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ARUN RATH, HOST:

From NPR West, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath. Coming up, the latest on the attacks in Nairobi.

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RATH: But first, meet Claudia Felder. She lives in Chino, Calif., and like many 21-year-olds these days, she's back with her parents. It's a wholesome scene: nice house, three dogs and a parrot; happy family pictures everywhere.

Claudia spent much of her childhood in foster care, starting when she was 3. Now, she's been living happily with her adoptive family. But memories of an abusive past still haunt her.

CLAUDIA FELDER: To this day, every now and then, I'll have a nightmare. And it's of my biological mom getting the crap beat out of her in a motel room. And she had long hair, but her face is always like, fuzzed out, so I never remember like, what she looks like. I can't recall that.

RATH: From there, Claudia entered the foster care system, where she spent the better part of the next 10 years. That's our cover story today: Foster care in America. How are we caring for our most vulnerable children?

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RATH: You were 3 when you first went into foster care. That's really young. Do you have coherent memories of it, or...

CLAUDIA FELDER: I remember the homes; and some of them, I remember the names of the parents. I wasn't brought into like, a normal situation.

RATH: Nothing to compare it to before that.

CLAUDIA FELDER: Yeah. This is all I knew.

RATH: Yeah.

CLAUDIA FELDER: Always moving, never knowing when I was going to leave. I was lucky enough that when I was in foster care, I did have my little sister with me, which...

RATH: What's the age difference?

CLAUDIA FELDER: She's three years younger than me, so she was a baby. I raised my little sister through foster care. That's all we had, was each other. Granted, she was a baby. That still meant more to me than anything, that somebody I at least knew, going through all these other changes in my life.

RATH: And there were plenty of changes. Claudia says they were moving in and out of foster homes, not knowing where they'd end up next or how long they'd have to stay.

CLAUDIA FELDER: I had about six foster homes, and all but one were physically and sexually abusive. So I experienced it with my biological parents, and then five other homes. So it was like an ongoing thing.

RATH: It seemed like the nightmare would finally end when Claudia and her sister were adopted. She had already - by the age of 6 - been in five foster homes, and it had taken its toll. It was difficult to adjust to the home life, and she got in trouble in school.

CLAUDIA FELDER: I had a lot of trust issues, a lot of abandonment issues, a lot of resentment towards the world; and I didn't know what was causing them or like, who they were directed at, or any of that kind of stuff.

RATH: After four years in that house, Claudia says the family wanted her out. At age 10, they sent her packing - back into foster care. But she left alone. The family wanted to keep her younger sister. It was devastating.

CLAUDIA FELDER: Because it's a person I've been with for - seven years? 'cause she was - you know? That's been my constant - they promised up and down that I'd be able to visit. And I think I wanted to believe that. And not till later did I figure out it was not true. So...

CRIS BEAM: You know, they'll get pulled from their home at 5 or 6, and a van will come to them in the middle of the night, and they'll take the kid. The kid is terrified, and they'll be put with a stranger.

RATH: Cris Beam has spent years researching foster care in America, and is a foster parent herself.

BEAM: I mean, imagine being 5 years old and suddenly being surrounded by strangers. You're in a strange bed; you're with strange sounds. They'll be terrified. They don't understand what's happening.

RATH: Beam says that all too often, these bewildered children will act out in various ways that can scare off ill-prepared foster parents who might otherwise adopt - much like Claudia's situation.

BEAM: We have 400,000 kids in care. So to give you an idea of what that even looks like: If you imagine all of the kids in Chicago public schools - elementary, junior high, high school; all in Chicago - that's about how many we have in foster care.

RATH: Beam says the problems foster kids face are so intractable because they are society's problems. It's impossible to address the foster care problem without tackling broader issues of drug abuse, domestic and sexual abuse, and poverty.

BEAM: They are a meter of a lot of our social problems. They're not just a meter of how child welfare is failing or succeeding. They're a meter of how we are failing or succeeding as a society.

ALEX MORALES: We need to focus on how we're going to prevent this problem in the first place.

RATH: Alex Morales is the CEO of the Children's Bureau of Southern California.

MORALES: The answer is, how do you reduce the situation so that you don't have 140,000 reports going on in a year. And you try to start very early with families; right when the child is born, or offer support in the early years. And prevention is ultimately the direction we need to invest in.

RATH: But while prevention may be the key, Morales says there's still an ongoing crisis in LA foster care that reflects a national problem. There just aren't enough homes to take in kids.

