As DCF Considers Changes, Former Foster Youth Speak Out

Daniel Pettus is the state-wide chair of Florida Youth Shine.

The Department of Children and Families’ recent troubles took center stage at the group’s Child Protection Summit this week in Orlando. The event drew record attendance with 2,500 guardians ad litem, DCF workers, and members of the justice system, along with a group of former foster kids who offered their take on issues facing the department.

In contrast to recent meetings about the rash of children who’ve died recently under the Department of Children and Families’ watch, the Child Protection summit’s kick off seemed more like a concert with music and cheering.

And while Interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo said she’s glad to see that kind of passion, she said it’s important to remember the challenges the group is facing.

"Before we talk about our promise, we need to speak several names. (LONG PAUSE) We speak their names because, through no fault of their own, they suffered and died. These are children who we collectively knew as a system of care. We start by speaking these names because they remind us of our challenge. They remind us of our commitment," Jacobo said.

And as DCF officials worked to change direction, several former foster kids talked about their own experiences and some changes they’d like to see. They’re part of the group Florida Youth Shine, which had a hand in getting a piece of legislation nicked-named “the normalcy bill” passed last legislative session.  The measure gives foster parents more say in what their kids can or can’t do, rather than having to get an okay from the courts. Daniel Pettus, a member of the group, said he thinks the new rule change will really help kids who are growing up in the foster care system now."

“It feels strange to ask someone if they want to hang out for the weekend or see a movie and you have to tell them ‘yeah, I’d love to do that, let me go ask the judge and see if I can get that passed by Friday. So, it really veers you away from having a lot of friendships and the normal experiences that you can have.” Pettus said.

This year, the group is pushing to make it easier for foster kids to get driver’s licenses.  Right now, it’s hard for foster kids to get licenses because they often don’t stay at one address for long and face both different insurance regulations and concerns about who’s liable if they get into an accident. But, as far as the department’s current problems? Pettus said based on his own experiences, more funding and more services for families would be a big help. He said his mom struggled with a drug addiction when he was a kid and often couldn’t find enough money to make ends meet.

“She loved us to death and she did the best she could to raise us and we all turned out great kids. We just had to go to foster homes because we were in poverty. So, we got taken from someone who loved us to live with strangers when some preventative services could have rearranged that and then we could have lived as a whole family and have had to experience any of that,” Pettus said.

Chelsea Bramblett said she had a similar experience when she was placed in foster care at the age of 15.

“My mother, she loved us to death. The one thing she, the one thing we didn’t lack in our household was love and support. My mother had everything besides the money and the services that she needed,” Bramblett said.

And Bramblett said besides providing more services, the DCF should focus more on educating parents about the services that are available to them now.

“When the court case was opened and they started coming in, she wasn’t really offered those programs and told ‘hey, these programs are available for you.’ If those programs would have been available she would have been on track to get her kids and take care of us, but we were placed into foster care and had to age out of foster care, but if she had had those services we wouldn’t have had to be separated from our family and face those problems,” Bramblett said.

Both Pettus and Bramblett said if a kid must be removed from their home, the state should put more emphasis on keeping siblings together. Bramblett,said it made a huge difference to be placed with her sister.

“I don’t think that I would have been able to make it through the foster care system if I hadn’t been placed with my sibling because as Daniel said we went through it together, we suffered together, we understood the problems that we faced and we were each other’s support system,” Bramblett said.

The group also said helping kids who come into foster care when they’re older -- and therefore aren’t as likely to be adopted -- prepare for the real world is an important focus. It’s something they say another piece of legislation passed last session will help with. It extends care eligibility to a foster kid’s 21st birthday.


A version of this column originally appeared in

A version of this column originally appeared in

Number of Kansas children in foster care continues to grow

Photo illustration/Getty Images
The number of Kansas children who are wards of the state is nearing a record high while fewer are exiting the foster care system.

