Sunday, December 27, 2009

Yay, Merli

THE GREATEST LOVE: Former foster kids Merli Desrosier (left) and her big sister, Marie Estimé, are setting up house in Brooklyn. ~ Photo credits: Angel Chevrestt of the NY Post.

A 'minor' miracle: Feisty foster kid to be sister's keeper
Klein, Melissa. New York Post, Dec. 27, 2009.

Every year, Merli Desrosier promised her little sister a Christmas gift better than a new doll or the latest computer game.

"She was, like, 'Don't worry. Next Christmas, you're going to be living with me,' " said Marie Estimé, who then lived with their allegedly neglectful father. "Then it kept going -- 'next Christmas, next Christmas.' "

Merli was practically a child herself, a teenager living in foster care and attending high school.

But this Christmas, Merli made good. Now a 25-year-old college graduate, she took in her sister, now 16, and is pursuing the unusual step of adopting her. The move will legally cement a bond that has endured through years of hardship.

"Since I was 9, it's been that way -- that I'm like her mom," Merli said.

Merli's mother died four days after giving birth to Marie in 1993 because of complications from the birth and sickle cell anemia. The sisters and their brother, Yves, were shuttled between relatives and foster care before their father took them in two years later.

Merli was placed in foster care again at 16 after an argument with her father during which, she said, he tried to strangle her.

Marie and Yves stayed with their father, and Merli visited often to keep tabs on them, bringing her sister clothes and doing her hair.

Marie eventually went back to foster care. Merli continued her education, something she said her mother always stressed and she enjoyed.

"School was the only place I could be a kid, where I could be a teenager and not be a parent or an adult," she said.

Merli got a scholarship to the College of Staten Island. A financial-aid package later allowed her to attend Purchase College, and she graduated in May.

Her little sister, meanwhile, was despondent in her foster home.

"I just decided, whether or not I had a career lined up or an actual place big enough for her to live in, that I would take her in," Merli said.

Merli became Marie's foster mother, and the younger sister moved into her "mom's" Harlem studio in July.

Merli said she wanted to adopt her sister to get her out of the foster-care bureaucracy and provide her with a more normal life, one that she had promised.

But the small apartment was a roadblock, because it was not suitable for an adoption placement.

And Merli has been unable to find work in marketing or public relations, as she had hoped, and has only a part-time job at a clothing store.

The New York Foundling, the agency that oversees Marie's care, has stepped up to help with the adoption process and in securing a bigger apartment.

First, the agency asked some hard questions, to make sure Merli was in it for the long haul. Cases of siblings adopting siblings are extremely rare, with the agency overseeing just one such arrangement, out of 123 adoptions, in the last fiscal year.

"We just wanted to make sure that this was beyond a passing infatuation," said Bill Baccaglini, The Foundling's executive director. "Merli has certainly demonstrated that."

He said Merli never wavered from her goal of getting an education and one day taking in her sister.

The agency provided the security deposit and first month's rent for a two-bedroom in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. A Section 8 housing subsidy will help Merli pay the $1,224 rent. The sisters will move into their new home in a couple of weeks. The adoption process could take up to 10 months.

Merli, Marie and their brother -- now a 24-year-old college student in Florida -- spent Christmas together. While Marie said she got good gifts, the holiday wasn't about presents.

"I didn't really want anything," she said, "because I already got what I wanted -- which was to live with my sister."

Friday, November 27, 2009

Grant to assist Rochester service providers in understanding & responding to impact of trauma on foster children

Mt. Hope Family Center Awarded $1.2 Million as Part of Child Trauma Network
Hagen, Susan. University of Rochester News, Nov. 25, 2009.

Mt. Hope Family Center has been awarded a three-year, $1.2 million grant to join the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, a federally funded partnership of academic and community-based centers aimed at improving care for children and families struggling with abuse, neglect, community violence, and other forms of trauma.

The new funding will allow the University of Rochester center to provide treatment for 270 young children in foster care and their biological and foster families and to develop effective therapies that can be used at centers nationwide. Mt. Hope is the only program in Western New York invited to join the network.

"Being selected is huge because Mt. Hope will now be able to partner with about 60 centers across the nation, all focused on evidence-based therapies for children recovering from trauma," says Sheree Toth, executive director of Mt. Hope Family Center. "It's an incredible opportunity to bring in resources, one that not only enhances our capabilities, but that changes our community."

Toth explained that the new resources will strengthen ongoing efforts by Rochester-area service providers to understand and recognize the effect of trauma on children. For instance, she explained, a high percentage of youngsters referred for behavior problems or mental health issues in this community also have experienced trauma. Understanding that history and learning how to help children recover can be key to preventing a lifetime of problems.

The grant will supply support for a variety of innovative therapies that have been clinically proven effective, including one of the center's most promising: Child-Parent Psychotherapy. "We believe a strong parent-child relationship is the key to preventing maltreatment and building healthy families," says Toth. To reinforce those ties, psychotherapists will meet with families weekly, helping parent and child nurture a close, connected relationship and encouraging appreciation for the child's developmental level. Research shows that the psychotherapy program builds parents' sense of competency and strengthens children's sense of security and attachment, improving their chances for success. Without such intervention, explains Toth, families struggling with trauma often fail to create a secure relationship, which "sets children up for a cascade of failures in their whole life." As an indication of the success of the approach, says Toth, 48 of the 60 members of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network have expressed interest in child-parent psychotherapy.

The grant also will make available one-on-one therapy with children to help them better understand and cope with the emotional shock they have experienced. For example, children who have suffered physical abuse often believe that they deserve the ill treatment, explains Toth. Therapy helps children let go of these unhealthy feelings of guilt and recover a sense of safety. It teaches children problem solving and self-calming skills and helps them to identify and express emotions appropriately. To ease the adjustment to foster care, center therapists also work with caretakers, encouraging understanding of and appropriate responses to the negative behaviors that often accompany post-traumatic stress.

The exciting thing about this grant, says Toth, is that it will bring proven treatments for trauma to those who need them most. "That's a significant advance over the 1970s and 80s, when service providers basically thought, 'Well, I'll be a nice person to these children and somehow that will make them better," she says. "Children and their families now have the possibility of benefiting from interventions that we know will work."

About the University of Rochester
The University of Rochester is one of the nation’s leading private universities. Located in Rochester, N.Y., the University gives students exceptional opportunities for interdisciplinary study and close collaboration with faculty through its unique cluster-based curriculum. Its College, School of Arts and Sciences, and Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are complemented by the Eastman School of Music, Simon School of Business, Warner School of Education, Laboratory for Laser Energetics, Schools of Medicine and Nursing, and the Memorial Art Gallery.

Underground Railroad to Success for Foster Care Youth

Local Advocate for Foster Children Awarded Business Grant
Baristanet, Nov. 24, 2009.

Tanisha Cunningham knew too well how difficult the transition from foster care to emancipation can be. Having been raised in foster care and group homes herself, the sudden transition to independence was jarring. "The fact that I succeeded is not the usual case. It was not because I was given the resources, but because I sought them out for myself."

Her own experience in foster care inspired her to work in the New York City Child Welfare Office and to later pursue advanced degrees in Public Administration. In January 2009, she started The Underground Railroad to Success, Inc., a Montclair-based non-profit designed to provide resources to children transitioning out of the foster care system. According to Cunningham, most children in this situation never receive information about available resources, information that could assist with housing, job opportunities, and tuition grants for higher education.

The website lists dire statistics about the path of emancipated foster children: "According to the Child Welfare League of America, 25 percent become homeless, 56 percent are unemployed, 27 percent of male children end up in jail."

Currently, the new organization's activities mostly center around arranging workshops for children aging out of foster care in the age groups of 15 - 17, or recently emancipated adults between the ages of 18 - 24. These workshops focus on a variety of life skills, such as learning how to manage stress and emotions, set up bank accounts, and dress for interviews. "These are things that may seem obvious to you, but for them they are not....Most kids coming out of foster care are not educated, they have system hopped from foster care, group homes, or been incarcerated," said Cunningham. "They need to be taught these skills."

Cunningham leads most of the workshops herself, but sometimes seeks the help of professionals, such as arranging for a Rutgers faculty member to talk about the process of applying for college, or staff members from local banks to discuss financial literacy.

In the future, Cunningham would like to raise the funds to create a group home for older children. For now though, the organization is still focusing on gathering available resources for foster children. Having worked in the New York foster care system, the New Jersey laws and resources are considerably more complicated by comparison, and the organization's first goals are to understand and compile the available resources to help the children.

URS was recently awarded a $500 stimulus micro-grant from Investing In Women, a group that empowers women with small businesses or non-profits. The money will be used toward marketing URS, says Cunningham. "There are a lot of people who don't know about this need, and we are on a mission to raise awareness."

URS is welcomes donations for their services and programs, as well as dedicated volunteers to serve as mentors.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New York Life Foundation Seeks Proposals from New York City and Westchester Nonprofits Serving Children

Since 2004, the New York Life Foundation Awards Program has supported smaller nonprofits by providing six $25,000 grants per year: one in each New York City borough and one in Westchester County, NY. These grants are earmarked for one-time-only support for existing programs.

