With eyes shining brightly and chests filled with pride, nearly 130 former foster care youth will march sedately across the stage at the 19th Annual "Celebration 2008: Honoring the Academic Achievements of Foster Youth" on Thursday evening, June 4 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
For the youths, the event will mark a milestone in their young lives-lives that have experienced triumph over adversity and will earmark their first steps toward becoming self-sustaining adults.
"We are so very proud of these young people who have had to face adversity in their young lives," said Trish Ploehn, director of the Department of Children and Family Services. "They were all in the child welfare system and were victims of child abuse or neglect. But they have not only succeeded against the odds, they have excelled."
Most will receive a portion of the nearly $577,500 in scholarships to further their education. The scholarships will be awarded at the ceremony hosted by the County of Los Angeles' Department of Children and Family Services and a number of corporations and non-profit organizations.
Other organizations involved in the ceremony include United Friends of the Children, a non-profit organization that provides services to foster youth; The Teague Family Foundation; the Community College Foundation; and Casey Family Programs.
The event also marks a milestone for DCFS, which has for the past several years made enormous strides in reducing the number of children in foster care.
Among its many improvements over the past few years, DCFS recorded its lowest number of children in out-of-home placement in its history. In March 2008, out-of-home placements numbered 18,500-down from an all-time high of nearly 50,000 ten years ago.
Of the children in foster care, roughly 23,000 will be reunited with their parents, and 7,000 will be adopted over the course of a year.
"Over the last several years the department has made tremendous progress," said Ploehn. "More children are being served in their own home rather than having them being removed to protect them. We offer professional services to the entire family. We have found that it is a much more effective way to do child welfare."
Pausing, Ploehn added, "I think what we are most proud of is the significant reductions in the number of children in foster care. There are a number of services we offer and wraparound services--an umbrella of services offered to the family--is one of our most successful strategies. We did research and found out that keeping the child in the home and providing services to the child and the family not only ensures that the child is safe, but also assists us in healing the family."
Despite the gains, there are a number of advocates working in the foster care system who are apprehensive about the upcoming state budget proposal that will be signed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for 2008-2009. Schwarzenegger has proposed an $83.7 million reduction to child welfare services for Los Angeles County. According to DCFS, if the proposed budget cuts are approved, they will result in a funding shortfall in excess of $25 million to DCFS. The potential reduction in payments to foster care providers is estimated to be more than $65 million.
Even more devastating, the budget will bring a 10% reduction in caregiver resources, including foster family homes and relative caregivers, as well as a 10% reduction in specialized care rates for children with challenges and special needs; a 10% reduction in $100 per child per year clothing allowance; and a 10% reduction in adoption assistance.
These cuts are especially crucial since foster care is facing numerous challenges in the twenty-first century. High rates of child and family poverty, homelessness, unemployment, substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, unequal education, family and community violence, and racism have a deleterious effect on families and directly impact child well-being and the child welfare system.
According to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, "These factors have contributed to the development of large caseloads of families that have multiple and complex needs. The child welfare system must respond to these needs, while protecting the rights of children and families and ensuring the safety of children."
The situation is even more sobering for African American children. Black children in California are more likely than white or Hispanic children to be reported as victims of abuse and, if reported, are more likely to be placed in foster care. They are also less likely to be reunited with their parents than children of other races.
The proposed cuts will jeopardize vital services to children and families in Los Angeles, a fact that has not escaped the attention of newly elected Assembly Speaker of the House, Karen Bass, a champion of foster care reform who has made foster care one of her top priorities.
Bass became a proponent of foster care during the early 90s, when the crack epidemic spread like wildfire throughout South Los Angeles. The scourge tore families apart, as a growing number of parents became addicted to the potent drug and relinquished care of their children to the state. "That's when I really began to notice the rise in foster care," said Bass, who helped found Kinship in Action, an advocacy group established to offer services and support for relative caregivers.
"Now that I'm speaker, I hope to use the speakership to advocate for foster care," said Bass. "Actually, the money that is poised to be cut in the budget is money that was actually restored to the foster care system and now the money is being taken away. That's why I'm pushing for a ballot initiative to identify a permanent funding source for foster care," she said.
