Kendra Owens doesn’t remember a lot about the five months she spent in foster care before her 18th birthday. Her therapist says that it’s her brain trying to protect her, hiding away horrible memories that might trigger her depression or her post-traumatic stress disorder.
What she does recall is broken. Scattered. Big events and some especially difficult times, but not day-to-day life. Mostly, she just remembers how she felt.
“All I wanted was a hug,” Owens, now 26, said. “It’s so screwed; the entire system is just so screwed up.”
Foster care is difficult for children of all ages, but adolescents experience a unique set of issues. Older children are more likely to be placed in group homes and are more frequently moved from one placement to another. They’re often separated from their younger siblings, for whom they may feel responsible, and they are sometimes overprescribed psychiatric medications that impair their brain functions.
Because it’s uncommon for older teenagers to be adopted, many are emancipated at age 18 or 21 without ever finding a permanent home. In the last state fiscal year, 235 young people “aged out” of the Arkansas foster care system. Too old to be a ward of the state but unprepared to be cast out on their own, they entered adult life highly disadvantaged.
Nationally, over 20 percent of teens who age out of foster care experience homelessness, according to a 2015 report by the National Council for Adoption. A 2011 study by researchers at the University of Chicago found only 46 percent were employed at age 26 and just 3 percent had earned a four-year college degree. They are more likely than their peers to struggle with substance abuse and engage in criminal behavior, including selling drugs, prostitution and gang membership, according to a 2017 study in “Children and Youth Services Review.”
Foster and adoptive parents may be daunted by the prospect of caring for teenagers, many of whom are perceived to have serious emotional or mental issues. Between July and September 2018, only 12 percent of finalized adoptions in Arkansas were of children between the ages of 14 and 17, even though this age group makes up 32 percent of foster children available for adoption, according to a quarterly performance report published by the Division of Children and Family Services in January. (DCFS, the state’s child welfare agency, is an arm of the Arkansas Department of Human Services.)
It never even crossed Owens’ mind that she might be adopted, she said. Like most foster youths, she was sure that parents only want to adopt babies.
“Sadly, the older you get, the less people are interested,” said Amy Keener, an administrator at Maggie House, a group home in Charleston (Franklin County). “And that’s really too bad, because these teenagers, they need to see what a functioning family is like, because they’re getting ready to move on and become an adult.”
When she was 17, Owens, her 15-year-old brother and 11-year-old sister were taken into foster care. That day is clear in Owens’ mind. She and her sister were put in one car, and their brother was put in another. Owens’ sister was sobbing. Owens and her sister were never reunited with their brother.
That day was the first time Kendra and her siblings were removed from their home, but DCFS had been part of their lives for years. School officials would frequently call DCFS to report suspected abuse in the household; Owens couldn’t always hide the black eyes. Once, Owens’ friend called in because she saw the bruises.
“I got beat for that,” Owens recalled.
Each time her mom was reported, DCFS staff would come to the home to investigate and sometimes give Owens’ mom guidelines to be a better parent. Despite these interventions, the abuse never stopped. When DCFS finally removed Owens and her siblings from their mother’s home, foster care was supposed to be an improvement.
It’s “just not what it’s supposed to be,” Owens said. “They’re supposed to be there to help you and take you from [a negative environment], but I remember thinking I would rather have been back in my mom’s custody, which was the last place I needed to be.” According to her therapist, a combination of the trauma she endured while living with her mother and her unfortunate experiences in foster care resulted in PTSD and contributed to her bipolar disorder.
Owens and her sister first lived in a children’s emergency shelter for 45 days. They were then transferred to a foster home in Mansfield (Scott/Sebastian counties). The foster parents had at least five other children living with them already, and Owens said she and her sister were often ignored.
After that, the sisters were moved to a girls group home. During an excursion at the park, Owens said, she had to jump into a fistfight to protect her sister from older girls from the home who were beating her up. Some nights, she couldn’t sleep because the other girls would taunt her; when she complained to the group home staff, she was told to go back to bed.
Group homes and emergency shelters vary widely in terms of quality, but advocates say they are generally poor environments for children. The emotional and social damage children may suffer there can plague them into their adult years. Acknowledging this, DCFS has made a concerted effort in recent years to move young foster children out of such settings.
At the end of September 2018, nearly 500 Arkansas foster children were in group homes or emergency shelters. Of those, just 57 were under age 12. The rest were teenagers, according to the recent DCFS quarterly report. While this policy benefits younger foster children, it has left teenagers to languish in facilities that often fail to support them. (Overall, only 11 percent of Arkansas foster children were placed in group homes or emergency shelters as of Sept. 30, 2018; over 75 percent were placed in foster families or with relatives.)
Christin Harper, the assistant director of infrastructure and specialized programs at DCFS, said the agency has begun to prioritize moving older children out as well.
“We’ve tried to be very honest about the fact that we honestly don’t need a whole lot of foster homes for babies and toddlers, which is often what people want,” she said. “We’ve requested very much that [foster family recruiters] really focus on recruitment of homes that are willing to take [children older than 10].”