Can you apply for a Foundation Awards Program grant? Yes, if:

- Your program is located in and serves young people in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, or Westchester County in New York.

- The total budget for your organization is $5 million or less.

- Your organization is a 501(c)3 and has at least two full-time staff members.

- Your program serves disadvantaged youth, including those who are in foster care or aging out of foster care, are homeless, or are neither in school nor working.

- Your program prepares young people for higher education or the workplace and equips them to be responsible citizens. Program activities should enrich academic performance and educational commitment; provide a foundation in basic skills, such as reading, writing, mathematics and science, and enhance thinking skills, such as decision-making, problem-solving and reasoning.

Apply from October 1 to December 15, 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Author of Cheetah Girls series grew up in foster care

'The Cheetah Girls' creator talks to EWN, September 05, 2009.

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Deborah Gregory is an inspiration to many.

Homeless on the sidewalks of Brooklyn at the age of three, she was separated from her mother and became a ward of the state. Now, she's a best-selling author, famous for her creation of "The Cheetah Girls" phenomenon and her second book of the "Catwalk" series is out next week. Deborah Gregory spoke to Eyewitness News about growing up in foster care and her books.

You grew up in the foster care system. While all such experiences are different, what was it like for you?

Mine was in the 25 percentile-children who are placed in high risk situations. It's a complicated system so there is no one to point the finger at. My first foster mother was illiterate. She couldn't read or write one letter of the alphabet. The hardest part of course is the aftermath. Trying to sort out what happened. I didn't know where my mother was, or how I ended up in the system. When I became a journalist, a contributing writer for ESSENCE magazine, I began trying to sort it out.

You aged out of the foster care system at 18. What was crucial in piecing together your life?

I had so many HOLES. It was important for me to try to figure out to the best of my ability-exactly what happened. How did I end up in foster care? Where was my mother? After ten long years of searching for answers, I was able to find some closure. My mother was evicted, homeless with three children. We then became wards of the state. Her three children became wards of the state and we were separated-placed in different children's centers. I later found out that there were two other children. I don't know one of my siblings. The other is dead. Most importantly, I searched for my mother. I found out that she was committed to a mental institution. I got a court order and was allowed to see her records at Central Islip Mental Institution in Long Island where she had been committed for nine years. I got from there the most important thing I could get: a small, black and white photo of her from the folder!

Can you ever really heal from childhood trauma?

No, you cannot. It is a movie myth that you just "move on." You cannot leave your past behind. What it means to be a human being is to be a fleshy part of the past, present and future. This is what shapes you. There is not a day that goes by I don't think about what my experiences were growing up in foster care. About my missing mother. Or about the father I never knew. At least I'm honest and don't pretend. The cracks remain-what I try to do is repair the cracks to the best of my ability. Thanks to therapy, I was able to do a decent job at that-but that's all-just decent. I'm still and will always remain a wounded person with lots of holes and strength and sadness and humor. In other words, a typical New Yawker! I did not grow up in a foster home on a farm in Maine like someone I know and adore (Victoria Rowell). Growing up in the foster care system in marginal foster homes in New York City was far more wicked-every kind of craziness coming at you-I mean, walking down the street to the store was like surviving an episode of Animal Kingdom without the safari gear!

What would you like to resolve?

There are millions of people walking around the globe who do not know who their father is. It creates such a hole. At some point, I was told that I was biracial, although I didn't believe it, but the denial finally lifted when I got a DNA test and discovered that it was true. I have 48 percent European DNA. So, I always wanted to know the ethnic heritage of my father. Thanks to DNA testing, I was able to confirm that he was white (European DNA) but that's all they could tell me. If it had been my mother who was white (mitochondrial DNA) they could have told me the region of my maternal ancestors. It leaves a hole inside of course when you don't know who your father is. No name. No photo. No history. I wish the world would institute a global DNA bank-where everyone had to put their DNA into a bank, then this way whenever someone wanted to find people related to them, they could. Unlike the search through adoption records, you wouldn't even have to know the name of the person-just submitting your DNA would provide the match-because there is always someone in the world who is related to you. We are all connected. So all those people who are related to my father, I never got to meet. It would have been cool.

This month, I became a bone marrow donor. It's possible through HLA tissue typing that they will be able to tell me POSSIBLY the ethnic group of my father. I have to wait six weeks. I hope I find out! That will be so cool-to finally know my birth father's ethnic heritage!

What's the inspiration behind your teen series Catwalk?

Fashion! On a recent AOL study, fashion designer was in the TOP TEN category of dream careers. And there practically isn't a girl alive who doesn't fantasize about what it would be like to be a MODEL. I was a model-for one glorious year-and wish I had the emotional stamina to have pursued it, but the aftermath of growing up in foster care overwhelmed my life.

CATWALK shows the inner workings of the fashion world. Like with Cheetah Girls, I envision CATWALK in a synergistic way: I see the characters in the books, but I see them on the screen, the style and even the opportunity to empower teens through runway lessons and live fashion show events. That's how I think&Fashion is a global force-it's a way to bring multi-culturism into the forefront-my characters are from all parts of the globe-and I'm glad I got to create a few gay teen characters too as they are an essential part of any fashionable tale. One of the CATWALK characters, Nole Canoli, was inspired by my close friend, Nole Marin, who is a fashion stylist and former judge on America's Next Top Model. He was also on the ABC show True Beauty. I can't wait to see that character come to life on screen-prancing around with his thick black Gucci glasses on his pudgy face-and carrying his pooch Countess Coco in his Prada bag!

In CATWALK, the characters have their own glossary of words. What is a FELINE FATALE?

It's a girl who worships at the altar of pinkdown-because pink is not just a color, it's a cat=itude. It's a girl who never says goodbye to HELLO KITTY and wears her catty style with confidence!

The Cheetah Girls was an international onscreen success. Are there any plans To bring CATWALK to TV?

YES! CATWALK has been optioned by TEEN NICK network for a TV series! Like the Cheetah Girls, the CATWALK characters are destined to have an onscreen shelf life&And I'm delirious that the TEEN NICK network is so excited about it. They are the perfect network for it-they have a built in fan base with teens-many of whom are avid DeGrassi fans--I can't count the number of Cheetah Girls fans who are obsessed with DeGrassi. They love it. Also, TEEN NICK depicts real teens-and that's what I'm aiming for-a campy, multi-cultural and fashionable platform. Development is what it is, but I can only keep my fingers crossed that the diverse CATWALK characters will get their day onscreen. They deserve it! It took five years for the first Cheetah Girls movie to find its way onscreen. TV and film development is a long process-and I plan on kissing a lot of catnip and crosses to keep my strength up&.!

This time around though, I will serve as executive producer and co-write the pilot with Jacob Epstein, who was an EP on SHARK and WITHOUT A TRACE. His wife, Susie Norris Epstein, for VP of SERIES for Disney Channel, pursued vigorously to snag the rights to the Cheetah Girls. So she is also attached and I really dig her style and sense of family dynamics. She's a dedicated mother and tres stylish and funny. When you're dealing with something like fashion, there is nothing better than bringing the story alive on the screen. Sashay, parlay!

Were fans upset that Raven did not reprise her beloved role as Galleria Garibaldi in the third movie sequel, `Cheetah Girls: One World?'

They were so disappointed that my computer froze from all the sad emails! The avalanche of response from fans everywhere I go is palpable. And we're talking about children, so they really don't understand reality. The truth is, when a talent becomes closely related to a beloved character-such as Galleria Garibaldi, the leader of The Cheetah Girls-you shouldn't disappoint. Just dust off the debris and don't disappoint the fans! Simply put, Raven could have done the third movie-and went back to crafting her master plan for "solo'' stardom. Even Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall put aside their differences to go on the stroll-again-in their well-worn Manolos to film the movie version of "Sex and The City.'' But, here you have a young black actress-singer, who has an even bigger responsibility to her fans because she is an even bigger role model because of the limited opportunities that Black actresses are given to create such memorable characters--and what does she do: opt out of the third Cheetah Girls sequel, so she could do, what? "College Road Trip''? Puhleese-fire the psychic who advised steering her star vehicle on that "road-less-traveled'' to the box office because, "knock, knock'': her crystal ball is cracking, hello! Of course, I wish her well, but the rule of the Hollywood jungle is simple: once a cheetah, always a cheetah--so show their spots!

What's in for fashion for fall?

Pink Cheetah! It's always in. And short booties worn with footless textured tights. Headbands are skinnier and skirts are not as short as last year. So give those micro minis to a toddler consignment store. Maxi coats are in for winter worn with fur pom=pom hats-preferably pink ones.

What's in store for the CATWALK series?

The second book in the series - CATWALK: STRIKE A POSE will hit bookstores on September 8. Visit Cheetahrama

More about Deborah: For Deborah Gregory, a best-selling author and award-winning writer who had contributed to Essence, Redbook, Entertainment Weekly, Vibe and More, survival was crucial. Homeless on the sidewalks of Brooklyn at age three with her single mother and two sisters, Gregory was separated from her family and became a ward of the State. She spent her childhood in the New York City foster care system under ACS until she aged out of the system at 18. Upon becoming a journalist, in 1990 she spent a large portion of her career searching for the mother who was committed and piecing together the puzzle of her early years and a painful family legacy. She channeled her pain into writing, creating diverse characters that would empower and unite tween and teen girls across the country.

