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City of Lost Kids

The city's attempt to move teenagers out of group homes and into families isn't as simple as it sounds.

Baltimore City Department Of Social Services staffer Martina Washington (with pearls) poses with members of the DSS youth advisory board.
Jessica Rae runs the city's Ready by 21 initiative, which prepares teens for life after the foster-care system.
DSS head Molly Mcgrath consults assistant director David Thompson Jr.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 6/17/2009

The second in a two-part series.

Read part one.

On a sunny March afternoon, the Annie E. Casey Foundation is full of teenagers. They sit in a large open room around circular tables. Some talk amongst themselves. Some are texting. Some slouch down in their chairs and look as though they might fall asleep. Today could be a turning point in their young lives, but for the most part, they have the kind of expressionless stare that is the hallmark of unimpressed teens everywhere.

They have been invited here today to hear about a new program the Baltimore City Department of Social Services (DSS) is working on. DSS refers to it as the step-down program, and the basic idea is to move teenagers under DSS care out of group homes and into family settings, whether it's with their biological family or a foster family. These kids must be interested--they're all currently living in group homes and had to sign up to get a spot at the meeting--but you wouldn't be able to tell that looking around the room. If there is a prevailing sentiment, it's skepticism.

For the next three hours, the director of DSS, Molly McGrath, tries to get these kids to tell her what it would take to make a family placement work for them. She tells them to dream big, sky's the limit, ask away. But they don't seem to understand the question, perhaps because their opinion on where they would like to live has rarely, if ever, been sought. Instead, the hours are filled with heartbreaking tales of neglect and mistreatment, not at the hands of the families these children were removed from, but in the places DSS put them to protect them from those families. It's no wonder they're skeptical.

Part one of this series ("City of Lost Kids," Feature, June 10) looked at the changes in practice and culture over the last two years in DSS and the Department of Human Resources (DHR), the state-wide organization that oversees it. For years, the city's child-welfare system was ineffective and disorganized, moving children from place to place haphazardly. Now, under McGrath's stewardship, the agency is actively involving the children in all the decisions that affect their lives. The step-down program is part of that.

City Paper followed this program for six months, through meetings with DSS staff, foster parents, and group-home providers, from the day youths were introduced to the program to a month after the first child moved. Implementation wasn't always smooth, but McGrath and her team pushed forward guided by one simple thought: Every child deserves a family. 

 

The Step-Down Program is an extension of Maryland's Department of Human Resources' Place Matters initiative, which is centered on the idea that children do best in family environments. It's a surprisingly new tack for Maryland, where children have often spent years in group homes. Teenagers, who account for 52 percent of the more than 5,000 children under Baltimore City DSS' care, were often placed in group homes by default.

The program consists of a number of steps. First, the teenagers go through a process called Family Finder, in which they try to determine if there is anyone from their families or immediate communities with whom they could live. If not, they look through a book of foster-parent profiles. Teens pick one or several and then a set of get-togethers are arranged between the teens and the families they pick so they can get to know each other.

If it's a match, a Team Decision Making (TDM) meeting is held with all the interested parties, in which the individual teen and his or her prospective foster parent or relative discuss issues that could come up from living together, from allowance and after-school activities to behavioral problems and discipline. The idea is to have everyone agree on what is expected and to have any necessary services in place before anyone moves.

Of course, before you can move teens into families, you have to have some families willing to take them in, which can be a bit tricky. Teens in the foster-care system don't have a great reputation.

Jessica Rae runs the city's Ready by 21 initiative, which prepares youth in foster care for life after they age out of the system. Rae, who used to work for Maryland Legal Aid before being wooed to DSS by its new child-focused ethos, worries that teenagers in foster care are seen as criminals, as if being removed from their homes was their fault, and not that of the adult who abused or neglected them.

"There's lot of studies that show that kids that leave the foster-care system have some pretty bad outcomes," Rae says during an interview at DHR headquarters. "That really is a reflection on the agencies and the systems that serve youth, not the youth themselves. So if we fix our problems, the youth are just going to take off."

McGrath acknowledges that many teens in foster care have issues. "The challenge for some of our kids is that the experience of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and living in foster care has been traumatizing and has damaged their ability to believe that someone could love them and to trust getting into a loving relationship," she says in one of many interviews for this series. At the same time, people tend to think the worst of these kids. "Sometimes I hear people who are around my kids in foster care saying, 'Something's really wrong with these kids. They talk back to adults and won't do their homework,'" McGrath says. "Something happens as soon as a kid's in foster care--even the most developmentally typical behavior is immediately pathologized." The step-down program is predicated on getting past this stigma, but that's not the only hurdle it faces. 

