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."