Lost and found
At any given time, there are 700 kids—many of them drug exposed and abused—in foster care in Butte County. What’s being done to get them out of ‘the system’ and into permanent homes?
Talk about your war stories.
As an adoptive and foster parent, Barbara Young has seen her share in 14 years. Thirty-seven foster kids, some of them days-old infants, have passed through her home. All were drug and/or alcohol exposed. Some of the older kids were violent and aggressive. As babies, all had to detoxify from the drugs, usually meth or heroin, they grew dependent on while in their mothers’ wombs.
There were so many detoxing babies, Young remembers, that she and her husband built a special alcove in their bedroom that could be completely darkened. The babies’ fragile systems could be overwhelmed by only a shaft of light or a gentle touch, and total darkness soothed them.
She remembers bathing babies that were detoxing from prenatal heroin exposure and the black, tar-like substance that seeped constantly from their skin. It was horrible, she remembers, but she cared for these babies and children, every one of them, with a mother’s gentle hand, as if they were her own kids. And some of these kids did become hers. Over her 14 years as a foster mom, she adopted four children.
With them added to her own birth- and stepchildren, she has nine kids. Young’s now 41 years old, and her offspring range from 5 to 26 years old. Her comfortable Chico home is built for kids—literally. When she and her husband Steve started foster care and then adoption in the mid-'90s, they quickly outgrew their smallish house. Having just finished special training to foster-care medically fragile (read: drug exposed) children, they didn’t want to quit. So they built up and out, adding several bedrooms and a bathroom to their home and converting their garage into a playroom.
Taking care of some of Butte County’s lost children has been a hard row to hoe, Young admits, but she also says it’s the best thing she’s ever done. But, in a county where an average of 700 kids are in foster care at any given time (a number that appears to be growing), just about everyone admits that there just aren’t enough people like her to go around.
So what happens to a child in Butte County when his or her parents are as good as gone? When a baby is born after being exposed to drugs or alcohol and is as medically vulnerable as can be? When, instead of leaving the hospital proudly with her newborn swaddled and cuddled, that newborn’s mom is arrested and trucked off to jail, her baby still in the hospital?
What happens to that baby then?
These little people don’t have an easy life, right off the bat. Substance-exposed babies are frighteningly fragile. They need around-the-clock care and specialized feeding, bathing and socialization. Often, they require advanced medical care (a lot of it at home) just to survive the night, literally. These are kids who die far more often of sudden-infant-death syndrome, or SIDS, than healthy babies do, and who injure themselves or others while their peers are busy with the play of innocents.
It’s not just their medical care that’s daunting. Even more so is the specialized care that some—indeed, many—substance-exposed kids need for the rest of their lives. As social workers note, they’re notoriously strong-willed, often have serious attachment problems (a consequence of having no single care provider in infancy), and tend to be violently aggressive. A few even lean toward the sociopathic as they grow into adults without counseling. Many need anti-depressants and anti-psychotics before they hit elementary school.
Vicki Tullius, who runs Enloe Medical Center’s Touchstone Perinatal Program, sees many of these kids’ birth mothers every day. The program has 52-60 mothers at any given time, all of whom are either pregnant and using drugs or have recently given birth. They’re there, Tullius says, mainly because they’ve been forced to be there by the court system. In most cases, Children’s Services has removed their kids from their care and placed them in foster care while the mothers undergo treatment as a requirement to get their children back.
The goal of the program, she says, is to reunite these mothers with their kids. While it works some of the time, she admits that there are no guarantees. Last session, Tullius reports, 24 of the 38 women in the program won their kids back from temporary foster care.
Against all odds, she is optimistic about these women’s eventual recovery. She calls her clients “my greatest teachers” and says she admires their courage at least to try to overcome drug addiction. Most of her clients are the children of drug addicts themselves and had little to no parenting training. It’s Touchstone’s goal, she says, to break that cycle of family dependency. But in order to do that, health care providers need to identify drug-exposed babies and children—ideally, even before they’re born—for her program to work best.
“The earlier we can identify who our clients are, the earlier we can help them with their problems and avoid the removal of their kids in the first place,” Tullius says. “That’s what we want to do most.”
However, she reports that the need for her program’s services is growing at an alarming rate. In fact, there were 10 client referrals in October, a large increase from September.
It’s Halloween morning when social worker Kathy Foster and her supervisor, Bill Jemison, sit down to discuss the increasingly impacted foster care and adoption systems.
Children’s Services has four options when permanently removing children from their parents: adoption, legal guardianship, long-term foster care or group homes. In terms of desirability for kids, Foster says, they go in exactly that order.
“We want to have kids that can be placed in a permanent adoptive home as soon as humanly possible, if they can’t be with Mom or Dad,” she says. “That’s the goal, always.”
To that end, the state’s Adoption Services, for which she works, has gotten tough on the drug-addicted parents of kids in foster care. It used to be, Foster acknowledges, that kids were allowed to languish in an endless series of temporary foster homes while their parents jumped through legal hoops (with varying degrees of success) to get them back, before anyone gave a thought to the kids’ long-term, permanent care. She cites a UC Berkeley study that found that, on average, foster kids were moved into new homes every 18 months.
