Knoxville's Foster Care System Faces Big Challenges

Who will watch over teens in state custody? An influx of kids and a shortage of foster families leave teens in the cold.

Mindy Hurst was 16, a strong student, a nurturing friend, a sweet girl who neither drank alcohol nor did drugs.

But she had no family to stay with.

Before, she'd been living with her grandparents in a trailer park in Knoxville, ever since she was nine and her parents' marriage broke up and the court said she couldn't live with her mom. Then she'd had a nervous breakdown, age 15, and gotten scared–because the household didn't have funds or the energy to cope with her situation, and because she'd taken a swipe at her five-year-old brother. She didn't want to recreate the sometimes-violent environment of her earliest years. "Back then, I'd draw the violence to me, to protect my little siblings," she said.

This time, though, she was the aggressor, and took the extraordinary step of offering herself up for state custody. It was a good option—the only option, at first—while she was diagnosed as bipolar and started treatment, and took stock of things during a stay at Free Will Baptist's group home in Greeneville.

Then she was better; still low on confidence, yet ready to live in the community again, ready for a family.

But no one would have her.

Like hundreds of teens in state custody in the Knoxville area, Hurst was neither delinquent nor drug-abusive nor criminal. But for a good while, almost a year, there was not a single foster family available to help her segue into adulthood or reunite in a healthier relationship with her biological family.

Instead, she lived on a floor for girls with alcohol and drug problems at the Knoxville Florence Crittendon facility, a program that works with pregnant and parenting teens in a family foster home environment, as well as teens needing a therapeutic foster care home. "I didn't fit in at all, I wasn't a drug and alcohol child," she says. "I wasn't a problem child. My only weakness is coffee. I was the one person who tried to keep everybody in line so we didn't get in trouble. Did they listen? No."

While Hurst acknowledges she learned many life skills through FC residential programs, she says she pined for a foster family. "It's a life I wouldn't wish on any kid, unless it's their last resort. You don't get much freedom [in a residential facility]. You don't get much privacy. You don't get to see your family except on major holidays."

While living at FC, Hurst attended West High School, where she excelled at public speaking and played in the band. "It was wonderful, and I made a lot of friends. By then I had moved to the upper floor, with the pregnant girls. I excelled more, there were more privileges and stuff. I was always the nurturing type, and one of the 12-year-old clients who was pregnant, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, someone to care for!' I found a job so I got out of the facility for a little while each day. But I still didn't have a foster family, and it had been almost a year."

Hurst's situation was not at all unusual then, nor would it be today. "We desperately need foster homes for older kids," says Kendra Shackleford, resource parent support case manager for Knox County Department of Child Services. "I'd say in 90 percent of cases we have to go to outside providers, and even then it can take months or even a year for a placement. Just this weekend, I had a 14 year-old come into the system. Just because of age, no other big issues, it took me all day to find him a DCS foster home—for one night. The next day, I had to start the search again. They have to have a bed, and more moves just mean more trauma."

Part of the reason teens aren't being placed quickly is sheer numbers: There are more 13-18 year olds in state custody in Knox County overall the past couple of years, an increase of nearly 20 percent just from 2006 to 2008: 246 to 283. In the same period, the median number of months a dependent/neglected child stayed in care in Knox County stretched from 13.4 months to 15.6 for youth exiting care.

The outside providers are feeling the pinch, too. "Every week, every day, we have more teens who could benefit from a foster placement than we do foster families willing to take them" says Allen Krueger, foster care coordinator for Florence Crittendon since October 2009. "It's getting much worse recently, and I think it will continue to get worse. In our society, people are so wrapped up with themselves, and some people don't want to get involved with other people's lives—and the children don't have a voice."

FC is one local agency called regularly by the Department of Children's Services when a teen comes into state custody through court or just through DCS. "We respond if we have a home, but simply put, it's a struggle to find families that will open up their homes to a teenager."

As of July 2008, the latest period for which there are reliable statistics, there were 355 children ages 0-12 in state custody in Knox County, and 283 ages 13-18. There are always emergency foster homes that can take a child in and keep him or her safe while, say, an attorney gets papers signed for a more permanent arrangement. Infants and younger children who qualify tend to be taken in quickly, too—plus there are just far fewer of them in state's custody: 743 infants ages 0-1 in Tennessee in 2008, for example, versus 5,864 kids ages 13-18.

But children ages 12-17 and multiple siblings who need to stay together are often left waiting at residential facilities for months and even years after they meet the criteria to move on to a "resource," or foster, home. A full 87 percent of kids in state custody in Knox County are not considered "delinquent," or "unruly," but fall into the third category: "dependent/neglected"—that is, in social work parlance, they have parents who neglected or refused to protect them. "The majority are good kids who just need adults in their lives," Krueger says. "A lot of kids are just hungry for someone to actually show that they care about them. They are not these scary monsters that people tend to make them out to be. Teens just need a home that will believe in them, support them and hold them accountable."

