Raised by the state

11-12-08 SPM Cover
Published On:
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
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Communications sophomore Sammy Ellis, 19, says he doesn’t remember much of leaving his mother or first meeting his foster family, except that it was a very confusing time.

“I just remember crying all the time there.” Ellis says. “I didn’t want to be there and I didn’t know the people, and I was so used to being with my family.”

Ellis hadn’t even started kindergarten when he and his two younger siblings were taken into state custody and put into separate foster homes because of their mother’s drug and alcohol use.

Ellis’ grandmother was able to obtain custody of the children in less than a year and raised them until she passed away almost ten years later. Ellis never went back into the foster care system, but the next years of his life were not easy.

He lived with his father, ran away to visit his mother, moved out with his girlfriend at 16 and ended up living with his high school football coach until he began school at ASU.

Ellis says that he’s not ashamed of his past and that it has shaped him into the person he is today. “I believe things happen for a reason,” Ellis says.

Thousands of children are taken into state custody every year because of abuse, neglect and abandonment. For some, it can be a confusing time as they move between foster homes, group homes and shelters.
The foster care system is designed to be a temporary situation with the goal being reuniting children with their families or finding permanent placement.

For some this never happens.

“Obviously the older someone is [while] in the foster care system, the longer we find that they stay in care. It’s supposed to be a short term solution that too often becomes a permanent plan,” Chief Executive Officer for the nonprofit group Foster Care Alumni of America Nathan Monell says.

This was the case for ASU political science senior Mark Leeper, 23, who is also one of two communications directors for Foster Care Alumni of America in Arizona.

According to childwelfare.gov, the average length a child is in foster care is one year.

Leeper spent the last seven years of his childhood in the Arizona foster care system. From age 11 to when he turned 18, Leeper lived in four group homes, one shelter, and one foster care home and had three different case managers.

He never obtained permanent placement and “aged out” of the system when he turned 18.

“I know why I ended up in the foster care system, I mean my mom and my dad and my stepmom and my real father didn’t want me and there was really nobody else,” Leeper says.

In Arizona alone there are more than 9,500 children in foster care, according to the last semi-annual report released by the Arizona Department of Economic Security in August. At any given point in time the number of children in U.S. foster care is more than 52 times that.
Leeper says he grew up in a physically and emotionally abusive situation and says he also felt like he didn’t belong.

Most of his early childhood was spent in a small rural town outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with his mom, stepdad and siblings. Leeper says he always felt singled out, that his twin sister and his younger half-sister never experienced the same things he did.

At the age of 10 he had had enough.

“I was done living in a situation that didn’t seem to be getting any better,” Leeper says. “I pretty much told my mom I didn’t want to live with her anymore.”

Leeper moved to Arizona to live with his father for the summer and by the end of it he was not ready to go home, he was having too much fun.
Leeper describes this as “a short new beginning” because seven months later he “wasn’t welcome” at his father’s home anymore. Leeper says he got that “black sheep” feeling of not belonging and that his stepmother didn’t like him. He says he felt he intruded on their life in Arizona.

Around the same time, Leeper got into some trouble and ended up in the juvenile detention center.

“I know it sounds funny to say this, but it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” Leeper says of going to juvy.
“Had this not happened, I would have went back home to Pittsburgh. And instead, I ended up going to a foster home, a group home.”

After 30 days of juvenile detention, Leeper went to his first group home, where he was required to meet with a daily therapist. Leeper says he learned a lot about himself through intensive internal work.
“I was fucked up at 11-years-old. I had experienced a decent amount of physical abuse. But more than the physical abuse, I had experienced a lot of emotional [and] psychological abuse from my parents,” Leeper says.

As Leeper went through the system, moving from one place to the next, the abuse and struggles did not end.

During Leeper’s four-month stay at one shelter, he was attacked by another foster child and sent to the hospital with a broken nose. He says he also refused to eat at that shelter because cockroaches would be crawling out of the silverware drawers. Leeper ate elsewhere using money he had saved up.

