mother did many of things to make me feel she did not love me. Each time my Mother would enter a relationship things seemed good, until the drugs over took both of their minds. I have been beaten with a hose, cooking pan, thrown into walls, thrown through a window, pushed out of a moving car, and so much more. My Mother would put it out of her mind, and act as though the abuse towards me did not exist.  My Mother always went shopping whether or not she had the funds. She got away with shop lifting for a while, but ultimately she was arrested and we were removed from our home. 

Being a State Dependent took away any hopes of getting the chance to have a childhood. Since age 7, I was forced to stay home and be a mother to my younger sister. I didn’t go to school, I no longer had friends, and I had to grow up much faster in order to gain the knowledge necessary to fend for myself and a young infant.  When my two sisters and I were taken away, my social worker said nobody would want three girls. I used my voice to make it very clear that I did not care what happened to me as long as my sisters stayed together, it did not take long for me to wish I had not said it. Because I did not only miss my family, but I missed being able to protect them and spend time with them.

Being a State Dependent offered justification when others judged me as if I was psychotic. Altering the way my teachers, mentor, peers, and paid staff looked at me.  When asked how the comments made me feel, I tilted my head back and laughed heartily. Cringing inside from nervous laughter, I retreated into my mind, sometimes running away at top speed, and then as I open my eyes, I turn and walk away like stars on the red carpet. How many people could handle being raped in their Mother’s house and know nothing was done to bring their rapist to justice?  After this horrific incident I was the subject of an uncomfortable interrogation.  I was made to feel like a common criminal.   I was also made to relive my ordeal by recording two videos of the incident forcing me to say all the devastating details of what he did to me step by step, over and over for law enforcement. After this incident I began to care not how I look to others but how I look to myself.

Being a State Dependent stripped me of my identity, my freedom, and my family. The only things the system gave me were a county judge and a court appointed social worker. A judge cannot visit me and sooth my hurt or discomfort. When I was 12, I was placed at Polinsky Child Center. The neighborhood was not well known to me, making it hard to plot an escape route. I was denied the privilege to communicate with, or see any of my family members. Without my family I felt lousy, and I did not really know what to do. I chose to be defiant because I was very angry. I would try to make deals with my social worker. I would be good, and in exchange, I was allowed to see members of my family and talk to them. When denied, I would do anything rebellious to make her rethink her decision and I did not care how I looked to other people. Once you become a State Dependent it becomes stamped on your forehead for everyone to know, for everyone to see, without the option to hide. I would run away on a daily basis, but no matter how far I ran I could not change the fact that I was still a foster child.

Being a State Dependent was not something I was proud of; I lied about my life to all of my (so called) friends, with hope they would never know the truth. In eight years I lived in 14 different placements (either in a foster home or a group home) and went to over five different high schools. When moving to a new placement I used my voice to fight for the right to attend public school. No matter what school I was attending I always expressed how I didn’t want to be treated any differently.  One very exciting and interesting event took place in my life on August 10, 2007, the day my case was terminated by the Juvenile Court System of San Diego. I shall never forget overflowing with joy and happiness.  I am not a drug addict. I am not an alcoholic. I am not homeless. I am a high school graduate. I am employed. And I am chasing my dreams. I beat the statistics of a foster child making me the person I am today. Through all my hurt I learned to take all the bad and use it to fuel a better tomorrow. I would like people to see me as accomplished. I beat everybody’s doubt and negativity.

After being a State Dependent I turned my life into a success story.  I still have times where I struggle with flashbacks of my childhood but, then again, I am only human. I am a college student, a mentor, an intern with The County of San Diego, a P.R.I.D.E. speaker (Parent Resources for Information, Development, and Education), on the HYPE board (Helping Youth Pursue Excellence,) and a new member to the CAI Youth Board (Children’s Advocacy Institute).  I am a former foster youth who wants to make a difference in the system, to help current youth know that there are options, and provide resources to succeed. I am no longer a victim of the system, I am a survivor.

When dealt a sour hand in a game of cards, the option is always there to redeal the cards. However, in life we do not get that option. It is truly amazing how many obstacles can be overcome and how many successes can be revealed in a single lifetime.  I was treated horribly while I was in the system, and I was only there because of my parents. I have finally escaped the stereotypes and negative views due to the foster system. I have since been reunited with my family. I aim to fix the system and help youth know what is available to them. While growing up in the system I just wanted to be loved and cared about. If I can offer a glimmer of hope to those who feel hopeless, my experiences will have meaning.

