Invisible children (Editorial)

Date: 1988-04-02

St. Petersburg Times
EDITORIAL

In the last year she has lived in six different foster homes. One family didn't want her because she wouldn't stop crying when forced to live apart from a sibling. The next home couldn't cope with her for the same reason. She is only 2 1/2 years old.

In recent months he has lived in a psychiatric hospital, then a foster home, then a hospital ward again, then a different foster home, then a children's shelter. Originally an abandoned child, his life has been a dizzying series of foster homes, failed adoption, psychiatric treatment. Right now he is back in the hospital, just in time to celebrate his 11th birthday.

These are two of the approximately 8,500 children who live in Florida's state-sponsored foster homes. Confidentiality laws prevent the public from learning their names or much else about their lives. If we knew the details, we might be more willing to part with tax dollars for desperately needed social services.

As it is, Florida's least fortunate children remain invisible - until one turns up dead from neglect or abuse. One such child was Albert Smith of Tampa, dead at age 5 after his foster mother allegedly cracked his skull with a board while he was saying his prayers.

By her own account, Rosa Lee Jones was too ''stressed out'' to care for the four foster children who shared her family's Tampa home. She repeatedly asked the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) for training to help her handle discipline problems. Mrs. Jones had been identified as a ''hitter,'' and spanking was a violation of state rules for the care of foster children.

HRS says they prepared a fancy plan to help Mrs. Jones change her ways. All they actually did, though, was make one follow-up call and send her a book on alternatives to corporal punishment.

State officials knew that Mrs. Jones had allegedly beaten Albert Smith with a board. She denied it, but she also asked HRS to move the 5-year-old and his younger brother to another facility.

Albert cried and said he wanted out of the Jones household when HRS workers questioned him about the incident.

Clear warning signals, but again, nothing was done, even though Mrs. Jones had more children than HRS limits allowed. Two months later, she allegedly gave Albert another beating. This time he didn't survive.

A pattern of similar cases has surfaced over the last two years, beginning with the 1985 death of Cory Greer in an overcrowded Pinellas County foster home. In each instance, HRS has failed to act on evidence of serious abuse or neglect. Who is to blame?

''There are foster parents out there doing heroic jobs with the children in their homes, and we need to acknowledge that,'' says Cosette Freeman, foster and shelter home recruiter for HRS District 5, which includes Pinellas and Pasco counties. Increasingly, though, foster parents are being pushed to the limit by a system that does not meet their needs. ''One of the problems that is very acute right now is that there is no money to accept new children into residential (psychiatric) treatment,'' Freeman explains. ''Foster parents are being asked to take increasingly more difficult children.''

Foster parents who lack training in dealing with the emotionally disturbed can't cope, so the kids get shifted from one home to another. Each time they move, their emotional problems get worse. Freeman has been working with a family therapist to stop the cycle by developing an intensive foster parent training plan. Enthusiasm is high, but the financial prospects are discouraging. Freeman says money earmarked for the program has just been siphoned off to cover a salary deficit.

In another project, ''We are trying to develop a crisis home for emergency foster care placements for children 6-12, in an attempt to take the pressure off the foster parents and other children in the home.'' Right now, counselors are sometimes faced with removing a disruptive foster child from a home late at night, with nowhere else for him or her to go.

Another problem is the long waiting list for day care. Many foster children are eligible for state-subsidized day-care services, but there are thousands ahead of them in line. Without adequate day care available, working couples are forced to give up their foster children.

''We're seeing foster parents who take children in and then the non-working parent may have to go to work,'' Freeman says. ''Then we have to move the children because we cannot provide day care and babysitting.''

The increase in homeless families is also putting a strain on the foster care system, Freeman adds. Homeless parents may go through job training and parenting skills classes, but their children languish needlessly in foster care because affordable housing for the family is not available.

''We're also seeing more children with medical problems,'' Freeman says. ''We have a need for people who can work with cocaine babies, with shaken babies who have sustained some brain damage.''

The Florida Legislature should act now to bring the foster care program up to standard. Staff support and training are inadequate, as is the level of financial support provided for each foster child.

Right now, foster care budgets are so skimpy that some children are deprived of extracurricular activities at school, tutoring and educational toys. Many foster parents ''dig into their own pockets,'' Freeman says, but donations are desperately needed. The foster care program also lacks money for recruitment - a vital function in a system where foster parents are in short supply.

To learn more about how you can help Florida's foster care children, contact Cosette Freeman at 576-0035, ext. 517. Donations can be sent to the HRS Foster Care Recruitment Fund, Central Licensing Unit, 701 94th Ave. N, St. Petersburg, Fla. 33702. Checks should be made payable to the HRS Foster Care Recruitment Fund.

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