"The Cheetah Girls" unprecedented franchise success for the Disney Channel began with the airing of the first Cheetah Girls movie in 2003. Within two years of the movie's debut, the fictional group gained a staggering global fan base, topped the soundtrack charts with a double-platinum soundtrack and enjoyed a highly-rated DVD release. In 2006, "The Cheetah Girls 2" made its debut and was the #1 basic cable movie that year among kids 6-11 and tweens 9-14.

The CATWALK series has officially been optioned by The N (which will be renamed TeenNick in the fall) for development. Girls across the U.S. will fall in love once again with Gregory's dynamic and diverse urban characters who represent survival.

Gregory will also serve as the television series' executive producer and co-write the pilot episode with TV veteran scribe Jacob Epstein ("Shark" and "Without A Trace"). Susie Norris-Epstein also serves as the series Executive Producer. Norris-Epstein was Vice President, Series Television for the Disney Channel, where she was responsible for developing the smash hit, Lizzie McGuire, which launched the career of teen star, Hillary Duff, and discovered The Cheetah Girls book series before its initial publication in 1999, snagging the dramatic rights in the process.

Gregory's Catwalk deal with The N was brokered by Lauren Heller Whitney of the William Morris Endeavor Entertainment and attorney, Lisa Davis, a senior partner at Kurnit, Klein, Selz law firm in New York City.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

'Once they are in our house, they're OUR children'

'Mom' to many
Pike, Farah Jadran. Eagle Newspapers, June 11, 2009.

Mary Hudgins stands in her North Syracuse home with her many Mother's Day gifts.
For more than 12 years Mary and Bobby Lee Hudgins Sr. and their four children have called their North Syracuse residence home. But for more than 17 years, 26-plus children have called the Hudgins “mom and dad.”

The Hudgins have always had a lot of love and care to give even after they had their first son Keith, 40, and their triplets Bobby Lee, Kenneth Lee and Calvin Lee, now 34 years old.

Even though Mother’s Day passed almost two weeks ago, the Hudgins dining room table is still covered in cards, flowers, gifts and balloons given to Mary by the numerous children that still call her “mom.”

“I’m still celebrating,” she said.

As she remembered her own childhood growing up in a family of seven children, she had only her father with her life. Although she didn’t have a mother figure, there was neighbor named Miss Clara, who she still thinks of as a mother.

“Miss Clara had one child that she adopted, but no other children,” Hudgins said. “But she looked out for other kids in the neighborhood.”

Like Miss Clara, Hudgins said she truly believes that her upbringing has made her into the loving woman she is today.

“It’s like the parallel to where I am today,” she said of Miss Clara’s presence in her life. “She taught me many things, but most importantly, she taught me about the Lord.”

Firmly believing in Christianity, the Hudgins family attends New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Syracuse with several family members and two foster children that are in their care presently.

Because of their faith, the Hudgins never lost hope in one foster child in particular, Allen. Although each foster child is different and most have different needs that parents need to attend to, Hudgins said she couldn’t believe the things that one of their foster children went through.

Allen came to the Hudgins’ home when he was 11 years old. No matter the problems Allen had, the Hudgins wanted to make sure they gave him a good life for as long as he wanted to be with the family.

“Once they’re in our house, they’re our children,” she said. “We’re devoted no matter what.”

Hudgins said she sees Allen as special because he stayed with the family even after he aged out of the foster program at age 18. He finally felt ready to live on his own when he was 22 years old.
Now in his late 20s, Allen still calls the Hudgins “mom and dad,” even after many years of struggling to overcome challenges for a normal family dynamic.

“We had to teach him so many things,” she said. “He didn’t know how to use a bar of soap and take a bath, and about nutrition.”

She remembered the first time she realized his eating habits when she was making liver for dinner.

“I was cleaning it [liver] and seasoning it when he asked me why I was doing all of this,” she said. “He said that he was used to eating it raw.”

Baffled by the fact that this young boy had eaten something like liver raw made her feel more compassion and a stronger need to turn him around. Hudgins said the environment that children grow up in has such an impact, that Allen was starting over from scratch since he had never had a good example to follow. His nutritional habits were such that he would eat bacon, sausage and eggs all uncooked.

“Even though this happened, he was never ashamed,” she said. “And he knows his mom and dad are proud of him.”

Allen had other issues like hoarding food because he grew up with the fear that he might not eat the next day. Hudgins said she would make 10 or 12 sweet-potato pies at a time with the intention of freezing most of them.

“I remember finding out that he took a few of the pies to eat at the bus stop,” she said. “Those pies only had the batter poured in them so they were raw.”

Like any bad habit, she said it took time and a lot of love and care to help Allen break old habits and form new ones.

Aside from poor eating habits, Allen was never given proper attention while growing up.

“He wanted attention so bad that he would follow me all around the house,” she said.

Allen had a hard time understanding boundaries at first, but the family pushed forward to help him learn. The Hudgins experienced hard times while Allen was in school because his behavior was so erratic, there were several times when they thought they couldn’t help Allen and should just give up.

“Even though we wanted to give up, we thought about how if God didn’t forgive us for our sins we wouldn’t be here,” she said. “My strong conviction in God made us keep him.”

As the Hudgins began to believe in Allen more and more, he started to thrive by attending church more and acting as a respectful family member.

Hudgins said Allen’s living situation before coming to their home was unbelievable.
Allen also struggled with his faith at first because he started to ask where God was in his life when he was eating out of a trashcan or going without a bath.

“Now he is so involved with church, even more than I am,” she said. “He plays in the church’s band and tells others about his relationship with Jesus.”

Because of Allen’s upbringing before the foster care, Hudgins said she truly believes that he has come from the worst of times to the best.

“That in itself is a blessing,” she said. “These children are the purpose of my life.”

Hudgins said she has always had a soft spot for the children and the elderly in her life. As she has come to care for so many kids, she wanted people to know that she and her husband had been taking care of children even before stipends and foster care became what they are today.

The family had been taking in children from time to time no matter if it was for a few days, weeks or months.

“This is my calling from God, the ministry of my life,” she said. “It’s all about the kids and loving those kids.”

While some parents experience “empty nest syndrome” after all their children have grown up and moved out, Hudgins said their home will always be filled with kids that they will love forever. She recommends fostering to those that feel they have love to give.

“Become a foster parent please, because there’s no need for people to feel a void in life,” she said. “Share the love you have because God didn’t give us love to sit on it.”

Even people scared to try fostering should try it, she said. Her faith in God urges Hudgins to care for the children of the Lord.

“I always think of the book of Matthew that says, ‘Suffer little children and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven,’” she said.

Throughout her many years of fostering, she said that people who believe they can’t do something should try it because they can do it, and the blessing would be insurmountable.

“You’ll be doing God’s will and he will richly bestow blessings upon you,” she said.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Infant dies in NY foster home of 'shaken baby syndrome'

Mother to sue over son slain in foster care
County should have prevented it, she says

Drumsta, Raymond. Ithaca Journal, June 8, 2009.

ITHACA - A 14-month-old boy in foster care died due to negligence by the Tompkins County Department of Social Services, according to his mother.

In a notice filed with the claims court, Kristine Freda announced her intention to sue the county in connection with the death of son Adrian Hines last fall. Her attorney, Edward E. Kopko, filed the notice, which alleges that Adrian suffered "severe life-threatening injuries, including head trauma" while in the foster home.

Kopko could not be reached for comment, and the county attorney's office declined to comment. District Attorney Gwen Wilkinson said that her staff continues to investigate Adrian's death, but that no criminal charges have been filed.

Around 5:20 p.m. Oct. 2, deputies, Freeville firefighters and Etna firefighters responded to the report of an unresponsive child at the foster home on Etna Road, sheriff's officials said. Adrian was taken to Cayuga Medical Center and on to Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, where he "subsequently died from injuries he sustained," they added.

According to sheriff's officials, an autopsy later determined that Adrian's death was a homicide.

After Adrian suffered his injuries, a doctor at Upstate Medical Center told Freda that the child was brain dead because of head trauma - including swelling and bleeding of his brain - caused by shaken baby syndrome, the notice went on to say.

"Adrian sustained conscious pain and suffering and wrongful death because of the negligence and recklessness of employees, agents and/or servants of (the Department of Social Services)," the notice alleged.

Among many other functions, DSS "oversees recruitment and retention of qualified, caring families who are willing to provide temporary foster care for children and to work with families toward reunification," according to its Web site.

The department removed Adrian from Freda's home in July, the notice said, and filed a neglect petition. The petition alleged that Freda had hit Adrian, shaken him and screamed at him on May 22, 2008, and that she had failed to provide appropriate supervision and make a "sanitary and safe home" for him - all of which Freda had emphatically denied, the papers said.

"A doctor evaluated Adrian subsequent to May 22, 2008 and found Adrian to be without injury," the notice said. Nonetheless, DSS placed Adrian in a foster home on July 24, then moved him to the foster home on Etna Road a few days later, according to the notice.

The foster home was "more dangerous of an environment than Freda's home," the notice alleges, where Adrian was regularly left in the care of the foster family's 15-year-old daughter "without adult supervision."

