A trek to the front line of Washoe County’s foster child care system
The big men in uniforms came, breathing out white smoke, banging on the door of our home. It was dark. I shivered; my hands and bare feet were like pieces of ice. I remember my mom, my first mom. She cried and fought as the men took me away from her, away from my brothers.
The men gave me a black plastic bag. I didn’t know what to do with the bag. I couldn’t understand the words the men spoke. I almost lost Soft Dog. My brother put him in my shaking hands as the men carried me away.
They tell me now that I was living with 14 other people in a trailer with no food, no water, no heat. They say I had bruises on my back. I don’t remember that.
I just remember that I didn’t see my mother or brothers again.
“Foster care is society’s response to children who can not be taken care of in their own home,” says Nancy Petersen of the University of Nevada, Reno, School of Social Work. “If a child can’t be with a birth family, the next best thing is to be with another nurturing family where she can thrive.”
A couple dozen women and three men are gathered for the Junior League of Reno’s Child Watch Tour 2001. This year’s field trip will take us to the front lines of Washoe County’s foster care system.
“When something’s wrong, that’s when it tugs at the heart strings,” says Gail Pfrommer, president of the Junior League. “We’re taking people out to see real people and real problems.”
The group is also interested in real solutions.
“The children in foster care need more support in Washoe County,” says Lynne Ann Biscay, co-chair of the Child Watch Coalition. “We don’t expect all the problems to be solved, but we expect to make some changes because of today.”
We watch a video created by Michael Trout of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. The video begins, “Let me talk to you about what it feels like to be a little kid who has already had 100 moms. … You have already lost some sisters and some brothers and that particular pair of shoes that felt just right. … Kids like us don’t have families, because there’s something wrong about us.”
We are each given a story. The director of UNR’s nursing school becomes a sexually abused 15-year-old named Danielle. I am the neglected, beaten boy who’s taken from his cold, overcrowded trailer. The fictitious narrative I’ve included is sparked by my fake identity, colored by Trout’s video and shaped by the places we visit on our tour.
Like those children removed from their homes, we are given black plastic garbage bags to put our things in. Then we walk to the bus that will take us to Kids Kottage, the first stop for a child entering the foster care system.
The big men took me and Soft Dog to a place with lots of other kids and little babies. A woman took my clothes and put them in the bag. She put Soft Dog in the bag. I cried as the woman combed my hair and poked at my head. I didn’t understand the word she said, “lice.” She sounded not happy. She put my head in water and rubbed my head with soap. It stung my head and made my eyes hurt.
The big people put me in a bed with soft blankets. It was softer than the floor next to my mom. It was warmer. The babies cried, and a lot of moms rocked the babies in big chairs. I played with toys and made pictures by sticking buttons and puffy balls to paper. I colored and sang songs.
But I didn’t understand what people said at this big house. And it was hard to go to sleep without Soft Dog. I wanted my brothers and my mom. I wanted Soft Dog.
At Kids Kottage, we get off the bus with our black plastic bags. “These people will be taking care of you, so grab your stuff,” we are told.
Burt Wells, director of Kids Kottage, tells us that we are the biggest family he has ever checked into the facility. Though the emergency shelter is designed for kids to stay less than 10 days, the average stay is 30 days. Right now, Wells says, the center has three siblings who’ve been there for more than 210 days.
We visit rooms where children sleep. Yes, Wells says, if a child has a special blanket or stuffed animal, they try to let the child keep it. But stuffed animals can “collect diseases and give diseases to others,” he says. “Lice is a big one.”
Also, things get lost at Kids Kottage. But if a child is emotionally attached, Wells says, the staff will let them keep their special thing. “And we’ll work as hard as we can not to lose it.”
The community makes plenty of donations to Kids Kottage, Wells tells us. At Christmas, every child opens about six presents. They even try to match donations with each child’s wish list.
But they could still use donations of things you wouldn’t think of all year long. Things like socks and underwear. Things like belts.
Preschoolers create art projects at a low green table while listening to Alvin and the Chipmunks. This age group adjusts pretty well to Kids Kottage, Wells says. At least for the first few days.
“It’s a new adventure with toys and activities,” he says. “But after a while they stop and realize, ‘Wait a minute, Mom didn’t come and get me. Where’s Mom?’ You can see how they change then.”
One day, a woman gave Soft Dog back to me. He didn’t smell like Soft Dog anymore. The woman put Soft Dog and all my clothes in a suitcase. She took me to another house with only a few babies.