MORALES: The issue is, there are only about 3,000 foster homes. And not more than about five years ago, there were twice as many homes. The children have no place to go when they come into the care of the government or the courts. Where do we put them?

RATH: The answer is institutions - group homes. These aren't the old orphanages out of Charles Dickens. But according to Morales, the conditions in many group homes can be just as bleak. With overcrowding, kids end up sleeping in cots in adoption agencies - essentially, office buildings become home.

And most social workers agree that even the best group home is no match for a real family, and it doesn't need to be a traditional one. Morales says that only a family can give these kids the kind of support they need.

MORALES: They're the final defenders of a child's future by saying: Look, the family has failed them, the system has failed them; and we're going to try to step in and be the last solution to catch this child before they go off the cliff into homelessness and jails.

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RATH: After her first adoption failed, Claudia spent almost seven months in a new foster home. She said it wasn't perfect, but it's where she met a new social worker, someone she could trust. They talked about what Claudia wanted.

CLAUDIA FELDER: And I remember like, talking about - like, I hear kids at school talking about sleepovers. Like, what are they? Like, I've always wanted to have like, a sleepover - like, with a friend. Like, the little things that a lot of people just take for granted, it's like, the things that a lot of kids - and myself at that age, like, just longed for.

RATH: That social worker turned her life around.

CLAUDIA FELDER: Oh, and by the way, this social worker is now my mom. Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: The nice woman standing right behind us right now, right?

Meet Kim Felder.

KIM FELDER: I always say, I'm a really bad foster parent because once they walk in the door, that's it. They're not leaving. (Laughter)

RATH: If you just want to adopt kids, you could have done that in a way that would be - posed much less difficulty. So what is it about the foster aspect that you want to give of yourself, in that way? Because it's a lot more difficult than just...

KIM FELDER: Oh, it is. I mean, part of it is, is I probably like the challenge. And my husband and I, I mean, when - even when Claudia would pull some of her things, I mean, you'd get frustrated. It's like, oh, my gosh, I cannot believe this. And then when they do the little, amazing thing like the first band concert or they graduate from high school, inside you're saying, oh, my God, do you know how far this kid has come? Have you seen what they can do?

RATH: Kim and her husband have had that feeling over and over. They have eight kids - including Claudia - six of whom are adopted. Kim and Claudia are looking at the pictures, which are proudly displayed.

So this is your whole family?

CLAUDIA FELDER: Minus the youngest. There's my dad and mom. There is - so I'm the oldest of the girls. And then it's Jenny, Maggie. And Jesse's the youngest, but this was five months before she was placed with us. Then it's my oldest bro - well, there's Jim. Then my other brother. There's Paul, there's Joe, and there's Robby. And then Paul's wife, Jim's wife, and the two grandbabies at the time; and they had another.

RATH: All in matching jeans and white T-shirt. And...

(LAUGHTER)

KIM FELDER: They're look like...

RATH: Are you...

KIM FELDER: We're at the Santa Monica Pier.

RATH: Santa Monica Pier.

CLAUDIA FELDER: Yeah.

RATH: Claudia has a happy ending that is not the story for a lot of kids. Cris Beam says that for many older kids who don't end up with families, cynicism sets in. And around 12 or 13, they decide to run out the clock and wait for emancipation. Once they turn 18, they can go out on their own. Beam says being independent without strong family support is dangerous.

BEAM: The reality is these kids, they need someone to fall back on. They need parents when they're 20 or 23. I mean, think about when you had your first heartbreak, your first job loss, your first crush, your first crash - your first anything. And when any - when kids hit any little stumble at all, they don't need to know how to balance a checkbook. They need to have somebody that they can call upon.

So what we really need to be finding for them are families. And by family, I mean one person to say, you know what? I'm going to stick by you. I'm going to care about you. I'm going to love you for a long time.

RATH: Today, Claudia does outreach work with foster kids, and she's trying to make them understand why they need that support.

CLAUDIA FELDER: A lot of these kids are just like I was. They don't want to be adopted.

RATH: Right.

CLAUDIA FELDER: They have - four years, and I'll be 18, and I'll be off on my own, and I'll survive. I can't change your mind, but make a connection with at least somebody. You need to have somebody in your life.

RATH: It seems like we only hear about the foster care system when horror stories come out; and Cris Beam and Alex Morales both agree that good outcomes, like Claudia's, are just as much a part of the picture.

But sadly, even a successful adoption isn't the end of the story for these kids. According to one Harvard study, 25 percent of foster kids in America have post-traumatic stress disorder. That's in the same range as veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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