Adrian died because DSS failed to contact Freda's extended family to place him in their care and failed to investigate the foster home before placing him in it - all protocols that should've been followed, the notice said. The doctor at Upstate Medical Center, who had 30 years of experience, advised Freda that it would be best to take Adrian off life support "and let him die as peacefully as possible," the notice went to say.

"At 12:28 a.m., Oct. 3, 2008, Adrian died in Freda's arms," the notice said. Freda intends to sue for her pain and suffering due to Adrian's death, along with his medical and funeral expenses, "which have been accumulated in an amount to be determined at trial of this action."

Monday, June 8, 2009

$7.4M budget cut will further jeopardize safety of children

Proposed Cuts to Foster Care Protested at New York City Hall
Phillip, Joshua. Epoch Times, June 4, 2009.

Foster care agencies are being threatened with a $7.4 million cut in New York City’s 2010 budget. On Thursday the steps of City Hall were swamped with more than 100 parents and foster care providers.

They were joined by Council Member Bill de Blasio to rally against the proposals, concerned that the cuts would jeopardize the safety of children throughout New York.

“We cannot play Russian roulette with the safety of our children,” said Council Member Bill de Blasio in a press release.

Several sectors of New York are being impacted as the city tries to close a $1.9 billion budget gap. The deficit emerged largely from a $6.8 billion drop in anticipated tax revenue, as jobs and homes were lost amid the global financial crisis.

“Times are tough all over, but gutting programs that protect children is not the answer,” said Mr. de Blasio.

The five percent cut will impact the city’s 35 foster care agencies and near 17,000 foster children. Among the effects of the cuts would be the elimination of 1,000 positions at the Administration for Children’s Services.

Richard Altman, CEO of the Jewish Child Care Association explained that the cuts will result in staff reductions and services that will cause longer lengths of stay for kids in foster care.

“These abused and neglected children and youth are literally in the custody of the city--so the city must not cut the services that protect their safety and well-being," said Mr. Altman. "These children deserve a permanent family connection without delay.”

There is also a proposal to eliminate funding for the Child Safety Initiative, which helps to lower caseloads at community-based preventive service programs. The initiative currently costs the city $4.2 million a year.

“Without the funds needed to support lower caseloads through the Child Safety Initiative our ability to perform ... will be seriously compromised,” said Charles Barrios, division director of Brooklyn Preventive Service Programs at Good Shepherd Services.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sandra Ferguson: Foster and Adoptive Parent

National Foster Month
Lee, Karen. News 10 Now, May 25, 2009.

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Sandra Ferguson first became interested in foster parenting about seven years ago. She disapproved of how some foster children she knew were being treated, so she signed up to do it herself.

"I always wanted a big family but I didn't want to have a big family. So this was my way of giving back to the community," Ferguson said.

She's since fostered six children and is currently in the process of adopting the last two. They've been living with her and her two biological children for the last few years.

"There is no difference. She provides them with every opportunity that she does with her own biological children and she has done a great deal by opening up her home to these teenage, more difficult kids that a lot of people are scared to take," said Jean Galle, Hillside Foster Care Manager.

Ferguson admits that raising older children has been a challenge as they tend to be more guarded. But with the combination of patience and love, she says they will open up. Ferguson witnessed that this past Mother’s Day through a text message.

There's said to be no comparison to the bond that's felt between a parent and child. And it doesn't matter if that relationship began in the womb or later on in life. May is National Foster Care Month and our Karen Lee visited the Hillside Children's Center in Syracuse and spoke with one foster mother who is encouraging others to take on the challenge.

"He says thank you for being my mom and almost brought me to tears at work but that lets me know that I must be doing something right," Ferguson said.

Foster care agencies like the Hillside Children's Center are looking for more people like Ferguson. For those who can't be a full-time mom and dad, there are other options.

"They may only take a child on the weekend or an as need basis. So they may have not have the time or the ability to take on a child full-time but they can become a supportive resource for a child in that way," Galle said.

"These kids just need to know what love is. That there's people that care about them, that care more about them waking up and going to sleep, that really actually care about their well-being and wanting them to succeed in life," Ferguson said.

If you would like more information on becoming a foster parent, contact the Hillside Children's Center at (315) 423-5112.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Judith Leekin's alleged abuse of 10 disabled foster children

Ten Sue NY in Foster-Child Abuse Case
Courthouse News Service, May 01, 2009.

The City of New York Administration for Children's Services allowed a woman to collect money for years for 10 disabled foster children she beat, starved, humiliated, and imprisoned, handcuffed, in a basement for years, according to a complaint in Federal Court.

Judith Leekin - not named as a defendant in this case - used six aliases to collect the checks, according to the complaint. The crimes allegedly occurred from 1986 to 1994.

The defendants allegedly placed the children with Leekin after failing to identify her fictitious identities, and failed to supervise or monitor her or the children.

Here are the defendants: City of New York, Administration for Children's Services fka Child Welfare Administration, St. Joseph's Services for Children fka Catholic Child Care Society of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Heartshare Human Services fka Catholic Guardian Society Diocese of Brooklyn, and SCO Family of Services fka St. Christopher-Ottilie.

Lead attorneys for the plaintiffs are Howard Talenfeld of Fort Lauderdale and Thomas Moore of Manhattan.

Aging out of foster care in the midst of a recession

Too Old for Foster Care, and Facing the Recession
Fremson, Ruth. The New York Times, April 7, 2009.

Caption: Melissa Diaz, 19, left the foster care system and is living in a shelter for young people while training to be a nursing assistant.

Even in boom times, young people who become too old for the foster-care system often struggle to make it on their own, lacking families, job skills or adequate educations. Now, the recession has made the challenges of life after foster care even more formidable, especially for those seeking federal housing vouchers, which are contingent on having an income.

Caption: Michael Smith will turn 21 in August, and his foster care benefits will expire. He has been searching for work since October.

Since the beginning of this year, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services has been providing letters to those about to leave the foster care system, certifying that they are likely to be eligible for public assistance and thus easing the application process when they are ready. Yet, many child-welfare advocates worry that a growing number will still end up homeless.

“They get a lot of resources until they’re 21, and then essentially none,” said James J. Golden, the executive director of the Edwin Gould Academy in East Harlem, which provides housing exclusively to former foster children. “It’s like falling off a cliff for some of them.”

In New York, foster children are allowed to leave the system when they turn 18 but can stay until 21; last year, 407 wards turned 21, while 547 opted out early — 375 at age 18, and 172 at 19 or 20.

Once discharged from the system, some move in with family or friends, get jobs or go to college. Others apply for welfare as their sole source of income, and often end up homeless.

Administrators at the Chelsea Foyer at the Christopher, which houses dozens of former and current foster youths, said that typically, 90 percent of their residents were employed, but that in February only 70 percent had jobs.

“They are the low man on the totem pole for jobs anyway,” said Jerome Kilbane, the executive director of Covenant House New York, a nonprofit that operates shelters for young people. “Now they are even more at a disadvantage.”

Michael Smith, 20, said he was increasingly anxious as he approached the day in August that he will have to leave his foster home in Brooklyn. He has been searching for work since October, leaving résumés at places like McDonald’s and the clothing stores Express and H & M.

Mr. Smith graduated from high school in Queens in 2006 and went to Kingsborough Community College, but he dropped out after his sickle-cell anemia caused him to miss class frequently.

“I’m coming up to my 21st birthday, when I’m no longer going to be supported,” Mr. Smith said. “I feel overlooked all the times I do go apply for these jobs. But I have to do this, or else I’ll be out on the street.”

Officials at the Administration for Children’s Services say they do everything possible to avert that, including the letters that help smooth the application process for public assistance.

The child-welfare agency and the 36 foster-care groups with which it contracts begin to prepare children for independence as early as age 14. There are workshops on budgeting, job hunting, how to sign up for health insurance and how to negotiate with a landlord over rent.

At age 19, foster youths begin to talk to caseworkers about housing options, which commonly include Section 8 vouchers, public housing projects and supportive housing, where counseling and job training might be available on site.

The Administration for Children’s Services provides a one-time stipend of $750 as a cushion to foster youths when they exit the system. They are also eligible for a monthly payment of $300 from the city, from the time the leave foster care until they are 21 ½, if they are not receiving any other public housing subsidy, such as Section 8.

Most of those leaving foster care are entitled to Section 8, which typically allows tenants to rent apartments for one-third of their monthly income. But that means they need income to qualify. And with unemployment rates in New York rising precipitously, foster-care workers are worried.

“To be honest, I’m afraid that our youth are really going to be unable to secure housing,” said Jane Feyder, the assistant director at the New York Foundling Fontana Center for Child Protection. “They don’t have the work experience that other people have who are looking for jobs right now. They’re competing with so many other people who have advantages over them.”

Even advocates for foster youth acknowledge that they are a particularly difficult group to employ.

Many lack high school diplomas, having spent adolescence being shuttled from home to home. The responsibilities of a first job can come as a shock, and many quit out of frustration.

“A year ago, if they’d lose one $9- an-hour job, there was usually another one that we could find them,” Mr. Golden said. “Now it’s a little more costly to become unemployed.”