“It’s a temporary placement and it’s supposed to be less than a month, but still it’s not [temporary]. I mean, these aren’t the greatest places,” Leeper says.

The group home where Leeper lived while finishing high school wasn’t a good environment either.

He says the staff members were uneducated, not well-paid and generally did not care about the well-being of the children.
“They’re supposed to protect these kids and they are the ones supplying the drugs and alcohol,” Leeper says. “They just didn’t take a very proactive approach to these kid’s lives.”

This is why Leeper says he took charge of himself for his own sake. He says he knew no one was going to tell him what to do or not to do.
Leeper also says it was his motivation and interest in education that kept him out of trouble and got him to where he is now.

“Statistically, less than one percent of kids who were in the foster care system actually graduate with a college degree,” Leeper says.
Both Leeper and Ellis have been awarded the Nina Mason Pulliam Scholarship to attend ASU and are in the process of beating those odds.

The scholarship has several different eligibility criteria, one of which is young adults who have been raised in the child welfare system and are responsible for their own financial support.

Ellis says his high school football coach encouraged him to apply for it. Ellis says his coach and his wife have become like family to him. He often visits the couple and stays with them when he has to move out of the dorms for intercessions.

Leeper learned of the award through his case manager, who was preparing him to “age out” of foster care through the Independent Living Program.

The Independent Living Program is one of several programs designed to help foster care children transition to adulthood and adjust to being on their own. It provides aid through training and a monthly stipend for adults ages 18-21 to pay for bills and living expenses. They are required to meet monthly with a case manager and either be enrolled in some form of higher education or begin working full-time. They are still considered to be a ward of the state until they turn 21.
Leeper says his family consists of Foster Care Alumni from all over the nation.

“The main job of Foster Care Alumni of America is to connect everybody who’s previously been in foster care. And we call each other our family,” Leeper says.

“I mean I have a much bigger family than you do,” he says.
Part of his work in Foster Care Alumni of America is focused on bettering the system for the future.

“It’s not about our lives now, it’s about the kids who are going through the foster care system right now and trying to change, to better the system,” Leeper says.

Beth Rosenberg, Director of Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Policy for Arizona, says this state’s system does have its strengths and weaknesses.

“We do OK in some areas, and we don’t do as well in other areas,” Rosenberg says.

Rosenberg says part of the challenge in child welfare is the demands, and in Arizona Child Protective Services (CPS) workers are hard to come by and even harder to retain.

“Well I think certainly one of the reasons we have a hard time in some areas is because we have a difficulty in hiring and maintaining CPS staff. We have positions that are open that are hard to fill. The job is very, very hard,” she says.

Rosenberg says caseloads are high and there is much to be done for each case, including lots of paperwork and mandates.

“The pressure is very high to do everything right and you don’t have much time to do a lot of things right. And, you know, it is hard to keep good staff and experienced staff,” Rosenberg says.

Although there are small modifications being made to foster care all the time, it is not very often that there are big changes in a system that needs it.

Some of those changes are coming with the recent passage of a new bill.

“What I hear people saying is it’s the biggest change in foster care in a decade,” Monell says of bill H.R. 6893. “I see this as an important first step … this is how foster care should be done.”

The bill H.R. 6893, Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, was signed into law on October 7, 2008.
The act will help to increase permanent placements for children and successfully get them out of foster care.

“The important parts of this bill [are] that it really creates better opportunities for permanent family relationships for children in foster care and it creates the opportunity for family members to take a more important role in raising their extended family members,” Monell says.

The act does this by offering federal assistance to states.
“That’s not been available before, makes it easier for relatives to care,” Monell says.

Monell says the bill was a collaboration of bits and pieces, sometimes from other smaller bills, to create the final product.
“When the idea of the bill started being voted, it was called ‘the dream bill,’ because there were so many things in it and eventually many of those things stayed and became the future,” he says.