About the Author:
Helena Kelly is a passionate advocate for foster children. She spent several years of her childhood in the Dependency system and strives to improve the system for those children who will follow her. Helena is a college student, a mentor, an intern with the County of San Diego, a P.R.I.D.E. speaker (Parent Resources for Information, Development, and Education), she serves on the HYPE board (Helping Youth Pursue Excellence) and she serves on the Children’s Advocacy Institute’s Youth Advisory Board.

What Sort of Parent are You?

Pitching Foster Children’s Issues in an Era of Financial Conservatism and Program Cuts 
As I conduct my advocacy work for the Children’s Advocacy Institute, I am often faced with the challenge of trying to convince socially conservative legislators, staffers, and wonks that it is in their moral, economic, and political best interest to support positive outcomes for foster children.  In an environment where big business continues to spend billions of dollars on lobbying to protect and promote their issues, I am at a distinct disadvantage.
What I do have cornered is the moral high ground, and I have learned some effective tactics to leverage that.  My currency? Guilt, shame, and “family values.” This is how I often spin it:
How many children do you have?
What kind of parent are you?
How are your kids doing?
Many will answer these questions intuitively — perhaps you have three children, or are one of three children. You are a loving parent who sacrifices for your child, who works to provide your kids with every educational and other advantage, and one who prepares from early on for your child’s financial and educational stability.  Or you were fortunate to have had parents who did so for you. Your children are thriving, or if they aren’t, you are doing everything possible to give them the best chance to do so.
But your family is actually larger than you think — much larger. Every child who is removed from his or her home and placed into foster care each year (over 500,000 nationwide) becomes a ward of the state. This means that the biological parents temporarily lose the right to care for and make decisions for their children, and the state takes over that role. Perhaps you live in California. As a taxpayer, you are one of the legal parents of the over 68,000 children in foster care in the state.  You probably never considered this before and feel shocked and overwhelmed at the idea. Good. Imagine how they feel.
The children who live in foster care have done nothing wrong. Quite the opposite. They have been abused and or neglected by the very people charged most intimately with their care and well-being— their parents. This is a devastating experience with serious and far-reaching emotional and practical consequences. Once they are placed into state custody, they depend on the state (which breaks down to each and every taxpayer in a state) to take care of them, provide for their needs, protect them from harm, and plan for their futures. That’s what parents do. Yet, as well as you might be providing this to your own biological children, you have overlooked your responsibility to do so for the many foster children who are counting on you.
When these youth leave foster care to forge independent lives, their prospects are grim. A recent study reveals that by age 24, 22–33% of foster youth are not connected to the labor market. At age 24, foster care alumni who are employed earn less than half, on average, than their counterparts who have no history of foster care. Although most foster youth express a desire to attend college, only about 3% of foster care alumni have earned a four-year degree. Many studies have found that former foster youth experience homelessness at high rates — some estimate that nearly half of foster youth will have been homeless by age 24.  Many foster youth experience chronic health problems as a result of the abuse and neglect they endured before their entry into the foster care system and up to 85% of foster youth experience mental health issues. Further, recent studies have found that less than one-third of foster care alumni are employed full-time at age 24.
These children in foster care are not “somebody else’s” children. They are our children. Yours and mine. They have nobody else.
It is all too easy to shirk our responsibility for these children. Somebody else had them and failed to take care of them adequately. You have your own kids to worry about. This is their problem, right?  Wrong. If your heart is cold to the sadness and pain of these children, perhaps your wallet is a better listener.  Think again about your own children or childhood.
What would happen if you did not provide your children with proper medical care and treatment? They would endure worse illnesses, increased need for medication, more frequent and longer hospital visits, and probably a greater chance of acquiring a serious and chronic physical or psychological condition. Who pays for these increased medical costs? Yes, you, the taxpayer.
If you didn’t encourage your child to graduate from school and/or attend college, and save for those expenses, what would happen? Job prospects and earning potential are greatly diminished. Chances of relying on public support are much higher. The costs of unemployment, underemployment, or poverty are passed along.  To whom? Right again — to you, the taxpayer.
If you weren’t there to support your children as they transitioned to adulthood — by providing them with a place to live during school vacations or during the summer, and then while they saved up for their own place, they would face a much higher risk of experiencing homelessness and ending up either in a shelter, in an ER, or on public benefits. Who does this cost? You got it- you, the taxpayer.
These are the tactics that elicit the greatest understanding and support in this very difficult economic and political climate. Politicians in Washington, DC not only don’t want to hear anything about spending or, heaven forbid, “investing”, they aren’t interested in hearing about anything that doesn’t reduce the deficit or slash spending.  I try to address that mentality in this way: If you take a long-term view of the economic impact of our collective bad parenting, it is clear that not only is it morally wrong to treat these children so thoughtlessly, but it is fiscally irresponsible as well.  Let us work towards reducing the deficit and slashing spending by minimizing the huge financial drain that these children will present us with if we do not provide them with the tools and resources to become responsible and self-sufficient adults.  The 5.7 billion dollars that are spent on the needs of this population once they leave foster could be greatly reduced if we simply committed to being better parents.
Whether you are driven by moral or fiscal considerations, let’s take responsibility for these children who are relying on us to parent them well. We owe them no less than we owe our own children, and they deserve not to be penalized any further for their own parents’ mistakes.
The first step towards doing the right thing by these kids is by answering the questions presented at the beginning of this piece and acknowledging that we ourselves are neglectful parents to the hundreds of thousands of children in foster care, that our kids aren’t doing well, and that we must do better. I must confess that I am not at all sorry when I bring a legislator, staffer, or pundit to tears by framing this issue in such stark terms.  If it is true that the heartstrings are a direct line to the purse strings, let us usher in a flood.
Amy Harfeld has been an advocate, educator, and public interest attorney for over 15 years. A graduate of the University of Michigan, she served after graduating as a Teach for America corps member in Los Angeles, where she taught 7th grade and coached basketball. While in Los Angeles, she obtained her secondary teaching degree from Cal State LA. After getting a front line view into the myriad social injustices faced by at-risk children, she decided to pursue social justice through the law. She obtained her JD from the City University of New York School of Law. While at CUNY Law, she published an article on juvenile and human rights in the New York City Law Review, clerked at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and completed several public interest internships. After graduating, Amy prosecuted child abuse and neglect cases for New York City’s Children’s Services. She was then hired to pioneer a legal services program for formerly incarcerated parents at the Fortune Society. From 2007 to 2010, Amy served as the Executive Director of First Star, a national child welfare non-profit in Washington D.C. Currently, Amy works as a consultant, directing national policy for the Children’s Advocacy Institute and the National Association of Counsel for Children, and working with the ABA’s Commission on Youth at Risk.