Bass was able to push 17 bills through the state legislature focusing on foster care reform, but with the looming budget cuts, some may never become law. Still, Bass is proud that some changes have been incorporated into the foster care system.
"There's a bill that I established for a child welfare council, an umbrella administrative body that specifically works on foster care. We were also able to put $50 million in the housing budget and increase the rates for foster families and relative caregivers."
But Bass has pledged to keep fighting until the budget is officially signed. She has been meeting with Gov. Schwarzenegger to discuss the cuts not only proposed for foster care, but to health and human services. "I told them we can't bear the cuts to health and human services because they affect poor people," said Bass, who added that the budget is scheduled to be passed on July 1. We have to keep that safety net. We will be lobbying Schwarzenegger until the budget passes," Bass said.
Despite the glowing reports, the foster care system still poses a labyrinth of rules and regulations that continue to bedevil foster parents and caregivers alike. Parent Janeen Greaves' experience with the courts and foster care system have left her with deep scars she said will never be able to erase. Greaves' daughter was 13 when she was forcibly removed from her home. "We had a fight and I tried to restrain her," said Greaves, who said that her daughter, now 17, started exhibiting belligerent behavior after falling in with the wrong crowd at school. "Someone in the building I lived in called the police. They came out to investigate and they found a small bruise on my daughter's arm. The police put her in emergency placement. I had to go to parenting classes for a year, which I felt was really unfair because I did not have any record of child abuse or a drug history."
Greaves went to court and said that due to a "bad attorney," her mother was given guardianship. "My mother said things that were not true about me. I feel that the judge should have challenged what my mother said, but he didn't and I lost custody of my daughter. These court-appointed lawyers have a heavy caseload and they don't fight for you. I don't think that parents should be given court-appointed attorneys. They work for the courts, therefore they are going to be leaning toward the court system because they are on the court's payroll. The state pays $1,000 per year for each child that gets into the foster care system. Once they are in foster care there is no incentive to get the child back home."
Despite the strides in foster care, Aurea Montes, senior director of Kinship in Action, said that children are facing issues of loss because their parents are not actively caring for them. Montes said that many times they are also struggling in school because many experienced an interruption in their education.
"The schools and DCFS are not working together to come up with comprehensive services to either help the children catch up educationally, or help them deal with their learning disabilities," pointed out Montes. "Many times the children are placed with social workers or psychology interns instead of a licensed therapist. They are not coming up with comprehensive programs for these children to deal with issues of loss or with actual mental illnesses."
Montes also said that more than half the children in foster care live with someone other than a parent. "These statistics are alarming," said Montes. "Children are not with family and the system that is supposed to be a safety net is not meeting the needs of the community. They are not going to be ready to be successful young adults without safety nets in place."
Montes said that she was heartened by the passage of AB 298. "Before the passage of that bill, relative caregivers were consistently pushed to adopt their relative children. That's a big problem because grandparents don't really want to adopt their grandchildren. DCFS threatened to remove a child if the caregiver did not adopt. Now it is unlawful for the department to push a relative caregiver to adopt a child," said Montes.
"We've made it a priority to work with kinship families because relative caregivers in this community are the ones who are struggling every day to provide the best care possible with very limited resources," she said.
"We've been talking to Trish Ploehn, director of the Department of Children and Family Services," said Montes. "She's been responsible for our relative caregivers putting forward proposals on how the department can be more supportive. She has expressed that she wants to make reforms to the department but that there's still a long way as to whether they are still accessible to see whether it can be changed and to see concrete outcomes."
Asked what reforms she would envison to improve the foster care system, Montes said, "An ideal foster care system would be one that provides comprehensive services so that families can stay together and work more closely with the Department of Mental Health as well as the schools these children attend," she said.
