I’m Not Safe Here: Facing Abuse in Foster Care

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Represent, New York City

Foster care exists to keep kids safe, but sometimes kids who are removed from their homes wind up in an abusive foster home or group home.

Children’s Rights, an organization that advocates for kids in foster care, recently filed a lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma for failing to protect children from abuse while they were in state custody.

Although Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of reported foster care abuse in the country, it’s not alone. The federal government sets a goal for states that says the rate of mistreatment of kids in foster care shouldn’t be higher than 0.38 percent. Less than half of the states met that standard. Three states – New York, Oklahoma and Rhode Island – had abuse rates three times higher than the standard.

To learn more about the problem, I spoke to Julie Farber, director of policy at Children’s Rights. At first, those abuse rates didn’t seem very high to me, but after she explained it in numbers, I was shocked.

“To put it in real terms,” she explained, “on any given day in New York City you have 17,000 children in foster care. If 1 percent or more of them are being abused, that’s 170 kids.”

And that’s only the cases that get reported. If the experiences of the writers here at Represent are any indication, the actual rate of abuse in foster care is much higher.

So what can be done? Farber suggested things like better screening for people who want to become foster parents, regular home visits and check-ups from social workers, and better supervision for all caseworkers so that they take the right kind of action when they suspect abuse.

Farber also thinks social workers’ caseloads should be lowered so that they can build a better relationship with the teen and know if something is going on.

“In so many places, the caseloads are really high, and workers who have 60 cases are not going to be as responsive as they need to be,” she said.

When I thought about my own situation, I realized social workers really do need to pay closer attention to what goes on in foster homes. In the past nine or 10 months, I’ve had three different social workers. And in the past four months, I only remember seeing my social worker twice. Every time she scheduled an appointment, she would show up hours after the scheduled time and then only stay for a few minutes.

Only one of these three social workers asked me if I felt safe in my environment. When I try to contact them, I get voice mail. Rarely have they called me back. If there was something going on in my home, how would my social worker know?

© 2008 Youth Communication/New York Center Inc., www.youthcomm.org.