As Owens moved through the foster system, she became depressed and was put on medication including Trazodone, a sedative, and Seroquel, an anti-psychotic. Most of her time was spent sitting and staring “like a zombie,” she said.
Haley Carson, the advocate supervisor and older youth specialist at Court Appointed Special Advocates of Northwest Arkansas, said foster children of all ages are frequently overmedicated. (CASA is an organization that recruits and trains independent advocates for children in foster care.) Carson said she has encountered foster children taking more than 10 psychiatric prescriptions at once.
Foster children are often prescribed medications to manage behavioral and mental health issues by multiple providers in rapid succession. Each child’s caseworker is tasked with approving new medications, but because DCFS caseworkers may have dozens of cases, the decision can often be made with little thought, said Carson, who used to be a DCFS caseworker.
“We weren’t educated on which medications were appropriate for which condition,” Carson said. “You’d get a phone call from [the child’s doctor] asking, ‘Can you approve this medication?’ You get 20 of those a week, you don’t have time to put that much thought into it, so you approve it because a doctor says it’s the right thing to do. Caseworkers just don’t have the ability to really educate themselves about what these medications are [and] why they’re being asked to give them to these children.”
DCFS has done several internal reviews to remedy overmedication in foster children, Harper said. A group of qualified DCFS staff is now charged with overseeing individual cases to ensure that children are prescribed medication properly.
In those five months in foster care, as a drowsy, drugged and depressed Owens struggled to get through each day, she met only one person that she felt cared about her: a teacher at the emergency shelter named Miss Danica. The teacher left little notes and stickers around Owens’ door and always encouraged her. Owens described her as “amazing.”
Owens said she was ignored when she told DCFS staff about her bad experience in the foster home or the girls’ group home. Owens said her caseworker tired of the complaints and eventually threatened her: If Owens “didn’t straighten up and listen,” she’d be sent to a correctional home.
The state’s foster care population ballooned to record numbers in recent years, peaking at 5,196 in February 2017. Since then, it has trended downward. As of Dec. 31, 2018, there were 4,332 Arkansas children in care. That is still on par with summer 2015, when Cecile Blucker, then the director of DCFS, characterized the foster care situation as “a crisis” in an interview with the Arkansas Times.
DCFS officials are quick to point out improvements. More foster children are living in family environments rather than group homes, and the number of children waiting to be adopted has decreased by hundreds.
Arkansas has invested significant new resources in the foster care system. Over the past two years, the DCFS budget has increased by about $23 million, funding 187 new staff positions and allowing the agency to provide raises for underpaid staff. Governor Hutchinson has proposed another $1.25 million increase for fiscal year 2020. The average caseload for caseworkers has decreased from 29 to 21 in the past year, Harper said.
“We’re really excited,” Harper said. “We’ve really been working a lot over this past year on prevention efforts and to offer more services and supports for those in-home cases that we have.” DCFS caseworkers work with foster children, but they also support and educate families who are at risk of losing their children to the state.
But the positive changes do not hide the fact that DCFS is still stretched to capacity, and the system’s strain shows most clearly in the lives of its teenage wards.
“Lucy Wilson,” 20, also entered the foster system when she was 17. (She agreed to speak under a pseudonym due to privacy concerns.)
“Sometimes it feels like nobody’s on your side, nobody has your back,” Wilson said. “The first day I was taken, nobody took me aside, nobody cared … The placements I’ve been to, I’ve maybe found five good people overall, people who want to help you and better you.”
Lucy Wilson, who faced frequent moves, sibling separation and academic issues in foster care, is on her way to a college degree and hopes to foster her siblings when she turns 21.
Wilson was taken into foster care with three younger siblings because their biological parents were abusive. She lived in one foster home and two group homes and was eventually separated from all her siblings in care.
DCFS has made substantial improvements in keeping siblings together. In 2012, just 65 percent of foster children were placed with one of their siblings, and only 46 percent were placed with all of their siblings, according to a DCFS performance report from 2013. As of Sept. 30, 2018, over 80 percent of foster children were placed with one of their siblings, while 68 percent were placed with all of their siblings.
Yet hundreds of children are still separated from their siblings in care. Caseworkers are often unable to find foster parents who have the space or willingness to accept sibling groups, so children may be placed wherever there are available beds. There is often little effort made to reunite siblings once they are separated, according to the DCFS 2017 Progress and Services Report.
Wilson and her younger brother initially lived with a foster family with two sons adopted from foster care. The boys had behavioral issues and would often fight. The environment was hard for Wilson to handle because of the abuse she’d suffered in the past.
Wilson said she was sexually assaulted by one of the adopted boys in her foster home. She told her foster mom, but she refused to do anything about it. When Wilson told her attorney from DCFS, the foster mom kicked Wilson and her brother out in 15 minutes, saying only, “Pack your shit and get out.”
