Teens Get Short Shrift in Foster Care

November 18, 1990

by Randi Bjornstad of The Register-Guard

Each time Susie and Chuck Watkins open their door to a troubled teenager, they wonder what will happen.

After several years of operating a 14-bed group home known as Hosanna, the Springfield couple know that teens who have been abused and neglected by their own parents are capable of almost anything. The Watkinses have had teens try everything from setting fire to their house to sexually abusing other children in the home.

“Being a foster parent for teenagers takes a different level of supervision and discipline,” Susie Watkins says. “It can actually be scary because teenagers realize their strength and know they can do very destructive things if they’re unhappy about something.”

In some ways, foster parents who take in teens are asking for trouble, and often they get it, says Sue Fisher, another foster parent who “specializes” in teenagers.

“I don’t know what drives me to do it,” says Fisher, the mother of four grown children. “I guess I just like children–especially teenagers.”

After 12 years of providing foster care to some of Lane County’s most troubled teens, Fisher says she’s lost the “save-the-world syndrome” that initially caused her to volunteer.

“Back then, I thought I could turn a whole life around by giving a kid a good family experience,” Fisher says. “Now I know that while that helps, it’s not enough.”

Placement and treatment of children in foster care came under statewide scrutiny in July when the Children’s Services Division acknowledged that a teenage boy in Multnomah County had been left in a foster home for several months with a known sex offender.

In September, a series of stories by The Register Guard concerning CSD operations in Lane County revealed additional problems with the foster care system, including the marginal quality of some foster homes and the withholding of critical information from foster parents regarding children in their care.

Caseworkers, attorneys and foster care providers say that because most teenage foster children are never adopted or reconciled with their parents, the state’s responsibility to them is growing.

Yet they say a lack of resources, insufficient case planning and inadequate treatment are major flaws in the way teenagers are treated within the CSD system. Other problems, they say, include:

Too few foster-care options for teenagers, resulting in inappropriate placements and lack of treatment for serious behavioral problems.
Children who grow up in foster care often lack preparation and resources to succeed on their own as adults.
“Teenagers probably do get short shrift from the foster-care system,” says Vic Congleton, program director of the Lane County branch of CSD.

CSD statistics show that in October, 126 of the 370 children in foster care in Lane County–about one-third–were teenagers.

Given inadequate resources to deal with foster-care needs of children of all ages, teens may be more likely to be left to fend for themselves because they are older and assumed to be better able to cope, Congleton says.

“But in some ways, all age groups in foster care have gotten short shrift,” he says. “With younger children, it happens in the area of early prevention services–the result is abysmal. With teenagers, its with too few places and too little treatment–and that’s abysmal, too.”

With insufficient money for residential treatment facilities many teens are housed for weeks or months in places designed for delinquent youths, such as Lane County’s Skipworth Juvenile Detention Center, says Steve Carmichael, director of the count’s Department of Youth Services.

“As of Friday, we had 44 kids in detention, and 20 of those are CSD cases waiting to go somewhere else. That’s pretty standard,” he says, adding that the situation has contributed to chronic overcrowding at Skipworth. The facility, designed for 30 teenagers, regularly houses 50.

Carmichael believes that though there are not enough spaces for all of the teens in need of care, Lane County does not always make the best use of the spaces it has.

Steppingstone Lodge, a residential treatment facility in Eugene, “is filled with non-Lane County youngsters, and here we sit with 20 of our own we can’t place,” he says. “Somebody needs to take a look at that.”

Congleton says CSD is aware of the problem but “everyone else in the state is desperate, too.”

Statewide, CSD has 700 youths in need of the highest level of treatment and supervision, but only 300 spaces, Congleton says. “The rest are sitting somewhere in detention, shelter homes or foster homes where they don’t belong.”

But even for the teens lucky enough to be placed in foster or group care homes, problems still exist, says foster parent Fisher.

Treatment and counseling for the problems that first brought the children to CSD still need to be provided or teens will be doomed to repeat the behaviors of their parents, she says.