One of the former foster children in his care, Jessica Molina, landed a job in January 2008, working in computer technology at Merrill Lynch. She was laid off in June when the company downsized, and has been working at temporary jobs since.

“Like everyone else, I have my fingers crossed that I’ll find something,” Ms. Molina, 22, said. But looking at the gaps in her résumé, she is often reminded of the constant moves between group homes she endured during her teenage years. “Sometimes you’re looked at as a castaway,” she said. “It’s like coming from a totally different place.”

Brenda Tully, the program director for Chelsea Foyer at the Christopher, said residents have been laid off or seen their hours reduced at jobs in gyms, nightclubs and clothing stores.

“There’s a much greater fear among the young people about what to expect,” Ms. Tully said. “They are very, very concerned that they’re not going to be able to find housing that’s affordable.”

Stephany Diaz, a housing specialist for New York Foundling, one of the city’s largest foster-care agencies, said she has begun prodding youths to apply for public assistance once they are officially discharged from care.

“I used to discourage them to go down that route,” she said. “But now we almost have to.”

Since 2002, the Administration for Children’s Services has tried to move teenagers out of group homes and into foster care, hoping that when the time comes to leave, the children would have families to turn to.

“We want children to leave care with a loving, caring and supportive adult who’s going to continue to work with them long past their 21st birthday,” said Lorraine Stephens, a deputy commissioner at the Administration for Children’s Services. “We don’t want any kid to leave without someone connected to them.”

But many children have tenuous connections to foster families, at best.

Mr. Smith, whose aunt is his foster parent, said staying with her after his 21st birthday is not an option. “She’s moving in with her boyfriend,” he said.

Melissa Diaz, 19, left the foster care system more than a year ago, shortly after her foster mother died. Ms. Diaz later moved to Covenant House, and after nearly three months of searching found a job stocking shelves at Duane Reade.

She is training to become a nursing assistant and trying to earn enough money to become independent and afford housing on her own. “That would be great,” she said. “It would be a blessing from God.”

Overlap Between Prison and Child Welfare Systems

A Tangle of Problems Links Prison, Foster Care
Chen, Michelle. Gotham Gazette, April 13, 2009.

Wanda Chambers came to understand motherhood in an unlikely setting: the solitude of a maximum-security prison.

Chambers, now 41, had struggled with addiction for years; she had tried treatment but couldn't stop using. Her crisis bottomed out in 1998, when child welfare authorities took her infant daughter, Princess, and placed her in the home of a foster parent. Soon afterward, Chambers was incarcerated on a drug conviction.

At Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester, "I was locked up long enough to really strengthen my mind and change my way of thinking," she recalled. When she got out about three years later, she was determined to prove to the government she deserved to have her daughter back. She went through 18 months of court-supervised drug treatment and parenting skills programs before finally regaining custody.

The experience continues to shape her family. She works as an advocate for parents dealing with child welfare. Meanwhile, Princess' former foster mother remains involved, helping care for the child as a co-parent.

For Chambers, prison and foster care brought regret and revelation. "It was definitely a learning experience," she said. "You lose everything, and you break family ties. And I always wanted to get it right, but I just didn't know how."

In New York City's social service structure, two major institutions wield the power to separate families in the name of safety. With the aim of protecting society as a whole, criminal justice agencies sweep up parents through courts and prisons, while the Administration for Children's Services, charged with safeguarding individual children from harm, routinely removes young people from troubled homes. Though driven by different goals, the two systems interact in many families. Critics warn that both types of intervention may further deepen patterns of emotional and social trauma for children and parents.

Interlocking Systems, Interlocking Problems
There are no comprehensive statistics on families involved with both the child welfare and criminal justice systems in New York City. According to New York State's Department of Correctional Services, the majority of inmates report having at least one child. The Correctional Association, a New York-based advocacy group, estimates that statewide, more than 10,000 children had a mother imprisoned in New York prisons or jails. National data indicate that most mothers in state prisons lived with their children before their current sentence. Of mothers in state prisons with children under 18, about one in ten reported having a child in foster or institutional care; many more had children living with other relatives, though some relatives may also serve as "kinship" foster caregivers.

But national child welfare data reveal more subtle overlaps between the systems. One third of all children reported to local child welfare agencies for being maltreated at home had a primary caregiver who had been arrested at least once. Long-term studies show that families often cycle through social problems that can lead both to losing a child to foster care and to losing a parent to prison: issues such as poverty, substance abuse and mental illness. Demographics underline the connections: people in poor and black communities tend to have heavier involvement with both child-protective services and the criminal justice system.

Reflecting the synergy of environment and family dynamics, most child maltreatment reports are tied not to outright abuse, but "neglect" -- failure to provide sufficient care. A child could become technically neglected if her parent cannot afford adequate food and housing, or is consumed by addiction.

Although a parent's encounter with law enforcement also will not necessarily cause her to lose custody, Children's Services may intervene on an emergency basis if an arrest leaves the child unattended. Reform advocates say these placements can lead to prolonged separation as families wade through the child welfare bureaucracy.

"Over a child's lifetime, mothers and fathers may be arrested multiple times, intermittently use drugs, or have other problems that affect the child's home," said Susan Phillips, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "People not only progress through the criminal justice system; they loop through it."

The same crises make the home more vulnerable to child welfare intervention. Whether one system is a cause or an effect of the other may be impossible to discern, but both can pull children into a spiral of instability.

The Loss of a Child
Cathy Faust barely had a chance to be a mother before Childen's Services decided she was an unfit parent. A survivor of child abuse, she struggled with depression and drugs throughout her youth, right up to the birth of her daughter Jimeaka in 1990. After charging her with neglect, she recalled, Children's Services pressured her to turn her baby over to the care of her sister-in-law.

Without access to legal help or support services, Faust said, she went along with the plan, but three years later, her sister-in-law moved to adopt Jimeaka and terminate Faust's parental rights.

Though Faust maintained some contact with her daughter over the next few years, losing custody stoked her emotional volatility. "I just felt worthless and hopeless," she said. "It was like I was [the] worst person in the world. So it just made me indulge in drugs more, because I'm feeling less than a woman because I can't even be a mother to my child."

Faust was arrested on drug-related charges in 1998. When she met her daughter again after her release from prison six years later, the legal separation had grown into a permanent distance, and they remain estranged.

Faust, now 47, holds down a job at a social service organization and receives regular therapy. But while her life has become more stable, she said, it is not whole.

"That's my only child," she said. "And it's like, OK, my life is together, but it's not together, because that's a piece that's missing. And so much damage that has been done-not just for me, but for her also, for the family."

Recent reform efforts in both child welfare and criminal justice have emphasized preventing mistreatment or neglect and preserving family bonds. Some alternative sentencing programs can route parents into drug treatment rather than prison. Children's Services has stepped up social support services to help children in distressed homes remain with their parents. But advocates say both systems still fail the city's most vulnerable families.

To regain custody of a child in foster care, a birth parent must demonstrate her willingness and ability to care for the child by meeting an array of legal obligations, such as a mandated "service plan" that could include parenting classes or drug treatment, along with periodic review by family court. But Sarah From, director of public policy with the Women's Prison Association, said complying with this can be nearly impossible for a parent behind bars. "The onus is very much on the woman to manage this process of keeping her family together, while she's under the very hard and stressful situation of incarceration," From said.

Children's Services, which must facilitate visits with birth parents, has helped ease the strain of separation with its Children of Incarcerated Parents Program, which provides foster care children with transportation to correctional facilities across the state. In recent years, some prisons have become more accommodating as well. Parenting centers at Rikers and Bedford Hills, for example, allow family visits in a more open, "child-friendly" setting.

Yet, according to the Correctional Association, problems persist at other facilities, including cumbersome security clearance procedures, a lack of social support services for parent-child interaction, and difficulties coordinating visits with child welfare and corrections personnel.

As an advocate, Chambers said she sees many incarcerated parents set back by unresponsive case managers, who are overworked, out of reach or just insensitive to the challenges of incarceration. "I feel like, when a parent is locked up, out of sight, out of mind," she said.

Legal Blockades
Unlike a criminal trial, the family court process centers on assessing a child's well-being, rather than judging evidence of alleged criminal activity. The judge and the city tend to take a preventive approach, focused on broad risks to family safety -- from a lack of medical care to domestic violence.

Shortages of money and staff complicate the legal landscape. Despite recent efforts to make the process more efficient, parent advocates say the system still lacks the personnel and funding it needs to conduct adequate investigations or provide competent counsel.

The hurdles facing imprisoned parents grew higher in the late 1990s with the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act. If a child has spent 15 of the previous 22 months in foster care, the law requires that child welfare authorities file for termination of the birth parent's rights. The aim is to set a time period so the child can find "permanency" instead of foster care -- generally, either reunification with the birth parent or adoption by another family.

Though child welfare agencies can make limited exceptions to the timetable based on family circumstances, the law has tightened pressure on parents to defend their custodial rights. Meanwhile, state policies make no specific exemptions for incarcerated parents, whose sentences typically exceed the time line. According to research led by Columbia University law professor Philip Genty, in the years following the act's passage -- 1997 to 2002 -- termination proceedings for incarcerated parents more than doubled. (*Please note that, before then, young people languished in foster care for years, despite parents making little or no progress).