On Feb. 18, approved foster parents with vacancies in their homes gather by invitation at DSS headquarters on Broadway to learn about the program and, hopefully, fill out profiles that would be shown to the teens.

"Time was, most of our kids were in group homes, right?," McGrath says from the front of the room. "And a lot of them stayed in foster care for a really long period of time. Sometimes 17, 18 years, kids spending their whole childhood here." Despite her petite stature, she has no trouble commanding the room. DSS wants to move teens into families, she says, and they want to know what it will take to get these foster families on board. What services would they need to bring an older child into their home?

But that's not what the assembled crowd wants to talk about. They want to know why, if kids are stranded in group homes, their homes have been empty for so long? 

"If you've been real specific about what you want, if you only want a baby who's female that's going to slow things down." McGrath says, especially because small children are more likely to be successfully placed with family.

"I've been licensed since September, and I've gotten not one call," one woman says. "I have no criteria--I'll take any age, any race, any gender. I don't understand what happened after I received my license. It seems like there's some kind of black hole that maybe people fall into." Heads nod across the room. So many people come forth with similar stories that it overtakes the meeting.

"I will sit over there until midnight if that's what you'd like to do," McGrath says finally, vowing to address the multiple complaints one on one. "At the same time, I recommend that we also get to work on the cause of this evening . . . I have 630 kids sitting in group homes and they're waiting for you guys."

After McGrath goes to a separate room, most of the families file out after her. Those who remain are led through the profile process by DSS Assistant Director David Thompson Jr. But the complaints continue at individual tables. One woman says that she and her husband have been approved foster parents for five years without getting a child and have barely heard from DSS; it's funny that they're called foster parents, her husband adds with a mirthless chuckle, even though they don't have a kid.

A woman on the other side of the room stands up and says, "A [DSS] worker told me it's not what you know, it's who you know" when it comes to getting a child. Some people get baby and after baby while others don't have any children at all, she contends.

Despite a large turn-out at the foster-parent meeting, only 32 profiles were created that night. By the time key staff meet nine days later, there are 40 profiles, but it's not enough to take in the approximately 500 teens in group homes, and the number shrinks further when McGrath reveals that roughly two-thirds of those who filled out profiles specified wanting small children.

She wants the staff to reach out to those families. "The only question we're asking them now is what would it take for you to put double digits [in age] on the profile--that's it," McGrath says. "It's not what would it take for you to take a kid, it's what would it take for you to get in this game."

These calls must be factored into the already jam-packed timeline McGrath rolls out for the program. In order for the program to be successful, she suggests downsizing it a bit. Of the 630 kids in DSS group homes, they were going to initially target the 135 kids between ages 13 and 15 in standard group homes as opposed to treatment facilities; now she wants to focus on just 30 of that 135. They will send an invitation to a "youth summit" explaining the program to all 135 kids, but only 30 spaces will be available.

The scale down is necessary, in part, because DHR was planning to announce a decrease in the number of group homes it contracts with, and all the kids in the facilities whose contracts aren't being renewed will also need new homes.

McGrath is worried that if she and her staff try to place all those kids at once, they won't be successful. "We'll be moving so fast we won't be able to learn," she says. "We really are trying to learn new behaviors that aren't being done anywhere else in the country."

Just getting letters about the youth summit to the kids causes a logistical quagmire. The computer system can print out a list of the kids' names and the names of the group homes they are in, but not the addresses. But even if they get the addresses and mail them, how will they make sure the kids get them? "I have it on good advice from the Youth Advisory Board that the kids in group homes don't get their mail," McGrath notes. And the impending reduction in group-home contracts isn't likely to make providers anxious to help kids leave. Finally, they decide to have the letters hand-delivered and, after more discussion, whose job that will be.

McGrath ends the meeting by reminding her staff to preach the gospel of Place Matters. "Everyone gets a family," she says. "I think we really cannot say it, write it, act about it often enough. If you're doing it less than a dozen times a day you're hurting the agency." 

Understandably, group home providers are concerned about the agency's shift in focus--DHR cut 23 group home contracts statewide in March and more cuts are still possible. At a February meeting of the Provider Advisory Council, representatives from group homes express concern that kids will not get the same services in families that they get at a group home.

