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September 2013 Sounding Board: “To the End of June”

06 Mar

 “To the End of June”

by Dee Wilson 

To The End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care by Chris Beam, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2013.

Chris Beam has written a sobering and compelling account of the experience of foster care from the perspective of older youth with lengthy foster care histories, foster parents, birth parents and caseworkers. Beam follows a few foster families and foster youth for several years, choosing to offer an in-depth intimate description of the experiences and challenges of a small number of families, children and youth rather than reviewing foster care research, or offering policy prescriptions. Along the way, Beam provides information (mostly accurate) on topics such as residential care,  financing, waivers, privatization, racial disproportionality, independent living programs, child welfare decision making ; but her discussions barely scratch the surface of these and other complex subjects. It is Beam’s candid, discerning and dispassionate (for lack of a better word) portraits of foster parents and foster youth that make her book worth reading, and suggests a way forward to a better foster care system.

Any book organized around a few stories of families, children and youth is vulnerable to the objection that the stories the author has chosen to tell are not representative. Beam, for example, focuses on children and youth with long lengths of stay, young children who were eventually adopted or older youth who grew up in foster care or residential care and aged out of care, most without a legal permanent plan. Beam has little to say about children who remain in foster care for a few days, weeks or months, or who are successfully reunified with birth parents. Foster care often works as intended for these children, i.e., as a temporary port in the storm for children whose parents need various types of therapeutic services. Most of these children do not have multiple placement histories (i.e., 4-5 placements or more), a quarter to a third are placed with relatives, and many of these children receive specialized assessments and services they may not have been eligible for or had access to in their parents’ homes.

Nevertheless, there are a large number of foster children and youth who remain in care for years (regardless of ASFA timelines), and or/who age out of care. Many of these children are school age when they enter out-of-home care, but a surprising number enter foster care as babies and toddlers, usually because of the combination of substance abuse and neglect. Infants placed in out-of-home care are reunified with birth parents at lower rates than older children, and adoptions frequently take 3 or more years to complete. In To The End of June, very young foster children were placed with pre–adopt parents who loved them deeply but who had to tolerate the uncertainties of an extended reunification process in which substance abusing parents struggled in an up and down recovery process. To their great credit, some of these pre-adopt parents develop supportive relationships with a birth parent, or at least meet and struggle to understand and empathize with the birth parent. Furthermore, they do not attempt to undermine their young foster child’s relationship with birth parents. In To The End of June, young children are eventually adopted by nurturing families (despite many delays) after birth parents either voluntarily relinquish their parental rights or have their parental rights terminated. These are sad stories with happy endings, at least for the young adopted children. Beam’s stories strongly suggest the value of cooperative, even close, relationships between foster parents and birth parents, a challenge which in my experience some foster parents intuitively accept and embrace and others adamantly reject.

However, there are many foster children who cannot be reunited with birth parents, or whose reunifications fail and who are never adopted. These children are often school age, or close to school age, when they enter foster care, and may have serious behavior problems that reduce the likelihood of adoption. Some children are initially placed with extended family members, sometimes for years, before these placements disrupt due to caregivers’ health problems, or children’s behavior problems, or for other reasons. In To The End of June, several of the older youth Beam comes to know well entered foster care or kin care when they were 5 or 6, and then experienced multiple placements in foster homes and/or residential facilities before they aged out of care. One older youth, Fatima, placed with a foster family who eventually adopt her, was in 21 temporary homes or facilities from age 5 until her late teens. Fatimah longs to find the foster parents who sent her away for reasons she doesn’t understand and ask them “Why”. The title, To The End of June reflects Fatimah’s desire for a permanent family and the fear that her wish for a family to whom she truly belongs may remain just beyond reach.

Unfortunately, Beams’ stories of older foster youth reflect common themes in the experiences of youth who age out of foster care. First and foremost is the instability of long term foster care or residential care. 2012 AFCARs data indicates that almost half (45.9%) of children and youth 6-17 in foster care at a point in time with lengths of stay of 2 years or longer had been in 5 or more placements; and it is not unusual for youth who have spent most of their childhoods in care to have been in double digit placements, 10, 15, 20, even 30 homes or facilities. Only one youth featured in To The End of June was in a single placement for several years, and she lived with a family who spoke a different language. These children often feel like they have a different status than other “normal” children. One young woman explains to Beam that “Foster care makes you feel like you don’t deserve anything.”

Older youth with histories of multiple placements often have jaundiced views of foster parents. They may believe that some foster parents were primarily motivated by financial considerations. A surprising percentage of youth (a third in some studies) report being abused or neglected while in foster care or residential care.  However, it is the experience of serial rejections by foster parents, some which occur in pre-adopt homes, that may have the most long lasting effect on older foster youths’ view of themselves. But what happens when older foster youth encounter foster families who are ready to legally adopt them or engage in “moral adoption”, i.e., an unlimited emotional commitment to a life-long relationship with a foster youth?

The two most gripping dramas in To The End of June are about foster families who make strong, seemingly unconditional, commitments to foster children and youth. One of these families, Allyson and Bruce Green, live in Brooklyn and have been licensed by and provided care under the supervision of a private child placing agency. At various points during the several years Beam visits the home and meets with family members,  the Greens have 6 or 7 foster children, both young children and older youth, and a teenage daughter of their own. The Greens, especially Allyson, are a highly religious family; and Allyson believes that she has been called by God to provide care to children who need a family. Bruce Green works at a job that pays him about $80,000 per year, but is also very involved in transporting children to their many appointments and in decision making around disciplinary issues.