Turning Away From Teens

Some days, Cindy Dodson just hates the paper. As development director for FC for seven years, and a volunteer mentor before that, she's dedicated to recruiting foster parents for teens of both genders, particularly those who are parents themselves. But those headline stories about cases like Kenneth Wayne Taylor, who allegedly killed his 16-year-old foster son in Morristown in 2007, halt some people before they've fully considered what fostering might mean to a child, or to society.

"All people hear about are stories like the 2-year-old who was raped and molested in a foster home," Dodson says. "They think, ‘Foster parenting? I don't want to be charged with something!' I wish there could be more in the press about all the leaders in our country who have been in foster care."

More than any other group, teens bear the brunt when fostering gets bad publicity. "What people want—almost everyone wants an adoptable newborn," says Cynthia Ball, training manager for Youth Villages, which works with around 50 foster homes in the Jefferson City, Morristown, and Knoxville are. "With a newborn, there is a pick of homes."

There are other limiting factors: far more teens need to be the only foster child in a home to stay away from bad influences; teens of different genders can't share a single bedroom like the under-3 set can; a teen girl who's been sexually abused might not be emotionally able to live at a home with adult males; many teens requiring foster care have children of their own.

But those are the kind of practical issues that can be tackled, Dodson says. Far more difficult to confront is the innuendo about teens with "baggage," the worries that a sociopath is lurking, even though kids wouldn't be released to enter foster care if they weren't considered safe risks. "You know, what I would love to get across to the public is, when you do have the opportunity to take a child into your home, an agency doesn't dictate what child you're going to take," Dodson says. "Are you willing to take a child into your home who's been charged with arson? Or has substance abuse issues? Or may have been inappropriate with a younger child? That's all on the questionnaire. You're not judged. They just want to know who you could deal with."

Potential foster parents often rationalize that teens are already grown, beyond their reach. "That's one of the confusing things," Ball says. "These teenagers are still looking for that love they didn't get when they were younger. They are sometimes even more needy for emotional support than the younger children. And we see it again and again: Teens do so much better in a family home than in a residential setting."

The shortfall in caring adults impacts generations, Ball says. "In some cases these are kids in family relationships so bad they've been ended by the court. They don't know a better way. They don't have someone to trust. If they turn 18 and haven't been adopted, we have programs to help them learn life skills: how to pay bills, how to cook. But a family, that's not something we can give them—somewhere to take their own kids at Christmas, a caring grandparent. There's not a service for that."

Home For a Time

When Delorse and Sherman Lofton retired and moved from Michigan to Tennessee in 2002, they were already experienced foster parents; two of their seven children began their lives with them as foster children. When the Youth Village questionnaire asked what age group they preferred to parent, the two specified 6-7-8. But the two girls they foster are 12 and 13. "That's what they had a need for," says Delorse, who also serves as youth minister at Rogers Memorial Baptist church.

While tackling larger issues, like one of the girl's recently diagnosed mood disorder, with the help of counselors and classes, a large part of what they do for the kids is just expose them to simple aspects of family life, Delorse says. "There is so much they didn't know. Like the difference between church clothes, play clothes, and everyday clothes. And now, no teen likes chores. But they do their chores for money; there are the envelopes with their names right on the fridge. And then I take them shopping and they can buy what they want. These girls had never bought something for themselves before, never had money."

"They'd never sat down and had a meal with the family every day. Or had a week-to-week, every-single-Sunday dinner," Sherman adds. "But most sadly to say, these two, and most that we fostered, have single parents. There has not been a man or a father figure in their lives. They don't know how to deal with a father. They're afraid of you, they don't know what to call you."

There are other issues common to many foster kids in their teen years; most are addressed through the qualifying foster parent classes and ongoing counseling for the kids. "A lot of kids who were neglected are very independent," Krueger says. "Most don't like authority figures, either, because they have abused them in some way or they've never had authority in their lives.

Some have behavior problems based on the trauma that has happened to them, Ball says, or trust issues with adults because they've been hit or neglected. Some hoard food or other little items, "just because in our children's lives, there isn't an abundance of things, they learn to take them and keep them for later."

The girls in the Loftons' care call Delorse Mommy II; their biological mom is in the picture. "We stay in touch with her; there are so many things we don't know about the girls," Delores says. "We invite her to church gatherings with us, and she comes. And I talk to the kids, ‘This is how you can help when you go home.' But the mother needs a lot of help, from what little I know of her. And I wish I could help her more."