Criminal justice reform groups have pushed for state legislation to make the foster care timeframe more flexible for incarcerated parents.

The law's aim of promoting stability has backfired, Genty said. "There's no unified, enlightened policy going on," he said. "The correctional system is making its decisions for its own reasons, the foster care system is making its decisions for its own reasons, and nobody's really keeping track of whether that creates inherent tensions."

Prison as the Final Chance
After returning to their communities, many formerly incarcerated women say prison was the necessary "break" that compelled them to change their lives. But to activists, that attests not so much to the positive aspects of incarceration as to a lack of alternatives. Reform advocates argue that neither locking up parents nor removing children from their homes can substitute for community-based programs that intervene to keep families intact before a crisis hits.

"It's not that the transforming factor or moment had to be prison, per se," said Tanya Krupat, a program director at the Osborne Association, a criminal justice-focused service and advocacy organization. "But it was that prison may have been the first time that a woman felt safe, let's say, because she was in a domestic violence relationship, or it's the first time someone could actually detox and think clearly. Then that's a failure of us not having adequate or accessible drug treatment, domestic violence services and other programs."

After Natalie Credell was arrested in 2005 with her boyfriend on drug-related charges, she was placed on bail and ordered into a residential rehabilitation program, designed to house her and her infant son, Nasir, while she got treatment. But Credell, 31, found the program stressful and stifling. After clashing with the counselors, she dropped out and relapsed. She ended up doing 15 months in a federal prison in Virginia, and Administration for Children's Services placed Nasir in the care of Natalie's father.

Like Chambers, Credell hit a wall in prison. "It just dawned on me that I'm a mom now," she said. "This is not where I want to be. This is not the type of mother that I want to be to my son."
Following her release, Credell found her way to Hour Children, a Queens-based organization for women transitioning from prison that offers job training, childcare, and supportive housing. She regained custody of Nasir in March 2007, and the two now live together at Hour Children while she studies to become a drug-treatment counselor.

Credell traces her crisis farther back than her arrest or even her addiction. She first encountered Children's' Services as a child, she recalled, when her mother's drug use prompted a child welfare investigation. She eventually went to live with her grandmother. But her mother's turbulence had started her on a chaotic trajectory.

"The streets taught her," she said, "and this is what she passed on to me."

Now on the outside, Credell hopes to pass something better onto her son. "A mother is a child's world," she said. "So in order to make things happen for him, I have to make things happen for me."

- Michelle Chen is a freelance writer and a native New Yorker. This article is part of a series that will explore the connections between the criminal justice and child welfare systems in New York City. The project is supported by a fellowship from the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Over 1,000 LGBT homeless youth in New York

Budget Beefs of Youth Advocates
Schindler, Paul. Gay City News, April 2, 2009.

With a recent city census finding that more than 1,000 LGBT youth are homeless in New York and often have to spend the night on the streets, advocates for that population are expressing concerns about a number of budget cuts that could reduce services and even the scarce supply of emergency and transitional beds available.

Green Chimneys, which currently provides 20 of the roughly 100 beds available citywide to homeless youth in settings specifically tailored to provide a safe space for queer youth, is at risk of losing half of that total because of funding cuts at the city Department of Youth and Community Development. DYCD informed Green Chimneys its contract funding those ten beds would not be renewed in the fiscal year beginning July 1, leaving the agency with only state money that pays for the other ten beds.

However, according to Theresa Nolan, a senior staffer at Green Chimneys, the agency has now learned that additional state money going to DYCD might enable it to retain funding for as many as seven of the beds it risked losing.

In the Bronx, the lack of a contract renewal is likely to prove more problematic. For the past three years, the Bronx Community Pride Center, an LGBT-focused facility on East 149th Street, has been the designated borough drop-in center for homeless youth of all backgrounds, receiving funding of $300,000 annually.

According to Lisa Winters, during that period, the Pride Center has experienced about 16,000 youth visits, provided crisis referral and intensive case management to more than 700 youth, LGBT and straight from the Bronx and Upper Manhattan, served more than 5,000 meals, and tested more than 500 for HIV, identifying 29 positive clients.

The loss of the city contract eliminates a quarter of the Pride Center's $1.2 million budget and eliminates its entire youth-specific programming.

Though the Pride Center had received Very Good ratings in each of three annual city audits, it lost out in this year's competitive bidding to Cardinal McCloskey Services, a large social services agency that works in the Bronx, Westchester, and Rockland.

Though it is ostensibly non-sectarian, Cardinal McCloskey obviously has a Catholic background, and its website describes its mission in "support[ing] the sanctity of the family." Winters noted that statement, and said that the Catholic Church's historic hostility to LGBT people would disenfranchise many Pride Center clients.

"My kids won't go to Cardinal McCloskey," she warned.

Ryan Dodge, a spokesman for DYCD, noted that Cardinal McCloskey specifically wrote about serving LGBT youth in its proposal, and added that the Pride Center's loss of the contract was no reflection of the quality of the program it has run.

In Manhattan, Sylvia's Place, the homeless LGBT youth program of the Metropolitan Community Church in Midtown, lost out in its effort to be designated as the Manhattan homeless youth drop-in center.

That contract, which has been held by the Streetwork program run by Safe Horizon, will now go to the Door. Arguing that the Door is not specifically geared to LGBT youth, Lucky Michaels, who directs MCC's Homeless Youth Services, said the Soho agency offered a "warehousing approach" to meeting youth needs.

Other advocates, however, note that the Door has long worked effectively with queer youth among its population.

Michaels said that without the drop-in center contract, Sylvia's Place might not be able to continue providing all 26 overnight spots that it currently offers.
MCC staged a protest in City Hall Park on March 31, where it was joined by homeless youth advocates including Carmen Quinones from Green Chimneys, Nancy Downing from Covenant House, and Margo Hirsch from the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services.

The largest provider of housing for homeless LGBT youth, the Ali Forney Center, meanwhile, announced this week that it is receiving new DYCD and state Department of Health funding of $400,000 in 2009, bringing its total annual budget to $4.3 million. The group added 18 beds this year, and now provides 48 slots - 24 for emergency housing, and the other half for transitional living aimed at preparing youth to find permanent housing on their own

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Recession takes its toll on kinship caregivers

'Grandfamilies' Come Under Pressure
Tough Economy Adds to the Strains on Americans Raising Grandchildren

Lagnado, Lucette. Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2009.

PORT JERVIS, N.Y. -- Until she lost her job last September, Wendy Nocar denied nothing to her granddaughter, Summer, whom she has raised since she was a baby. The blonde 6-year-old was plied with Barbie dolls, clothes, ballet lessons, trips to the mall, and outings to Broadway shows and her favorite restaurant, Red Lobster.

These days, Ms. Nocar, 57, unable to land a job interview much less a job, is worried about stocking the refrigerator and paying her mortgage. She is also fearful of being unable to support Summer, who she says was born addicted to heroin, and who has been in her custody since infancy.

Summer is anxious about her grandmother's situation. "We don't have a lot of money," says the first-grader, whose pictures adorn the cluttered three-bedroom house she inhabits with her grandmother, two cats, a dog and a rabbit named Whiskers. "We need a lot of money; she has to get a job," Summer adds.

Summer Nocar sits on her bedroom floor looking at her shells with her grandmother, Wendy Nocar, in Port Jervis, N.Y.

"She seems to understand a lot more than children do her age," Ms. Nocar says.

Today, more and more children are being raised by their grandparents. These grandparents provide a crucial safety net, allowing children whose parents can't provide for them to remain in families, instead of winding up as wards of the state. But as the recession hits "grandfamilies," that safety net is under stress.

The unemployment rate for older workers is lower than the overall rate. But once they become unemployed, older workers find it harder to land a job and they tend to remain out of work longer than younger workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for those 55 and over has been climbing significantly in recent months; in March, it rose to 6.2% -- the highest it has been since September, 1949, according the bureau.

At the same time, the number of grandfamilies has been growing. In 1970, about 3% of all children under 18 lived in households headed by a grandparent. By 2007, 4.7 million kids -- or 6.5% of American children -- were living in households headed by a grandparent, according to Census Bureau data. This shift was driven by a variety of factors, including more parents hit by drug use, AIDS or cancer, and the large numbers of single parents who, if struck by tragedy, leave children behind.

Not all of these grandparents are sole caregivers, says Kenneth Bryson, a director at Generations United, a Washington nonprofit, "but most are making important contributions," providing "substantial care so that the parents can work or go to school."

Nationwide, about 20% of grandparents or other relatives get grants to help care for children they are raising. Amounts vary; in New York, it averages about $5,000 a year, says Gerard Wallace, an attorney who heads New York's Kinship Navigator program, which helps grandparent caregivers. By contrast, the average cost to the state of one child in non-specialized foster care is $22,000 per year in New York, he says.

If one million children being raised by relatives were to enter foster care, it would cost taxpayers more than $6.5 billion each year, according to a 2005 report by Generations United.

Agencies that work with grandparents are seeing a spike in requests for emergency assistance -- to help pay rent and heating bills or buy winter clothes for children. Ms. Nocar, for instance, is one of many Americans facing both the loss of a job and steep payments for a second mortgage.

