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Special Reports

‘Heartbreaking report’: Foster care series sparks calls for change across the country

 

A Republican senator in Kansas says she will call for the state to create a report card that will track the academic progress of foster children.

In Iowa, the state public defender plans to propose a bill that would allow his office to represent struggling families before the court gets involved and removes children from their homes. A U.S. senator from Oregon — where just 35 percent of foster kids graduated from high school in 2017 — says he will talk with state legislators to see what can be done to help children in the classroom.

And in Missouri, a Democratic candidate for governor said “there is a clear need for accountability across the system.”

The calls for action came as The Star published its investigation — Throwaway Kids, a six-part series — on the long-term outcomes for some youth who have aged out of foster care. For many, their vagabond lives in state care included an inferior education, lasting trauma and dismal prospects for their adult lives.

As part of the yearlong investigation, reporters surveyed nearly 6,000 inmates in 12 states that represented every region of the country. Of those inmates, 1 in 4 said they had spent time in foster care.

Readers, who responded in emails, phone calls, tweets and Facebook posts, shared thoughts and similar experiences.

“I really related to a lot of the stories you told,” wrote one woman who aged out of foster care in 2010. “Like being homeless at 18 and struggling with the effects of care as an adult. I can’t tell you how much it means to see that people are aware and trying to call light to it.”

A woman in the Kansas City area said reading about the problems facing former foster kids was difficult, “but I know we owe it to so many kids to do better.”

Ernie Ross, who taught woodworking in a Colorado prison three decades ago, said he has seen the bad outcomes play out.

“A lot of my students were former foster care kids,” Ross said. “And when they got of age, they got kicked out of the system and onto the street. No home, no job skill, into a dead-end position.

“The only thing they could turn to was crime. And they ended up in prison.”

And a former U.S. Secretary of Education referred to the series on his Twitter page.

“Extremely sobering report by @KCStar reinforces urgent need for states, communities, & schools to dramatically improve supports for foster youth,” wrote John B. King Jr., who served as education secretary under President Barack Obama.

Child welfare advocates, including Indiana’s Brent Kent, a prominent source in the series, said the survey results — and hearing directly from inmates and other former foster children — provide information that has been lacking for those who are pushing for change.

“What you created is going to be so important,” Kent said, “not just today, but we’re going to be talking about this for years to come.”

Lawmakers say issue must be addressed

What hit many lawmakers was the inequity in education. Each year, just a little more than half of America’s foster children will graduate from high school.

Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner is head of the Senate Education Committee in Kansas. She plans to talk to leaders with the state Department of Education about designing an annual report card to measure the academic performance of foster kids.

“They should be able to do that without a law,” said Baumgardner, a fourth generation educator. “But if we need to go through the legislative process, we will. … Educators like report cards. It tells you where you are, here and now.”

The Star’s series highlighted efforts to improve education outcomes in Indiana, where lawmakers passed legislation requiring the state to track how foster kids are doing in the classroom. Once a year, a detailed report card must be published to show how children in the state’s custody are doing compared to their peers.

 

In Kansas, the most recent graduation rate was nearly 39 percent for kids in care. That compares to roughly 87 percent for students overall.

“In any institution a 39 percent would be an F,” Baumgardner said. When a child is moved to a different home — and school — educators “are not told this is a foster child. They don’t receive any special resources.”

That needs to change, Baumgardner said.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, said children put into the foster care system deserve the same opportunities to succeed as any child.

“And we must continue working to improve resources and strengthen the support system for those exiting the system,” he said when contacted by The Star.

Nicole Galloway, Missouri’s state auditor and a Democratic candidate for governor, tweeted about The Star’s investigation, calling it a “heartbreaking report.”

“It is undeniable that foster kids have so much working against them,” she told The Star. “Missouri must do better by these children.”

It all comes down to priorities, Galloway said.

“And one of our priorities should include better tracking and reporting on educational outcomes and on the programs provided to young adults aging out of the system,” she said.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon and a member of the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth, said he wants to learn more about his state’s low graduation rate of foster kids.

“I’ll be having conversations with state legislators to understand better both what they are planning to do and how we at the federal level can be in partnership with them,” he said.

In Michigan, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, studied child welfare issues when she was a member of her state legislature. She said she knows that many Michigan inmates have abuse or neglect in their background, and often that involves foster care.

