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