Monell says the bill should also help shorten the length of stay for more people and among the many benefits to this act.
But this act is only the beginning — Monell says there is still much to be done.

“I think this bill just gets started on some very important issues, there’s a lot of work yet to do,” Monell says.

Monell says the next step is to go to the states and work individually with them to encourage implementing the new provisions, some of which are optional at the state level.

“A lot of the issues in this current act that passed still need further implementation on the state level. So, there is a lot of work to be done on state levels to make sure all the options available in this act are available to people in the states,” Monell says.

Because of his experience in the foster care system, Leeper says he learned a lot at a young age about how to be on his own and rely on himself.

“That’s the reality of life, you turn 18 and you are on your own, nobody else is there for you,” Leeper says. “I learned it at 11 instead of 18. And it’s not a lesson an 11-year-old should learn, but it is a very important lesson to learn in your life.”

Leeper’s future goals include involvement and advocacy of foster care. Leeper says he wants to make a difference by advocating and lobbying on legislative advancements and new policies that deal in some way with foster care advancement.

As for Ellis, he says he is unsure of his future plans but enjoys helping others. He currently works for America Reads, tutoring and mentoring children in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Ellis says he is interested in possibly helping at-risk youth or children who have had struggles like similar to him.

“It makes me feel good to know I helped them at the end of the day, even just talking to them,” Ellis says. “I just don’t like people to go through the same stuff I went through, cause I know how they feel.”

How you can help:

Over the course of a year, nearly 800,000 will go through U.S. foster care according to information provided by Monell.

Leeper says that additionally 18 million have gone through the system, some with stories worse than his.

“I’ve heard so many stories that are worse,” Leeper says.
There are many resources and options available for students who want to learn more or help.

If students are interested, Monell suggests finding opportunities to get involved in their communities.

“In every community there are options for people to get involved as mentors, as special advocates of the court system, or as foster parents and that’s a great,” Monell says. “Everybody should go in their own community and look for places where they can connect.”
Monell also says the Foster Care Alumni of America Web site (www.fostercarealumni.org) has more information and they would be happy to help if students have difficulty finding a way to get involved in their communities.

Just the facts:
-over 9,500 children in Arizona foster care on any given day
-over 500,000 children in U.S. foster care on any given day
-average amount of time children spend in foster care is 12 months
--799,000 children were in the U.S. foster care system sometime over the course of the year in 2005
-18 million have gone through the foster care system in U.S.
-less than 1% of children who grew up in foster care will receive a college degree
-November is National Adoption Month

In Arizona:
-In September of 2006 there were 3,256 licensed foster care homes in Arizona
-50.5% of children in Arizona foster care were waiting to be reunited with their families
-of the children in Arizona foster care:
-39.5% were between the ages of 1-0
-27.8% were between the ages of 6-12
-32.8% were between the ages of 13-21

*Latest data collected from Nathan Monell and Mark Leeper of Foster Care Alumni of America, Arizona Department of Economic Security reports and childwelfare.org. Information based of findings from 2005-2007.

How children typically end up in foster care.

When Child Protective Services (CPS) receives a call reporting child abuse or neglect the case is investigated to determine if the case is serious enough to get the courts involved.

According to Director of Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Beth Rosenberg, national surveys estimate one third of abuse and neglect cases go unreported.

Rosenberg says if the courts are involved it means that the problems at home are so severe that the child would not be safe. The child is then taken into state custody and put into the foster care system.
Resource staff are called to determine what homes are available and where to put a child or children if there are siblings.

“Also in Maricopa County they also try to place that child, if not with a relative, they try to find a foster home that is close to where the child is living,” Rosenberg says.

Children may also be put in shelters or group homes. Rosenberg says it just depends.

CPS must then file a petition to the courts that they will approve or deny. If approved then the child will stay in foster care and there are many more mandates and procedures from that point.
Children may also come into care if they are abandone

Reach the reporter at nicole.ethier@asu.edu.