"When we look at where the turnover is, where kids are bouncing from one placement to another to another, it's not in group care. It's in foster care. Not because the kids are inappropriately placed, [but] because they're not getting the services," one provider says. "You can't take a child away from their birth family without some trauma, and you can't place a child with a family that has no more training than most of our foster homes and expect them to deal with the manifestation of that trauma without some supports."

"I think that there may be an assumption on the table that all of the children that I have placed in group homes are these really complicated high end [kids]," McGrath says. But many kids have been put in group homes "because they got kicked out of their last placement--some providers kick kids out for really bad reasons--or because the kids ran away from their last placement. Well, maybe the kid ran away from that placement for a good reason," she adds. By making sure that both the teens and the foster parents know the issues they will be dealing with up front and that both parties are committed to making the relationship work, McGrath believes that bouncing from place to place will be greatly decreased. She also promises to put a concrete plan in place for providing the necessary supports for foster families taking in kids. Still, once again, she leaves behind a skeptical room.

 

On March 14, McGrath stands in front of yet another room trying to get people excited about putting kids in families. This may be her hardest audience to date: the kids themselves. They've been brought in from group homes across the city to learn about the program. McGrath explains the process, that the youth themselves will be picking the families and that they will not be placed anywhere without mutual agreement. "The big change about this is that y'all aren't going to be on the sidelines," she says. "Y'all are going to be actually leading this train." It's a strange idea to kids who are used to being moved from one place to the next at a moment's notice, often not knowing where they are going until they arrive.

McGrath asks them what they want in a foster home. She has intentionally kept the number of adults in the room low to make the teens more comfortable, but it still takes a while to get any participation, and when the teens do start talking, it is more complaints about previous placements than visions for the future.

Their stories draw a stark image of the lives of children in foster care. They talk about group homes where they aren't allowed outside, where rules change for seemingly no reason, and if one kid misbehaves everyone is punished, where staff refuse to buy the kids clothes and other necessities, and where, sometimes, they even have trouble getting fed. The kids say they often have nothing to do and boredom breeds fights.

Many kids feel that the staff at their group home collects money to care for them, but use it on themselves. "They don't buy new couches and stuff," says a member of the Youth Advisory Board, a group of youth in the foster-care system who advocate for children in the system, about his current placement at a family-run group home. "They brung ones from out their house [to the group home, and] bought themselves new ones." The bathroom floods all the time, he continues, pouring water into the living room, but the owners don't fix it, instead just replacing ceiling tiles before the annual state inspection.

After each complaint, McGrath tries to posit it as a positive for foster families. With a foster family, she says, "it's their stuff, too, so they may have a different level of interest in fixing those things, because they're not going home somewhere else."

"They try to say you're retarded, you need some medicine," one boy says. The prevailing belief among the kids present is that some group homes want to medicate them simply because they get more money for housing kids with special needs. Even 20 years into her social-work career, McGrath seems taken aback. "You're not retarded. I'm telling you right now that's not true," she says, and pauses to collect her thoughts and get back on a positive message. "A foster parent would not get any more money for taking care of you, regardless of whether you have to take medication," she continues.

Not everyone has a bad experience in a group home. A few days after part one of this series came out, two young women called City Paper to sing their former group home's praises. Chardae Robinson, now 20, spent four years at the Magic Unity Home for Girls from age 11 to 15. "We were like a family," she says. "I loved it." Robinson says the people who ran the home took her on trips--"I've been to Disneyland three times"--and took better care of her and made her feel more loved than she did at subsequent foster families. Andrea Wardell, who spent a couple of years at Magic Unity agrees: "It all depends on which group home you're at."

Foster families don't get much better reviews than group homes at the youth summit, with many of the same issues cropping up--trouble getting clothes, not being able to go outside, having to keep up appearances for DSS workers. One girl says that she lived in a foster home where her foster mother didn't buy her or the other girl living there new clothes. They didn't want to get the foster mother in trouble, so when one girl's case worker came to visit, the other girl would hand over her clothes to make it look as if the foster mother was providing for them.

Members of the Youth Advisory Board have been participating heavily in the step-down program from writing questions for prospective foster parents to role-playing a TDM at the meeting with DSS case worker Steven Youngblood to show the kids what to expect. An empty chair at the front of the room is provided for kids to sit in and ask questions or make comments. A young man who has spent most of the meeting scrunched into his jacket gets in the chair and asks, "What should you do if you come home from school and you're locked out?"