“It was horrendous,” she says. “I don’t think there’s anyone who would say that it wasn’t.”
And she should know. Not only was she herself in foster care and then adopted as a child (she says her adoptive parents “saved her life"), she worked for 11 years as a caseworker for Children’s Services. There, she was on the front lines of the almost always brutal battle between “the system,” the parents and the kids.
She compares some parts of the job to a movie.
“It was incredibly tough sometimes,” Foster says. “I’d go out to the houses to get the kids, and you had the lights from the police cars flashing and the children crying and the parents and neighbors screaming at you.”
Still, she says, the job was fulfilling. Foster says she felt she was rescuing abused and neglected kids from horrible situations—and she was.
Now, as an adoption caseworker, she works on the other side of the fence, so to speak. That’s because Children’s Service’s goal generally is to reunite the kids with their birth parents after the parents have proven they can handle their kids. Adoption Services doesn’t take the case until that has been deemed unsuccessful or the parent gives the child up.
These days, Foster says, “the system” doesn’t give the parents of kids in foster care as much time as it used to before taking the kids away and trying to find them permanent homes. Passed into state adoption law in 1997, the process is called “concurrent planning,” and it’s aimed at reducing the amount of time that foster kids are left with uncertain futures.
Both Foster and Jemison say it’s made their jobs a lot easier. The law gives the parents of foster kids under the age of 3 up to six months to “clean up their acts,” Foster explains, before the system starts proceedings to remove their parental rights. Parents of kids older than 3 have up to 18 months to follow court orders tailored to their specific needs, be they drug treatment, moving from an abusive home or finding a home, before facing the loss of their kids.
While Children’s Services monitors the kids in foster care, it also works with Adoption Services—and here’s where the concurrency comes from—while it’s walking the kids’ parents through the steps they need to take to get their kids back. The system acknowledges that only about half of the birth parents whose kids are taken away will get them back permanently. If, by the end of the allotted time, the birth parents haven’t done what they needed to do, Adoption Services immediately takes over.
“These are not throwaway kids,” Foster says. “Every time they’re moved from foster care home to foster care home, it’s like a divorce for them. The younger the child is, the more they need a permanent home. … That’s what we want for them, too.”
These days, the state’s Adoption Services Department finds permanent adoptive homes for about 160 kids in nine Northern California counties each year, the vast majority of them in Butte County. That’s more than 80 percent of the kids removed permanently from their parents, says Adoption Services Supervisor Rich Smith.
The other 20 percent, he explains, tend to be older kids (those over 10 years old can refuse to be adopted and instead opt for a group home placement if Children’s Services refuses to allow them to go back to their birth parents), or those who are deemed too severely damaged to succeed in a normal adoptive home.
So what happens to them? In Butte County, Foster says, they usually are placed in a long-term foster home that’s designed for severely abused kids. In severe cases, they’re placed in hospitals.
Luckily, Foster adds, these “too severely damaged” cases are rare. Most kids, she says with a smile, are permanently placed within a year of coming into foster care.
If only they could all find homes like Laura Rivers'. Her bustling, cheerful house must be a thousand times removed from the homes her kids originally came from. Located at the end of a dirt road in the foothills above Oroville, the home is more ranch than house.
Driving up the driveway, a group of curious peafowl scatters and then walks, heads bobbing, back toward the car to investigate, the peacocks’ feathers spreading in the crisp autumn air. About a dozen cows graze peacefully in the shade near the house. They look up and moo at the visitor parking near them.
On the front porch are a bunch of fuzzy kittens running around and playing, a kennel with three barking puppies and a pen full of goats.
It’s places like this one, Jemison says, that are havens for adopted kids. Rivers has adopted 10 children, eight of them since she was widowed in 1982. Her kids, who were all physically abused and drug exposed, range in age from 2 to 32 years old, and she also has six grandchildren.
To say that she’s some sort of super-mom would be a serious understatement.
Rivers herself meets me at the gate on the morning of our visit, holding her 2-year-old daughter, Chava. A swarm of kittens wraps itself around our ankles as we walk across the porch, and Chava laughs. As Rivers leads me inside the house, it’s easy to see that this is a house for children—and it should be. Eight of her kids live at home. Ticking off a list of them, she counts two 12-year-olds, two 7-year-olds, a 5-year-old, a 4-year-old, a 3-year-old and a 2-year-old. Four of the kids are a sibling group from Pennsylvania.
To say the least, she’s extraordinarily busy, but she seems to exude some sort of quiet peace. Her gray hair is neatly bobbed, and her light smile lines betray years of laughter. She’s soft-spoken and looks considerably younger than she is.
Still, she is 56 years old and knows she has her hands full. She retired from foster care last year and says that she needs to devote all her time to the kids she has in the house. All of her kids were physically abused and substance-exposed, and one of her sons has cerebral palsy exacerbated by years of abuse.