TOPEKA — Over the last two years, near-record numbers of children have entered the state’s foster care system.

At the same time, fewer children have exited and the number of adoptions involving children in state custody has fallen to a six-year low.

“It’s a trend,” said Lois Rice, executive director with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Johnson and Wyandotte Counties. “In just our two counties, we had 610 CINC (child-in-need-of-care) petitions filed in 2008; in 2012 we had 975. That’s a 60 percent increase in four years, and this year’s numbers are looking like they’ll be higher than last year’s.”

Across the state, CASA offices recruit, train, and coordinate the activities of volunteers who befriend children in state custody, listen to their wants and needs, and advocate on their behalf.

Children are placed in foster care after a judge rules their safety or welfare is in jeopardy, usually due to parental abuse or neglect. They’re allowed to return to their families once a judge decides those problems have been resolved.

The average stay in foster care in Kansas is 16 months, though it’s not unusual that a child might spend several years in the system.

In Sedgwick County, the state’s most populous after Johnson County, the average number of children in out-of-home placements has increased from 950 in fiscal 2011 to 1,319 in fiscal 2013.

On June 30 across Kansas, there were 5,719 children in out-of-home foster care settings, a mix of foster homes, relatives’ homes, group homes, psychiatric facilities, and juvenile detention facilities.

That’s only the second time in the past 10 years that the number has exceeded 5,700 on the final day of the state’s fiscal year. The last time was in 2008, the onset of the Great Recession.

The actual number of children in out-of-home placements varies from month to month. The numbers posted on June 30 provide a “snapshot “of annual trends.

Concerning trend

Also on June 30, there were 975 children in foster care whose parents’ rights had been terminated and who were available for adoption. The most in at least the past four years and perhaps ever, if the memories of a former state welfare official are correct.

“I know that the definition of ‘awaiting adoption’ has changed over the years, but I don’t think we ever got where we had 975 kids in the system and available for adoption,” said Joyce Allegrucci, an assistant secretary for child and family services at the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services from 1998 through 2001. “If we ever got to 975 kids, we weren’t there for very long.”

Allegrucci said “something is wrong” when the state’s foster care system has “500 more kids than it did a year ago or 18 months ago…and it’s a trend we should all be concerned about.”

Officials at the Kansas Department for Children and Families said they were aware of the foster care situation.

“The current administration inherited a difficult economy and troubling trends when it comes to the numbers of children entering and exiting state custody,” Theresa Freed, a spokesperson for the agency, wrote in an email to KHI News Service.

“We are looking at how we can integrate more preventative services with our community partners, so that families never reach the point of crisis and require state intervention,” she wrote.

The agency, she said, is committed “…to keeping families together when it is safe to do so.”

Though the total number of Kansans ages 0-19 has increased during the same period that foster care cases have gone up, the increase in foster care has outpaced the rate of population growth.

DCF officials have attributed the increase largely to the weak economy and parental drug abuse. But the numbers have not improved as the economy has and the percentage of foster care cases attributed to drug or alcohol problems has remained steady over the past few years.

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Keeping Families Together

Home visits help parents become their baby's best early teachers Courtesy of Parents as Teachers

Home visits help parents become their baby's best early teachers Courtesy of Parents as Teachers

An elderly mother describes how in 1942, doctors who were treating her baby’s serious rash quarantined him in a hospital. Teddy had good medical care, but she was allowed to see him only occasionally. Originally a responsive infant who loved being cuddled, she says, her baby boy became aloof and distant as time went on.

When Teddy finally came home after several months he was lethargic and withdrawn, and had completely lost interest in people, including her. “All [the doctors] could see were the physical problems,” says the mother. “I don’t think there was much research on how babies feel about things.”

There is now.

