Suicide Forces Attention on Plight of Older Foster Youth

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The suicide of a teenager shortly after aging out of foster care has ignited a public debate in Hawaii about the struggles of older foster kids, and prompted the state to take the rare step of making the youth’s case files public.

The hanging death of Erwin Celes in September, six months after he emancipated from foster care, set off a phenomenon that in some ways is typical – with state child welfare officials disputing accusations of failure from youth advocates and lawmakers – but which stands out because the victim was not a young child, but a teen who was no longer in the system. The emotional public discussion, including heavy media coverage and a state legislative hearing, comes amid a national movement toward expanding services for older foster youth.

The tragedy “has moved things forward, in that they’re looking at ways we can improve” foster care services, said David Louis, a former foster youth and founder of the Hawaii affiliate of Heart Gallery of America, which helps to find adoptive families for foster kids.

The state’s Department of Human Services (DHS) released the partially redacted files on Thursday “so the public can see what Child Protective Services, the Family Court and our other partners did and did not do,” DHS Director Lillian Koller said in a prepared statement. “By collectively examining Erwin’s case, we hope to find additional ways of helping foster children – especially older teens as they make the often difficult transition from foster care to independent living.”

In recent years an increasing number of state child welfare agencies have publicly released case files involving deceased youth who were under agency care or somehow “known to the system,” in hopes of squelching public accusations that they bungled the cases. (See stories examining the pros and cons of that approach here and here.)

The Hawaii DHS had released such case files once before, in 2005, involving an abuse victim who disappeared in the 1990s and has not been found.

The story that emerges from the Celes files is that of a youth who spent his life bouncing from place to place and struggling in most of them, who was offered various services but never found cohesive or consistent care.

“The biggest problem was that he was in foster care for so long,” Louis said.

Among the information from the files and media reports:

* Celes was first taken into care at age six, along with three of his five siblings, after they were found malnourished in their home.

* Their mother allegedly used crystal methamphetamine on a regular basis, and police believe she sold drugs at her home.

* Celes spent the next 13 years living with various foster families and relatives and in group residential facilities, including a boys’ shelter. He ran away from those facilities at least twice.

* Celes had a sporadic educational record, rarely attending school in his early years, and later earning B’s in some classes but D’s and F’s in others. He got into fights at school, was suspended several times and was often truant.

* He was once enrolled in anger management classes. A caseworker wrote: “He must learn to walk away from conflict. ... He knows how to self regulate and the difference between right and wrong.”

* He tested positive for drugs at least once.

* He was arrested a few years ago after he was found sleeping in a stolen car.

* He enjoyed playing football and kickboxing.

* Two of his most positive adult supports involved youth work: participation in the Hawaii National Guard's Youth Challenge program, and a mentoring-like relationship with a kickboxing instructor. A caseworker wrote that his “relationship with his boxing coach provides the surrogate-like parent support that he has never had.”

* A court extended his stay in foster care to his 19th birthday, which was last March.

* As he neared aging out, the DHS offered him training in independent living skills and participation in “youth circles,” in which designated adults help foster children prepare for independence, but he rejected both.

“There were a lot of services available,” said Louis, who is familiar with the case but did not know Celes. “He refused a lot of them,” but gradually accepted some, like Youth Challenge (although he eventually dropped out of that).

* “He was a popular and hard-working shift leader at the Wahiawa Little Caesars,” according to a report in the The Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

* He was often homeless in recent months.

* His final emotional descent appears to have been set off by the suicide of a former girlfriend this summer, as cited in the autopsy report: “He subsequently said he wanted to kill himself. He was last seen alive about 45 minutes before he was found unresponsive and hanging from a ceiling beam at his mother's workplace.”

The Human Services Committee of the state House scheduled a hearing about the case for Friday afternoon. Lawmakers and DHS officials called that a first step toward changes in the child welfare system, including such possibilities as increasing foster parent payments (the state’s standard monthly rate is $529 per month), boosting foster parent training, creating more support services for youth aging out of care, and extending care to age 21, as California did last month. Hawaii’s DHS reports having about 1,400 youth in foster care each year, with about 50 nearing emancipation.

"I don't think the state failed him [Celes]," John Walters, program development administrator for Hawaii's Child Protective Services, told the lcoal news media. "I think the state backed him up every step of the way and tried to help him realize his dreams. I don't think it worked out that way, but that's not his fault. It's not the state's fault.

"It's just the way things ended up."