“Eight is enough,” she says with a laugh. “But it’s worth all the work that it is. I love them all as if I gave birth to them myself. … They’re all blessings for me. I receive far more from them than they get from me.”
While she would probably be the first to agree with that sentiment, Robin Owens is also quick to admit that tending to the special needs of adopted kids isn’t easy. Especially when they’ve been abused and/or exposed to drugs.
“There’s no faking it with these kids,” she says. “If you want to pretend that you all came from the same background, that you’re one big happy family and everything is perfect … that’s not how it’s going to work. But it’s great, anyway.”
Owens and her husband, Bob, always knew they wanted a large family. When they married seven years ago, they pondered having four children—a number they achieved just two months ago, when they agreed to adopt a little girl named Emily. They adopted a boy named Luke three years ago also have two birth children.
Because Emily’s adoption isn’t finalized yet (and the extended birth families of both children still live in town), Owens asked that her family’s real names not be used.
Both Emily and Luke were abused by their birth mothers and later their “aunt,” with whom they were placed for foster care in Chico when they were abandoned at a homeless shelter in Sacramento, Owens said. The kids were 3 years old and 8 months old at the time.
Owens first met Luke when he was a student at the Chico elementary school at which she was teaching. It was clear that he was underfed and neglected, Owens said. His teeth were rotten, and Owens was horrified when his aunt came to pick him up, obviously resenting the task, with Emily in her arms.
At 8 months old, little Emily weighed just 11 pounds.
Luke glommed onto Owens immediately, she says, and talked constantly of wanting to come home with her.
“He’d say stuff like, ‘I have red hair and brown eyes just like you, so you need to be my mommy,'” she remembers. “It was really heartbreaking stuff.”
She and her husband attempted to talk the kids’ aunt into allowing the Owenses to take the children into foster care or find better homes for them, but the welfare check she was getting for their care prevented her from doing so, Owens said.
Finally, almost two years after Owens fell in love with little Luke, his aunt called one day and agreed to give him up—but only for the weekend. ("She told us she needed a break for the weekend,” Owens remembers.)
But that weekend became permanent when she didn’t pick him up on Sunday.
Joyfully, the Owenses began adoption proceedings immediately. Still, though, the aunt refused to give Emily up, despite obvious evidence that she was abused and neglected. Like a lot of foster and adoptive parents, Owens is critical of Children’s Service’s practice of trying to place kids removed from their parents with their relatives before foster homes, noting that the relatives’ homes often have the same problems that their birth parents’ homes do—and that social workers don’t have to monitor the kids as closely in a relative’s home as in a foster home.
And indeed, that’s that happened in Emily’s case. She was removed from her foster home only when police busted the place for drugs this summer, a full two years after the Owenses adopted Luke.
She was then placed in a second foster home. When Owens heard that Emily had finally been removed from the home, she tracked down the foster family she was living with, contacted her adoption caseworker, and started the adoption process all over again.
Adopting kids has changed just about every aspect of the family’s life, Owens says. She’s now deeply involved in adoption support groups and teaches classes at Butte College for people interested in adopting or foster care.
“It tends to kind of take over your life,” she explains. “There’s just so much to it.”
And it shows. There’s a bumper sticker on her car that reads, “Superman was adopted!” Many of Owens’ friends are adoptive parents. She’s a strong proponent of the joy and value of adoption and points out that, while most people think that adoption always costs thousands of dollars, adopting kids from foster care is free. In fact, she notes, the state provides a stipend for the special needs of adopted kids until they reach the age of 18—and adoptive parents receive a $10,000 tax credit.
Life is good, she says, but it’s not easy.
Because both Luke and Emily endured severe abuse, they suffer from post-traumatic-stress disorder. Luke has severe attachment disorder and tends to react violently and unpredictably to unexpected things.
The children require hundreds of dollars a month for counseling, which is paid for by the stipend they receive monthly from the state Adoption Assistance Program.
Owens admits, too, that incorporating Luke and Emily into their biological kids’ lives was tough at times, although the children get along well now. Luke and Emily will probably always need counseling, but they’ve gotten progressively better since they’ve been with the Owenses. The parents are open about the kids’ past to them, which is something social workers say is important, so that the children don’t feel as if the life they led before adoption, no matter how awful, is being erased.
Owens has made Life Books for them, photo-album-sized scrapbooks of their histories. They’re unvarnished glimpses of the kids’ birth mothers and the lives they led before they came to live with the Owenses.
Both children have drawn pictures in crayons of what they think their birth moms might look like and written a little about what they think she might be like now.
Owens has added copies of their birth certificates, small mementoes of their previous lives. There are few photographs, though, as Owens doesn’t know of any pictures their birth moms had taken of them. In the books, their birth moms are referred to simply by her first names.
“When [your birth mother] was pregnant with you, she took drugs," Owens wrote in Luke’s book. "She was probably sad that she couldn’t take care of her kids. … [Being removed from her care] was not your fault. You were just a little baby, and little babies can do nothing wrong. How could they? They’re just googly little babies!"