"Why don't you have a key to the house?" Youngblood asks.

"Because you're a foster kid," the youth replies. "They ain't going to give you no key."

Young heads nod all over the room.

"When I was in a foster home, they ain't give me no key and I was there for five years," the boy says. It's hard to imagine a more concrete way of telling a child, You're not really part of this family.

A different youth asks what happens in a foster home when you turn 18? "As long as you're in school they can't put you out," a member of the Youth Advisory Board says.

"That's one way of thinking about it, yes," McGrath says, running her hand over her face as if trying to keep her emotions in check. "Oh, God, you guys have been put out so often it's terrible. What we're trying to do is get you homes where no one's thinking about putting you out."

A boy with glasses who has been sitting at a table in the front taking notes says, "I hope you all aren't going to be like our social workers and tell us this now and then we're not going to hear from you again."

McGrath walks over to him and looks him in the eye. "I'm not asking you to believe me, because my bet is a lot of people made a lot of promises to you that they ain't kept," she says. "I will give you my phone number, and if in three weeks you haven't heard from nobody, you call me and say, 'Molly, you lied.' We're going to move on this one. I think every one of you guys can have what you need to live a happy life. I swear to God we can do it." 

 

The vacant expressions on most of the teenagers' faces at the youth summit didn't come as a surprise. That "whatever" look is the norm for teens everywhere, from city stoops to suburban shopping malls. On March 18, the case workers for the teens taking part in the step-down process gather at DSS headquarters for a training on Family Finder and TDMs. They bunch together in groups in a room that looks like a high school cafeteria. The effect is only heightened by the fact that, as the presentations begin, some of the workers text, others pass notes, and two men actually fall asleep. Many of the case workers have the same "whatever" stare as the teens.

A woman starts the Family Finder portion of the training by rattling off some statistics to illustrate why moving kids from group care to families is important. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, 93 percent of children in family care like who they live with versus 51 percent of kids in group homes. Sixty-one percent of kids in family care want to stay there permanently compared to 2 percent of kids in group homes. Kids in family settings are also less likely to run away than kids in group homes.

After running down the program, she hands out a worksheet that can be used to help kids think of family, whether biological or emotional, that they may want to live with. She asks all the case workers to fill it out for themselves, to put themselves in the place of their clients. Some do. Others do not. The women sitting at a table next to a reporter, whose presence was announced to room, instead talked about what they're going to have for lunch.

As the day wears on, there is confusion over who is in charge of the TDMs. The woman leading the training says only the case worker can call a TDM. But Martina Washington, a DSS staffer involved in the step-down process, speaks up. "From my understanding, the youth will determine who they want at the TDM," she says--they can even refuse the worker admittance if the child doesn't have a good relationship with him or her. The trainer says she can't comment on any changes they might be making to the TDM format; in its purest form, the case worker calls the shots.

McGrath comes down to check out the training in the middle of a question period, where workers are trying to get their arms around specific cases. One worker has a child who was adopted and now the adoptive parent doesn't want the child anymore. Can the child be returned to his biological family, even though they terminated parental rights, she asks? It's an awful scenario--a child losing his family only to be discarded by the person who adopted him--made more disturbing by the fact that this, according to the woman running the training, isn't unusual.

Another worker discusses a child who identified a person he wanted to live with. "This teen is focusing on this man very much, but when I talked to the gentleman, he says [he] just said, 'I like you.'" He wasn't interested in becoming a foster parent to the child. What should the case worker tell the child?

"Honestly, guys, I think that's when we have to practice social work," McGrath says. "A bunch of these kids are going to want things they can't have." Bottom line: You have to be straight with them.

Another worker talks about a problem charge. "No relatives want her because of her behavior," the worker says. "The only foster home she wants to get into now is the one that's going to allow her to do what she wants to do." The girl has bounced around from family to family. One family let her boyfriend sleep over; the girl was pregnant at 13. Another forbid her boyfriend--by then the father of her child--to come to the house, leading to fights that resulted in the girl being removed from the home and the boy arrested. Now, the girl and her child are living in a group home. "I think [she] is fine where she is," the worker says.

"I think it's going to be really easy for us to come up with categories of kids who don't deserve families," McGrath responds. "I'm not saying it's going to be easy, I'm saying everybody gets a family."

