Suffer the Children
By Eilene Zimmerman
(page 1 of 3)When Roberta Arredondo was 11, she called the county’s child protective services hotline and asked them to save her life. Her father, she told them, was trying to kill her. “He tried to put my head through the wall, and no one could help me,” she says now. “My mother had passed out because he was choking her. When he left, I called the number a social worker had given me.” Arredondo ran away with her younger sister, was reported missing and then was found by Social Services. After that, her life became a loose jumble of foster homes, group homes and relatives’ homes. She ran away a few times and was labeled a troublemaker.
“I have been in more than 20 foster homes, always in short-term placement,” she says. “Sometimes the license of the foster family would expire and I’d have to be moved. I moved so much I didn’t know who my social worker was, and I didn’t fit in anywhere.”
Arredondo needed counseling, but only some of her foster parents made the effort. “They didn’t want to take the time to drive me to therapy,” she says, “and then they’d complain to me about not getting enough money or support.”
Her story isn’t unusual. Children in foster care often come from violent and abusive homes. They’re thrown into a system so overburdened it’s barely capable of helping them. Arredondo, now 21, attends college and lives with her boyfriend. Whatever gains she’s made, she made in spite of the system rather than because of it.
San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox has long suspected problems in San Diego’s foster care system. Big ones. He characterizes the system as one that often “inflicts more pain and suffering” on foster children, heaping new trauma on top of old. Cox also says foster care is a system that has suffered in the past from “benign neglect.”
Trying to make sense of the problems, Cox—then chair of the board of supervisors—held a conference in April 1998, bringing together Health & Human Services workers, former foster children, pediatricians and others who impact the lives of children.
The most telling testimony came from former foster children, several of whom had stayed in the system until they were 18. Roberta Arredondo was among those who briefed the board, in the hopes it would change things for the foster children still in the system. But two years later, little has changed. For all the lip service being paid to new programs and increased stipends, the reality is that foster children are still bounced from home to home, and many of their basic needs—education, mental health care—are not being met.
Former foster child Rita Nanjo says she’s been in so many different foster placements she’s lost count. Tamara Widner, who spent nearly 11 years in foster care, had more than 20 placements throughout the county, including her adoption and subsequent relinquishment.
Yvonne Campbell, deputy director of the county’s Health & Human Services agency, defends the system. “We’ve made major changes over the last three years,” she says. “We’ve tried to expand support to foster parents through rate increases, clothing allowances and increased respite services. And we have started a very large recruitment campaign for adoptive and foster parents.”
There are 7,000 children in San Diego’s foster care system this year, but only 1,500 foster families. That ratio mirrors national ones. From 1987 to 1996, says Campbell, there was a 90 percent increase in the number of children in foster care nationally and a 3 percent decrease in nonrelative foster homes.
“In San Diego especially,” says Cox, “in order to afford a home, both parents have to work, and it’s lessened the ability to be a foster parent.” The county worked with the state to increase the reimbursements foster families receive. And that’s “something tangible,” he says.
Yolanda Thomas, section chief for foster home licensing, says more is needed. For foster children under 4 years old, the stipend is $393 a month; for children 5-18, it’s $553 per month. Medical coverage is also provided, and there’s a one-time clothing allowance of $100 per child.
“It’s not a lot of money, but we do have a handbook that tells foster parents how to budget that money,” says Thomas. “Although I know foster parents who have to supplement with their own money to care for the child.”