The Foster System
After school: you commute 30 minutes to return to a home that is not yours, and an unfamiliar family. This “home” was the only placement available. That’s the reality for some students at Terra Linda . Marin County has long-suffered for a lack of foster homes. Currently, it has 80 foster youth and 35 homes–not nearly enough. One student said, “People in the Bay Area are really tied up in their own lives.” It’s especially a problem for Spanish speaking families, for many youth are Spanish-speaking immigrants. There are many reasons children can end up in foster care, from domestic abuse to poverty, neglect, and addiction.
There are options for reunification or adoption, but with adoption there are challenges. Foster care program manager Bree Marchman said, “We are proud of our relatively high reunification rate compared to other counties. We also have a good adoption rate, however sometimes due to appeals it can take longer for adoptions to finalize than we would like. By law, if a parents’ rights are terminated so we can move forward to adoption, they can appeal this decision within 60 days of the termination. If they do this, it can take 12 months for the Court of Appeals to address the parents’ appeal, which means the adoption cannot be finalized while the appeal is pending. This can create delays in children achieving permanency.” Several brave TL students in the foster care system came forward to share their stories.
Options exist for 18 year olds to remain in foster care till 21 or 24. Bree Marchman explains, “Through AB 12…youth can now live in multiple settings, foster homes, dorms, apartments, friends homes, etc. …all based on needs and supports for youth. If youth choose to leave foster care, there’s the Transitional Housing Plus Program, which they can access until age 24. This is a a graduated pay supportive housing program, case management included. Youth often pay a small amount of their income to start, and this gradually gets larger as they mature and progress.” One of the programs is called Transitional Housing Placement Plus Foster Care (THP+FC), an independent living program. Youth can stay with a foster family, leave, or live in a low-cost living apartment– hard to find in Marin County. What many kids don’t understand about the low-cost housing program is that a social worker has to check in often to make sure they are going to school, still have their jobs, and are still alive– suicide is a risk, according to a student who considered the program, but ultimately opted out.
One senior shared her story of being in foster care for six years, though she is currently back with her mom. Once one is “in the system,” it can be difficult to get out, even when placed back with a family member. She entered the foster system at age 12.
At the beginning of junior year,the above student endured a period of struggle and became homeless.Regarding choice in home placement Bree Marchman said, “Children age 10 and older should be consulted about this issue, but due to the lack of available foster homes (we now call them Resource Families) in Marin County, we often do not have a choice and have to send children/youth to live in other countries.”After about a year…she learned her foster mother did not want to take care of her anymore. She had a week to pack everything up and move. “My social worker came to the school and said, ‘I am here to talk to you.’ … I came to her car and she said, ‘I am taking you to Modesto.’” She refused, preferring homelessness to Modesto. A TL teacher helped her out and connected her with people she could stay with for a short period of time. The moving and stress started to weigh on her grades. Rather than focusing on school, she questioned the stability of her living situation.She said it has been a “constant reminder that anything can happen; everything is unpredictable.”
An overcrowded home of five-six people and two dogs proved the least sustainable. “They already had their own lives and they wanted me to come in, but they wanted me to adjust to them, they did not want to adjust to me at all.” The only food available was frozen pizza, there were broken windows, and no privacy. The chaotic environment escalated the stress of working two jobs, to buy food and necessary gas for the school commute, not to mention playing three sports that year. Simply put, “Living in a foster placement that isn’t working out … sucks.”
Now, even though she is living back with her mother, she is still considered part of the system, which makes applying for college difficult. Enrolled as her own entity within the foster care system, her income is the only thing that goes on the financial aid papers. She technically is not supported by her mom, and her mom’s income does not contribute.
Not everyone’s story is grim. One sophomore boy has been the foster system for three years. He entered because, “Well, my mom was not the best parent … she was kind of abusive, so I couldn’t really stay with her.” CPS took him out of his house after calling the police 3 times. He said at first it was hard to adjust, but he has a “chill” foster home. He has been extremely lucky and has been able to stay in the same house for all of his time in the foster system.
A freshman student described her life before living in a foster home. “My mom had mental health issues and was unable to take care of us, I was making all the meals and stuff for my siblings…It was stressful– I had all these responsibilities that a teenager should not.” It weighed on school–over time, she missed school constantly because her mother couldn’t take her, suffered from depression and began “cutting.” In the end, her transition was successful, but hardship ridden–like the burden of leaving her five siblings. A foster system official says this has been a problem Marin County faces: the choice to either keep siblings together but move them to a different county, or separate them but have in Marin.
Since the age of eight, one other TL student has been in the foster system. His first placement was the group home St. Vincent’s, the only group home in Marin County, where he lived for 8 years, before moving to a placement San Francisco. He expressed his critical views on the foster system, saying, “It is basically like a crack house. They give kids a bunch of medication and it’s kinda messed up. I was smart and stopped at a young age and I refused. They were not allowed to do anything and they tried to give me consequences, but could not.” Additionally, he feels staff would “talk down” to the kids. “There are a lot of things that are crappy with it….but I never allowed that to affect me. I …talked back to them and hurt their feelings.” This student’s method of self-preservation was defensive.
He continues, “Overall most kids don’t make it into the situation I’m in. I personally think the foster care system set up for kids to fail, end up in jail, get killed. A lot of kids at a young age don’t know why they have no parents and they are not aware of a lot of things, they are just little, angry kids. Very few make it.” Yet despite being critical of this system, he has plans to stay in it till 21 and attend a UC.
When I asked these students if they would become a foster parent in the future, the answer tallied to a unanimous “no”. One did say she would consider fostering animals. Another said, “There are no resources for kids that are older in foster care. All the donations and all the money goes to babies and little kids. The best way you can handle a foster kid (because I was one) in your home is to just leave them alone. They have their own life they have worked on, and moving around is only making it worse, only makes them feel more unstable.” Additional reasons included that it can be emotionally hard for the parents to have kids rotating through homes.
Some kids are extremely difficult to care for. Not only older kids, but also babies that come in immediately after birth right off of heroin or alcohol abuse. Becoming a resource parent in Marin is a process that also takes a lot of time, at least 24 hours of training, a home inspection, and more. Marin County made the change from people being foster parents to becoming resource parents, because being a resource parent allows for easier adoption. This program trains parents to be able make the transitions and pass the clearances to adopt. The foster care system has it faults but is also a very complex. There are challenges in both giving and receiving care.