Voices of the Children

The children know they belong with their families, and not in the hands of strangers. According a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, lengthy interviews conducted with children and parents from 200 randomly sampled cases revealed no surprises. Parents who were separated from their children felt they had been unfairly separated. As for their children, the article explains: "At least 80% of the children, asked to name three wishes, mentioned that they wanted to be with their mother or father. Many tended to believe that the separation was their fault" (Smith, 1996).

In San Diego, staff from the Child Advocacy Division of the Department of the Public Defender and from the University of San Diego Patient Advocacy Program, at the request of the Bar Association's Task Force on Children at Risk, sought to obtain the views of children under the juvenile court system, interviewing 23 children. The average age was 14.9. Seventy-eight percent were either in an acute psychiatric hospital or a group home at the time of the survey. The remainder were either in a shelter or residing with a family member. Seventy-four percent were dependents of the court, 6% were wards. These 23 children were placed in a total of 198 placements, an average of 8.6 homes per child. The average time "in the system" was 4.25 years. The children described a system in which they felt trapped, punished and personally disempowered. One child described a particular group home as ". . . a storage place. You were alive but not living." In describing where they would like to go next, nearly 83% said they wanted "out of the system," either through legal emancipation or being returned to either a parent, grandparent or other relative (Danford & Espana, 1995).

Among the comments from some of the other children in the group:

The system is a punishment. They look at you as a file or paperwork, not as a person.

The system messes you up. You are always being threatened with being moved to another foster home.

Don't get used to one place because they will move you, they will toss you around like a ball.

No one listens to you, no one believes you.

Remarkably similar narratives were told by five Missouri foster children at an event sponsored by the Child Welfare League of America. The League meets every five years to discuss issues relating to out-of-home care. The event marked the first time it had assembled a panel of children who live in state custody. All five children lived in residential treatment centers for emotionally disturbed children (Shirk, 1991).

I had to go to court this past June, and there was a lady there who I'd never met before who made a recommendation about what was best for me," said 18-year-old Sheila. "A month later, I saw her again, and she didn't even know who I was."

Said 14-year-old Ashley: "At first I was told I'd be in care one month, and then another month, and then another. It's now been five years. I was first taken some place just to sleep overnight, and the next day the social worker took me to a children's home in the country, two hours from St. Louis. I was really disappointed because I was so far from home," Ashley explained.

"I hate it when the staff members yell or act mean or hold a grudge or won't get me something that I need," said 15-year-old Heather. "The worst experience I've ever had was when the male staff watched while I took a shower," she said. "When I was taken out of my home at 12, I was put in a place for runaways and kids with drug problems. I wasn't a runaway, and I didn't have a drug problem.

Said Heather in closing: "I hope all of you were hearing what we had to say, because you are in a position to make things easier for kids."


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