Scared Sick, the new book for which the above videotaped interview serves as an online promotional trailer, traces connections between chronic fear in childhood and its consequences in adult life. The book draws on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. This groundbreaking research showed that the bodies and brains of children who live with constant fear and loss are neurochemically altered. Later in life, they are prone to learning disorders, social and behavioral problems, chronic depression and physical ailments such as cancer, heart disease, obesity and diabetes, despite making healthy lifestyle choices.

Growing knowledge about the long-term effects of childhood trauma and the importance of relationships is changing the foster care system. Today, more and more families who are reported for child abuse or neglect are staying intact, as long as officials determine that the children’s safety is not at high risk. Instead of removing the kids, child welfare professionals and community groups are providing families with critical support services such as job training or mental health treatment, and coaching them in parenting techniques.

Such family-centric goals and approaches aren’t wholly new to child welfare in Washington State. For example, a Kirkland teen who ran away from home after a fist-fight with his father was quickly reunited with his family once child welfare professionals gave the father, who had been struggling to keep a rebellious kid in line, some better parenting strategies. And though a decade ago a drug-addicted mother would have lost her child, today there are rehabilitation facilities that let that mother keep her child while she’s in treatment.

But soon these kinds of research-based child welfare strategies for preserving families in crisis will systematically govern policy and daily practice throughout the state. In January 2014, the state’s Department of Social & Health Services will launch a “differential response” program called FAR (Family Assessment Response) at the first of 12 of its Children’s Administration offices in regions across Washington. There are dozens of groups and organizations developing birth-family-centered approaches for families reported to the state's foster care system. But due to its wide geographical reach FAR, in particular, promises to make a major impact.

FAR is an alternative to the investigations carried out by the DSHS's Child Protective Services group (CPS), which often end in children being removed from their homes. CPS investigators will still pursue all cases of sexual abuse and severe physical abuse or neglect. But in cases determined to be low-risk, assessment workers from the Children’s Administration (CA) will focus on helping the family, rather than breaking it up.

FAR "isn't just social workers telling parents 'You can’t let your kid run around in dirty diapers for seven hours,'” says Jennifer Strus, CA’s acting secretary. Strus came to DSHS early this year after 14 years on the staff of the state legislature, most recently as senior staff coordinator and counsel for the committee on human services and corrections. If financial and related hardships were what drove shaky parents to mistreat their kids, she continues, “FAR might provide a utility payment to families whose electricity was shut off, or seek affordable housing for them if they couldn’t pay the rent.”

In the process, the family will be connected with community providers for future support. To Strus, 57, an attorney by training, building community networks is “most critical.” When the agency eventually withdraws from a stabilized case, it will leave behind “a support system for that family, in their neighborhood." If the family runs into trouble again, says Strus, "they don’t have to get re-referred to us."

The goal of FAR is to reduce the number of children who are referred to, re-referred to and kept in foster care. That will shrink the huge social and financial costs of the system. But research has shown that FAR-like programs have done more than save money in other states; they have improved children’s future prospects and made them safer in the present. For one thing, says Strus, people are more likely to call CPS “if they think they’re calling to get a neighbor or family member help instead of ratting them out.”

Infants and toddlers still need more specialized interventions. These little ones form the largest group entering or staying in foster care (36 percent of the approximately 10,000 foster kids in the state). They're also the least likely to rejoin their birth parents, and this separation inflicts permanent wounds.

From 2008 through 2011, the Center for Children & Youth Justice (CCYJ) led an innovative project in south King County called Supporting Early Connections (SEC). It was designed to help children up to age 3 who were enmeshed in child welfare cases to strengthen the emotional and physical bonds with their biological parents. Even parents who would never be allowed to regain custody were invited to participate in this voluntary program.

The purpose of SEC was to build a foundation of trust and a capacity for relationships in babies and toddlers. This would give them a chance at future success in school and society. Fathers and mothers involved in child welfare court cases in Kent, Wash., spent regular time, preferably in the home, with their youngest children in the company of child mental health specialists from Navos, a mental health services organization in King County.