A $1 million fund in Washington state to help grandparents is running out of money because of the crush of demand. In Tucson, Ariz., a similar, $147,000 fund that was supposed to last through June was so rapidly depleted in recent months, that it's now gone. In Tampa and Chicago, agencies are helping caregivers who bought homes, but now can't keep up with mortgage payments and risk having no place to live with their grandchildren.

"This is the worst we've ever seen," says Hilari Hauptman, who administers Washington state's fund, established five years ago. "We're hearing of cases where grandfathers who are the families' breadwinner are losing their jobs, of grandmothers who are raising multiple grandchildren and are close to losing their homes to foreclosures."

Allen Bringard, an Everett, Wash., carpet-layer raising a 2-year-old granddaughter and a 15-year-old grandson, came to the attention of Ms. Hauptman's fund in December, as he faced an eviction notice on his apartment. Until recently, Mr. Bringard, 56, had his own small business installing carpets, and he and his wife lived in relative comfort. But as the economy stalled last year and fewer homes were being built, he found himself with less work. "People aren't buying carpets, and that was my trade," he says.

In September, one of his clients failed to pay -- which meant Mr. Bringard couldn't pay the rent. He became "desperate," he says, when he was served with eviction papers, and authorities said they might have to temporarily remove his granddaughter, Shelby, until his situation improved, saying she had to be in a stable home.

"She is the joy of our heart -- losing her would have been like having your own child ripped out of your hands," he says. An emergency grant from the Washington fund enabled him to hold on to the apartment for now. Mr. Bringard says he recently lost his part-time job and is looking for work again.

Losing Summer is Ms. Nocar's greatest fear. She has legal custody, but worries that if she can't find a job -- and can't support Summer -- authorities could take the child away and place her in foster care. "They ask in court, 'how are you going to support this kid?'" she says. "A parent can lose a job and be homeless and still take their child with them, but not a grandparent."

David Jolly, commissioner of the Department of Social Services in Orange County, N.Y., where Ms. Nocar lives, says that while he understands the worries of grandparents, it wouldn't be the practice of his county "to do a removal based on an economic situation." In considering a child's situation, he says "money isn't nearly as important as love."

Summer has lived with Ms. Nocar since she was a month old. Her father is Ms. Nocar's son. Summer was born addicted to heroin, according to papers filed by Ms. Nocar with Family Court in Orange County, in Goshen, N.Y. Ms. Nocar recalls going to see the baby every day in the neo-natal intensive care unit and falling in love with her. State authorities prepared to find the baby a foster home or put her up for adoption.

Ms. Nocar didn't want to lose the child to strangers. In October 2002, she brought Summer home in a bassinet.

"What are you going to do with a baby?" she recalls her own mother saying. "Raise her," she replied.

It was rough going at first, to be a middle-aged, single parent, caring for an infant. At 51, Ms. Nocar found herself getting up in the middle of the night for feedings.

Summer was a delicate child, prone to colds and ear infections. She has also been diagnosed with severe attention deficit disorder, her grandmother says. Medication could possibly help, but Ms. Nocar is adamant: "She has had enough drugs," she says.

In the years when Ms. Nocar was prospering, she liked spoiling the little girl. For Summer's fifth birthday party, she hired a magician. She took her to the mall to shop for "girlie girl" clothes.

At her most recent job, she worked as an engineer designing containers for the food-service industry. Ms. Nocar says she earned about $38,000 a year, enough to get by in her small town. At Christmas, they took a theater outing to New York City, about two hours from home. At least once a week, they went out to dinner. Summer loved to chat up the waitresses of Red Lobster, a restaurant she nicknamed the "Big Crab."

Now, Ms. Nocar can't afford to take her out to eat. She doesn't buy one of Summer's favorite treats -- packages of string cheese -- because of the cost. Summer asked to see the Broadway version of "The Little Mermaid" for Christmas, since she was used to going to shows; her grandmother had to say no. Ms. Nocar's friends now bring over large bags of used clothing.

Ms. Nocar says her granddaughter likes rummaging through the bags and picking out items. But Summer understands the difference between new and hand-me-downs. Asked how her life has changed since her grandmother stopped working, she replies:

"I like to get stuff of my own, like clothes. Now I get stuff from other people."

Why, she is asked?

"You know why," Summer replies. "Because we are poor."

Ms. Nocar has been struggling to find work in a tough market. She doesn't have a formal engineering degree, so she is expanding the kinds of jobs she'll pursue. Her Work Search Record, the form that she must fill out to get unemployment benefits, lists dozens of jobs she has sought -- at employment agencies, consulting firms, temp agencies, Home Depot.

In the column marked "Result of Contact," she scribbles "No jobs," or "Not hiring" or "No response." After sending out more than 55 feelers on-line, by phone or in person, she says she has yet to be called to an interview.

The fact that she is in her late 50s makes her worry whether she is employable. "Is there going to be any use for me?" she says.

Many older workers who lose their jobs drop out of the work force, believing their efforts are hopeless. The number of people 55 and older classified by the federal government as "discouraged" -- meaning they've given up looking for work because they don't think there are any jobs for them -- nearly tripled from December 2007 to December 2008, to 154,000 from 53,000, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.

Ms. Nocar is contemplating running a day-care center out of her home. Or perhaps selling knick-knacks at a flea market; her house is filled with boxes of items she hopes to sell, including furniture. She's also considering training in the medical field, one of the few sectors with jobs in the area. She has been seeking positions that pay close to what she once made, but says, "if it comes down to it, I will take any job."

Her priority is to keep up her mortgage payments. Ms. Nocar says she bought the house -- built in the 1890s -- in the early 1990s for about $90,000 and had a mortgage payment of about $800 to $900 a month. She decided to refinance to get a lower interest rate but also borrowed money against the house to pay off debts.

Two years ago, Ms. Nocar says, Countrywide Financial approached her with the possibility of getting more cash by taking out another mortgage. She says she resisted, at first. "I didn't want that second mortgage, but they kept calling; they kept telling me 'you could afford it.'[nbsp ]"

"What if I lose my job?" She recalls asking them. She says that she was reassured she had plenty of credit.

A spokesman for Countrywide, which was acquired last year by Bank of America Corp., couldn't discuss specifics but said the loan was made appropriately. "The loan is made based on the current employment. We can't predict the economy, we can't predict whether she will have a job at some point in the future," he said.

Ms. Nocar says she took out a second mortgage in 2007, obtaining about $35,000 in cash. The first mortgage required her to pay 5.875% interest, the second mortgage carried an interest rate of 10.625%.

Her payment now -- of about $1,600 a month -- has been tough to manage since losing her job. Her unemployment, of about $1,450 a month, doesn't cover it, but she has a boarder, which helps. And she receives a grant of $411 from the state to help care for Summer.

Ms. Nocar says she doesn't qualify for food stamps or Medicaid, although Summer is covered by Medicaid. Ms. Nocar says she was forced to drop her own health coverage this month, because she could no longer afford it, and is struggling to pay her utility bill. Though she says she is usually even-keeled, in recent days she has broken down and cried twice. "I am scared now," she says.

One option is to make Summer a ward of the state and become a foster grandparent. Under that arrangement, Summer could still live at home, and the state would pay benefits, upwards of $600 a month, and possibly more because of her struggles with attention deficit disorder, according to Mr. Wallace, of New York's Kinship Navigator program.

But there are drawbacks. Ms. Nocar worries that authorities would be constantly checking on her.

Ms. Nocar meets regularly with other grandparents who are raising grandchildren, as part of a support program of the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, an educational nonprofit in Middletown, N.Y.

And she has turned to her own mother, who is 79, for help. Ms. Nocar's mom, Sally Goldberg, has moved next door. Late last year, she gave her daughter a bond worth $8,400 that Ms. Nocar has since cashed and used to pay household expenses. The great-grandmother also helps support Summer in other ways -- she pays for ballet lessons, buys her the string cheese she loves, and recently purchased a bedroom set for the little girl. "We have a good time together, Summer and I," she says.

As for her own daughter, Ms. Goldberg says: "She is my heroine."

Summer tells her grandmother she has a solution for their recent woes: "I want you to get a lot of money."

6 million children being raised by their grandparents in USA

Raising Grandchildren in a Recession
Farley, Susan. The New York Times, April 6, 2009.

Every family struggles in a tough economy, but the recession poses unique problems for people raising their grandchildren.

Some six million kids, representing about 8 percent of American children, live with their grandparents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The recession is hitting these “grandfamilies” especially hard, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Today, more and more children are being raised by their grandparents. These grandparents provide a crucial safety net, allowing children whose parents can’t provide for them to remain in families, instead of winding up as wards of the state.

But as the recession hits “grandfamilies,” that safety net is under stress. The unemployment rate for older workers is lower than the overall rate. But once they become unemployed, older workers find it harder to land a job and they tend to remain out of work longer than younger workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The unemployment rate for those 55 and over has been climbing significantly in recent months; in March, it rose to 6.2 percent — the highest it has been since September, 1949, according the bureau….

Many older workers who lose their jobs drop out of the work force, believing their efforts are hopeless. The number of people 55 and older classified by the federal government as “discouraged” — meaning they’ve given up looking for work because they don’t think there are any jobs for them — nearly tripled from December 2007 to December 2008, to 154,000 from 53,000, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.