McGrath also cautions workers against making decisions in advance about what's best for the child. "I have told these children that they're going to be participating in the process of selecting their placements," she says. "I implore you, don't make that decision independently, don't make that decision before you're sitting in a room with them because we will just have lied to them again." 

Twone isn't what people expect when they think of foster kids. He's a 14-year-old honor student who has been in and out of care since he was 2. Team Decision Making meetings start with a discussion of the child's strengths, and no one in the room has trouble coming up with nice things to say about him. He's hard-working, trustworthy, honest, reliable, courageous, and friendly, among many other things. "He's easy to talk to and easily pleased," his case worker Robin Jones-Campbell says. "Thank you God, I have one."

After attending the youth summit, Twone picked the profile of a man named John (not his real name) and the two met at John's house for a few hours to get to know each other. Some kids in the step-down program go on multiple outings with their prospective family, but after that first meeting, Twone was ready to go and so was John. Now, they sit together to create a plan for their life together so that everyone knows what to expect.

Listing Twone's strength's was easy. Concerns about Twone were harder to come by. "You're so hard because you're so good," says Corene Myers, the TDM facilitator. "This is really wonderful. It's refreshing." Instead, they move on to practicalities like what Twone's allowance and curfew will be, how he will visit his brothers and sisters, and where he will go to school. Twone asks if he will get a key, and Jessica Rae, the Ready by 21 coordinator who has been overseeing much of the step-down program says, "Someone was paying attention at the youth summit." John says of course. After more than an hour of conversation, Myers suggests they choose a moving date. The coming Wednesday is suggested, and Twone breaks into a huge grin.

"Does Wednesday sound good?" Rae asks.

"It does," he replies. "It really does."

Twone's TDM was almost fairy-tale-like. The perfect kid finds the perfect home and everyone spends an hour talking about how great everyone else is. Not every TDM goes that way. Often they have to be rescheduled multiple times to get everyone to the table. And many kids have more needs that have to be addressed than Twone.

At another TDM a few days later, the atmosphere is very different. There are many more people in the room, for one thing--the girl, her prospective foster parent, a lawyer, a therapist, and several DSS workers, a number of whom complain about not being given adequate time to prepare for the meeting. The adults predominantly talk about the girl and not to her, and the entire meeting comes to a screeching halt moments after it began because no one can agree on whether the goal for the child is reunification with her mother or joining a foster family. The TDM is tabled until the issue can be sorted out.

Still, there have already been successes. Of the 31 kids that attended the Youth Summit, 14 have left group homes and moved in with families or will have by July 1, either their own or that of a foster parent. The boy in the glasses from the Youth Summit did hear from the agency and is set to move in with a family this month. Baltimore City now leads the state in a number of indicators: As of April, Baltimore City DSS had 80.5 percent of the children under its care in family settings compared to 70 percent in the rest of the state. But problems persist. The timeline that McGrath laid out at the staff meeting proved overly ambitious. 

"I underestimated how challenging it would be for these young people to make decisions on their own behalf," McGrath writes in an e-mail. They had so little experience making decisions that the learning curve was steep. She also felt DSS needed to let each case unfold at its own speed: "We simply cannot administrate relationships on a bureaucratic schedule."

Communication continues to be a problem within the agency; there seems to be a disconnect between the boots on the ground and the management over seeing them. Kids continue to live in situations where they are provided with shelter and little else. And it is too early in the step-down process to know how any of its placements will work out.

Even Twone has had a mixed experience. His foster family is "really nice and caring and real supportive, and I never really had that," he says during an interview several weeks after he moved. At the same time, he says he feels that they weren't able to really hash things out at the TDM. He thinks it would be good to have another meeting after the child and the family have lived together a little while and things aren't so polite. And people need to be aware that what people agree to in those meetings isn't always how things turn out.

"He just took my key," Twone says. Twone was at the library and says he didn't know John was coming to pick him up, so he took the bus home. When John got to the library, he couldn't find Twone and got upset. "He said I have to earn his trust," Twone says.

"Twone hasn't followed through on his end of the relationship," John says in a phone conversation, adding that Twone refuses to do chores and gets angry when reprimanded. "In the meeting he came off one way, but he's shown a whole other side."

Still, Twone says he's content where he is. It's an adjustment, after family placements where he wasn't really taken care of and a group home where the children felt like they were left to their own devices. He has to get used to people asking him about his day and his homework. But it's not clear if this arrangement will last. When asked if he's sticking by Twone despite the behavior issues, John says, "for now." 

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