Navos staffers trained in Child Parent Psychotherapy (CPP) taught parents nurturing behaviors like holding their children, looking into their eyes, smiling at them and talking to them. Parents accused of serious abuse or neglect had clearly never seen their own mothers or fathers act in such ways, which most people consider natural. “We parent unconsciously,” explains SEC project coordinator Kelly Warner-King. Good or bad, we do “what we learned to do in the past.”

So CPP isn’t just about parenting skills, she says, “it’s unearthing some of that [past]." The program required exceptional deftness from Navos staff. Participating mothers and fathers were often defensive, having been told by the child welfare system that they’re bad parents.

Children from the SEC project who have some additional emotional support as they grow up may, as adults, be able to break the damaging intergenerational cycle and raise healthier offspring. And if SEC participants who lose custody of a child have children in the future, "they have a better sense of what kids need,” says Warner-King.

Most important, the mental health of the children in the program improved. They arrived with serious sleeping and eating disorders, were inconsolably fretful or apathetic and withdrawn. After going through the program, the symptoms diminished, regardless of whether the kids went back to their families or to foster families.


A version of this column originally appeared in

America’s Foster Care System: Test Lab For Big Pharma, Cash Cow For Caretakers?

“Tristen,” a former foster child, tells of his experience being overprescribed psychiatric drugs as a child, during a Foster Care Alumni of American meeting. (Photo/screen grab via YouTube)

“Tristen,” a former foster child, tells of his experience being overprescribed psychiatric drugs as a child, during a Foster Care Alumni of American meeting. (Photo/screen grab via YouTube)

Hours after Texas Child Protective Services removed 5-year-old Tristen from the care of his mother and placed him in a foster home, Tristen’s foster parents took him to see a psychiatrist, citing concerns the young boy was depressed. That day, a psychiatrist prescribed Tristen three medications: one for anger, one for depression and one to help the 5-year-old relax.

Now an adult and out of the foster care system, Tristen says he recognizes he was depressed that day, but he says he never needed any medication — his feelings were only natural given the circumstances.

“They just took the thing that meant the most to me,” he said. “My family.”

Passed from foster home to foster home all over the state of Texas, Tristen says no one ever asked him how the pills made him feel, despite the fact that he would often spend time in his room crying because he felt his medicines were slowly tearing his chest apart.

Doctors also never tested Tristen to see whether the drugs were working or whether the combination of medications he was on was safe. And whenever he asked his case worker or foster parents if he could stop using the drugs, they threatened to call the police, take him to a psychiatric hospital or kick him out of the foster care system.

Unfortunately, stories like Tristen’s are all too common in the U.S.

Of the more than 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system, it’s estimated that more than 50 percent are on some sort of psychiatric drug.

Money is part of the reason. Foster parents are paid more to take care of a child with mental health issues.

On average, a foster family earns about $17 a day for taking in a child who needs a basic level of care. But a child who is taking drugs such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, anxiety medications or anticonvulsant medications is worth around $1,000 a day.

And foster parents are not responsible for paying for the medicines, either, as they are covered by Social Security.

Many child and human rights advocates are concerned about the dramatic number of children who are classified as “special needs” after entering the foster care system. One reason doctors, psychiatrists and therapists may not be speaking out against the unnecessary drugging of these children is because those who prescribe the drugs often benefit financially, receiving big payouts from pharmaceutical companies.

But for foster care alumni like Tristen, placing children on several different medications is a common practice that needs to change, especially since the “medication only makes foster parents richer” at the expense of a child.


Medicine or poison?

Dr. John Breeding is a psychologist who has long spoken out against prescribing children psychiatric drugs. He calls the increased reliance on pharmaceuticals to keep kids in line “institutionalized child abuse,” and says these medicines are as damaging as hitting a child on the head with a pipe.

He says children are being used as experimental guinea pigs and “as profit points for a corrupt, cynical, evil industry,” referring to big pharmaceutical companies.