The medical literature is mixed on the health effects of raising grandchildren. Some studies show that raising your grandchildren takes a toll on your health. Not only is the job physically tiring, but grandparents who are raising young children often suffer from less sleep and exposure to childhood colds and have less time to take care of themselves. At the same time, some grandparents enjoy raising their grandchildren and believe it makes them more active and connected.

To learn more about the recession and grandparents, read the full story, “‘Grandfamilies’ Come Under Pressure.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

NY youth aging out of foster care at risk of homelessness

Study Reveals Harsh Life for Homeless Youth in New York
Bosman, Julie. NY Times, March 9, 2009.

Many homeless youths in New York City are victims of abuse who grew up in foster care or other institutions and now lack jobs, a high school education, birth certificates and adequate health care, according to a study to be released on Tuesday.

And the study, one of the largest-ever examinations of young homeless people in New York, found that their future did not look much better — because they are dangerously isolated from mainstream channels of work, family life and basic schooling.

The study, conducted by Covenant House, which operates shelters for young people, examined 444 people between the ages of 18 and 21 who entered the Covenant House Crisis Center between October 2007 and February 2008.

Forty-seven percent of the group said they had been disciplined physically before entering the shelter, 37 percent said they had been victims of physical abuse, and 19 percent had endured sexual abuse. Forty-one percent said they had witnessed violence in their homes.

The vast majority said they found it difficult or impossible to find a good job. Seventy-eight percent said they were unemployed when they entered the shelter. Among those who had jobs, 41 percent said those jobs were “off the books.”

Kevin M. Ryan, the president of Covenant House, a privately financed agency with facilities in 20 cities nationwide, including Philadelphia, Detroit, Newark and St. Louis, said he hoped the study alerted the public “to the growing crisis of homeless youth in New York City.”

“It is a wake-up call to all of us that we have to be incredibly vigilant on behalf of our kids,” Mr. Ryan said. “Especially in a time of economic crisis, when families are feeling stress and strain that, in many instances, can cause kids to become even more disconnected from school and work and family.”

Adding to the urgency, Mr. Ryan said, was the recent discovery that the number of young homeless people seeking shelter at Covenant House had increased by one-third in the past year.

In 2007, a study by the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services, an advocacy group in New York, found that on any given night, roughly 3,800 homeless young people were on the street in New York.

Severe cuts in the state budget are threatening the financing for many programs for runaways and homeless youths across the state, said Margo Hirsch, the executive director of the Empire State Coalition. “Every single one of these programs is going to be affected,” Ms. Hirsch said.

Carol L. M. Caton, a professor of clinical public health at Columbia University and the director of the Columbia Center for Homelessness Prevention Studies, which helped sponsor the 2009 study, said the report exposed at least three major areas that were ripe for further research. They are family relationships, and the events within families that might force a young person out; the impact of institutional experiences like foster care placement; and the challenge of connecting youths to the work force, she said.

“They’re just on the cusp of adulthood,” Dr. Caton said. “And we want to help them transition to adulthood in a way that is positive, so that they won’t go on and continue to have some of these bruising experiences.”

Nearly half of the youths who participated in the 2009 study said they had been arrested, 15 percent had been convicted, and 4 percent were on probation or parole. Twenty-nine percent said they drank alcohol, 20 percent reported using marijuana on a regular basis, and 36 percent said someone in their family used drugs regularly.

Mr. Ryan said he was concerned that after leaving the shelter, where youths typically stay for just under three months, they would enter the adult homeless system, which can be harsh for teenagers — or even worse, they could “slide into gang affiliation, drugs and despair.”

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Child abuse prevention is less costly for society

For Mother and Child at Risk, Care That Includes a Psychologist

Tarkan, Laurie. The New York Times, Feb. 14, 2009.

When she became pregnant, her grandmother offered to buy her a car if she would have an abortion. Other relatives told her the baby would not live to see its first birthday. She was 22, unmarried and had already been hospitalized several times for suicide attempts.

She gave birth to a boy, and when he was 1 week old, the young woman, who spoke on the condition that she not be named, brought him to a pediatric practice at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx for a checkup. A doctor recommended that she join an infant-parent psychotherapy group; instead she agreed to home visits.

In the presence of a psychologist, the young woman wondered aloud if she was sexually arousing the baby when she changed his diaper; said the newborn was “demanding,” “mean” and “hates men”; and eventually revealed that she had been sexually abused as a girl.

“She was mistrusting and so overwhelmed, and needed much more help,”
said Rahil D. Briggs, the hospital psychologist who worked with the young woman at her home. After three months of home visits, Dr. Briggs persuaded the mother to join group therapy twice a week.

“Without this bridge, and me having the flexibility to go to her home and have her gain my trust, she never would have come to the group,” the psychologist said. “And if she hadn’t, with her set of risk factors, who knows what would have happened to her son? He is securely attached to her, and in my opinion it’s fairly close to a miracle.”

The group is part of a new effort by the Children’s Hospital to protect young children from psychological damage that can be common in poor families.

Experts say Montefiore’s new program is a rare example of mental health services for children under 5, a population that Evelyn Blanck, co-president of the New York Zero to Three Network, described as “under the radar screen.” Many pediatricians are not trained to recognize psychological problems, and surveys show that parents often complain about physicians’ lack of support for behavioral issues.

“There is really a disconnect between the genuine needs and challenges that are facing our young children and their families and what doctors are providing,” said Dr. Dina Lieser, executive director of Docs for Tots, a nonprofit group that advocates for young children.

The National Academy of Sciences released a report on Friday calling on federal, state and local governments to make prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders in young people “a very high priority.” The report called the current emphasis on treatment once mental disorders emerge as “myopic,” and said that prevention means focusing on people with early symptoms and risks, such as maternal depression or poverty.

At Montefiore’s pediatric practice, the Comprehensive Family Care Center, there is a psychologist on site, and doctors — who are trained to recognize depression in parents — screen each patient for mental health concerns. Of 2,400 children screened since 2005, 1,120 have been recommended for mental health services, and 780 have participated.

The screening program currently costs the city $20,000 to $30,000 a year; therapy is generally covered by Medicaid. The Altman Foundation has covered the $150,000 yearly cost for a separate program, known as Healthy Steps, which since 2006 has screened 250 families at the family care center and provided individual and group counseling.

In Healthy Steps at Montefiore, which is part of a national program, 20 percent of the mothers are teenagers, 27 percent grew up in foster care, 37 percent have parents with mental illness, and more than 10 percent were physically or sexually abused — all risk factors for their babies’ healthy mental and social development, according to Dr. Briggs. Research shows that environmental factors like poverty, homelessness, domestic violence and drugs can lead to depression, anxiety, aggression, poor academic performance, autistic behavior and social or developmental delays.

“If a child is exposed to chronic or toxic stress, his reaction to stress gets turned on way too quickly,” Dr. Briggs said, citing one case in which the mother of a 2-year-old boy wondered whether it would be normal for his tantrums to have intensified after he witnessed the fatal shooting of his father on the street.

According to doctors at Montefiore, a child enrolled in the Healthy Steps program is one-third as likely to score “at risk” for social or emotional developmental problems. Among mothers in the program, depression dropped from 30 percent at the first visit to 6 percent after two months, while 35 percent reported feeling unsupported at the first visit compared with 10 percent at two months.

One recent morning at the hospital’s family care center, a half-dozen mothers sat in a circle as their babies and toddlers played with bubbles on a foldout mat. It seemed like a typical mommy-and-me group, with talk of breastfeeding and gassy babies. But in this group, which was run by a social worker, some of the problems preceded the births: Erika Hernandez, 30, said she had been abused by her stepfather and spent most of her pregnancy homeless; Amanda Agosto, 32, said she had been frequently abandoned by her mother, who she said has bipolar disorder and schizophrenia; others were single and poor.

Though cost is often cited as a reason for not providing mental health services to children, Dr. Andrew D. Racine, director of general pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, said the costs to society only rise if problems are ignored.

“We are seeing the enormous payoffs when you intervene with a child at six or nine months,” said Dr. Racine. “But the ability to intervene or change the trajectory narrows as the kids get older. By the time you get to school-aged children, it already costs a lot more money, time and energy for less returns.”

As an example, Dr. Briggs cited Emily Caraballo, 22, and her son, Hector, who before age 4, she said, had witnessed his father physically and verbally abuse his mother. Before an appointment last fall, Dr. Briggs was summoned by a security guard to the waiting room, where she found Ms. Caraballo “bleeding all over her face because her son has scratched her, and she has him pinned down on the floor so he doesn’t hurt anyone.”

“Hector had never received a single ounce of help of any kind — he’s never even been in a school setting because he’s out of control,” Dr. Briggs said. “This is a kid who should have been seeing me since the time he was an infant and this would have been a different story.”

Ms. Caraballo now lives in a domestic violence shelter, and her son is at one of the city’s two psychiatric hospitals that take children under 5. “They say to be a better parent, you need to be strict,” she said. “But Dr. Briggs took the time not only evaluate him, but to look at the circumstances that cause the situation. He developed a rapport with Dr. Briggs, he feels comfortable speaking about what he’s witnessed between me and his father.”