According to Beam, “the Greens didn’t expect to wind up with a house full of teenagers, but once they got them, they rallied. The house … was more than a roof and walls: it was a permanent home for a growing family. And once the teenagers came, it was a growing family with a mission.” And Beam writes, “Both Bruce and Allyson were horrified by the stories their new foster children told them about the multiple placements they’d endured,” and the non-nurturing or even abusive treatment  their foster youth experienced in some of these homes. The Greens have a highly structured approach to care in which they know where every child/ youth in the home is supposed to be every hour of every day. They expect the older youth to initially resist the rules but then “relax” into a structure that prepares them for the discipline required to succeed at school and work.  

The Greens receive little or no help from the private agency. “Once they’ve sent a child, both Bruce and Allyson claim, they pretty much wash their hands of him.” “All the goods and services we tracked down for children ourselves,” the Greens told Beam. As the story begins, The Greens are on the verge of adopting Fatimah, a 16 year old with 21 prior placements and are planning to adopt two other youth, Chanel and Dominque, an angry 18 year old who would have been removed from the Greens and placed in a therapeutic home absent their commitment to adopt her. The Greens “basically embody the mission of “rocking with the kids all the way,” according to Beam.

However, Fatimah’s adoption seems to have an unsettling effect on the other older teenagers in the home. Tonya, an older youth who claims to have no interest in adoption, runs away for 33 days soon after Fatimah’s adoption is finalized, and Dominque’s adoption falls apart as 18 year old Dominque leaves the home by mutual agreement with the Greens. As Beam tells the story, “as soon as they planned to adopt her, the tension escalated.” Even Fatimah becomes unhappy after her adoption. Fatimah grows more critical of the Greens and more distant. Eventually, she returns to her birth mother, an arrangement which within a few months leaves her without the ability to house and feed herself. Fatimah then returns to the Green’s home for a place to sleep and eat, but without the emotional closeness to the Greens that preceded her adoption.

This is a sobering story that reflects the emotional complexities and challenges of older youth adoption. It is also apparent that older foster youth and young adults with extensive foster care histories are agents of their own destiny, and are sometimes more responsible for placement disruptions than foster parents. By the end of To The End of June, the Greens have decided not to take additional teenagers though they keep the youth still living in their home. Foster parents, like children and youth, can be seriously burned by placement disruptions. 

Possibly, the most inspiring story in Beam’s book is about Mary Keane, a single parent affiliated with the You Gotta Believe program. Following a divorce in her mid-50s, “Mary parented eleven kids from the system, all over the age of eighteen, save for one who was just under,” Beam states. Mary Keane has taken large sibling groups, runaways and youth who have lived on the street for years into her home. Occasionally, youth have run away from the Keane home “and a handful never came back,” but the runaways who returned to the home were welcome.

Beam comments that Mary Keane “doesn’t push her kids into adulthood with prescribed sets of expectations; she lets them live with her as long as it takes to grow into a kind of faith in themselves and family again” According to Beam, “Nobody ever, under any circumstances, gets kicked out.” Mary Keane allow older teens to regress to earlier developmental stages and understands their need for large doses of praise and encouragement.  Beam is obviously in awe of a woman who models unconditional love and approval to older foster youth from tough backgrounds who have little or no reason to trust adults. Beam writes: “The work at Mary’s was slow, ineffable, improbable… I watched the steady hand of unconditional love work its power on them… This was beyond any system, or program, or mandate.” What impresses Beam the most is the caring and gentleness with which Mary’s adult children treat each other.

Contrast the care of troubled youth provided by the Greens and Mary Keane with the lack of concern and competence embodied in a story Beam tells toward the end of her book. On the way to meet Dominique, the 18 year who left the Green’s home in anger, Beam discovers that Dominique has been hit and injured by a motorist. Beam accompanies Dominique to an emergency room, and calls Dominique’s foster mother who refuses to come to the hospital with clothes for Dominique. The foster mother tells Beam “to call the agency.” The caseworker from the private agency shows up at the hospital after a delay of several hours, and then attempts to foist off her responsibility for dealing with medical personnel and transporting Dominique to her foster home on to Beam. This story is an eloquent account of what it means for older youth to lack a supportive family at critical moments, and to be supervised by a caseworker who is clearly not prepared to do her job.

The strength of To The End of June is Beam’s understanding of foster children’s and youths’ need for committed parents and the challenges which these youth present to substitute caregivers who offer unconditional commitment and stability of care. However, Beam does not describe how foster care systems can find, train and support families willing to make this extraordinary commitment and stick with troubled youth through thick and thin. The Greens and Mary Keane have a religious or spiritual calling, and have developed their own idiosyncratic models of care that owe little to agencies or programs. Beam does not explore professional foster parenting or therapeutic foster care; and it’s an open question whether professional skills and better supports can accomplish what the admirable foster families Beam describes achieve through total dedication and ( in Mary Keane’s case) an enduring state of grace.       

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Casey Family Program or any other organization. 

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Posted by on March 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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