Up at night: Foster care

Author: Heather Reynolds, LEO Managing Director

It didn’t take one of our LEO researchers to tell me that “children in foster care have the worst outcomes of any other population group in the country” for me to believe it. There are many stories from my provider days that continue to haunt me and drive me to pursue answers on how to better help our children. Three of those that exist in my heart always:

My first client, Deanna: When I first started in social services, my role was as a therapist. One of my first clients was a 7-year-old girl living at our children’s shelter. I knew little about Deanna beyond that she was removed from her home because of abuse and neglect but had no other details. I started counseling Deanna through play therapy. Every session, we started by laying out index cards with different faces on them—a happy face, a scared face, a sad face, a silly face. I would ask Deanna to pick the face that described how she was feeling. Most days, she would select the silly face and then make the face herself, sticking her tongue out at me and wiggling her fingers with her thumbs on the side of her head.

After about a month of this, Deanna selected a different face: the sad face. When I asked why, she wouldn’t speak. Silently tearing up, Deanna took her index finger and drew it across her small throat. I later learned that her mother, who had substance abuse and significant mental health issues, would have “episodes” and chase Deanna around the house with a knife, trying to cut her neck.

Deanna lived at our shelter for four months, started to heal, and went off to foster care. She would be 27 now. I often wonder what her life looks like, after such a tragic start.

Children in care, Beth and Andrew: About eight years ago, we welcomed two young children to the same shelter that Deanna was at. They had been removed from their family because of their father’s uncontrollable drinking and anger.

I will never forget the first time I met them. Beth, age 4, was lying face down beating her head against the floor, screeching at the top of her lungs. Andrew, age 2, with fists clenched, was angrily pursuing the staff member assigned to help him. When I walked in, Andrew turned his attention toward my legs and Beth began hitting Andrew in the head. I had never seen anything like this. My stomach flip-flopped. Both children had been diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. If you have never seen this, I pray that you never have to. They were inconsolable. They couldn’t speak, wouldn’t eat, and were violent with one another.

In the weeks that followed, our team remained committed to providing the best care possible. They showed love and patience, even when they were kicked and hit. It was incredibly hard, but these brave workers would not give up on these children. The children began to eat, they started to babble, and they began answering to their names. Andrew loved to play with people’s hair and see it move, and many of the girls at our shelter began to sit beside him and let him play with their hair while he laughed. Beth became so excited about meal time that she would run to the table and sit with her hands folded, in hopes that everyone would hurry to the table to pray, which meant that she could eat. Beth would now be 12 and Andrew 10. Are they still in foster care? Have they healed? What solution was provided to them when they left our temporary shelter to get the help they needed? Did it work?

November 12 -- Wanted, Not Wanted: This date will be forever imprinted on my heart. It was the day before my little sister got married, and I spent a wonderful day with those I love most. But as my family and I gathered together to celebrate a new beginning, a 10-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy arrived at our shelter, and for them, that day took a very different turn.

Born to heavy drug users, the children spent the better part of their lives abused and neglected. Eventually, they were removed from their home and placed in foster care, where they were adopted by their foster mother—a seemingly happy ending.

Until November 12. That’s the day their adoptive mother of four years woke them up early and loaded them in the car. The children were excited to have a day off from school. They asked what they were doing and were told it was a surprise. When she stopped the car, she handed them an envelope and told them to go inside the building and hand it to the first person they saw.

They followed her instructions perfectly, handing the envelope to a woman inside. The note simply read “I have decided I no longer want to be a mother. Figure out what to do with these kids.” The building that these children went to was Child Protective Services (CPS).

CPS arranged to take them to our shelter. There, a staff member asked their names. The little girl looked at her brother and asked, “What name do we give her?” Confused, the staff member asked what she meant.

It was then that this 10-year-old shared how her adoptive mother had changed her name from Abbi to Rachel. Her brother added, “I guess since our mother no longer wants us, we need to go back to our old names. Call her Abbi.”

My mind still struggles to comprehend what kind of trauma you would carry with you in life when you have not one, but two families fail you. What solution now works for these two children?

At LEO, we are focused on building evidence for what works.

To do so, we need partners. We need service providers who share our vision and data partners who are willing to share (confidentially) the data so we can understand the impact of those services.

I know firsthand that providers in the child welfare space across our country are trying to help against a backdrop of a messed up system. Policy has tried to adjust and pivot to do what is best to help children who have been victims of abuse and neglect. But so little evidence exists which actually tells us what to do to help. I do not believe it is a coincidence that the vulnerable population with the least amount of evidence guiding the policies and interventions in place to help them has the worst outcomes.

Recently, one of our amazing LEO research faculty members, Sarah Kroeger, completed a white paper examining the foster care landscape. How many programs exists with rigorous evidence of what works in the child welfare and foster care space? Not many.  Her analysis shows that “we could only identify five randomized controlled trials of child welfare services that had sample sizes over 200, and out of these only two studied objective measures of child wellbeing.”  How can this be? How can we be a country that is committed to the common good, to our children, to our future and have so little evidence that tells us what solutions we need to invest in to help our children?

At LEO, we have gone all in addressing this issue. Again and again, we are finding that states do not have the political will or time to dive into this. Our nonprofit partners are fighting to get access to data, and we are too. Children in crisis need evidence-based interventions. And to identify these, LEO researchers need access to this necessary data.

We will not be deterred. We will continue to talk to person after person, state after state, connection after connection, until we can build the needed evidence and ensure that evidence is used to benefit the children of our country who are caught up in the foster care system. If you are in a position to help, I implore you to connect with us. Together, we can offer children like Deanna, Beth, Andrew, and Abbi the services they need to overcome the trauma of their childhood.