To illustrate her point, Fisher recounts the story of her first foster child, a teenage girl who came from a drug-abusing family and had been molested by her father, then raped by her stepfather.

“She came to us and fit right in with our routine,” Fisher says. “She enrolled in high school, was very popular, did well in her classes and graduated. Right after graduation, she went back to her mother.”

“The next time I saw her, she was on drugs and pregnant by one of her step dad’s friends–she lost all the gains she had made for herself while she was out of that environment.”

Fisher says that like that girl, most of the teens she’s housed have needed a level of counseling available only through residential treatment facilities. Without it, successful lives after foster care are unlikely, she says.

“Sometimes they change on the surface during the time they’re in foster care–they enjoy having nice clothes, good food and some stability and structure in their lives,” she says. “But unless they get a lot of help, once they leave, chances are they’ll go right back to the kind of life they had before. It’s just too late for a lot of them.”

While there are no statistics available to show what happens to foster children after they become adults, statistics do show that many teens in foster care are unsettled and . . . their problems.

For example, of teens in foster care in Lane County between September 1987 and July 1990, 80 committed crimes and were sent to detention facilities. During that time, more than 150 runaways were reported from foster or group homes.

Foster parent Don Grey, who with his wife, Wilda, provides care for teenage girls, says running away or turning to criminal activities are sure signs that the foster-care system has failed a child. He believes many more services are needed to help teenagers become successful adults.

“At 18, so many of these kids are just turned loose with no support at all,” Grey says. “It’s no wonder so many end up repeating the patterns of drug abuse, (early) pregnancy and child abuse that their families started out with and that got them into the system in the first place.”

Not being able to help enough teenagers who need it–and therefore abandoning them to repeat the cycles of abuse and addiction they came from–is one of Bruce Abel’s greatest frustrations.

“For every kid we help, we know that somewhere out there are at least two more to take his/her place,” says Abel of Looking Glass, a non-profit agency that provides counseling and therapy to CSD clients.

“Our contract with CSD says we have to serve so many clients every year, which means we can’t see most of them long enough to really solve their problems,” he says. “One result is that counselors end up working with a lot more kids than they’re supposed to.”

The other result, he says, is that Looking Glass turns away 10 to 15 children every month.

Problems exhibited by teens when they come into foster care are much more severe now than they were even a few years ago, causing fewer foster families to accept them, says Patty Chamberlain, who runs the Oregon Social Learning Center’s model foster-care program.

Additionally, foster parents often do not get sufficient support or cooperation from CSD to help them cope with the severity of the children’s problems, says David Ortega, acting administrator of the Hosanna group home and a 30-year veteran of work in children’s social services.

“We all know how to do foster care effectively–we just don’t do it,” Ortega says. “Institutional settings would not be necessary for many of these kids if CSD provided the casework services necessary to help foster parents handle their problems.

“Foster care is meant to be a lot more than room and board.”

He believes that more teens would succeed in foster care if foster parents had quick and easy access to caseworkers, if CSD and foster parents shared information concerning the child’s history and behavior and if CSD cooperated with foster parents regarding case planning and treatment programs.

That kind of rehabilitative environment is exactly what her agency’s model foster-care program was designed to achieve, Chamberlain says.

“We pay specially trained foster parents to work with these kids, and they are in contact with us daily to discuss what’s happened in the past 24 hours in terms of problems, discipline and progress. The kids get intensive therapy, quick and consistent discipline and privileges based on their behavior,” she says.

But Chamberlain says her agency’s program, called Monitor, is limited to a small number of teens and is very expensive to operate. Only a small percentage of teenagers can be admitted to the program.

For those who can’t, Fisher says she worries. Too many teenagers exhaust the limited options the system has to offer.

“I take kids when they’ve been through everything else that’s available to them, when nobody else wants them,” she says. “Sometimes even I can’t take it any more–and then I wonder, what’s going to happen to them then?”

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 1990, The Register-Guard, www.registerguard.com.