Margaret Luculano's experiences in foster care echo the experiences of many youths who have been shuttled through the foster care system. "Opening your home to a foster child takes either an incredibly loving heart or an incredible desire to abuse the system," Luculano observed. "For me, it was one foster home after another-one more possibility to get kicked down and pulled in half. It was one more opportunity to confront the truth; I was unwanted and unloved." Luculano, who was shuttled to 15 different homes in five years, wrote a book about her experiences called My God Box. "I felt institutionalized, alone, and longed for my own family," recalls Luculano.
Watts community activist Sweet "Alice" Harris has been teaching parenting classes in collaboration with DCFS to relative caregivers and foster parents for nearly two decades, and said she witnesses firsthand the strain placed on the caregiver suddenly saddled with raising grandchildren, nieces, or nephews. "The caregivers are under a lot of stress taking care of these kids," Harris pointed out, "and many of them don't even know it. We work on solutions to help the caregiver get rid of stress."
Harris also sees the affect that foster care has on foster children. "Most of the foster children are angry when they are taken out of the home," Harris pointed out. "The bottom line is, they want to go home. If you're dealing with a teenager, they usually don't like being told the word 'No' because they were never told 'No' in the household they grew up in. So, when they hear 'No, you can't go over to your friend's house, no, you can't stay all night, and no you can't smoke or drink'--that is something they are not used to that may pose a problem for the foster parent."
Harris also said that the child can even experience mental illness. "When you place a child in a home and they don't know anybody they're staying with, that causes them to become anxious. All they know is that they can't go home to their mother. Usually they ask me, 'When am I going home?' 'What did my mother do?' 'Where's my grandmother?'"
Walter Smith, 69, took on the task of raising five of his daughter's children after his daughter succumbed to drugs. Smith felt that relative caregivers are not kept informed of how to take care of children placed in their care.
A senior who was about to enjoy his golden years when he was suddenly faced with raising his daughter's children, Smith said that he basically was "in the dark" about the kinds of services he was entitled to as a foster parent. "We have social workers who do not inform us as to what we are eligible for," said Smith. "We need a foster care system that will navigate a relative caregiver through the system."
Smith said that like himself, most of the caregivers he knows are grandparents taking care of their grandchildren or other relatives. "They have their nieces or cousin's kids--and taking care of those kids brings about drastic changes in their living conditions. Many times, they have to get a larger place to live," Smith pointed out.
When it comes to making significant changes to the foster care system, Garnethi Pettiford, who spent 10 years in the foster care system, maintained, "Legislators must endorse stronger laws addressing the needs of vulnerable children. And children in the system must learn to advocate for themselves and to never accept mediocrity. Even in the most seemingly hopeless situation, there can be a better life. Together we must work at empowering ourselves and each other so we can make a difference."
Social worker David Green also felt that the child welfare system could be improved. "I think there should be more support, more resources for our families, and more direct contact for our families. Unfortunately, some of these budget cuts they're proposing statewide would affect the most vulnerable families in our system. Our first goal is always to return children to a safe, permanent home and give them the tools they need to be successful, so hopefully they will not have to come back to our system but be successful on their own."
Despite shortfalls, some young adults have found the foster care system to be a welcome life raft in an uncertain world. "My experience in foster care has empowered me to take on the world as an independent, proactive achiever," said Tolona Holbert, a senior at Adelphi University. "I've traveled across the country and around the globe, and my success in my pursuits can only be attributed to the hardships I've encountered along the way," said Holbert. "Everything that was supposed to be a hurdle morphed into fuel as I've made my way through life thus far."
Holbert received support at the Rowell Foster Children's Positive Plan founded by actress and former foster child Victoria Rowell. The former actress on The Young and the Restless recently wrote a best-selling book about her experiences in foster care entitled The Women Who Raised Me. Rowell, who spent 18 years in foster care, has also lobbied on Capitol Hill to urge reforms concerning foster children.
Rowell founded the Rowell Foster Children's Positive Plan in 1990, which enriches foster children through artistic expression.
"The Rowell Foster Children's Positive Plan has certainly aided me in keeping my focus; having provided me with scholarships, mentors, and guidance, they've consistently been the wind beneath my wings. One day, I plan on being as huge a help to foster youth as Victoria Rowell and her foundation have been to me," said Holbert.