A few cracks in the system

 Many people who are not aware of the cracks that the system has will tell me, “You are doing so well, I guess we are doing something right,” however, deep down inside I know of all of the behind the scenes injustices that are going on. One in particular is that when a youth ages out he/she is not told that their medical insurance will expire unless it’s renewed each year. Failure to renew leads to insurance being cancelled, reapplying down at the county building which takes forever, a three to sixth month response period, then finally insurance may be activated or not.  Yet what’s worse to come is that if the application is denied, this “achieving” adult will be left with no health insurance. Which poses the question: what is the child welfare system doing right?
As I look back at the many obstacles that I have  overcome and still overcoming since my first year in college, one that stands out is fighting for my CHAFEE grant. Since my freshman year until now I have calculated an average of five to six visits per academic year to the financial-aid office too simply check the status of my CHAFEE grant. One reason that the financial-aid counselor will tell me that the CHAFEE grant is late is that the state has yet to release its budget. So my options become very narrow with the registrar’s office when having to pay up front registration fees, tuition fees and so forth, or face the consequence of being dropped from classes with a $75 late fee charge. Since my freshman year I have learned my lesson, work extra hard during the summer and save my financial-aid from the previous year in order to pay for the upcoming fees of the new academic year. Even though it limits me to a very strict budget and picking up two jobs in order to pay for everything on time, while the state figures out when to release its new budget. One thing that I keep hoping for is for the state to take education seriously and moreover the education of foster youth since we only make up about 1% of the population who actually graduate from college.

About the Author:
The Author is a member of CAI’s youth Advisory Board and a full time college student who spent several years in foster care in San Diego, California.