Hearing from Families – Parents testify in Congress about preventive supports

On Aug. 4, the executive director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, Sandra Killett, a parent activist in New York City and mother whose son was placed in foster care, and Rosalina Burton, an intern with FosterClub and a former foster youth from California, testified before the Senate Finance Committee about a bill, The Family Stability and Kinship Care Act, that would increase federal funding for preventive services. (Click here to watch their testimony on C-SPAN.) Here are excerpts from their written testimony:

Sandra Killett:

Today, I am here to share insights gained from my own life experiences as a parent impacted by the child welfare protection system. I am also representing the perspectives of hundreds of other parents with whom I have worked when employed as a Parent Advocate by a New York social service agency and parents with whom I continue to connect with on a daily basis as the director of [the Child Welfare Organizing Project…

… I am a parent who has been affected by the child welfare protection system in New York City and this experience has forever changed my life and has traumatically impacted both of my sons, Tre and Tank.

As a single mother, I relocated to New York from Atlanta, Georgia with my two boys when they were young due to financial hardship. All of my family and supports were in New York. Their father travelled back and forth between New York and Atlanta to visit the boys, hoping that the move to New York was just temporary. This was difficult for my sons because they were very close with their dad and he loved them.

My oldest son, Tre, became very distraught every time his father left New York to return to Atlanta. He began exhibiting aggressive behavior and angry outbursts as he got older…I sought help and support to deal with my family’s challenges. My sons and I attended family counseling. This helped provide me with the tools to help my sons understand why I separated from their father, eventually resulting in divorce.

During family therapy…the therapist suggested that I seek an outside individual therapist, which would make my son confident that the therapist was on his side so he would hopefully open up and be truthful about his feelings concerning his dad and me. I tried to arrange individual therapy for Tre but I was placed on a waiting list. Then I began to receive calls from the school about my son fighting and being disrespectful to his teachers…I began to call every week to ask my therapist about expediting Tre’s individual therapy. I was informed each time that I was still on a waiting list. Nothing became available within the month.

We continued to have episodes at home. I became afraid of Tre, who was then 13-years-old…Eventually, I could not say anything to Tre without him threatening me. I went into the local Office of Children’s Services requesting assistance. I was informed that due to whatever my son told them about a scratch on his neck which he got from me grabbing him, I was going to be investigated for abuse.

I had no idea what this really meant or how to respond to it. I was informed that both of my sons would be interviewed privately, without me present. Although I did not agree, I was told that I did not have a choice in the matter. The Child Protective Services worker asked me some questions which I thought were intrusive but nevertheless I answered them. None of the questions pertained to the reason I came to their office. All of the questions related to how I treated my children and how I disciplined them.

Throughout this process, I was not concerned until my sons voluntarily told me the types of questions they were being asked and how they were being interviewed by the worker. When my sons answered the questions, the CPS worker guided them to “tell the truth about me beating them” but my sons were clear about the form of discipline they received. They explained that I would discipline them by taking away their favorite things, such as “no television” or “no play dates,” etc. I was very angry and frustrated and definitely felt misunderstood by the child protection system.

At the end of the interrogation, I was told that someone would be visiting my home once or twice a week to monitor my family. The worker later concluded that I was not abusive or neglectful and I was not mistreating my children. The worker stated that I had everything in place to support my family. She acknowledged that my sons were healthy, they regularly attended school, had positive peer relationships and both had lots of involvement in social activities. In addition to having a loving and supportive extended family, we had stable community ties, including connections with the church, strong relationships with friends, positive school influences, and a wealth of resources and connections through my volunteer and activism work in community organizing for social justice. I now know that I had protective factors in place for my family, which were signs of stability and resilience.

I continued to request services and was informed by the worker that the department didn’t have the means to provide any home-based family counseling services or individual counseling. Eventually my son and I had an altercation and Children’s Services took him from my home and placed him in foster care. I was treated like a criminal. The prosecutor was trying to get a conviction and the family court was trying to take my youngest son away from me. I was in a state of shock. It was unacceptable to me that the situation with my son and me was being handled in such a negative manner.

My younger son, Tank, became withdrawn and very sad. Not having his big brother at home was devastating for Tank. They were very close; we were very close. The foster care agency continued to say that I was the problem. My son did not receive any therapy while in foster care. I continued to receive therapy on my own. If my family had received home-based family therapy, I believe we would have avoided the trauma of separation from the family and the development of a strained relationship between my two sons. We would have been working as a family through the crisis together. After all, isn’t that what most families do who can afford to pay for the type of services that I was hoping would be provided to my family from the child welfare system?…

…Today, we are still healing as a family. My relationship with my son is off and on but we will work it out. He does not like to talk about his experience being in foster care. He knows that I never gave up on him and continued to advocate for him. Tre eventually returned home without incident but the ties and bond of mother and child and sibling will never be the same. He enjoys the fact that his little brother had the opportunity to go away to college and often states that he wished he had been a little more open to receiving my love and caring. He really thought I did not want him around…

…Tre really missed being a kid. The foster care system has a way of doing this to kids. He remained in foster care for one and one-half years before he was able to return home. Although it has taken some time, my son has started to feel like he belongs somewhere and that somewhere is with his family. Inside he knows, “I know my family loves me.”

