Foster kids: Dealt an early blow, they are a vulnerable population

Informal session with U.S. Rep. Hudson identifies problems, strengths of foster system

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

ROCKINGHAM — Marcella Middleton knows the value of having a supportive parent.

When she was caught speeding in her vehicle and ordered to pay a $300 fine, she didn’t have the money. At risk of losing her driver’s license, she needed help in order to stay on the road in order to remain in school. A foster parent extended a helping hand.

During an hour-long session with nearly two dozen Richmond County foster parents, foster children, social workers, U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson listened as he was told a variety of insights about the state foster care program. There are 25 children, ranging in age from 1 to 17, in the county’s foster care system. There is an equal mix of boys and girls and the variety of races reflect the diversity of the area.

Middleton said a key area for improvement is the transition program that helps young people up to 21 years old out of the system.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com A former foster child, Kashawn Little spoke Tuesday during a brainstorming session with U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson and nearly two dozen others about the state system.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
A former foster child, Kashawn Little spoke Tuesday during a brainstorming session with U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson and nearly two dozen others about the state system.

The program LINKS is intended to “build a network of relevant services with youth so that they will have ongoing connections with family, friends, mentors, the community, employment, education, financial assistance, skills training and other resources to facilitate the transition to adulthood.” LINKS funding is available even after the age of 21 in certain cases for a limited period of time, such as when the young person is attending school

But Middletown said it comes down to trust. Though LINKS attempts to help foster children identify five people in a primary support system, Middleton said that wasn’t possible for her.

“I don’t know five people,” said Middleton, and outgoing individual engaged in a variety of extracurricular activities. “Imagine youth who are not involved … because of all the stuff they’re going through.”

Middletown is now employed with the state Department of Health and Human Services and works as a liaison to SaySo Inc., a nonprofit geared towards giving those in North Carolina’s out-of-home system a voice in what happens to them and how. She hopes to be a part of the solution in helping foster children successfully transition to living on their own.

The statistics aren’t promising. Middleton and others know the battle is an uphill one. According to LINKS, “older youth and young adults who have experienced extended time in foster care are at increased risk of negative consequences once they leave care, such as dropping out of school, unplanned parenthood, high rates of untreated illness, homelessness, criminal activity, depression and suicide.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Pam Smith, a foster parent, acknowledged she's "scared" to accept a teenager into her home without the proper training. She and her husband, Jimmy, have three children of their own and are adopting a foster child.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Pamela Smith, a foster parent, acknowledged she’s “scared” to accept a teenager into her home without the proper training. She and her husband, James, have three children of their own and are adopting a foster child.

Kashawn Little is a graduate of North Carolina A & T. State University. Prior to graduating with a degree in social work, however, Little was a foster child. He was in the system and for a long time, there seemed like there was no getting out. His success is against the odds.

Only one of eight foster children graduate from college, Little said — only 40 percent graduate from high school. Meanwhile, 25 percent go to jail and 40 percent are homeless.

Little indicated that if anything new were to develop, it should be focused on providing support prior to reaching college age.

“How can you focus on school when you don’t have the stability,” Little asked.

Even if a student makes it to college, schools “shut down during break. Where you going home to?”

For a long time, Little said, he didn’t understand the big picture. He vented his frustration towards his social workers — whom he sat beside on Tuesday in partnership. The bottom line, he said, comes down to a budget that has been sliced and trimmed in every way possible over the years.

“Now I understand,” Little said.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Deborah Richardson, of Hamlet and a foster parent, said she's not in it for the money.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Deborah Richardson, of Hamlet and a foster parent, said she’s not in it for the money.

Middleton said when she turned 18, she was ready to leave, but not prepared.

“I didn’t have everything, and I was not going back home,” she said. “Time in care is so hard.”

Hudson understood, at least to a degree.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do at 18,” he said.

Middletown said that even the LINKS program that aids foster children in their transition with money for food, insurance and other routine living expenses helps but also hurts. At age 21, the money dries up.

“When I got 21 (and) aged out, i was like, ‘oh  my God, I don’t have any money.'”

Growing up was an eye-opening experience, Middleton said — one that could be made easier for a vulnerable population that already has had a rough go of it.

* * * 

Lirosia Wall, a social worker for the Richmond County Department of Social Services, said access to services is another element of the process that’s been hurt by a drop in funding. It’s not so easy anymore.

There is, Wall said, “a breakdown. “The mental health system is causing a drastic delay. As social workers, we’re having to work with foster parents one-on-one because we’re having to deal with those issues. We can’t get them into therapeutic settings. It hinders them from going further.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com At right, Robbie Hall, director of Richmond County's Department of Social Services, talks with U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson in the moments after Tuesday's hour-long discussion on the North Carolina foster care system.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
At right, Robbie Hall, director of Richmond County’s Department of Social Services, talks with U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson in the moments after Tuesday’s hour-long discussion on the North Carolina foster care system.

Bunny Critcher, program manager for children’s services with Richmond County D.S.S., said that foster children often are behind academically because of the life situations they face.

“These children do come with behavior problems,” Critcher said. “They have not had great lives. The services developed to help them address their issues … (are) very difficult to get. Several years ago, we had a therapist on site. A child started with therapy. It was very helpful to them. We didn’t have to go through the rigorous process … we could start them in therapy, even if it’s just for separation and loss.”

Now, however, social workers and case managers try to do it all.

“We step up and try to be family when we’re not,” Critcher said. “We’re the big bad wolf.”

That approach strains relationships and delays the ability to move forward.

Foster parents James and Pamela Smith, Deborah Richardson and others spoke of the need for a more balanced approach to payments to foster parents. Robbie Hall, director of Richmond County’s Department of Social Services and facilitator of Tuesday’s discussion, called foster parents “the backbone of this system.”

Hall noted that monthly stipends — which range from $475 to $634, depending on age, if the child has no special circumstances or medical conditions — don’t cover the cost of teens wanting play sports, music or drive a car. The consensus was that the one-time payment of $30 to clothe a new foster child laughable.

“We’re not in it for the money,” said Jimmy Smith, youth pastor at Outreach for Jesus in Hamlet. “If we were, we’d quit.”

The Smiths are one of 10 active foster families in the county. There are approximately triple that number, Hall said, in therapeutic foster homes “and there are several others by a couple of different providers.”

Smith was in favor for a new scale of how payments are determined. Some youth have no noted circumstances, but a 7-year-old was one of two brothers he and his wife fostered. He had issues that needed some professional assistance, Smith said.

He was, Smith said, “just a handful” and Smith, for one, figured the child should have been considered one with therapeutic needs.

Fellow foster parent Deborah Richardson, of Hamlet, has 17 years of foster experience. She sure isn’t in it for the money.

“If we didn’t love ’em, we’d be outta there,” Richardson said.

If Hudson arrived at the meeting hungry, he didn’t leave that way. He said his new efforts to address poverty go hand-in-hand with advocates of foster care system reform.

“I wish we had another hour,” Hudson said. “I’ve got a lot to chew on.”

Hudson said Republicans generally “don’t talk about poverty, and that’s a mistake.”

Hudson said a lot of money has been spent addressing poverty and that there are 92 welfare programs, each with its own bureaucracy. Hudson believes those bureaucracies, along with rules and regulations, hinder the effective and timely implementation of good programs by those on “the front lines.”

Despite the trials and tribulations, one foster mother with more than 40 years’ experience in the system wouldn’t change anything.

“It’s a wonderful experience,” she said. “It’s sad, and it’s happy, too.”

 

Filed in: Featured News, Health, Latest Headlines, News

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