“It’s a shame and disgrace,” Breeding said.

According to Breeding, in 2011, psychiatric drugs were prescribed to 12 percent of children age 5 and under, 55 percent of children ages 6-12, and 67 percent of children ages 13-17 in the Texas foster care system. Of those children, 73 percent were taking two or more drugs, while 42 percent were taking three or more drugs.

National statistics are not available on the number of foster kids on psychiatric drugs because each state is responsible for overseeing its own foster care program. However, many speculate the numbers would be similar to those in Texas, since despite the fact that only 3 percent of the U.S. population has a medical condition that would benefit or require the use of antipsychotics, that type of drug is the top seller in the U.S.

Despite protests from medical experts like Breeding and testimony from foster care alumni, some medical professionals say there is nothing wrong with prescribing psychotropic drugs to children.

At a 2004 Texas committee hearing on psychotropic drugs and foster care children, psychiatrist Joe Burkett said he prescribed the medications to kids partly because “they are very sick” and “come from a bad gene pool.”

Breeding, who was in attendance at the hearing, said many like Burkett view mental illness as a genetic brain disease and therefore justify prescribing the pills.

Since activists such as Breeding began calling for change, some states, such as Texas, have begun to see legal changes regarding medicating children. Breeding told Mint Press News that while foster kids are the hardest-hit group of kids when it comes to use of psychiatric drugs, the number of kids on multiple drugs has declined.

Still, many foster care alumni remain concerned about kids “being drugged to the gills,” especially since most of the kids get off the medications once they age out of the system.


Drugging epidemic

Aisha was in foster care for 15 years and spent a great deal of time in a home with her brother and 13 other children. Of the children in Aisha’s home, she says everyone was on medication when she arrived — except for her. But the first time she was taken to the doctor, she was prescribed 200 milligrams of Prozac to help her depression, as well as 200 milligrams of Seroquel so she could sleep at night.

“Foster parents should not be allowed to diagnose foster children,” Aisha said.

While Aisha was taking two medications, the other children in the foster home were taking at least five pills each. She said some kids took as many as 13 pills and were so accustomed to medication that they would swallow all of them at once.

“It’s absolutely tragic,” Breeding said, “We’re killing these kids. This is poison; this is not medical treatment. This is not an illness. These drugs are not medicine. They’re toxic poisons that disable and kill — physically many times, psychologically always.”

When 14-year-old Elnita was taken away from her family by Texas Child Protective Services and placed in a foster home, she was given a medication for depression that she says she did not need.

“I was a shy person,” Elnita explained, adding that she was struggling to get used to her new living environment, which was filled with several other young girls and caretakers she didn’t know. “I wasn’t ready for that.”

But like Tristen, she was forced to take the medication.

Elnita was prescribed 500 milligrams of an antidepressant and said every time she or one of the other girls in her foster care home cried or screamed out of frustration, they were put into an isolation room or given more drugs to calm down.

While in foster care, Elnita was on four different kinds of depression pills. Despite the fact that the medicines made her slow, caused her to struggle to focus at school and gave her terrible nightmares, her foster parents and her social worker denied her request to be taken off the high dosage.


Foster parents

While each state has its own version of Child Protective Services with its own rules and policies, the general requirements to become a foster parent are similar throughout the U.S. Foster parents are required to be at least 18 years old, be healthy physically and mentally, and live in an environment that protects and promotes the well-being of children. Single people and married couples are eligible to apply.

Elnita said the behavior of children in foster care is often “not normal because of what we’ve been through and what we’ve seen.” But all children in the foster care system are normal, she said — they just have “a little bit of extra problems.”

Elnita said that a problem with the current system is that foster parents “treat us like we’re only there for the money.”

“They don’t love us,” she said.

Judge Janson A. Kauser is a retired municipal court judge, attorney, Guardian ad Litem for abused and neglected children, and former police officer who investigated suspected child abuse and neglect cases. He agrees with Elnita that the current foster system isn’t working and told Mint Press News that he doesn’t see much value in the current program.