The DCFS Policy & Procedure Manual states that an investigation must be opened following any allegations of abuse against a foster child. Wilson recalls being interviewed about the assault once by someone who was not her caseworker, but she said they never followed up with her after the initial questioning. She was sent to a Helena-West Helena group home next, without her brother. The home was technically for teens with behavioral problems; Wilson didn’t have any, but DCFS had nowhere else to put her. When she transferred schools, she lost all the honors credits she had worked so hard to attain.
On average, children in Arkansas foster care are moved about six times for every three years in care, according to the recent DCFS quarterly performance report. Teenagers are often moved even more frequently.
Carson said she works with one foster youth who has moved 20 times in the past year. When teens move so much, they often find it difficult to progress academically because course requirements and availability vary from school to school. Additionally, education records do not always follow students when they move, Carson said.
At the Helena-West Helena group home, Wilson had more trouble than just lost school credit. She had to abide by strict rules. There were limits on how much food she ate, she said, and she wasn’t allowed to participate in after-school programs. Evenings featured only dinner, chores and then hanging out alone in her room, which had alarms on the doors and windows.
Wilson’s last foster placement was at Maggie House, a family-style group home in which children of similar ages are grouped together into family units. Each family unit is headed up by a married couple who serve as the group’s foster parents and live at the facility, providing an atmosphere that more closely resembles that of a typical family.
Wilson’s experience at Maggie House was a vast improvement over her previous group home, she said. She was even able to graduate early from high school.
Once Owens and Wilson turned 18, they had a choice. They could leave foster care and begin their adult lives or they could enter “extended foster care” until they were 21. That would allow them to receive money for room and board, car insurance and higher education or vocational training. Young adults in extended foster care can live with a foster family or in an independent living facility.
Owens knew she couldn’t stay, even though it meant leaving her younger sister.
“She told me later on, a few years ago, that when … I left, she couldn’t protect herself,” Owens said. Both of her younger siblings “blame me for leaving them,” she said.
But Owens was concerned her mental health issues would worsen if she stayed. “I wanted out,” she said.
Owens’ perspective isn’t unique. By the time they turn 18, many foster youths are frustrated and done with the system and everyone in it, Harper said. She acknowledged that bad experiences in the system and caseworkers who may fail to tell foster youths their options deter youths from staying.
“We have a lot of turnover among caseworkers, and some don’t even know what information to share,” Harper said. “Some [foster youth] who are hard to handle are not necessarily encouraged to stay; this is definitely not DCFS policy, but it does happen.”
Teens who enter extended care are still required to be “in compliance,” meaning they must follow DCFS rules, Carson said. They must be working, furthering their education or going through a treatment program.
Wilson chose to go to extended foster care. She had no family or other support, so staying in the state’s custody made the most sense to her. She lives at GetReal24, an independent living facility in Fort Smith designed for young adults like her.
The program provides sponsor families and mentors; while she’s had a few awkward experiences with sponsor families, GetReal24 has been a positive and supportive environment overall, she said. Besides, she spends hardly any time at home – between attending college full time and working 40 hours a week as a babysitter and Waitr delivery driver, she’s lucky to squeeze in any time with her siblings and her dog. Wilson studies organizational leadership at UA - Fort Smith and is about two years from graduation.
Wilson spends a lot of time worrying about her siblings. Her youngest sister is in a foster home in Van Buren. Her other sister is at a mental health care facility in Fort Smith, and Wilson gets to visit her once a week. Her brother was in a home in southern Arkansas — the four-hour drive meant she almost never got to see him — but he turned 18 and moved into GetReal24 last year, so now they can celebrate holidays and even make Walmart runs together.
It took Owens a long time to get back on track. When she left foster care, she moved to Saving Grace, a residential living facility in Rogers for disadvantaged young women. She lived there off and on for about four years, occasionally moving back to her hometown of Ozark before realizing it just wasn’t healthy for her to be so close to her mom. She was working at a hotel in early 2018, but ended up moving back to Saving Grace.
After years of trying to get her life together and heal, Owens may have finally hit her stride. She works at McDonald’s, and the company is paying for her to attend Northwest Arkansas Community College. She wants to be a paralegal. Her greatest achievement, in her eyes, is that she has $550 tucked away in a savings account, far more than she’s ever been able to save before.
Owens speaks to her mother and sister occasionally, but rarely hears from her brother. Her relationship with her family is still strained at best; her mom got a Facebook account recently, and she often comments on Owens’ posts, asking, “Is this about me?”
She feels lucky; compared to her siblings, who were in foster care for years longer than her, she got off easy, she said.
Both women would like to be foster parents one day. Owens says she wants to make sure other kids don’t go through what she did. Wilson is saving up every bit of money she can so that she can foster her own siblings when she turns 21 in July.
For now, they are both trying to be the best versions of themselves and overcome the trauma they experienced before and during their time in foster care.
“I need to be stable, in my own house, and I guess more healed than I am,” Owens said. “I can’t care for people that are as broken as I am. That’s just going to be a cause for disaster, because most of the time I am a walking disaster.”