I sat in a chair. A woman smiled at me. She talked to me, but I didn’t understand what she said. She took my things out of the suitcase. She looked at Soft Dog with a not happy face. I was afraid she would take Soft Dog away again, so I grabbed him out of her hand and ran into another room with lots of toys.
The house woman came and took me out of the room. She said, “No, no.” The house woman took me and Soft Dog to a bed, and I stayed there. I missed my mom. I missed my brothers.
One boy talked to me in a mean voice every day. One day, he tried to pull Soft Dog away from me. But I held on. He put his knee hard into my stomach. I hit his face.
The house woman made me sit in a chair by myself until the suitcase woman came back. She took me back to the big house with crying babies.
For 30 years, the care of local foster children has been divvied up between the Washoe County Department of Social Services and the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services. The county investigates cases of child abuse and neglect, runs the emergency shelter and deals with short-term foster care and short-term family reunification. The state is in charge of long-term foster care, adoptions, child mental health and lengthier family reunifications.
Workers complain that this bifurcation of services is not as effective or efficient as a closer integration of these services. It’s too easy for a child or family to slide through the gaps created between the two systems. And the involvement of two agencies adds red tape to the process of finding a permanent placement for a child.
“It’s made for a lot of coordination problems,” Petersen says as our tour bus weaves through a northwest Reno neighborhood. “Kids get lost.”
In 1999, the Nevada Legislature passed a law allowing a pilot program to integrate services. Foster care advocates say the pilot program has improved cooperation with parents and made for fewer bounces for a child from foster home to foster home.
A bill, AB 343, being considered in this legislative session would permanently integrate the two systems. The Child Watch people support the bill and encourage the tour-goers to support the bill.
“Kids coming from a really chaotic home system don’t need to be exposed to a chaotic foster care system,” Petersen says.
They tell me that my first family beat me and starved me. I don’t remember. I remember big men in uniforms late at night grabbing me out of my mother’s hands.
I lived with many families. I learned to speak English. I tried to find someone to love me. I tried to call one woman “Mom.” But she said, “I’m not your mom.”
In one house, an older foster kid pulled on my privates in the middle of the night. He pulled hard and it hurt. I didn’t know who to tell.
Finally, at one home, I lost Soft Dog. My heart became hard.
“You brought your suitcase, that’s good,” says Patty, a Reno mother of three and foster mom to seven—a household coordinator for a family that totals 12. She takes her visitors through her home as if we were all coming to stay with her. She asks us our name, what we’d like to be called and even asks us if there are things we don’t like to eat.
A toddler with a ponytail interrupts, handing her a Dixie cup: “More.”
“She wants the Chex Mix,” Patty tells a social worker.
“I’ll get it for her,” the social worker says.
Patty takes a hypothetical inventory of the contents of our collective suitcase. Then she shows us where to put our shoes and dirty laundry—and where to go to the bathroom.
“There’s candy in that jar above the sink,” she says. “That’s only for 2-year-olds who are potty training. Don’t dip into it.”
Patty shows us the rooms we can play in and the rooms we can’t play in. There’s no regular TV, she says, only Channel 5 and movies. The back yard is like a playground. There is a fort, but we can’t play in the fort. It belongs to her son, Steven.
Another child interrupts. “Can I have some juice?”
“Just a minute,” Patty says.
We will do our chores every day and get paid $1.50. There is a picture in the kitchen to show what Patty wants her kitchen to look like, with “sparkling cupboards” and a clean table.
Patty’s house is listed as an emergency shelter. And since all the foster homes and emergency shelters are usually full—there’s a critical shortage of foster families in the area—Patty’s house is full. She has beds everywhere. Three toddlers play on the porch. A baby in a swing sleeps through the chaos of the entire tour. A sick youth watches TV downstairs on a couch, and two other boys lug a bag of laundry up the steps. I lose track of kids and beds.
Patty describes family mealtime and field trips to McDonalds on Thursdays, when 99 cents buys a Happy Meal, while she deftly handles a hair-pulling incident between her own 2-year-old and one of the toddlers. When asked what she needs, she nearly chokes up and pulls a bin of socks out of her laundry room.
“It’ll take me two or three hours to match and fold these,” she says, and turns to talk to a child. “Danielle, leave the baby alone.”
From house to shelter to house, I moved. I found sisters and brothers, then moved again. New brothers. New moms. None of you knew how much I was changed by these losses. Some days I thought my head would explode.
I was watching while decisions were made, decisions that mattered a lot to me. I needed someone to act as if these decisions mattered a lot. I needed adults to make a decision and stick to it. My foster families needed help. They had their hands full with me. And sometimes none of us knew what to do.