While Kauser recognizes many Child Protective Services agents are well-intentioned individuals, he says based on his experience, they are doing loads of work without the necessary qualifications. Most of the agents “couldn’t spell investigation much less handle” one, he said.

Elnita is out of the foster care system now and has been off her depression medications for a year. She says she feels better and has found she can fit in with other people. She realized that what she needed all along was a person to talk to.

Ciara Jackson, a foster care alumni from Colorado, agrees. She said that when she first entered the system at 13, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Until she was 17, Jackson fought with her foster parents and caseworker after realizing the drugs were making her slow mentally and physically. But she says the more she refused the drugs, “the more defiant social services labeled me and the angrier I became.”

When she emancipated herself at the age of 18, Jackson says she refused her medication and discovered that she was not bipolar, but had a mood disorder.

“If you had been in my surroundings and seen the things that I witnessed, your moods would change rapidly too,” she said.

Pleading with current and future foster parents, Tristen said foster parents need to recognize that the children in the system are already dealing with a life that has been halfway destroyed. He said the best thing a foster parent can do is not medicate a child, but ask him or her how she’s doing, how he’s feeling.

“Take the time to talk to them,” he said. “It’s going to shock you.”


A version of this column originally appeared in

A version of this column originally appeared in

Grandparents’ rights provide children with alternative to foster care

Easley’s John Schafer believed he was the right person to care for his grandchildren when they were in need, but state law wouldn’t alow it.

So he got the law changed.

Schafer lost his rights to care for his grandchildren after they entered Department of Social Services custody. His grandson is now adopted and his granddaughter is now in a mental institution. Schafer has limited visitation rights with her.

“I was standing in family court. The judge looked at me and said, ‘Mr. Schafer, you don’t have to like it, but it’s the law. When we terminate the rights of parents, we terminate the rights of the family right along with them.’ I thought to myself, ‘That is so wrong on so many levels.’ My first thought was ‘we need to do something,’” Schafer said.

GRASC_logo2Schafer is the founder and director of the Grandparents Rights Association of South Carolina (GRASC), an organization founded four years ago and is dedicated to the protecting the rights of grandparents and grandchildren.

“The primary function [of GRASC] is to promote family rights and grandchildren’s rights,” Schafer said.

Schafer explained that grandparents were not thought to have rights when it came to expedited placement because they were not mentioned in the statutes.

For their first order of business, GRASC tried to introduce a bill in the South Carolina legislature.

The bill encourages family courts, in the case of the termination of parental rights, to give custody to the grandparents or another relative.

“It will serve dual function. It will help decrease the load on the foster care system, and it will keep kids with family if at all possible,” Schafer said.

Schafer explained that it took awhile to get representatives and senators to help sponsor the bill. Finally Schafer was able to get Sen. Larry Martin of Pickens to co-sponsor the bill in the last legislative session.

Martin helped to pass the bill through the house and the senate. “The bill was to provide the grandparents with rights as an alternative to placing the children in foster care,” Martin said.

This legislation session, the bill H3464 unanimously passed the House and the senate, and Gov. Haley signed it into law on June 12.

Since starting GRASC four years ago, the membership has grown to include 200 people statewide and is growing.

“I’m trying to make things better for all grandparents and all grandchildren in South Carolina,” Schafer said.

Schafer explained that they are expanding nationwide. There has been interest in other states. “We hope to have chapters in all 50 states,” Schafer said.

There is an established chapter in Tennessee and a chapter forming in North Carolina and Texas.

“Knowing we’ve accomplished something even though it’s too late for our children, knowing it was accomplished for every family in South Carolina makes me feel great,” Schafer said.

There is a link via the website to sign up to become a member of GRASC. There are no membership fees. For more information about GRASC, visit

A version of this column originally appeared in