Advocates Push For Better Foster Parent Training
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. The bad economy means more trouble at home. There have been a lot more cases of child abuse and neglect. In Michigan, one in four children is now living in poverty; thousands have been placed in foster care. NPR's Celeste Headlee has this report.
CELESTE HEADLEE: Michigan is seeing a huge increase in the number of children entering foster care.
Ms. JANE ZEHNDER-MERRELL (Project Director, Kids Count, Michigan League for Human Services): We now have 6,000 kids in the system waiting for placement.
HEADLEE: Jane Zehnder-Merrell says that's double what it was in the late '90s. Zehnder-Merrell is with the Michigan League for Human Services. She says these kids may be abused, but it may simply be that they're poor.
Ms. ZEHNDER-MERRELL: Oh, we also see an erosion of what we refer to as the safety net, those programs that blunt the impact of poverty on families.
HEADLEE: The state is expecting a deficit of about one and a half billion dollars in 2010, and so, programs like food stamps, Medicaid and welfare have been slashed to the bone. In Michigan, you have to be 40 percent below the poverty line to qualify for cash assistance, and Kathleen Jager from Michigan State University says that means more families can't afford to provide secure homes.
Dr. KATHLEEN JAGER (Director, Families in Transition Program and Family and Child Clinic, Michigan State University): The children are removed from, you know, perfectly loving families, where they're comfortable, where they know they're loved, for reasons that are purely financial.
HEADLEE: In fact, think about this: Children of families with annual incomes below $15,000 are nearly 22 times more likely to suffer neglect. John McElroy works at the Family and Child Clinic with Kathleen Jager. He says, with the real-estate bust and the economic crisis that's followed, more people are poor, more people are homeless, and so, more people are at risk of losing their kids.
Mr. JOHN MCELROY (Family and Child Clinic, Michigan State University): There are 14,000 homes in the state of Michigan that are in the process of foreclosure with, like, an inventory of, like, 88,000. So, the criteria just by living in the state of Michigan has been lowered.
HEADLEE: And Richard Wampler of MSU's Marriage and Family Therapy Program says losing a job and medical insurance compounds the problem.
Dr. RICHARD WAMPLER (Director, Marriage and Family Therapy Program, Michigan State University): There was no coverage for dental care and very few dentists who would take patients who are on Medicaid even, let alone as a charity. So, these kids are going around with rotten teeth. Well, that's one criteria for neglect.
HEADLEE: And he says the nonprofits that used to provide a buffer are struggling as well.
Dr. WAMPLER: You have a food bank. Well, the people who are going to the food bank now are the people who used to support the food bank. Salvation Army kettles ran $3 million short in Michigan.
HEADLEE: And yet, though it has the highest unemployment in the country, Michigan recently cut its welfare rolls by 13 percent. Kathleen Jager says only the severely ill qualify for some kinds of aid.
Dr. JAGER: We found ourselves this week saying, like, we've got to give this woman a diagnosis so she can qualify for this particular, like, job-seeking program. And that's crazy, that's ludicrous.
HEADLEE: It's the old slippery slope. Parents lose jobs; can't cover the bills; lose their home. Next, they're living in substandard conditions, their children are underfed, and then the state steps in. That explains the surge in foster cases. But there's also a shortage of qualified foster parents, and one woman would like to change that.
Ms. KAREN STRON (Foster Parent): There's about five of them that are missing; five of our kids are missing from here.
HEADLEE: Karen Stron(ph) is a trim, pretty woman with long, brown hair and a fringe of bangs across her forehead. She's pointing to various kids in the family photo above her fireplace.
Ms. STRON: She's down in Texas, and her husband just got back from Iraq.
(Soundbite of child talking)
Ms. STRON: Look at Mommy. Look at Mama. You're interrupting.
HEADLEE: Stron has fostered 31 kids over the past 15 years. She and her husband Kent have adopted eight of them.
So, there's 22 people in this picture?
Ms. STRON: Yeah, we usually have about 28, so it was kind of a slow day. But you know, you just give a date and you hope everybody can make it.
HEADLEE: Every year, the Strons hold a Christmas Eve-Eve party, and everyone knows they have an open door. There were 78 people at the last one.
(Soundbite of people talking)
HEADLEE: Stron's religious faith is a big part of her life. She said she felt a spiritual calling to become a foster parent, but the kids aren't always appreciative when they arrive at her home.
Ms. STRON: This is the last place that they want to be. They're upset, and now they're put with strangers. So, they're scared. There's nobody, for them, that they feel like that's on their side.
HEADLEE: But they soon learn otherwise.
Ms. STRON: You know, they look at this white middle-class woman, and mm-hmm, right. I was like, nah, I've been hungry, I've been poor, I've been beat on, and I've been molested. I really can identify, and I was a foster kid, too.
HEADLEE: Stron was placed into foster care when she was 16. Her parents were divorced, and she says it was just a different trauma, depending on whether you are living with Dad or Mom.
Ms. STRON: She was a drunk, and you were fairly poor. And if you lived with my father, you're molested. But he made good money, so...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. STRON: Hey, don't pull him. He's all right.
(Soundbite of child talking)
Ms. STRON: No. You guys go play. You guys go play.
(Soundbite of children talking)
Ms. STRON: OK. You guys go play.
(Soundbite of children talking)
Ms. STRON: I am talking, so you go play.
Unidentified Child: What time is the train?
Ms. STRON: I don't know, love. I don't know.
HEADLEE: Stron says people may think they can't afford to foster children right now or that they have too many of their own problems to take on someone else's.
Ms. STRON: Yes, people are having struggles, but I almost see one way to help them is when they are too busy to focus on their own struggles because they're busy helping somebody else.
HEADLEE: Stron is on a mission to encourage people to become foster parents, and she says she is living, breathing proof that foster kids can end up leading happy, productive lives.
Ms. STRON: If you can determine in your heart that you are making a difference in someone else's destiny and someone else's life, because you are, and see, as a foster child, I can say that. I can say - I can say...
(Crying) How valuable the impact is that other people make that when they continue to stick with you and seem as though they care, because it's a very difficult time in your life.
HEADLEE: Many foster kids aren't lucky enough to end up in Karen and Kent Stron's house. Very few are ever reunited with their parents, and nearly half of foster children in the U.S. become homeless when they turn 18. Julie Reynolds works for St. Vincent Catholic Charities.
Ms. JULIE REYNOLDS (Director, Community Relations & Marketing, St. Vincent Catholic Charities): Children are cute when they're little, but we're raising adults, and everything you put into them is going to come back out.
HEADLEE: Reynolds says states should shift the money they spend on foster programs into support for families. She says even if you don't want to support family services for altruistic reasons, there are all sorts of selfish reasons to do it.
Ms. REYNOLDS: If you don't want your car broken into, if you want to have a retirement fund, if you want to live in a healthy country, then help each other.
HEADLEE: The number of kids in foster care is projected to rise this year and beyond, right along with the number of children living in poverty, and there are simply not enough Karen Strons to go around. For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headlee.
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BRAND: Coming up on Day to Day, what's next for A-Rod? Baseball's best player has admitted today to using steroids. With nine years left on his contract, will Yankees fans stand by Alex Rodriguez? That story coming up.
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