My family represents one of the thousands of families across the country in crisis that could have stayed together if we had been offered the right community services early in the process. If funding for home-based therapy and other supportive services had been available to help our family, it is very likely that my son might have remained at home and I would not be here talking to you today…

…Today I do amazing work helping families organize and transform a very complex child protection system to a child welfare system. I work closely with social workers, parent advocates and other professionals that want to make a difference in the lives of families. By hearing my story and experiences, they are better able to learn how to engage families and understand how communication and the right resources can impact the lives of children in their own communities. It is through our collaborative work efforts that we can change laws to improve policies and practices for vulnerable children and families.

Rosalina Burton:

My name is Rosalina Harmony Burton. I am 23 years old, a current intern with FosterClub, and a mental health worker at San Pasqual Academy, a residential facility for foster youth in Escondido, California.

Before I worked at San Pasqual Academy, however, I was one of their clients for fourteen months. I spent most of my childhood in the San Diego County foster care system. I was in and out of foster care for twelve years during which time I experienced more than twenty-three different placements.

…We were removed from our parents’ care for the first time after my mother went away to receive treatment for her addiction, and my father was reported for neglect. My six siblings and I were taken to an emergency shelter before subsequently being placed in kinship care; one of my sisters and I were placed with our paternal great aunt.

If I close my eyes I can still picture the layout of her house, the pattern of my sister’s and I’s matching bed sets on our first, very own beds, and smell breakfast cooking as I rose for our set morning routine. Yes, my great aunt was a prepared women and living with her gave me a sense of stability, love and normalcy that I, unfortunately, never experienced again.

Eventually, all of my siblings and I were reunified with my parents who relapsed on drugs shortly after. Over the next several years, my siblings and I would re-enter foster care, some of them less or more times than I, each after failed reunifications with our parents. At some point, we all just began to have different cases and different social workers. Things got really confusing. We no longer went to the same court dates, or had the same permanency plans.

Looking back, I can’t help to wonder if my experience in foster care – and the impact it would have on my siblings and I – would have been different had I lived with relatives. At no point, during any of my re-entries into foster care, was kinship care brought up as an option again. Despite the fact that my paternal great aunt, the one I lived with during my first foster care placement, had made it clear to me, my parents and our caseworker that she wished to adopt me. I understand there may have been circumstances that I was not aware of, but it was never explained…

…While I was in kinship care, I saw my siblings and parents regularly as was prescribed by the court. I felt close to them and desired their presence in my life, but after we were scattered throughout foster and group homes, our close-knit sibling group became strangers to each other…

…[I reunified with my father for the last time when I was 13 years old.] Within six months of entering his care, we became homeless. I was then reunified with my mother at 15 while she was in a homeless shelter. I often slept at friends’ houses and skipped or missed school regularly. Living at home felt like I was walking on eggshells due to my mother’s illness, and an environment I did not feel safe in. I reentered foster care no more than a year after living with her. Shortly after I fought for my mother’s rights to be terminated because I was done with failed reunifications. I emancipated at the age of 19, received my high school diploma and have been employed full-time ever since. Last semester, I returned to college after taking time to work on my mental health…

 …[Still, I view] the multiple reunifications as proof that my parents wanted to be a part of my life. As you have read my re-entries into foster care are also proof that they didn’t know how to keep me safe, and care for my siblings and me effectively. Entering foster care is a traumatic experience for all parties involved. My father felt invaded, he was raised in a family where what happens in the home stays in the home and you just don’t talk about your problems. My mother felt re-victimized, haunted by her own experience in foster care as a child. Her own struggles with abandonment, broken family ties and abuse, along with a lack of addiction and mental health services, lead to my multiple reentries into care…

…After my last reunification, my mother continued therapy and every now and again she would ask that my siblings and I join her in a family session. These were not helpful. Instead I would have liked to have intensive one-on-one and family therapy with a therapist that specialized in the effects of long term foster care, PTSD, sibling rivalry and complicated family dynamics. I imagine that mandatory individual and family counseling before and during reunification, along with financial assistance, would have played a huge role in a successful reunification. Such therapy combined with the substance abuse treatment she received would have helped my mother to identify childhood traumas that affected her parenting and led to her need to numb herself with harmful substances in the first place.

… I also imagine, had my mother received preventative and ongoing services from professionals who understood mental illness and saw her as a victim and not a drug addict, maybe we would have never needed to spend so much of our childhood in foster care. Although I am honored to be here speaking to all of you today, I imagine — had my mom received the services she needed during that critical time when she volunteered to get clean when I was three — I would not be standing here today. I would have not have aged-out of congregate care, and I would not still be hoping to one day find my forever family.

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