We’ve all seen the heart-rendering pleas. Hosts who look like us – talk like us – move like us – stand on the other side of a TV screen and ask for donations for those of other races, ages, sizes, and countries. They tell us “Just 25¢-a-day – less than a cup of coffee” – will cure world hunger and eradicate illiteracy.
Wide-eyed, swollen-bellied children stare back at the camera. Their shabby clothing and determination to succeed add to the ambiance of the campaign.
What the cameras don’t show are the other children. Those separated from their mothers – those who will never get enough to eat, those who are tossed from one place to the next without a bed to call their own, those who are ineligible to receive textbooks, or any of the other benefits of this simple 25¢-a-day – because their greatest misfortune isn’t being born near a landfill in Columbia or Chili. Their greatest misfortune is having been born here, in the United States.
No longer housed in the more conspicuous orphanage, but rather placed in the politically palatable “Shelter,” our homeless minors are removed from their mothers (there are no shelters which allow children to remain with their parents) by The Department of Youth and Families and are then made a Ward of the Court for no crime apart from indigence (poverty).
Most often, this shelter is a run-down apartment in a questionable neighborhood. Children are placed together in clusters of four to twelve. “Emergency drop-ins” are a nightly occurrence. They sleep on institutionalized couches or the floor. These programs are low-paying, and so workers are young with little or no experience or often have criminal or drug-related backgrounds. Sexual abuse and thievery of personal items are common. Notoriously understocked for food and household supplies, violence and sexual abuse is commonplace within the setting, both between the children and between the children and staff members.
When all of the spaces are full – a near daily occurrence – the children are housed in Juvenile Hall (the local jail). Some might be lucky enough to avoid this fate by receiving “night-to-night” services – put to bed by eleven on a stranger’s couch, and removed by six A.M.. If they’re lucky, they may receive a bowl of generic cereal.
Spending their day studying the walls of the Social Services Department, the children are left to wonder where they will sleep the following evening.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner consists of items retained from Burger King coupons. It’s hard not to worry about the fate of mom, siblings, and a favored pet. (Destroyed upon seizure by Animal Control). Anger is a tough emotion to manage. People keep telling these kids how lucky they are.
They don’t feel so lucky.
Excluding them from the normal social gatherings of their peers ensures they remain faceless. Shunned by local public school systems as an added expense, the children fall behind in their skills. They don’t share in ballet lessons, play at the local YMCA, or even belong to neighborhood sports teams.
Dependent upon social workers with little or no accountability for their decision making, few children find their way to Foster Care – even when families are waiting to take them. It is simply a matter of convenience for a worker to pick up several children from one location – and privatization has ensured the necessity of maintaining a caseload in order to retain one’s job.
The children’s medical needs are neglected as a whole. Few dental providers accept public insurance, leaving the children vulnerable to peri-dental and heart disease. Many of these children suffer from the ravages of malnutrition most often seen in third-world countries, including Rickets and intestinal parasites. Most suffer from asthma. General health care is available frequently only through public clinics.
Not dignified by a count in the census, (as are homeless adults), and defined as “temporary” by our Child Welfare System, the circumstance creates a circle in which these children receive an ongoing minimum of care – which may last months, years, or the entire length of their childhood, until the point of emancipation.
Offered limited resources – a tutor for three hours a week if they’re lucky, placement in an “alternative program” instead of a seat in a regular classroom, little extra help to “catch up” – the children frequently receive a minimum of a few textbooks and a telephone call from a school administrator once a week to ensure their continued placement.
Holidays serve as grim reminders they are in a world ignoring their very existence.
In this way the children remain hidden from the mainstream of society; they are rendered silent. Forgotten. Lost in the bundle of bureaucracy.
The Hard Core Reality
Placement in a “Long Term Shelter” means moving every ninety days, according to information furnished by Rhode Island Kids Count, an organization attempting to track this otherwise unrecognized population.
New food. New rules.
Every ninety days.
For a minimum of two years.
Three-thousand-four-hundred-seventy-four children between the ages of ten and seventeen, entered into the custody of the State of Rhode Island last year alone, and up to 24-% will stay for five or more years, according to The Children’s Defense Fund.
They will then, hopefully, receive long term placement. A few of the lucky ones will find their way home.
Most will never achieve either goal.
They will, instead, top out and receive emancipation – possibly at the age of fifteen – or enter into an “Independent Living Program” at the age of fourteen. Independent Living is defined by the State placing the child alone in a low-rent apartment with no supervision and picking up the tab – until their twenty-first birthday.
They will then receive a prompt eviction notice. Without preparation. Without planning for their future. Without transition to a new residence.
Severing all ties, the State then honors no further responsibility. Those who previously were so involved in the young person’s life offer no solutions.
Most wind up homeless – they’ve been coached into dependency upon the system and they lack the financial resources and support structures to make other choices. Now suffering the loss of identity of affiliation with a specific agency; many grieve the loss of yet another “family.”
This serves as a catalyst for depression. Those who managed to make it into a college program find their funding suddenly ended.
Girls may find it easier – and safer – to become pregnant. The state then again provides housing, food, and other basic necessities. The child finds themselves with, once again, a sense of belonging. Others become drug-addicted, or turn to crime.
So, Who’s Responsible?
It’s not Bush, Clinton, or whomever the current Governor is.
It’s You. Me.
We are. We have established a system to care for these children lacking in accountability.
What Do We Do?
Clearly a need for long-term, appropriate housing and solid-core future planning exists. Foster Care alone cannot fulfill this need. Alternatives to this system must be considered.
Actively involved and child-centered case managers must be appointed as advocates and well-defined goals with clear-cut initiatives must be established from the very beginning.
Accountability for individual case workers and their supervisors to an external source must be required to ensure these goals are pursued. Caseload-based agencies must be eliminated if children’s best interests are to be prioritized. Instead, Hours vs. Productivity vs. Success data could be used to determine retention, as many private Human Services Corporations employ.
The Department of Children, Youth, and Families must become more vested in seeing children find permanency with stable families than in the ease of, and lack of accountability for, temporary placements.
There must be a more even distribution of power between the various placement agencies to ensure this permanency without political influence and personal interests swaying the decision making.
Ultimately, those involved in these life changing decisions must be held accountable by others who have no vested interest, other than the service of justice, in the outcome of a grievance.
The estimated 501,000 children currently warded to public care in the USA today (The Congressional Research Service of The Library of Congress) must be given a face, a voice, a place in society where they can be heard. They must be remembered.