That's part of the fine line you ride as a foster parent, Sherman says, and his voice wavers a bit with emotion. "That's the fence you straddle," he says. "You have to get involved. You have to be the parent. You can't help falling in love. But you know they're going back to their parents. And when they do, it's gonna hurt."

The goal is for foster kids to reunite with their families of origin in most cases, but part of the increase in teens without foster homes available has come about due to an increase in abusive or neglectful parents, so for many teens a reunion is not in the picture.

Part of the reason is drug use, particularly meth in recent years, says FC's Krueger.

"One girl told me recently that she was like ‘Sure, I'll go into foster care,'" Dodson adds. "She'd been in custody of a grandparent who was a drug addict, and she was tired of lifting her grandmother off the kitchen floor at night. Does she have emotional issues? Sure. She sees how her grandmother chooses drugs over her. Is she on drugs or alcohol? Not at all."

The recent economic downturn might have inspired more neglect, too, particularly amongst drug-addicted parents, and abuse is an ongoing factor, Krueger says. Although the statistics are not broken down by age, investigations of abuse and neglect completed in Knox County by Child Protective Services resulted in "abuse/neglect indicated" conclusions in 359 cases in FY 2007. Statewide that same year, victims of abuse or neglect ages 10-13 equalled 2,163, and 1,889 for ages 14-17, about the same as for the younger age groups, but the number of kids in state custody who are 13-18 is five times higher than the number of 2-4-year-olds, and more than twice as high as the 5-12 age brackets.

Dodson accounts for more neglected kids coming into state custody in their older years simply by the amount of time it takes for abuse to be recognized. "I think there are kids who have had continual abuse or neglect, but it may take quite some time to bring it to the authorities' attention. For them to start looking at a home—that's not something that can happen overnight. It takes long investigations, and in the meantime the kids are getting older."

Frequently, teens in state custody are recidivists. "Some kids I've talked to may have been in a residential setting, gone into foster care, then gone back to a family member that the court recognized as a safe environment. Then the child gets there and sees things they have learned are not right, and they'll choose to come back in."

Other kids enter state custody as teens only because it's taken so long for the system to recognize their status, Dodson says. "It may take months or years for DCS to realize that a teen is homeless—left behind by a parent, or has left home.

When It Works

When authorities say teens who do get into foster homes are more successful, they don't mean in some glowing, fairy tale way. Success is measured in how well teens can cope with their families, and whether they're able to break cycles of abuse and neglect in the next generation. One of Dodson's favorite stories concerns a young lady from FC, a teen parent who had lived with a foster family for two years. "She told me that before her experience with us, never in her life had anyone told her she would be anything. Instead, it was verbal abuse, ‘You'll become a drug addict, a prostitute.' She rattled off things I would rather not repeat.

"Her foster family encouraged her, but it took her a long time to realize that she could do something with her life. When she turned 18, she went back to live with her father and stepmother. The first time I called her, her father answered the phone and said, ‘I don't know why you would want to talk to her, she'll never amount to anything.' She came on the line and said, ‘Now you see what I mean. But don't worry, I don't believe it anymore. I don't even listen to it.'"

Hurst is another exemplary success story for the foster care system, though she wasn't actually placed in a workable foster arrangement until Christmas of her junior year in high school. "After I moved to Maryville, everything got better; my foster mother Barb is absolutely awesome and kind. I worked my butt off and graduated December of senior year... Barb was just always listening, encouraging."

"It's a lot different, a home versus a residential center; at first you have a lot of freedom, and it's overwhelming," she says. "I still ask to go to the bathroom. Like when I'm at work—and I work at a place where it doesn't matter—up until recently I asked.

"At first you don't know what to do with all the freedom, so you take advantage and of course that gets you in trouble. And the phone. When I was in the group home I could only use the phone from 7 p.m.-9 p.m. at night. It was like, ‘Really?' I could go out..."

She has, if not a happy ending, at least an encouraging departure point. She's been able to work through her anger at her mom to the point where the two now live together in an apartment her mom moved to in October 2008. "It's in my mom's boyfriend's name, but I pay the bill," she says cheerfully.

She works 2-11 most nights at a call center, and once she's gotten her tax records straight plans to get some financial aid and continue studying at Roane State, with an eye towards a degree in special education. "We still have our struggles—my mom's depression can get bad, we have to work through it, but I'm treated great," she says. "Ever since Barbara, the foster care, my mom's understood that I am different. My attitude toward life has gone from just, ‘No one likes me, I'll do whatever anyone tells me' to, ‘You have hands, go do it yourself.'"