“If we really want to solve the problems of who we have in our jails and in our prisons, we should be focusing on those areas,” she said.

And education of foster youth is something leaders in the country must do something about, she said.

“We don’t focus enough on prevention,” Stabenow said. “We basically build more prisons to deal with what happens when we aren’t creating education opportunities and safe homes and opportunities for people.”

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, commended The Star’s research and said states should closely track the educational outcomes of children in foster care.

“If you don’t do something now, you’ll pay for it later. Not to mention you’re really denying these people opportunities to be full participants in our society,” Roberts said, noting his own role on the Senate committee that oversees health and education.

“I think it’s extremely important,” he said. “It’s an investment in our future.”

On the front lines

Child welfare workers and advocates for kids shared the series on social media. Attorneys who work with older youth and their families said the stories represent what they see every day.

In Connecticut, a Court Appointed Special Advocates group in the southern part of the state said on Twitter it would use The Star’s reporting in its training curriculum. Advocates would be able to hear and learn from the experience of former foster youth highlighted in the stories.

Jenny Pokempner, a senior attorney at the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, said states need to invest more in supporting families. After reading The Star’s series, Pokempner said she believes it’s clear that more emphasis and money needs to go toward family preservation and keeping children from being removed.

“We are letting things happen to kids that we would never tolerate for our own children,” Pokempner said. Youth who have been in foster care “want what we all have and most of us get to take for granted, that unconditional support.”

The system is supposed to reduce harm, she said, not create more for children.

“No young person should be in this situation and the state has to be accountable when they are the person that is in the role of parent,” she said. “We can impact these youth. We know who they are. They are in our care.”

The Iowa proposal is being drawn up now and will be introduced when the legislature goes back into session in January, said Jeff Wright, the state public defender.

The bill calls for a pilot project in six of the state’s 99 counties that will allow the public defender’s office to provide representation to families and children before a case is even filed.

“The whole goal is to prevent kids from ever having to go into the foster care system or into juvenile court at all,” said Wright, who spent 12 years in private practice focusing on criminal and juvenile law.

“What we have found happens is that people don’t trust that the state is working for them, that it is trying to help them. It’s a trust issue in a lot of cases, or they don’t really understand the seriousness of it. And that’s the goal — to have someone representing them before they get to a removal situation.”

In the event a family is separated, Wright said, the second goal is to keep that removal as short as possible.

If the measure passes — and so far, Wright said he hasn’t heard of any resistance — his office plans to use federal Title IV-E funds to help with the costs. Those funds used to be earmarked almost solely for foster care, but last year Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act, which allows states to also use the money for some services designed to keep families intact.

Removing kids from their parents is a systemic problem, Wright said, that destabilizes the children and introduces additional trauma into their lives.

“The trauma affects brain development, it affects rational thinking, it affects rational decision-making, it affects criminal behavior, and then it affects the way you make decisions as a parent,” he said.

“It’s one of those situations where trauma begets trauma, and eventually they become their own trauma and cause trauma to their own children. And this is our attempt to find a way to, if nothing else, slow down the cycle.”

A coffee shop in Tennessee

In rural Corryton, Tennessee, north of Knoxville, Greg Schmid isn’t sure how he even came to see The Star’s foster care series.

He clicked on the first video of inmate Michelle Voorhees talking about the “disruptive” and “traumatic” experience of being a foster child shuttled from one strange home to the next. For her, it resulted in a life of chaos and eventually incarceration.

“That really broke me,” said Schmid, 54, a youth minister for nearly 30 years and owner of Pike House Coffee.

Now his plan, starting in the new year, he said, is to run The Star’s foster care series videos on a continuous loop inside his shop, to hold group meetings, and to raise the issue with customers and inside his church.

“That hit me hard,” Schmid said of the damage done to foster children. “These are kids. Seemingly, the state takes care of them and now, all of a sudden, the state’s not there to take care of them anymore. They become homeless. They become drug-addicted. Something else happens that puts them in jail.”

His concern is personal. He hadn’t known much about foster care, he said. Then, seven months ago, his eldest daughter, Kayla, and her husband, became foster parents.

They have taken on four children, including sisters whom they are thinking of adopting. The family has seen them improve with love and stable homes.

“The Bible tells us to take care of the widows and orphans,” Schmid said. “Basically, children in foster care are orphans. They don’t have a family. We’re supposed to take care of them.”

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